Five years ago, England exploded in rioting and uprisings in response to the killing of Mark Duggan. Specialist firearms officers stopped the taxi he was travelling in and despite the fact no testimony ever explicitly said a gun was in Duggan's hand at the time, officer V53 shot him twice, ending his life. Two days after the shooting, police added insult to injustice at a demonstration outside Tottenham police station in north London where family and friends were calling for answers. Their plea was met by what witnesses described as an attack on a teenage girl protester by police, as can be seen in a video from the night. The incident sparked several days of unrest.
Despite suggestions that the killing of Duggan would be an opportunity for learning, what have we seen by way of justice, accountability or a change in police practices?
Often we hear that fatal police shootings aren't a problem in the UK in the same way as the US. It's true; police shootings are far more rare here. Most police officers in Britain don't carry guns – though in London that is changing. But the incidents that do happen remain horrific, and no more rare since the killing of Mark Duggan. In fact, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that the financial year from 2015 to 2016 was the worst for fatal police shootings since 2004/2005. The three logged shootings are still being investigated, but it's certainly worrying that things may have in fact worsened rather than improved since 2011.
It is thus a surprise that such fatal shootings were omitted from the review into deaths in custody commissioned by then-Home Secretary Theresa May. During the consultation process the review's chair, Dame Elish Angiolini, told campaigners that her terms of reference did not include deaths resulting from discharge of police firearms. No other probe into the handling of these controversial deaths has yet been announced by the Home Office.
In any case, as Prime Minister May has already overseen promises of more firearms officers across the UK and the Metropolitan police's deployment of Kevlar-clad, high-speed motorbike mounted firearms officers. This willingness to increase the frequency and number of police carrying guns – given the potentially fatal repercussions – doesn't inspire confidence that what happened to Duggan will not be repeated.
Already we have the ongoing case of Jermaine Baker, who was shot and killed by a firearms officer during an operation in north London's Wood Green neighbourhood last December. There are questions as to whether he was even awake when police swooped and fired one fatal gunshot while Baker sat in the front passenger seat of a parked car. The IPCC have already reported that the only firearm found was a replica, in the footwell of the vehicle's rear passenger seats. Baker's similarities with Duggan in age, mixed-race heritage and location of death are striking. Some media outlets even tried to link the two men to the same gang, in an all-too-familiar tactic to demonise the dead.
When carrying out the operation that killed Mark Duggan, police used the notoriously controversial "hard stop" tactic, where firearms officers in vehicles box in their target at high speed and immediately draw their weapons. It has lead to other deaths, including those of Azelle Rodney in 2005 and Anthony Grainger in Manchester in 2012. After Rodney's death, the IPCC in 2005 had recommended a review of the hard stop tactic – the Met ignored the recommendation, later conceding that they made a mistake in doing so. According to the Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, speaking on Panorama in 2014, people need to "come forward with better ideas" before they'll retire it.
This unwillingness to accept any criticism made against any officer or the institution has characterised the years since Mark Duggan was killed. Though people have died, they suggest their only mistake with the hard stop is a bureaucratic one and when the IPCC arrested an officer in connection with the shooting of Baker, the response from his or her colleagues was reportedly to threaten to quit if any charges were brought.
This same resolute confidence in the face of all public concern is seen in other areas of policing too. After years of complaints from communities and anti-racist activists, Theresa May questioned the legitimacy of stop-and-search operations beyond becoming a tool with which to indiscriminately harass young black people. The response from Scotland Yard commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe last October? That he would step up use of the power within the Met.
There was no Black Lives Matter movement when Duggan died. Instead we saw a direct uprising in response. In the years since, Sarah Reed, Mzee Mohammed and Jermaine Baker have all died during or after police contact, just like Mark Duggan. Campaigners looking to take up the powerful movement fostered in the US have been speaking up on all of these cases. Friday saw Black Lives Matter UK's #Shutdown events block access to Heathrow airport, Birmingham airport and the Nottingham tram system. These actions fell between the five-year anniversaries of Mark Duggan's death, on the 4th of August 2011, and the riots that would begin two days later, but also sought to make clear a wider pattern when it comes to black deaths in custody.
By founding a movement here, activists are talking about black unemployment, housing, mental health, education and incarceration. These facets of black people's lives are not separate from the problem of deaths in custody. Really, all of these factors create a society where it is possible to kill Mark Duggan in the street and say that it was justified because he was a gangster or criminal.
From the moment those rioting in response to this killing were labelled a feral underclass it was clear that little has changed in the perception of black folk since David Oluwale was hounded to death by police in 1969. Mark Duggan's life did not matter. The lives of hundreds of others who have died during and following state custody did not matter. Black lives do not matter. But there are those willing to change that.
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