I Can’t Breathe

Britain's immigration detention and removal services are murderous, prejudiced and must be held accountable, argues Namaa AL-Mahdi.

6 June 2020

In 2010, 46-year-old Jimmy Mubenga died in a plane on the runway at Heathrow Airport, he was suffocated to death after being restrained by three G4S detention custody officers. The G4S officers kept Mubenga in a compressed position in his seat for over half an hour, ignoring his cries that he could not breathe.

An inquest jury in July 2013 found that Jimmy was unlawfully killed. But in November the same year, the three guards who killed Jimmy by forcing head into his lap, while he cried, “I can’t breathe” were all acquitted of manslaughter – the trial ended in a not-guilty verdict.

He was due to be deported to his home country of Angola.

His wife Adrienne Makenda Kambana said his death has devastated their five children, aged between 3 and 19 years old at the time. In a statement read by her legal team she added “Our children will deeply miss him, they miss the fun they used to have with their father, especially Blessing (the couple’s 3-year-old), she never had the chance to call him dad – all she has is pictures of him.”

To some, Mubenga was a clear case of the guards’ failure to protect a man while in their custody, maintaining the restraint when he was clearly in great distress. The judge presiding over the case chose to exclude significant evidence from the guards’ personal mobile phones, exchanging racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and discriminatory messages with others. Excluding this evidence on the basis that it will prejudice the view of the jury ruled out the possibility that race-based antipathy might have made the guards ignore Mubenga’s cries for help.

According to the Institute of Race Relations, there have been 34 deaths in immigration and removal centres since 1989; three women and the rest are men, Harmondsworth detention centre in West London accounts for the highest number of deaths across the UK’s detention system.

I can’t breathe, The Police service!

In 2008, 49-year-old Sean Rigg died at the entrance of Brixton police station in London. Rigg, a black man who was in the midst of a mental health crisis was pinned to the ground, officers piled on top of his defenceless body to restrain him, and instead of getting him the mental health help he needed, dumped him in the back of Metropolitan police van, where he was driven to Brixton police station and left to die in the caged area of the station’s custody entrance.

Despite ongoing campaigning, the Rigg family have yet to see an officer convicted for his death.

In the UK there’s a long history of police using excessive force against Black people, and of harassment and brutality. In the 1980s the situation came to a head with large scale rebellions against police brutality taking place across the UK’s major cities, in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, Black communities protested against the police taking advantage of the “Sus Laws”, where they had the power to arrest on the basis of suspicion.

Despite changing laws and police reforms, racism in the criminal injustice system continues this system of brutality.

If you’re Black you are up to eighteen times likelier to be stopped and searched, charged if arrested and subject to a longer prison sentence if found guilty.

To be Black in the UK is to be a suspect, to be Black in the UK means that you are distrusted even when you say you can’t breathe.

Black people account for 13% of the prison inmate population even though they only make up 3% of the UK’s population. Black people also represent 9% of deaths after police contact that were independently investigated.

According to the charity Inquest, 1,741 people have died in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. Not a single police officer has been convicted in connection to these deaths.


Namaa AL-Mahdi is a West London Activist.

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