openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Mark Duggan should have been the UK’s George Floyd: why didn’t people let him be?

Following the tenth anniversary of Mark Duggan’s killing, the parallels between inequalities in 2011 and 2021 are poignant

Anita Mureithi
7 August 2021, 12.01am
In 2021 the world is watching more closely than ever
Andy Wasley / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

It was 4 August 2011 in Tottenham, North London, when eyewitnesses saw Mark Duggan raise his hands as armed police surrounded him. An officer known only as V53 shot him anyway. Twice. Duggan collapsed onto the pavement and died from his wounds. What followed was one of the biggest rebellions that London has seen in a generation, culminating in five deaths and over 3,000 arrests.

Though bystanders said they saw Duggan with both hands up, V53 claimed that he had a gun. A low-resolution video recorded by a witness in the immediate aftermath of his death showed one of the officers at the scene walking towards the taxi that Duggan had been travelling in and disappearing for a full 11 seconds. Another witness claimed she saw the same officer retrieving the gun from inside the car. Three officers at the scene went on to testify that the weapon was found on the other side of the fence.

The question of whether Duggan had a gun in his hands when he was shot was contentious. At the time, phones were less advanced and people were less likely to have HD recording devices. 4K resolution wasn’t even a thing until two years later. But what if Mark Duggan’s killing had happened today? In 2021, the vast majority of adults own a smartphone of some kind. Technology has advanced and hurriedly shot videos from cameras on phones have become a familiar medium for the story of police brutality. Surveillance works both ways.

Before the age of smartphones, acts of violence by police officers mostly went unseen and unbelieved. Deaths like that of George Floyd have encouraged us to look more closely at how we use our devices. In 2021, smartphones are an integral part of daily life. When something big happens, most of us are inclined to capture it. If Mark Duggan had been killed today, it's likely that there would have been at least one HD/4K recording that could have been used as evidence in an inquest. And it would have been much harder for the authorities to lie about what happened.

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But this wasn’t 2021. It was 2011.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) admitted to giving misleading information to journalists about an exchange of shots between Duggan and police. A jury would later hear that Duggan’s fingerprints or DNA were not found on the gun which police say he was holding when he was killed. Following his death, the gun in question was found several metres away from where he had been shot. None of the officers at the scene saw Duggan throw the gun, or make any kind of throwing motion. While this doesn’t concretely prove that police were lying about the events of that day, the modern-day use of smartphones and livestreaming have been gamechangers in the fight to stop police – and those who are meant to regulate them – from skewing the truth to justify their actions.

Without footage, it was alleged that Duggan had opened fire, injuring an officer. He was labelled by newspapers as a violent gangster and a thug. Misinformation was used as a way to legitimise police actions and to imply that he deserved to die, and many just went along with it. By the time the truth came out, minds had already been made up.

London burning

Despite reports, the initial protests which followed the shooting were peaceful. As Duggan’s family grappled with the loss of their loved one, they urged peace and restraint in the community while seeking answers from the police. The Met failed to respond. A protest was subsequently organised at Tottenham police station. Not a single senior officer came out to talk with the family. As crowds gathered, the family went home. The only voices left were those of hurt and anger.

The media were quick to position the unrest as that of yet another violent protest led by gang members, thugs and Black people with a chip on their shoulder. There was a similar response to the 2020 protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, where protesters were criticised for marching against systemic racism.

Many of the people labelled as rioters in Tottenham were from marginalised communities. For them, the uproar was about more than the death of one man. There were other complex social issues at play, a combination of which sparked the outrage and resentment that led to an uprising against injustice.

Much of the coverage at the time focused on austerity. Which, while an important issue in its own right, overshadowed the fact that an apparently unarmed Black man was killed by police, and people were angry about it.

Chaos rippled through London and out into other English cities. A decade after the death that led to what is now known as the London riots, we need to ask ourselves whether anything has actually changed, in relation to policy but also in relation to the way that Black men are viewed by society. At a time where the UK’s relationship with racism and white supremacy is being brought to the fore, the parallels between societal inequalities in 2011 and 2021 are unnerving.

In 2010, much of the conversation turned towards austerity in the aftermath of the global financial panic of 2008, the most crippling economic crisis since the Great Depression. Despite the fact that research has shown that austerity measures are disproportionately detrimental to members of racial and ethnic minority groups, those conversations were never had in the mainstream. This is in stark contrast to last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, where many finally woke up and listened to what Black and other people of colour have been saying for generations.

