Opinion

“Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were denied dignity in death. Don’t tell me the UK doesn’t need Black Lives Matter”

Posted by
Danielle Dash
Published
Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman

Two Metropolitan Police officers have been arrested after allegedly taking selfies with the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. The devastating story highlights why the UK needs the Black Lives Matter movement, says Danielle Dash. 

Update: the Metropolitan Police confirmed on 1 July 2020 that an 18-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murdering Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. The man, from south London, has been taken into custody where he remains.

Black Lives Matter. The lives of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry mattered. And yet on 6 June, 27-year-old Nicole and her sister Bibaa were murdered in Fryent Country Park in Wembley, north-west London.

The sisters had been celebrating Bibaa’s 46th birthday on the night they were killed. When they didn’t return home, their loved ones reported them missing to the Metropolitan Police. But their relatives say the police were slow to act, and so they went looking for the sisters themselves. Adam, Nicole’s boyfriend, went back to where they’d last been seen. He found them stabbed to death.

Mina Smallman, Nicole and Bibaa’s mother and the first Black woman to serve as an archdeacon of the Church of England, described “letting out a howl that came from the core of my soul” when she found out her children’s lives had been so violently snatched away. Weeks later, Mina’s grief was compounded when she learned how Metropolitan Police officers had behaved at the scene of the crime. 

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On 25 June, Scotland Yard confirmed that two officers had been suspended from duty and arrested on suspicion of misconduct in a public office after allegedly taking “non-official and inappropriate photographs” with Nicole and Bibaa’s bodies. Rather than concerning themselves with the urgent work of finding the sisters’ killer, these officers allegedly took selfies at the site of the murders – photos they subsequently shared with others, including members of the public. Sal Naseem, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) Director for London, described the allegations as “sickening” and said the IOPC had “acted quickly to arrest the officers involved in order to seize vital evidence”.

Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman
Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in Fryent Country Park on the night they died

In an interview, Mina Smallman compared what had been done to her daughters to photographs taken in America’s “Deep South, when they used to lynch people and you would see smiling faces around a hanging dead body”. From roughly 1877 until the 1950s, white people would assemble in lynch mobs, set upon a Black person they sought to punish, hang them from a tree, pose for photographs around their dead body, and keep the pictures of the lynching as souvenirs. It was a practice meant to terrorise Black people.

Some might call Mina Smallman’s comparison an overreaction, claiming there is no relation between what happened to her daughters and the overt, violent racism in the US. It is not. We do not know the race of the police officers who did this to Nicole and Bibaa, but you don’t have to be white to perpetuate anti-blackness. By posing for photos with Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies, by treating these pictures as souvenirs, those officers chose to engage in a historically racist act.

It is unheard of that the bodies of two murdered white women would be desecrated in this way. As a result, I have no choice but to believe that Nicole and Bibaa were denied dignity in death because they were Black women. It was an unabashed act of misogynoir.

But should we be surprised? In 1999, the Metropolitan Police was found to be institutionally racist by Sir William Macpherson, who led the inquiry into the handling of the murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence. Current Met commissioner Cressida Dick believes institutional racism is no longer an issue within the force. Yet if the Met truly no longer had a problem with racism, Nicole and Bibaa would have been afforded dignity and humanity in death, and we would not have been made to share in what should be their family’s private pain. 

It’s worth noting that many current and former Black police officers have spoken out about the racism they witnessed and experienced in the Met in recent years, and between 2011 and 2018, 4,284 Metropolitan Police officers were accused of racial discrimination or racism. Every single one of these officers was white. Just 33 resigned or retired following the allegations against them.

Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence, the London teenager whose murder sparked an inquiry into "institutional racism" within the Met Police

Black Lives Matter is not a “moment”, and calls by Black Lives Matter UK to defund the police are not “nonsense”, as Labour leader Keir Starmer has asserted. (The “defund” slogan simply means that key programmes such as youth services, mental health and social care should be prioritised for investment ahead of policing.) Black British people and those who support us aren’t protesting only because of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery and so many other Black people in the US. White supremacy, racism and police brutality are alive and well in the UK today. And in choosing to lambast Black Lives Matter before making a public statement about the officers who violated Nicole and Bibaa, Starmer has made Black people in Britain aware that he’s more concerned with political expediency than progressive action needed to make lasting change in this country.

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If Black people were safe in Britain, 13-year-old Huugo Boateng would not have been dragged from his bicycle and threatened with a taser by plain clothes police officers while out for a ride with his dad. If Black people were safe in Britain, Cherry Groce would not have been shot by police in her own home. If Black people were safe in Britain, 24-year-old Jordan Walker-Brown would still be able to walk, rather than being paralysed from the chest down after being tasered by police. If Black people were safe in Britain, Julian Cole would not have broken his neck after being arrested on a night out, leaving him in a vegetative state.  

And if everyone felt that Black lives truly mattered, Metropolitan Police officers wouldn’t have taken selfies with Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies. As author Camryn Garrett points out, saying “Black lives matter” is the bare minimum. Until Black lives are valued, protected, enfranchised politically, socially and economically, until Black people are safe in Britain, the movement will continue. It is not a moment. 

Images: Shutterstock; Getty Images