Author: Meghan Guy
When Sarah Everard was declared missing last month, the nation mobilised in an attempt to find her – sharing her image all over social media and asking for leads on TV and radio.
As soon as the first pictures of Sarah began to circulate when she was reported missing, I had a niggling feeling that something was off. Her picture and the urgent appeals for her whereabouts were everywhere I looked on social media and plastered all over the news. Missing persons are rarely given this much public or media attention – even in cases where someone has been missing for a significant amount of time.
I couldn’t help but think that the public interest in this case was linked to the fact that this missing person was blonde, blue eyed and middle-class.
According to Missing Persons UK, a person goes missing every 90 seconds in the UK.
176,000 people are reported missing each year. Yet how many missing persons can you think of that were as widely and urgently shared as Sarah?
Just under a year ago, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry went missing and were found dead in a London park after being stabbed to death. I don’t remember seeing their missing person photographs circulated to the same extent, or hearing about Blessing Olusegun a 21 year old woman whose death is still unexplained. Nothing comes close to the scale of the public connection to Sarah’s case.
Similarly, only a week after Sarah was murdered, Richard Okorogheye – a young Black man – was declared missing by his mother. But again, the public just didn’t seem to care as much as they did when Sarah was missing.
Even the police reaction to Nicole, Bibaa and Richard’s cases was very different to their swift and urgent action to Sarah’s case. Mina Smallman, Nicole and Bibaa’s mother, has spoken out about how the police seemed to be ‘making assumptions’ about her daughters and failed to act decisively: ‘“I knew instantly why they didn’t care. They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was. A black woman who lives on a council estate”.
Richard Okorogheye’s Mother, Evidence Joel, stated she was ‘disappointed’ by the initial police response to her missing son which was to say;
‘‘if you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?’.
The flippancy of police and the detached response from the public to Nicole, Bibaa and Richard stands in stark contrast to everything about Sarah’s case. It reveals a pervasive and subconscious racism within our society which codes bodies closer to ‘Whiteness’ as more valuable, more in need of protection, and more worthy of our collective grief.
This privileging of the White body and the simultaneous relegation of the Black body as lesser is particularly evident in the case of Nicole and Bibaa. Specifically, the fact that officers were arrested after it was revealed they had taken selfies with the sisters’ dead bodies and shared them on messaging platforms.
Described as ‘dehumanising’ by Nicole and Bibaa’s mother, the actions of the officers is indicative of the way in which Nicole and Bibaa were coded as unworthy of the respect a white body would command even in death. The officers clearly thought there was nothing wrong about taking pictures next to the murdered dead bodies of two women they did not know.
This subconscious coding of Blackness as unworthy of respect and consent in the same way as white bodies is not isolated to this case or these officers – it is prevalent in our society.
It is evident in the way media footage saturates the viewer with images of dead Black and Brown bodies. It is also evident in photography of poverty and famine in the global south which largely focuses on close ups of emaciated Black children or Black and Brown faces distorted by suffering.
On one worrying level these photos and campaigns perpetuate the narrative of Africa and Asia as ‘developing’ or ‘uncivilised’ nations in need of ‘help’ in the form of White Saviourism. Yet on another level the photos are also rooted in the assumption that Black bodies simply do not require the same respect or consent as White bodies. This consistent portrayal of Black people in this way desensitises Black bodies, which manifests itself in dehumanisation and flippancy towards them, even within our Police. This subconscious valuing of worth goes some way in explaining the paradox of the public’s deep connection to Sarah’s case and the indifference to Nicole, Bibaa and Richard as missing persons.
We should be alarmed by the disregard our society and our policing institutions have for the lives of Black and Brown bodies.
However, it is not enough to simply recognise the racialised valuation of bodies at play here. We must now begin the long process of deconstructing the hidden and pervasive racism hidden within our collective thought-processes.
Recent data from the National Crime Agency shows that 14% of missing people in England and Wales from 2019- 2020 were Black people, over four times (3%) their relative population. In London between 2019 and 2020, Black people accounted for 36% of missing people, nearly three times their population in the city (13%). It is clear from this data that Black people are going missing, at a higher rate than other parts of the population, and unfortunately there is nothing to stop these missing person stats from continuing to accumulate. It is for this reason that it is paramount that we dismantle the racism behind the coding of Black bodies as lesser which is robbing Black missing persons and their families of the support, justice or grief they deserve.
SIGN THE PETITION
Sign this Government petition which is calling for a public inquiry to investigate why missing person cases are disproportionately impacting Black communities, who is responsible for the resource allocation on cases, and what can be done to reduce rates within Black/African/Caribbean/Black British communities.