This year marks the tenth anniversary of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan. Duggan is one of many people to have died or been seriously injured during an interaction with British police, yet no officer in the UK has been convicted of murder following a death in custody since 1969, and only two have been found guilty of manslaughter. In ‘Those Left Behind’, we meet British families from different generations who have lost loved ones to police brutality.
In April 2005, West Londoner Azelle Rodney had a lot to look forward to. He’d just turned 24 and he and his heavily-pregnant girlfriend were expecting their daughter any day. What could never have been anticipated was the way in which he died just days after his birthday.
On 30 April 2005 in Edgware, Rodney was shot dead in the backseat of a Volkswagen Golf driven by two men who had been under police surveillance. During a hard stop by police - the interception and obstruction of a vehicle by armed officers - three cars surrounded the vehicle, with one hitting the rear of the Golf. Firearms officer Anthony Long, formerly identified only by the pseudonym of E7, fired eight rounds through the passenger window at Rodney. He was shot in the arm, back and head six times.
It wasn’t long before the press began reporting that Rodney had been holding a gun when he was shot (the Independent Police Complaints Commision later confirmed he was not) and described him as a “drugs baron” and a “crack dealer”. A 2013 public inquiry concluded that Long had no lawful justification for killing Rodney, rejecting his version of events as at odds with forensic evidence. When Long was subsequently charged with murder in July 2015, he was found not guilty by a majority verdict.
It took over eight years for Azelle Rodney’s killing to be established unlawful. In fact, in May 2009, his mother, Susan Alexander, filed a case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights as the government had failed to lead a “reasonably prompt” public investigation into the death of her son four years prior. This was not the first time she had been failed - the police only confirmed Rodney’s death to Alexander almost 24 hours after it took place, long after the media had begun its gun-touting coverage.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in the heart of Uxbridge’s Stockley Park, VICE met with Alexander, as well as two of her nephews, Marcie and Travis Beckford. Alexander has spent the last 16 years campaigning heavily on her son’s behalf. Marcie’s production company has been working on a documentary, The Real Azelle Rodney Story while Susan has been writing 48 Questions, a book about Rodney’s case.
This family, especially Alexander, have had no choice but to grow accustomed to talking about the hand they have been dealt; if they didn’t, there would’ve been no way to cut through the noise that framed their loved one as just another career criminal who died as he’d lived. They lost Rodney almost two decades ago – and over half that time has been spent trying to get the simple acknowledgement that his life should never have ended that April day.
VICE: How would you describe Azelle to someone who didn’t know him?
Susan Alexander: He was a caring, trusting type of person. You know, always smiling. A genuinely good boy who was well-liked by a lot of people - young and old.
Marcie Beckford: He was my closest cousin - sorry to all my other cousins but, you know, it is what it is. I say that because he was like an older brother to me when I was young - we had about seven years between us. He’d take me to buy trainers and knew I was into music and stuff so would do whatever he could do to make me look as cool as possible. He was generous and caring, wanting to always do things for everyone else. Because he was big and strong, he was that guy that we all looked up to. He was my role model. Even now that I’m older, there are a lot of similarities we have - I sometimes sound and move like him. My relationship with him was amazing. He’s someone I looked up to and still look up to.
Travis Beckford: I guess for me, I was very young. I was 13, so my relationship with him was very distant, due to family dynamics and the way things were set up. I feel close to him by living vicariously through Marcie, who I’m closest to in the family. The things he’s learned from Azelle have trickled down to me.
I love the idea of his legacy living on through all of you. It’s clear that the loss of him has left a huge hole in your lives. Susan, I read that you were notified of Azelle’s death a full day after the fact?
