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Sukhdev Reel—‘If you stand up you become the enemy’

Sukhdev Reel lost her son Ricky in what campaigners suspect was a racist attack. When she criticised the police for failing to properly investigate, they decided to spy on her. She tells Isabel Ringrose her story 
Issue 2813
Sukhdev Reel justice police

Sukhdev Reel talks about her campaign for justice at Marxism Festival 2022 (pic: Jo Ellis Holland)

“Silence is not an option because we’re not accepting it. We need answers—they need to tell me how my son died.” This is how Sukhdev Reel summarised to Socialist Worker her 25-year-long justice campaign for her son.

Ricky Reel died in October 1997, but how and why is still unknown today. And rather than be allowed to grieve and piece their lives back together, the state has attempted to both criminalised and ­disregard his family.

Sukhdev has pressed the police for answers since Ricky went missing on 15 October 1997. Not only did the Metropolitan Police fail to carry out a proper investigation, but it also ran a spying operation on the Reel family’s campaign.

Twenty year-old student Ricky was out with friends in Kingston upon Thames, west London, when a gang of racists physically and verbally attacked them. The group split up, and Ricky was not seen again. During the 1990s a wave of racist attacks and murders had taken place across London and beyond.

The impact of Ricky’s death and the horrific trauma his parents, siblings, and family still endure has ripped their world apart. “I’m not the same person I was,” Sukhdev explained. “I died on 21 October when we were given the news that Ricky’s body had been found—my kids lost a mother and a brother on the same day.”

Sukhdev decided to write a book about Ricky after her grandchildren asked about their uncle for a school ­project on a famous person. From the first call Sukhdev made reporting her son was missing, the police didn’t want to know. “They had no intention to carry out an investigation. We were told that because Asians have arranged marriages, or maybe he was gay, that he probably ran away.”

Sukhdev was pushed between ­different branches, fobbed off about the river being checked and forced to conduct her own search. “They left it to family and friends for the first seven days, and it’s still left like that,” she said. “I spent 16 or 17 hours a day looking for my son in Kingston. I was only doing this because the police refused to look for my son.”

Volunteers helped look through the streets, bushes and bins to find any traces of Ricky. And important CCTV footage of Ricky’s last movements was found because of the family’s efforts.

“I’m just a Mum,” Sukhdev said. “I had no experience. I was forced out on the streets when I should have been sitting at home. I was ill and grief-struck.

“My kids were crying, and I’d leave them at home on their own because I had no choice. I should have been comforting them, but I was out on the streets not eating or drinking. I was falling down constantly.”

Despite Sukhdev’s requests, the police failed to obtain important footage before it was deleted. They also missed critical evidence by not ­interviewing key ­witnesses. The line the cops peddled was that his death was an accident. Sukhdev says this is because the police didn’t care. “Ricky was Asian. His skin didn’t match whatever they were looking for. In other cases, they would move heaven and earth during an ­investigation. Why not mine?

“I stood up and asked questions. It wasn’t not normal for an Asian woman to confront the police.” Sukhdev initially didn’t know that Ricky and his friends had been attacked. After it was uncovered, she knew this was key to his disappearance but was utterly dismissed by the cops.

“During the investigation, they never connected the racial attack to Ricky’s disappearance. My brother and husband went to Kingston with two of Ricky’s friends and told the police they were attacked. The police didn’t want to take a statement. It suited them not to pay much attention to the racial attack.”

The family liaison officer bluntly told Sukhdev’s two young children about Ricky’s death without her being present, ­showing a ­complete lack of concern for the family.

“This caused more pain and grief to my family, it nearly destroyed my children, and I never received an apology,” she said. In December 1997 Sukhdev and her family launched a complaint over the handling of Ricky’s disappearance through the Police Complaints Authority. Surrey police’s investigation of that complaint unveiled a catalogue of failures.

But only Sukhdev was allowed to see their report if she promised not to discuss what it uncovered—even with her family. To this day she has kept silent on its contents. The Met busied themselves, creating an inaccurate profile of Ricky to support their theory that he fell in the Thames while urinating.

They challenged and ignored facts such as Ricky having a phobia of open water. Those on river boats near where his body was found heard nothing, and forensic evidence on Ricky’s body showed he fell backwards.

During the inquest, which Sukhdev described in the book as a “living ­nightmare”, the family were ­interrogated about Ricky and the justice campaign—as if they were the ones on trial. Sukhdev writes that the 1999 inquest “was not a hearing to establish how Ricky died but rather for the police to attempt to discredit any credible evidence concerning Ricky’s death that did not neatly fit into their own theory.” 

