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When the investigation into Mark Duggan’s death in 2011 came to its conclusion three weeks ago, the courtroom erupted with outrage. One man shouted “a black life ain’t worth nothing.” Whilst the shooting rightfully sparked questions over the reliability of police intelligence and of the hard-stop tactic, I think Duggan’s death has been wrongly attributed to racism.
In the days and weeks that followed, there was a looming possibility of a repeat of the 2011 Tottenham riots, which were sparked by the original incident. At the time of writing, these fears haven’t come to fruition, something no doubt facilitated by the Duggan family’s calls for calm and appeals to fight through the courts rather than the streets of London. Following the judgement that the shooting of Duggan by armed police was lawful, several prominent members of the local and wider community were quick to rehash cries of institutional racism within the police. In the evening following the ruling, described by the Duggan lawyer Marcia Willis Stewart as “perverse”, comparisons were made to the cases of Stephen Lawrence and Trayvon Martin. Racial tensions have once again been raised, but what strikes me more than the police shooting a black man in London is the emphasis placed upon his skin colour both within the community and the media coverage of the case.
The fact that a man’s skin colour is the first thing seized upon or is such a prominent talking point within this case seems to me a much more dangerous sign of our obsession with race. It appears many of us have been so blinded by previous cases of racism and our determination to avoid being deemed discriminatory ourselves that we are unable to consider a man from an ethnic minority without emphasising or referencing his race. A black man is still first and foremost characterised in this way by his colour rather than his character and his deeds. In this way racists and anti-racists alike perpetuate racial tensions and subsequently inhibit integration within communities. Had the case borne similarities to others clearly involving racism, this would be a different story. Those who have drawn comparisons to Stephen Lawrence or Trayvon Martin are not only misinformed; the comparisons are unfair on the families of those victims who were innocent and genuine victims of racist attacks and of racial profiling.
I do not mean to imply that a criminal deserves to be shot. Indeed, despite the shooting being branded an execution in recent weeks, I am positive the verdict is being misconstrued as condoning the use of bullets as a form of retributive justice. The importance of Duggan’s suspected involvement in the Tottenham Man Dem gang, his previous arrests, and the knowledge that he possessed a firearm does not excuse or condone a genuine execution. However, it does serve to dispute claims that Duggan was merely a victim of racial profiling. The man was not shot because a policeman woke up and decided to “shoot a black man.” Nor was he shot because a policeman saw a black man and assumed this meant he was armed and dangerous or a criminal. He was shot because the officer believed Duggan was in possession of a firearm during the encounter and subsequently posed a substantial threat to his and others’ safety.
Cries of racism in this case are incendiary and block progress alongside clouding the real issues that cause such tragedies: areas filled with a young population growing up with poverty, a lack of opportunities, and subsequently higher rates of crime and gang membership, and how to tackle these peacefully and without further violence. This case has already lead to procedural changes within the armed response unit. New plans have been made to introduce video cameras for firearms officers in an attempt to improve transparency within the force. Let’s hope that the incident does not lead as expected to worsened relations between the police and the black community. Instead, it should serve as a way of reforming police tactics and fuelling efforts to eradicate gun crime and the social conditions that provoke it.