The subject of race and racism in the UK is nothing new to Britain’s criminal justice system and media, with reported cases of racist policing practices periodically gracing the media landscape. But few cases have had such stirring power as that of Mark Duggan’s shooting, the recent verdict of which has deepened an existing mistrust of police conduct, while for many adding another chapter of racial double standards to the annals of British race history.
Inequality in Britain has morphed over the years, reinventing itself along with each new phase of history. Images of Dickens’ toothless working class trudging through Britain’s diseased capital, or the blackened faces of Orwell’s coal miners may no longer be relevant to today’s world, but inequality remains. Its current state, hidden behind a cloak of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘welfare’, lacks a legislative face, often leading to a failure to recognise it’s even there. Yet, despite increasing equal rights, the Dickensian inequality central to 19th century Britain has returned, only in a new form.
Racial inequality, too, has changed, and while there is no doubt that great gains have been made in the decades following the civil rights movement, the battle is far from won. In a supposed post-racist age, where judicial policies show no explicit bias to one race over another, racism can be found in the pernicious stereotyping still ubiquitous on the streets and officialdom of British society.
With the words ‘all the evidence’ and ‘independent jury’, many of the commentators on the Duggan inquest have sought to promote acceptance of the jury’s verdict of a lawful killing. But others have exclaimed a blatant miscarriage of justice, and the verdict was taken by many of London’s black community as an official stamp on the racial discrimination they see as pervasive in many London boroughs, as well as the centrality of race in policing and the criminal justice system today.
There are questions over whether a different verdict would have been reached if other issues were raised. Questions remain as to why the inquest process failed to give importance to the false police statement that Duggan (a) had a gun, and (b) pulled the trigger first. Or the fact that the police officers involved were given the chance to confer in private before giving statements. But the calm lack of surprise at the trial’s verdict by several of London’s black community reveals something much more concrete about the state of racial affairs in London’s poorer boroughs.
‘Honestly, I’m surprised anybody’s surprised. What else were people expecting?’ said Anthony Mensah, a musician from east London.
Politicians and police officials were quick to thank Duggan’s family for their promotion of a peaceful aftermath following the court’s verdict, and so far, any surges of aggression haven’t appeared to suggest rumblings of civil disorder. But what is not making headlines is the ocean of resignation and despondent acceptance of the verdict from many of London’s black communities, in which outrage and surprise are mere drops.
‘It just strengthens what we all already know’, said Shaun Hudson, a train driver from east London. ‘We will never be equal. I’ve heard Stephen Lawrence’s mum tell people nothing has changed, and clearly it hasn't’, he added.
Several of east London’s black citizens I interviewed saw race as a motivation behind the events of the shooting itself. Why, many asked, was Duggan, who the jury established was unarmed, shot dead? Why was Raoul Moat, a man who shot three including a police officer in 2010, talked to and reasoned with for 6 hours by police while wielding a shotgun?
‘It’s simple. Moat was white, Duggan was black’, said Hudson. ‘If he’d been white, they wouldn’t have shot him’.
For those who mentioned it, the hypocrisy between these two cases was immediately clear, voiced to document a racism which the interviewees feel is rife on London’s streets.
Intimating racism in Duggan’s shooting, Eugene Ogbewele, a social worker in east London, asserted that, ‘the police actions were covered up so they wouldn’t spark a race war. They fabricated information to make the killing seem reasonable’.
The connection between police conduct and the race of the suspects in the Moat and Duggan cases makes for frightening thought. Of course, whether racism was the determining differential factor in these cases cannot be confirmed, and indeed, establishing racial motivation was never the point of the Duggan trial to begin with. However, whether or not racism played a part in the police behaviour in each case is irrelevant. It is the symbolism of the verdict which is at the heart of the matter. Feeding into a narrative which sees black men disproportionately stopped and searched, and the number of black people charged for possession of cocaine almost double that of white citizens guilty of the same crime, the Duggan verdict has for many been the final nail in the coffin of hopes of racial equality on an official level.
‘Stop and search and racist policing and stuff is one thing – and even before this I thought policing in the UK is institutionally racist’ said Simon Smith, a resident of Tottenham. ‘But this just shows that racial persecution of young black males not only exists but is also approved in the eyes of the law, too’.
Mark Duggan’s death highlights the deadly potential racial stereotyping can play in the system of British policing, but of equal importance, it underscores a great blind spot of the British court. Having a law that makes a killing lawful if ‘reasonable’ force to ‘defend oneself of another’ is used, yet ignoring the factors involved in arousing such fear in the first place, is cause for concern. By failing to consider the weight racial stereotyping too often has on decisions made by British police, those who have been on the receiving end of racial discrimination from police are left with a bad taste in their mouth.
There is no doubt that regardless of the verdict heard last week, the shooting has inflicted a great loss for Duggan’s friends and family. But more than that, Duggan’s death and the trial which followed has called attention to a judicial system that many feel fails to protect them. Outrage and indignation over the verdict has made headlines, but it is the quiet acceptance and unmistakable lassitude discernible among many of London’s black community that highlight the greatest sadness, as changes in racial prejudices are seemingly becoming more and more out of reach.
‘I don’t know if the police officer who shot Duggan is racist or not’ said Mensah. ‘He responded to instinct, and he made the wrong call. But for this to happen and for it to be declared lawful is something else. What happens the next time a black kid in a hood is taking out his phone and the police think he has a gun? Will that shot be lawful too?’
Nadia Beard is a journalist currently based in London. Find her on twitter @nadiawbeard