‘A Black Life Ain’t Worth Nothing’: The tale of a lawful killing

Wednesday January 8 2014 will be heralded as a watershed moment for the justice system of England & Wales. On this day, just over one and a half years since the death of Mark Duggan a jury of eight to two ruled that his shooting by officers of the Metropolitan Police (Met) was lawful.

Mark Duggan was first and foremost a living individual, an individual who now lies dead due to the negligence and trigger happy policing of the Met. It is unfortunate however that we cannot end the explanation of injustice simply through that reasoning alone, we must inevitably point out that Mark Duggan was a young black male. It is fair to say that if you are a young male belonging to an ethnic minority your chances of having some negative contact with the police throughout the UK are fairly high. If you are a young black male living in central London then you are for all intents and purposes public enemy number one. Police statistics show that a decade after the Lawrence Inquiry black people in the UK are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009). This is the environment in which the officers stopped Mark’s taxi on 4 August 2011, and this is the environment which prevails to this day.

Given Mark’s death contributed to the banks of civil unrest bursting across England two summers ago the verdict was naturally expected to draw a lot of attention. As Met Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley descended the steps outside the Royal Courts of Justice to justify the verdict focusing on ‘armed criminals’ he was met by a tempest of dissatisfaction and disgust. The police have continuously been unable to back up their allegations that Duggan was known to be violent and a member of a gang centred on drug dealing. It is important that we remember Duggan was a man with only a minor criminal record and the attempts to tarnish him posthumously are a further insult to his name. This verdict suits one party and one party only; the Met police, and there are those who will now feel that gunning down an unarmed black man by the police in London is de facto legalised. Given the recent Trayvon Martin case in the United States the ripple effect for black males in the supposedly ‘just’ west may last for generations to come.

The official ruling on Wednesday was that Mark had been lawfully killed but did not have a gun in his hand when confronted by officers. Clearly there is some ambiguity here but in essence this judgement means that the police shot an unarmed person and the law of the land has supported their doing so. 

Much like the death of Harry Stanley in 1999 the decision to shoot was not one based purely on perceived threat but on prejudice and fear. In that case the police were told that Stanley was an Irishman carrying a gun, when in fact he was a Scot carrying a table leg. This was at a time when fear of the IRA and by extension Irish men was still very much in the public consciousness. Errors like this would seem comical were they not so fatal. Initially the case was concluded with an open verdict yet under appeal Stanley’s family achieved a ruling of unlawful killing only to have it taken from them in a further review returning the decision to an open verdict. In the case of Mark Duggan politically motivated operations such as Trident stoked fears of gun crime and the spectre of young, armed, generally black men. These motivations and incidents do not exist in isolation from the wider narrative of crime and for this the media has a heavy price to pay.

The media response to the Duggan shooting has been at best insipid and at worst virulently racist. The Daily Mail referred to Duggan in 2011 as a ‘known offender’ and that he had ‘opened fire on the officers’. These are not only brash lies but acts of violence against a man’s name, a man who has young children and grieving loved ones. Today the Daily Mail used the same photo of Mark posing with his fingers like a pistol but they have since retracted their false allegations. Sky News and the Telegraph variously focused on the professionalism of the police and the much repeated idea that the officer who fired the fatal shot possessed an ‘honest belief’ that Duggan was armed. The Macpherson Report (1999) concluded that ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’ yet the police, the media, and the court seem unable to say what everyone within the black community and beyond think, Mark Duggan was shot because he was black. It may not have been the primary determinant in that officer firing his weapon but it certainly contributed to the harassment he and scores of other black males have faced in London and beyond for generations.

Let us include the name of Mark Duggan alongside those of Blair Peach, Dorothy Groce, Cynthia Jarrett, Ian Tomlinson, Azelle Rodney, Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and many more who have died at the hands of the Metropolitan police. These individuals for varying reasons have been mistreated, murdered or forgotten and it is high time that accountability came to pass on a police force which sees itself as above the law and beyond justice.

When leaving court today one man shouted: ‘A black life ain’t worth nothing.’ and I am sure many fear that this sentiment will be felt across the black community for as long as Mark Duggan’s family fail to receive adequate justice. For this we should all be ashamed.

Bennetto, J. (2009) Police and Racism, Equality and Human Rights Commission http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/raceinbritain/policeandracism.pdf
Daily Mail (2011) Pictured: The ‘gangsta’ gunman whose death sparked riots http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2022670/The-gangsta-gunman-death-sparked-riots.html
Macpherson, W (1999) The Inquiry into the Matters Arising from the Death of Stephen Lawrence, Home Office, http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm42/4262/sli-00.htm

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