Alexander: That’s correct. On the day of his death, I received a few phone calls and I didn’t know who I was talking to, somebody maybe from the police or something like that. Then we spent 24 hours not knowing what had happened before we received confirmation. While we waited, we had to rely on the TV news bulletins that were going round. But the thing is, as soon as it happened, literally within minutes of Azelle being shot, the Press Association had already reported the shooting, framing him as a criminal who was seen holding a gun. It went everywhere, absolutely everywhere. After pressure from us, they redacted that statement but it didn’t mean anything. They sent a letter apologising but it was too late because it had done so much damage. A lot of people who knew us disassociated themselves from us - family and friends.
The impact this has had on me and my family has been so bad. Our family unit has broken down due to not knowing or understanding what really happened, our suspicions and the fact that I was being criminalised for doing nothing but fighting for justice for my son. I stayed in my house for a whole year. I come from a large family and community but I felt isolated because people really believed what they read and saw in the news.
I threw myself into gear to fight for my son and my family. We have only just been able to lay Azelle to rest with a decent headstone, thanks to Marcie. I still have never properly grieved and probably never will.
How much support would you say you received from the wider community?
Alexander: I remember printing out all these leaflets and I went down to Harlesden and all these places where I thought that people knew us or him. It was hard. It was really hard. The prevailing thing was that people didn’t want to get involved because of the nature of what Azelle was accused of. The thing is, worse things keep happening and then it affects more and more people.
Marcie: Yep, like what happened to Mark Duggan. At that point, some people have seen this now and have seen Azelle’s situation and will think, ‘Fuck it, I will go to those protests and marches because this keeps happening.’ When I went to some of these campaigns, like Black Lives Matter, Azelle’s name was on all the boards. So people knew at the early stage when this first happened, but it really was a different time. Now, you have social media - we didn’t have this. People weren’t using camera phones like they do now, so Azelle’s death just didn’t receive the attention it should have had. Naturally, off the back of that, you don’t get the support of the masses.
I think what’s clear is that support for Azelle was scuppered from the start because of how he was characterised by press and police statements. Travis, was there anything else you noticed with the handling of Azelle’s case by the police and other authorities?
Travis: An important part for me was actually the relationship between young people and the police as a result of Azelle’s death. It was very fragile before but now, we just didn’t feel safe. It was almost like it was okay for them to do this to my cousin and get away with it.
Alexander: The whole thing needs to be looked at and challenged. We need to find a way to be able to challenge this system. Each time something happens, hopefully cases won’t be as long as they are now, maybe even dealt with within 12 months, even weeks. I don’t want anyone to ever go through what I’ve been through.
Considering all you’ve been through individually and collectively, what would justice then look like for you?
Alexander: Justice should’ve been Andrew Long going to prison. He was on trial for murder for what he did, so why didn’t he receive the charge? Why, after the inquiry with the judge’s executive summary and report findings of unlawful killing, did Anthony Long, who was on trial for murder, get to simply walk out of the court? That’s what would’ve been a victory for us and we could’ve moved on in some way. Frankly, I’d like to have the case reopened and looked at again.
Marcie: You can’t bring back my cousin and it’s not ultimate justice, but I agree with my auntie. That police officer who killed him should’ve at least gone to prison. That’s the least that should’ve happened. Justice for me would be that he’d gone and served the time that he should be serving now, with new frameworks in place to ensure that what happened to Azelle never happens again.
Alexander: I think one of the worst parts for me is that Andrew Long, the man who pulled the trigger, has gone on to write a book about what he did. When I was working in the library, it appeared on the shelf under the “Crime thrillers” section. He’s out there boasting, writing books, appearing on TV. It’s unbelievable.
I want to end by returning to Azelle - what are some of your lasting memories of him?
Alexander: Sports was all he used to like. He loved football and, unfortunately, he’d had some operations when he was a teenager so he wasn’t as physically able to play anymore. I think he even preferred sport over school.
Travis: One time, I remember we played football together with Marcie in the garden. I was young, I was like 12 or 13 and it was just so pure. It’s so simple but it’s one of my last memories with him.
If people only took one thing away from this interview about Azelle or his case, what would you want that to be?
Alexander: He wasn’t the criminal that they made him out to be. They tainted him and he simply didn’t stand a chance.