The verdict of Mark Duggan’s inquest has raised some very important questions about police, order and racism in the UK. Many people were quick to deny that race had anything to do with ‘lawfully’ shooting down a young black man and others have adamantly affirmed that Duggan posed an obvious threat to the policeman who shot him, even though the gun, that was said to be in his hand since the beginning of the case’s press coverage, was actually twenty feet away from him.
It is hard to believe the police is held accountable in the UK when there have been no convicted officers for deaths in custody since 1969. Cases where families have to take up the cause of their own justice against the police are common in the UK (see Hillsborough disaster cover-up) – unfortunately that is unsurprising considering that 827 people have died in police custody since 2004, without a single conviction.
Does this mean that the police’s actions were irreprehensible 827 times? Or do we have to examine corruption and cover-ups that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has so far failed to acknowledge or investigate?
If you are unfamiliar with the IPCC and how it works, here is a summary: the IPCC is an organization separate from the police that is in charge of policing the police. They investigate complaints that are made by civilians and must be automatically called in when someone dies in custody. They express in their website that they are not part of the police: “[The IPCC] is independent, making its decisions entirely independently of the police and government. It is not part of the police”.
A What Do They Know investigation has revealed that in 2012, 42% of IPCC staff and 88% of its senior investigators were ex-police. Perhaps this is understandable in terms of abilities and requirements for the job, but it raises question as to how independent and unbiased the IPCC actually is. In the eight years the IPCC has existed, there have been many complaints about the competency of the commission itself: they are known to have conveyed with the police to compose press releases (when they should be investigating suspicious deaths), taking hours to get to the crime scene and hiding essential evidence (again, see Hillsborough disaster). The IPCC is more often than not doing damage control when the police makes a mistake than actually investigating the misconducts.
In fact, the IPCC helped the police draw up the press release on Duggan’s case.
“The IPCC was also partially responsible for creating the false public perception that Duggan had shot at police first. (…)The mass media swallowed the shoot-out story, and the tabloids proceeded to portray Duggan as a gangster and a drug dealer, as if its job was to make the killing acceptable to the public.“ – Deaths in British police custody: no convicted officers since 1969, by Koos Couvée, opendemocracy.net
But all of this only scratches the surface of Mark Duggan’s case in particular. The incompetency and corruption within the IPCC and the police force are not the only issue to be discussed: it is essential to point out that Duggan’s death, the following media demonization of his character and the verdict are a result of racism.
Benefit of the doubt
The verdict of a ‘lawful killing’ stems from the conclusion that the police felt Duggan was a threat and that he was reaching for a gun. However there is enough evidence to indicate that he was not holding the gun when he was shot dead.
Mark Prodger from the BBC reports:
“As soon as Mr Duggan was shot by police the gun apparently disappeared. One officer at the scene said that even as he fell to the ground, and the officer grabbed his arms, the gun was nowhere to be seen.
“Nobody said they saw him throw it, either before or after. Officers said they later found the gun, wrapped in a black sock, some 20ft (6m) away on the other side of some railings.” – Mark Duggan inquest: Why killing was deemed lawful, by Mark Prodger, BBC.
Despite the fact that Duggan was unarmed, the policeman still felt his life was threatened. And if we are talking in legal terms, we can consider Lord Griffith’s statement in Beckford v R: “A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.”
It could be that the police have lied: according to Witness B’s statement Duggan was raising his arms in a show of surrender when he was shot and he was not holding a gun. They also described the killing as an ‘execution’. Or it could be that in a split second, the policeman really did feel threatened by a black youth who is part of a group of people who have been historically vilified by the media and the police themselves.
In both scenarios, one of merciless execution and the other of racial profiling, race comes into question. Lord Griffith’s earlier statement implies that the benefit of the doubt must be given to the shooter (apparently, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary), but it begs the question – why wasn’t Duggan given the benefit of the doubt?
The marginalized don’t get the benefit of the doubt
Mark Duggan was immediately painted as a low-life criminal by the media. The implication of this portrait was that since he was a ‘gangster’ person of colour in possession of a gun he deserved to die. A photo of Duggan making a gun shape with his hand was widely circulated, purely for shock-value.
The word gangster was thrown around mercilessly and it was instantly obvious that Duggan would never get the benefit of the doubt. To the media he looked like a criminal so he was a criminal. Duggan had two minor offences on his record (none of them violent): cannabis possession and receiving stolen goods – hardly the portfolio of a dangerous criminal.
Stafford Scott, consultant on racial equality and community engagement, writes for the Guardian:
“The headlines declared him a gangster who was on a mission to avenge the killing of his cousin, Kelvin Easton. However, during the inquest no evidence was offered in support of this claim. It was further alleged that he was a large-scale drugs dealer, but yet again not a shred of evidence was provided to substantiate these allegations. But that did not matter, the mud had been slung and it clearly stuck as it was designed to. Even now most people still do not realise that he was only ever convicted for two relatively minor offences – one count of cannabis possession, and one count of receiving stolen goods.” – This perverse Mark Duggan verdict will ruin our relations with the police, Stafford Scott, The Guardian.