She described the “patronising” way DCI Morgan, who led the ­limited investigation into Ricky’s death, ­outlined his theory. A retired Morgan later attempted to release graphic pictures from a post‑mortem on Ricky that was carried out without the family’s knowledge and other evidence he had kept on the case. 

“I had one foot on the ledge when I heard this—I was ready to kill myself,” Sukhdev said. “Why do that? To punish me because I haven’t stopped talking and for bringing his failures into the open?

“If you stand up and question them, you become the enemy.” Sukhdev’s brother Mon was refused access to the inquest except to give evidence. He was also accused of interfering with the police investigation, despite playing a vital role looking for evidence.

And because of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which is investigating spy cops infiltration of campaigning groups between 1968 and 2008, Sukhdev learnt in 2014 that her family had been targeted.

“What did I do wrong?” she asked. “I didn’t breach anything. I never committed any crime. I was on their radar because I stood up and faced the authorities and asked questions that needed to be asked.  “It makes me angry. The police said just 48 hours after Ricky went missing they stopped the investigation—which they never really carried out anyway—because they hadn’t got resources.

“For them it was more important to watch my movements, who I was ­speaking to and what I was doing, rather than finding out how my son died. People of colour don’t deserve justice in their eyes. We’re just a burden on society to them” she added. 

The inquest decided on an “open ­verdict” rather than the accidental death the police had hoped for. But Sukhdev says that the justice system, from the police to coroner’s inquests, is part of the same system. “There’s nothing independent about them, so you’ll never find the truth. We didn’t get any help from them. Now it’s even worse. You watch the news and see that the police are the perpetrators of crime. I can’t see them changing,” she added.

“After the Stephen Lawrence inquiry they said lessons had been learnt—but the exact same mistakes were found in Ricky’s case.” But Sukhdev has pushed on to fulfil the promise she made to Ricky. The Justice for Ricky Reel campaign wrote letters, held memorials, marches and meetings to spread the word. Sukhdev had to fund the entire campaign through donations or “scraping by” on the family’s wages.

“I couldn’t balance staying at home and doing the campaign,” Sukhdev explained. “The saddest part is that my children grew up without me. It wears you down—it’s a tactic they use so you give up.”  Yet Sukhdev has worked tirelessly with other justice campaigns, ­marching with and speaking on their platforms and standing with others in similar situations.

Sukhdev says justice would be ­“someone coming forward and telling me why they killed Ricky. That’s all I need. People say time heals wounds, but it doesn’t.” Since the day Ricky didn’t come home, Sukhdev has refused to back down. “They didn’t expect that we would ­continue to stand up. We will keep on campaigning.”

The family wants a fresh investigation into Ricky’s death to look for new evidence  and to re-analyse what already exists. And it wants supporters to write to MPs and share Ricky’s story. 

“If you hear or see anything now or remember from the past, please come forward. Tell us what happened and end my agony. Justice has no colour. It should be a right for everyone—I shouldn’t have to be demanding it.”


Far right drove wave of attacks in 90s London

London in the 1990s was a key battleground in the fight against racism and the far right. The Nazi British National Party (BNP) with its “Rights for Whites” campaign was on the rise in the east and south of the city.

Its first local councillor, Derek Beackon, won a seat in Tower Hamlets in 1993. He declared, “Asians are rubbish, and that is what we are going to clear from the streets.” The presence of the far right was already feeding into racist violence.

And the police made ignoring evidence of a racial motivation in attacks a crucial part of their approach. Roland Adams was just 15  years old in 1991 when 12 thugs set upon him in Greenwich. They stabbed him to death while shouting, “Nigger.”

Rohit Duggal was murdered by a gang in Eltham in 1992. The police refused to record his killing as racially motivated. A year later, a racist gang in the same area murdered Stephen Lawrence.

Again, the police sought to deny racism was a factor, instead suggesting the attack resulted from inter-gang warfare. John Reid was a white man married to a black woman. He was beaten to death and set on fire in 1996 after a long-running racist campaign.

Anti-racists mounted a massive campaign to drive back the racists, targeting the BNP in particular. Groups of activists, mainly grouped around the Anti Nazi League, went door to door in areas hit by racist attacks. They took on arguments and helped mobilise the anti-racist majority.

Some 60,000 people marched in 1993 to close down the BNP’s south London headquarters and fought pitched battles with police that protected it.  Campaigning meant that every attack met with a mass response, helping to isolate the racists and leading the BNP to lose its sole councillor.

Ricky Reel: Silence Is Not An Option available to buy from Bookmarks at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or 0207 637 1848.

Contact [email protected] for information and messages of support.

Sign the petition for a new police investigation—bit.ly/RickyReel

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