'WHAT DOES a black family have to do to get justice? Hire their own police force, their own solicitor, their own forensic scientist?' So says Cliff McGowan, whose brother Errol was found hanged last July after suffering two years of racist harassment and death threats. Cliff's nephew Jason, who was investigating his uncle's death, was then found hanged on New Year's Day.
The McGowan family, from Wellington, Telford, believe it is possible that Errol and Jason were murdered by racists. They do not for a moment believe the two committed suicide. But West Mercia police have refused to consider any explanation other than that Errol and Jason killed themselves.
The case follows those of Stephen Lawrence, Michael Menson and Ricky Reel, where grieving black families have met police hostility. Errol (also known as Harold) McGowan worked as a doorman in the Telford area. Over two years ago he started getting racist harassment from a group of white men who he had refused entry to a club. Errol went to the police thinking they would help him. They did not. As Cliff says, 'He tried to explain what was happening but they didn't seem to want to take any notice. In the weeks before he died Errol was saying about the racists, 'They'll kill me'.'
Errol felt he had nowhere to go for protection. But he decided to get on with life. He was planning to go to Jamaica, get married and build a career. The circumstances surrounding Errol's death on Friday 2 July 1999 do not fit the pattern of someone intent on taking their life. He got up for work as usual. He bought his sandwiches for lunch. He went to a house he was looking after for a friend. That was the last time he was seen alive. Alerted by the family, the police broke down the door. His sister Doreen found Errol hanging from a door handle with an electrical flex around his neck.
West Mercia police put out a statement last week saying, '[We] recognised immediately that the death was a serious incident and extensive resources were employed from the outset.' But although the police knew Errol had been receiving death threats, they did not seal off the house (the family did so later). The police did no forensics. 'I said to the police, 'I think you should start investigating a murder',' says Cliff.
Eminent pathologist Dr Nat Carey backed up Cliff's assessment last week. He told the Independent, 'Most aspects of this case don't fit comfortably with suicide, particularly with the possibility of racism involved.' Cliff says that when the family demanded the police investigate Errol's death one senior officer said, 'I know what I'm looking for. Don't tell me my job. It's a self inflicted death.'
New town problems
TELFORD IS a 'new town' built in the late 1960s. It is the amalgamation of a number of villages and covers 112 square miles. It has a population of around 150,000. It used to be a steel and mining area. Now it is dominated by light engineering factories. Despite the rhetoric of a boom town, Telford has many low paid jobs and a lot of seasonal unemployment. Telford police shot and killed unarmed black man Ian Gordon in 1991. Ian was hunted down after he was seen carrying an unloaded air pistol. They killed him despite the fact that he was well known to them as 'harmless'.
Press ignore Nazi minority
THE LOCAL newspaper, the Shropshire Star, which Jason worked for, says, 'The evidence to support a racist conspiracy theory is scant.' The Sun backed the Shropshire Star, saying the story of racism in Telford was smearing 'the people of Shropshire'. But there is worrying evidence of racist activity in the Midlands.
- British National Party leader Nick Griffin lives 30 miles away in Welshpool.
- The BNP has openly targeted the area for recruitment
- The BNP has an offshoot, the English Border Front, operating in nearby Shrewsbury.
- The Ku Klux Klan has been discovered operating in the Birmingham area.
The McGowans have never said that the white people of Telford or Shropshire are all racist. As Cliff McGowan puts it, 'The mass of the populace in Telford are decent people. 'But there is a minority who do put racist slogans on walls, who do send out hate mail, and we want these people found and prosecuted.' Local Anti Nazi League members petitioning for justice for the McGowans have got a brilliant response going door to door and in the town centre. As ANL member Deborah says, 'People are saying how the family deserves justice.'
Jason's quest for the truth
TWENTY YEAR old Jason McGowan decided to investigate his uncle Errol's death. Cliff says, 'Jason turned over every stone. The police were doing so little.' Jason started asking questions about the men who had racially harassed Errol. Cliff says a lot of people were 'quite frightened and wouldn't come forward'. The McGowans received a phone call telling Jason to 'back off' unless they wanted another death in the family. Jason's family had also been racially harassed. His partner Sinead had been abused and assaulted by a local racist because she was white and was going out with a black man.
Jason and Sinead married last summer. Sinead says Jason had 'everything to live for'. On New Year's Eve he was in good form, celebrating at a pub and looking forward to the future. Jason walked out of the pub just before midnight for some fresh air. His body was found the next morning 100 yards away hanging from some park railings by his belt. The police said Jason had taken his life because they could not see 'involvement of a third party'. 'We said to them, don't do what you did with Errol. We want this investigated properly,' recalls Cliff. As Leroy McGowan, Jason's uncle, says, 'We are just an ordinary family, not rich and famous. We just want a proper investigation into their deaths.'
THE McGOWAN family have launched a campaign for justice. They plan to hand in a 10,000 signature petition to Tony Blair at Downing Street in the run up to Errol's inquest, set for the end of February. The family have said they will speak to trade union meetings and other events.
Picket Wellington Police Station, Town Bank, Telford, Saturday 5 February. Assemble 2pm. Called by the McGowan family.
Leeds: it was racist
THE Lawrence family solicitor, Imran Khan, has called for a 'serious and urgent' police investigation into the racist beating of Asian student Sarfraz Najeib in Leeds. Najeib was set upon by a group of thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life on 12 January. Two of the men questioned over the attack are Leeds football players Lee Bowyer and Jonathon Woodgate. Last week, after pressure from campaigners, Leeds police were finally forced to admit that it had been an unprovoked racist attack. Woodgate and Bowyer are continuing to play for Leeds. They are not due to be interviewed by the police until March.