Mark Duggan was not a dangerous criminal and there is evidence to support the claim that he was not holding a gun. He was not given a chance to surrender.
But he was a criminal!
He might not have been a large-scale drug dealer, and – fine! – he only had minor offences, but he illegally bought a gun! So he was a criminal and he deserved to die for getting in trouble in the first place.
Believe it or not, this has been a common argument I’ve had hurled at me on social media when I tweeted my outrage when the verdict came out.
Duggan was a 29-year-old man who bought a gun. This is illegal and it was a bad, bad life choice. But this does not strip him of his humanity. It does not strip him of his right to live, or his right to a fair trial. It does not strip him from the right to a chance to be rehabilitated.
In the UK, possession of a gun is taken very seriously so Duggan would have problems with the law if and when he was caught carrying one. That was, presumably, something Duggan knew. But he didn’t know he was going to be executed – but perhaps, considering the structurally racist world we live in, he should have guessed.
Minorities are still the biggest suspects
Racism is alive and well. Home secretary Theresa May’s public consultation on the police powers in England and Wales revealed that people who are black or of minority ethnic background are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
This whole case reminds me of one particular passage of Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, where a Wall Street man named Sherman and his mistress run over a young black man in the Bronx when they made the snap assumption that the youth and another black man were going to mug them. Sherman’s internal monologue fleets between racism and the idea that these men are just trying to help him – which they were. This book was written almost thirty years ago – and yet, here we are.
Racial profiling still exists. Snap assumptions based on race happen all the time. Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan are only two examples of it.
You still fail to see how this is a race issue
It could have happened if Duggan had been white, right? No, I don’t think so. Black youth has been vilified and demonized for decades if not centuries – it’s the Scary Black Men stereotype (although black women are also feared). It is the belief that a black male is more likely to attack you because of their race – and in a split second decision this particular manifestation of racism can result in the death of a 29-year-old unarmed man.
This is what happened in George Zimmerman’s trial, where his victim, Trayvon Martin, was painted as a Scary Black Man by the defence team.
“In pre-trial motions the defence showed pictures of Martin taken from his cell phone of him with gold teeth and giving the camera the middle finger; and also pictures of marijuana plants, guns and even a video of homeless men fighting over a bike. Attorneys alleged he participated in organized fighting and noted his school suspension, evidence it seems to imply the life of a troubled teen. All of a sudden language about an “aspiring street tough,” and “would-be thug” surrounded Martin.” – George Zimmerman trial: Trayvon Martin portrayed as ‘scary black man’, Reniqua Allen, The Guardian.
The same thing was done to Mark Duggan: the IPCC purposefully led the media and the public to believe Duggan had shot first (see admission of lie here) and insisted he was a dangerous, known criminal, when he only had two strikes on his police record.
In 2012, the NYPD disclosed that 96% of shooting victims in New York City are black or latino. You might think that New York is too far away from the UK, but London has scary figures too: from April 2004 to the end of March 2008 65% of youth murder victims were black African or black Caribbean and 12% were white European.
When I was researching to write this post, I came across a blog on BlackYouthProject.com that illustrates the result of the Scary Black Man stereotype.
“Am I really that scary? I’m only 5’9’’ 180 pounds. This is what I asked myself when a girl ran away from me as I walked down Ellis Avenue two weeks ago. Initially I was flabbergasted by her reaction. Did I look like a criminal? I had on an under armour shirt and some old basketball shorts because I had just left the gym. Was I doing anything out of the ordinary? No, I was just walking with a tote bag in my hand. From my vantage (sic) point I looked like an unassuming University of Chicago student tired from a long day of lectures and treadmills. She started walking briskly after she looked back and saw me behind her around the Midway. By the time I got to 59th and Ellis, she was in front of the Burton Judson Dormitory frantically searching for something in her purse. Maybe it was a key or maybe it was mace.” – Scary Black Men, by Edward, BlackYouthProject.org
Imagine if the mace was a gun and the girl decided she was in imminent danger. Another black young man would be lost because of racism.
I am not black so I cannot speak for black people – nor am I trying to do so with this post. After being met with consistent racism and denial of racism on social networks regarding Duggan, I felt this case deserved an analysis. After reading the documents, researching the police, the IPCC and other similar cases, my conclusion is that Mark Duggan was killed because of racism. While the IPCC and the police need to be held accountable for their constant racism and frequent cover-ups, the whole of the UK has to admit that structural racism is very much still part of British life – and working on fixing that is the next step.