White protestors, Black protestors

A key moment in 2010 was when students and supporters gathered to protest against unfair education reforms by the coalition government. Initial demonstrations were led by mostly young, white and middle-class people protesting against rises in tuition fees. People came from across the country to make their voices heard. The action and activism was hailed by many as a major political movement. While the right-wing press tried to dismiss it as rioting too, a powerful message of hope and defiance broke through.

Fast forward to the following summer: when mostly young, Black and other people of colour took to the streets, the rebellion was framed as ‘thuggery’, with much of the coverage focusing on looting. The cost of the unrest was hugely significant. Five people died, including a 68-year-old man who was killed while attempting to stamp out a litter-bin fire. Over 200 people were injured and dozens left homeless. Many businesses suffered; some went up in flames. None of this was justifiable. But cause and effect was omitted from the retelling of events. The insurrection was fuelled by a growing sense of frustration among Black and other people of colour, especially those in lower-income communities. There was violence, and there was looting, but it was fundamentally a movement against injustice by those who felt unseen and unheard. We need to remember that.

White bias, Black deaths

The killing of Mark Duggan was only part of the bigger picture. While it appeared that the aftermath of his death represented a time when society was starting to sit up and pay attention, it was, and is, far from an isolated case. Duggan is one person on a long list of Black people who have died or sustained serious injuries during contact with British police officers.

A major part of the outrage that sparks protest is the lack of swift accountability and the feeling of injustice that comes from seeing yet another police officer protected by an institutionally racist justice system. Despite several verdicts of unlawful killing, there hasn’t been a successful prosecution of a British police officer for the involvement in the death of a Black person since 1969, when two officers were jailed after hounding David Oluwale to his death.

Black people make up only 3% of the population yet we account for 8% of deaths in police custody. There’s a huge disparity in the number of Black people dying during contact with police. In 2017, a report by the Labour MP David Lammy concluded that the colour of your skin does have an impact on how you are treated as you navigate the justice system. Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, Mzee Mohamed, Sheku Bayoh, Cynthia Jarrett, Kevin Clarke and the long list of other lives lost to police brutality shows that racial stereotypes and unconscious bias can be deadly.

They could have just approached him and put him down, put the cuffs on him. But they didn’t.

The way Mark Duggan’s death was dealt with, and the way that Black people are generally treated by the justice system, suggests that a Black life is worth less. There is a constant need to ‘other’ Black people. To believe that we are innately different in some way. It’s this othering that leads to misconceptions of Black people. It’s the unconscious bias deep within, not just overt racism, that can make people look at a Black man and see a scary, stronger, more aggressive person in need of more force and restraint than a white person, a bias white people were taught to justify generations of imperialist oppression

When an eyewitness at the scene of Duggan’s death gave evidence to the inquest, they were quoted saying: “They could have just approached him and put him down, put the cuffs on him. But they didn’t.” This disproportionate use of force speaks to the constant need to paint Black men as a threat. If a suspect isn’t holding a gun, and if his hands are up in a non-threatening manner, what justifiable reason is there to shoot him?

Now, Home Office findings for the year 2020 show that Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. In Manchester, despite recent figures showing that the Black population are more likely to be Tasered and experience excessive force, their boss has denied claims of institutional racism.

Government inaction

In terms of policy, the government has failed to implement changes that will prevent history repeating itself. A deeper analysis into the wider context of what was going on in 2011 gives us some insight into the catalyst behind the insurrection and the promises of policy change that followed. Although 63 recommendations were made by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel in 2013, very few were taken on board.

Since 2011, there have been several reports addressing various inequalities, including the McGregor-Smith review. Looking at racism in employment. And the Lammy review, looking at racial bias in the justice system. Rather than acting on the findings in these reports, the government has, for years, ignored recommendations that could make a real difference in tackling the inequalities in unemployment, housing, healthcare, education and the legal system – the conditions that fuel tensions and make a rebellion more likely.

In 2021, we find ourselves in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic which has only further highlighted social disparities that the government has failed to address. Black and other people of colour are disproportionately dying from the virus, largely due to existing health inequalities, housing conditions, public-facing occupations and structural racism. Ethnic minorities have also been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic.

It was recently found that the UK government is in breach of several articles of a UN convention on racial discrimination. People from ethnically diverse backgrounds are having to deal with inequalities across the health sector, the criminal justice system, education, employment, immigration and politics.

A decade after the killing of Mark Duggan, we are still fighting much of the same injustice that fuelled the 2011 riots. The conditions which led to the chaos are deeply rooted in political, legal and societal structures in the UK, many of which have not seen positive and sustainable change. As the upcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill shows, government actions do not inspire hope for a better future. Instead they highlight the increasingly authoritarian drive towards infringement on our right to publicly protest, and support discriminatory ‘suspicionless’ stop and search powers.

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