Misreading the Riot Act

The summer of 2011 will forever be branded in my mind, albeit for entirely the wrong reason. It is August 4th to be exact and an air of dissension lingers on the streets of London. A 29-year-old man from Tottenham will be shot dead in a concerted effort by armed police in an undergoing Trident operation to arrest him. His name is Mark Duggan. The truth surrounding his death is soon to become entangled in an intricately spun web of false information and police cover-ups. In the aftermath that ensues, the police swiftly assume their self-appointed position of judge and jury as they seemingly ‘lead the witness’ in defaming Duggan’s character whilst providing a rationale for their actions. The media will alert our attention to the alleged handgun in his possession and the supposed exchange of gunfire between the parties involved. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will later issue a retraction stating, “It seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged”. The handgun in question would later be discovered unused, approximately four and a half metres from his body. Also placed firmly at the feet of the IPCC was the allegation that the family had not been notified of his death. As friends and family of the deceased picked up the baton and marched on the local police station in a spirit of protest demanding answers, the sparks triggered by the death of Mark Duggan ushered in a wildfire which spread nationwide as cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, just to name a few joined in the chorus, seemingly singing in unison, the political anthem of social inequality and a fight to be heard. However, as the days of rioting continued, I became less convinced that the rest of the country were singing in key or even from the same hymn sheet at all.

As the world’s media, the police, politicians and experts within the field of social science alike gathered what little intelligence they had in a desperate attempt to stay abreast of the events occurring before their eyes, the reason that undergirded the rioting were as vast in number as the rioters that littered the cities’ streets. It seemed that the tragic death of Mark Duggan served as a catalyst, tacking down another well placed nail in the coffin for the already strained relationship between the police and those living within the black community. For those old enough to remember, this was the proverbial ‘trip down memory lane’ they would rather have avoided, as they were forced to recall similar scenes in the Brixton uprising of 1981. However, if this was a final stand against the abuses of power and the racially motivated mistreatment of black people at the hands of the police, the correlation between the fight for social justice and the countless shops that were looted was lost on me.

A collaborative effort from both the Guardian newspaper and The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) resulted in ‘Reading the Riots’, a 40-page qualitative analysis of the 2011 riots, where it is suggested that “many rioters conceded their involvement in looting was simply down to opportunism, saying that a perceived suspension of normal rules presented them with an opportunity to acquire goods and luxury items they could not ordinarily afford. They often described the riots as a chance to obtain free stuff”. Surely this presents somewhat of an antithesis over and against the intended purposes of the friends and relatives of Mark Duggan that rallied outside the local Tottenham police station seeking answers. Even if we give credence to the claim that all these nightly free-for-all ‘shopping sprees’ and the senseless anarchic acts of criminality serve as a way of making their voice heard, far from being hailed as freedom fighters for the plight of those who daily fall prey to the ills imposed by racial stereotyping and victimization, they now allow the authorities in question to forge for them, new identities – those of ‘looter’, ‘arsonist’ and ‘criminal’. If indeed the police were the intended target when venting their frustrations, then it can be argued that the rioters hit wide off the mark, forcing local business owners and shopkeepers to bear the brunt as homes and businesses were reduced to rubble and entire shops were left empty after being pilfered for their contents.

Five years on, I tend to think less about understanding the reasons behind the looting and place a more focused lens on the question of whether they are evident signs of reparations made between the police and the community at large. If the looting were simply a classic case of opportunism, then it needed no prompting to raise its ugly head, but instead searched for, dare I say it, the opportune moment. The inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, however has left us with more probing questions than it initially sought to answer. The returned verdict of ‘lawful killing’ only serves to perpetuate a system of policing with little to no accountability to those it promises to serve and protect. At the heart of the issue seems to be that despite not possessing a firearm at the time of his shooting, officers still believe Duggan posed an ‘imminent threat’. What constitutes the basis for such a belief? Answering this may help to steer the conversation in the right direction and uncover some of the ingrained prejudices that influence not only the decision process of the officers involved, but the Metropolitan Police as an institution.


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