On the 4th of August, 2011, 29-year-old father-of-six Mark Duggan was shot twice and killed in Tottenham. Eleven specialist firearms officers had stopped the minicab he was travelling in, suspecting that he was in possession of an illegal firearm.
No gun was found on him, but a handgun was discovered hidden in a sock on grassland roughly 14 feet from his body. A peaceful demonstration outside Tottenham police station a few days after the shooting was superseded by the most destructive riots in the UK for years, which spread from London to a host of major cities. The unrest was described by Prime Minister David Cameron as "criminality, pure and simple".
Some 29 months later, on the 8th of January, 2014, a jury at the Royal Courts of Justice came to the conclusion, by a majority of eight to two, that Duggan was lawfully killed, even though there were no prints or DNA from Duggan on the gun. In March of 2015, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) released a 499-page report into his death that cleared the police of wrongdoing. None of this is especially surprising: the number of police related deaths since 1990 is over 1,500, yet there has never been a conviction of a police officer for an unlawful killing. Even though the chief of the Met police has recently admitted that the force may be institutionally racist, and the force has made further nods to its own failings (as in the case of death of Cherry Groce, which sparked the Brixton riots of 1985), genuine justice appears frustratingly elusive.
Directed by George Amponsah, new documentary The Hard Stop is named after the aggressive tactical manoeuvre deployed by police in pursuit of Duggan. However, the term equally suggests the cataclysmic effect that the incident had on the friends and family of the slain man. Over the course of this moving film, Amponsah closely follows the fortunes of Kurtis Henville and Marcus Knox-Hooke, two of Duggan's best friends – and fellow residents of Broadwater Farm, where Duggan grew up – in the years following his death. Marcus spent time in jail after being charged with instigating the unrest, while Kurtis struggled to balance his family life with a dispiriting job search, at one point decamping to Norwich because it was the only place he could secure work.
Amponsah wisely eschews sensationalism in favour of a nuanced approach, digging into the men's personal stories and displaying great sensitivity as an unobtrusive interviewer. He underscores their testimony by judiciously interweaving archive footage (like the Broadwater Farm disturbances of 1985) and dismaying statistics about historical police brutality in the UK. As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly, implacably haunted by the ghosts of history. I recently sat down with the film's director and its two stars – Duggan's friends – for a wide-ranging discussion.
VICE: How did the film come about?
George Amponsah (GA): I was at a birthday party in Tottenham in 2012, where I met a local community leader. We started talking about the riots, and she said it was still fresh in people's minds. I wanted to do a film about people who were at the epicentre of what happened, and she connected me with Marcus and Kurtis. I recognised something honest about them, so I followed my instincts. If you can tell something about a person by the company they keep, then I thought: 'Here is a chance to find out who Mark Duggan was, find out about the humanity behind that picture that was being splashed all over the newspapers, of the scary gangster.' Three years later, here we are.
Did you see it as a good opportunity to reframe the media's portrayal of Mark? That must have really hurt you.
Kurtis Henville (KH): Yeah. When he first got shot, the media reported that he was a gangster, that he was a shooter. I knew my friend. He was confident, he was quite shy, he loved ladies and he loved his kids. That isn't a man who is just going to wake up one day and just throw his life away.
Looking back to 2011, why do you think the unrest spread so much?
Marcus Knox-Hooke (MKH): Anger at the police. The initial people that came out to fight were youth from every area. Everyone could relate with what happened to Mark, you understand me? Someone gets killed, you try to get justice, and justice don't happen. Years later, someone else gets killed and it's the same thing, going on and on. I've witnessed this from when I was a baby, in 1985, from Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner... and this is in my area. Mark, he probably won't be the last. The next youth's probably gonna be one of our kids, and I promise you ... anyway ... I don't even know... [tails off]
This tension has hardly been resolved, has it?
GA: It's easy for people to look at youngsters rioting in urban areas and think, 'What the hell are you complaining about? You've got everything you need here.' But there are serious inequalities in society. If you're British, you're born here and you have a British passport – you just want an equal slice of the pie. If you don't get that, it feeds and fosters resentment and anger, which builds up over time. It can feel like you're in a trap because the state, often in the form of the police, is saying, "Whatever you're doing is illegal," or you feel like you're being targeted because you come from a certain area or you're wearing certain clothes. You are the ones being shot in broad daylight by the police, and you look across and you've got city bankers doing all kinds of heinous crimes, and somehow they're forgiven, tolerated and even encouraged. It all happened in a climate of scandals over politicians' expenses, phone hacking and so on. People see these things. So what's happened to that anger? It's still there.
