Guns, Young Black Males and the Two-Headed Monster

Est. read time: 12 min
Mark Duggan's family make a statement outside the High Court in London after an inquest jury found that he was 'lawfully killed' by police.  Credits: David Mery (Flickr)

The scene outside the High Court in London, after an inquest jury found that Mark Duggan was ‘lawfully killed’ by police. Credits: David Mery (Flickr)

The Mark Duggan inquest verdict has stoked deep seated anger about the now familiar pattern of no criminal prosecutions being brought against those responsible for the deaths of black people while in the custody of the state.

The first and last such prosecution was of Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching  in Leeds in 1971 on charges of manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm for the hounding and killing of David Oluwale, a harmless vagrant whom the trial judge referred to as a ‘dirty, filthy, violent vagrant’. That same judge directed that the manslaughter charges be dropped. Both defendants were cleared of grievous bodily harm and convicted of assault and received jail terms of 3 years and 27 months respectively.

In the 25 years after Oluwale’s brutal murder, the trial presided over by a decidedly biased judge and the shocking verdict, African and Asian communities up and down the land were preoccupied with the growing number of racist murders perpetrated by neo-fascists and racists, most of which remained unsolved. It was then more typical than not for the police to deny the existence of any racist motive for such murders. By the middle 1990s, however, in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, the communities’ focus shifted to the growing incidence of gun and knife-enabled murders involving black young men as perpetrators and victims.

But, community experience in the intervening 25 years had included not just unsolved racist murders but the incremental extension of police powers for the containment and control of a burgeoning population of unemployed black youths, the majority of whom had been failed by the schooling system. The police, the courts and leading politicians sent out powerful messages that that section of the mainly urban population was surplus to requirements and a real and ever present threat to ‘law and order’.

The criminalizing effects of routine policing in communities, using ‘sus’ laws, stops and searches and racializing street crime by characterizing it as a ‘life style activity’ of ‘black muggers’, led black communities to be even more distrustful of the police and alert to their racism, lawlessness and abuse of power.

Confronted with the shocking and unprecedented phenomenon of more and more young black men falling victim to shootings as rival gangs sought to displace one another, communities became less vigilant about police abuses and appeared to endorse the police using ‘whatever means necessary’ to apprehend gunmen and keep their children safe.

In the written and verbal evidence I presented to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry when they visited Manchester in October 1998, I stated:

I fear that high profile joint initiatives (between the police, city council and community organizations) do little to dispel the sense of injustice and neglect certain sections of the community still feel about the quality of policing in their areas. This is especially true of police activities in respect of drug related crimes and murders in Moss Side and Cheetham Hill.

I was called by a distraught family (in Moss Side) at 4.30am a few months ago to come and give them support and advice. They had just had a SAS-style raid on their Council home which left windows at the front and back and their front door completely demolished. There had been a killing of a young black male and the police were trying to identify suspects. In that home lived an eighteen year old male who had not been in trouble with the police before but, not surprisingly, knew the murdered man and might well have known his killer(s).

The mother of that household, a single parent, was racially and verbally abused by the police, her young daughter who had an ‘A’ level examination later that day was racially abused, physically assaulted and had all sorts of slurs hurled at her, and the entire family felt they had been treated like animals by that raiding gang, wearing balaclava helmets and armed to the eyeballs. By the end of that day, the young man they had half demolished the house to come and arrest in his bed had been released and was eventually eliminated from police enquiries. A number of other families with young black males in the area suffered the same treatment.

What is worrying about this is that that experience caused both mother and daughter health problems for many months and according to them, their complaint to the police was met with a response which effectively said that the community wishes the police to root out those ruthless murderers from its midst and the police cannot do that wearing kid gloves.

What is more worrying is that the spate of killings in Moss Side has so traumatized that community, and has wrecked so many lives, that the community is now considerably less vigilant about the brutality and racism with which the police still go about the business of policing.  It is precisely in the absence of that vigilance that tragedies occur.

The mother in that home told me and her brother that she very nearly had a heart attack when the police came piling in through every door and window in the house and pushed her down as she ran downstairs, rushing to the phone to ring the police.

(John, G. 2006, Taking A Stand  – Gus John Speaks on education, race, social action and civil unrest 1980-2005)

During 2013, I supported a number of families who had lost their sons through gun crime. The Mark Duggan killing, the civil unrest that followed and the announcement of the inquest gave rise to some interesting discussions among those families.

The issue that was debated most frequently was couched in these terms: Leaving aside the question as to why trained firearm police could not stop Duggan in his tracks without killing him, especially as they had been following the minicab, what might have happened later that day if he had not been stopped? Would another family have been grieving at the loss of a son as we have been? If the police did see him collect the gun from somebody, what was he going to do with it? 

No one has been arrested and charged with the murder of those young men. Their families express their increasing frustration at the police investigating teams and their lack of intelligence about the individuals responsible. They make it very clear that while they do not condone the manner of Mark Duggan’s killing, they are relieved that the gun found in the vicinity of that tragic shooting was not used to kill somebody else’s child.

This in my view aptly describes the twin-headed monster that has grown within these urban communities. The first born of those twins is the endemic racism within the police and the criminal justice system that structurally deal jointly with those rendered surplus to requirements. They are being contained in the jails of the land in ever increasing numbers. Their deaths in the custody of the state in equally alarming numbers seem to be of little consequence to the nation as a whole, as is the number of them who die at the hands of one another.