The film resounds now in a climate of increased awareness of police brutality and a subsequent lack of justice, particularly in the US, where the list of instances is depressing and endless: Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and so on. But it's happening in the UK, too — a police officer involved in the restraint of Sheku Bayoh, which resulted in his death, an incident the media has shown little interest in, has admitted to "hating black people". And 509 deaths in police custody since 1991 have been from BAME, refugee and migrant communities.
MKH: They don't give a shit, really, you understand? It's frustrating. A riot could happen at any minute because people are still pissed off. You hear these people say, "If you don't like it, then go back to your country. Go back to wherever black people come from." That's their attitude. Politicians and everyone, they share the same attitude.
Mark Duggan was mixed-race, but do you feel he was defined by his "blackness" in the media afterwards? To what extent is this situation defined by racism?
KH: It's there. In my job, I could be a harder worker than this other guy, but because my colour don't fit – he's white and I'm not – in that office, I won't get the promotion. Every day of my life I've felt that, at school, from people just walking down the street. I walk past a woman and then she'll grab her bag, and I'm thinking, 'Really? When you look at me, what do you really see?' Racism every day. That's why a lot of us have a chip on our shoulder; we've always got something to prove to the white man. Why have we gotta do that? It's hard.
MKH: It's just a power trip, man. It's not race, it's power. If you've got a bunch of white youths moving like black youths, they're gonna deal with them in the same way. "We got the biggest gang" – that's how [the police] look at it. "We're a gang and you're a gang." It's not, "You're black and we're white." The police shot a white man the other day in Enfield.
GA: Marcus has got a point, but in the Enfield case we'll have to find out from the inquest if he did have a gun and if he was a genuine threat. But we know that Mark definitely did not have a gun in his hand. So why did the officer feel the need to take the fatal shot? Why did he feel the need to shoot him twice? This is what we feel when we look at the statistics, which are disproportionate. How many of those victims are black? What is it that means black people across the world seem to find themselves disproportionately the victims of lethal force at the hands of police?
I was struck by how nuanced the film is. You're not trying to condone the worst excesses of the riots, but neither is it a two-fingers up at the powers that be.
GA: Overall it's not an anti-establishment film. In some sense the film is also directed at those who might be in danger of being involved in criminality or gangs, or become the victims of police shootings, or each other. They'll listen to people who've been there, done that, who can relate to what they've gone through. It's very easy for someone to stand outside No. 10 Downing Street and preach, but for youngsters coming from a certain background – whether it's Broadwater Farm or somewhere else – they're going to be looking to that person and saying: "You don't know where I'm coming from – why should I listen to you?" Also, one of the central messages of the film is: "Change yourself, do something."
WATCH: How one small protest turned into a national crisis
MKH: We need to come up with solutions for our kids to be able to walk down the streets; stop sitting around and talking about the government oppressing us. We know that the government make it hard for us. This film, and the reaction to it so far, just shows me that if you put your mind to something, and you're sincere about it, then you'll get good results. If you at look at people across the world – Usain Bolt, 50 Cent, Jay Z – they're doing stuff that they love, and that's their success. 'Nuff of these kids, they don't recognise their potential and talents because they're so drowned out by struggle. I'm in the process of setting up my own foundation, Remarkable Start, based in Tottenham.
KH: At the end of the day, sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. You've got to love yourself, have your own ambition, your own drive. You've got to have a vision. If you believe in yourself, you're going places. But if you don't believe in yourself, no one's going to believe in you.
And the film is not fatalistic – Marcus meets with a policeman to discuss community relations. Do you have hope for the future?
GA: Well, police and key members of the community need to come together to have a dialogue about how to fix this problem in certain sections of the community, because there seems to be a breakdown in that relationship. The police are there to protect and serve, so it's as important for them as it is for the community to fix that relationship, or else events like 2011 will happen again.
The Hard Stop screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 17 and 18.
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