The second of those twins is the apparent inability of the African communities most affected to work together and ensure that there is no hiding place amongst them for the killers and their guns. The ‘Don’t ever snitch’ code of silence and the fear and intimidation it engenders within communities result in uncontested space for more atrocities to be perpetrated. One gun could be passed around, in shoe boxes and minicabs or otherwise, and used in up to 12 murders before it ends up in the custody of the police.

There can be little doubt that if, since the middle 1990s, members of the communities of Moss Side, Handsworth, Aston, Brixton, Harlesden, Hackney and the rest had been working together to break that wall of silence, hold their own children and loved ones to account and demand that the police work more strenuously to stem the ready flow of guns into those communities, ‘gangs’ or no gangs, many of those buried before their 25th birthday would still be alive today.

On 30 April 2007, 12 year old Kamilah Peniston was accidentally shot and killed by her 16 year old brother Kasha with a gun their mother Natasha had been hiding in their garden for a former boyfriend. She had told Kasha about the gun and while she was out of Manchester at a funeral, Kasha had found the gun and was imitating a gunman, putting it to his sister’s head and pulling the trigger, wrongly believing he had disabled the gun. He and his mother ended up in jail.

Rally for Mark Duggan in central London. Credits: Harmit Athwal/ 4WardEver Campaign UK (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rally for Mark Duggan in central London. Credits: Harmit Athwal/ 4WardEver Campaign UK (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The relationship between the twin heads of that monster in the black community forms the backcloth to the Mark Duggan story and we forget the genesis of that monster at our peril. It is about much more than vacuous concepts such as ‘police community relations’ and ‘diversity in policing’.

We have been stroking the soft underbelly of that particular beast since the 1960s. If we stay in that mode and with that thinking, we fail to confront fundamental issues of human rights, the manner in which a section of the British population, born and raised in Britain, is stamped with the immigrant, alien and ‘ethnic minority’ status that was conferred on its forebears and the structural rather than genetic reasons for its implosion, such that it is now commonplace for grandparents and great grandparents to be burying those whom they reasonably expected to bury them.

The verdict in the Mark Duggan inquest raises many more fundamental questions about the state and policing of multi-ethnic Britain than whether or not the killer of Mark Duggan genuinely believed that Duggan had a gun and could have been about to fire it, and even if he did so believe, whether he had no other way of disarming him that shooting him dead. Those questions are ones for the police no less than for black communities themselves.

Duggan and the ‘plebgate’

Boris Johnson and David Cameron said the day after the verdict that we must respect the decision of the court and the verdict of jurors. Maybe so, but that does not make their decisions any less perverse. The process and outcome of the Oluwale trial were undoubtedly perverse, especially the actions and decisions of the judge. In the intervening years, we have had many such, including those in the first inquest into the New Cross Massacre, the Christopher Alder killing while in police custody in Hull and many more besides… and now Mark Duggan.

I did not hear or see the body of evidence adduced before the jury and considered by them, but any intelligent onlooker would be bemused by some of the matters in the Duggan case. For example, if you have three police cars following a suspect and intending to make a ‘hard stop’, how on earth could they all have failed to see the suspect hurl a gun out of the car window and into a field before he emerged from the car? If he did not throw the gun into the field, how did it get there? Similarly, why was there so much confusion about where Duggan’s hands were when he got out of the car?

It is not only the Duggan family who needs answers to questions such as those and many more. The nation does, because those many questions go to the very heart of the issue of police accountability. The police conduct in this matter, no less than the disgraceful conduct of the IPCC, cannot be isolated from their conduct in relation to the ‘plebgate‘ issue and the events involving diplomatic protection officers and the then Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, at the gates of Downing Street on 19 September 2012, which led to the resignation of that cabinet minister.

When, for example, did the police involved in the Duggan operation write up their notes of what actually happened? What proof is there that they did so independently of and without conferring with one another and producing a common narrative? Given what the inquest jury’s verdict of ‘lawful killing’ hinged upon, i.e., their acceptance of the firearms officer’s evidence that he had an honest belief that Duggan posed a real and imminent threat when he emerged from the car, was that officer and his fellow police witnesses giving a real time, ‘honest’ and independent account of what actually happened, or did they go through the same process of preparation of their story as the officers in the ‘plebgate’ affair? Would ‘plebgate’ have had the outcome of police officer Keith Wallis admitting that he lied about what he claimed to have heard Andrew Mitchell say but for the Channel 4 exposure and the availability of video evidence?

Issues of ‘community relations’ and love-ins between the police and youths in the community have got us nowhere since PC Pulley and the Notting Dale police scandals in the late 1960s, scandalous abuses that gave rise to the resistance that  resulted in the ‘Mangrove Nine’ trial.

With 50 years of experience behind us, never mind our own experience of colonial policing before the 1960s and since (e.g., Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria),  we as an African community should know better and do better, and be more accountable to one another. At times such as these, we focus on the police, their racism, incompetence and their apparent incapacity to bring about and sustain change. But we also need to ask serious questions of ourselves and our own complicity, by default and otherwise.

I long for an open, mature and informed discussion about these matters within the black community and in the society more generally.

Picture (home): “Tottenham riots“, Credits: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images/Beacon Radio (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

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