From A World to Win News Service:

The inquest verdict on Tottenham’s Mark Duggan

On the “Lawful Killing” of an unarmed man, and the impossibility of reforming a system

January 27, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


On Wednesday  January 8, after three months of testimony, the verdict finally came in from the jury in the coroner’s inquest into the death of Mark Duggan—the 29-year-old black man whose killing at the hands of London’s Metropolitan police in August 2011 set off the biggest rebellion in the UK in a generation. The verdict: “lawful killing.” People expressed shock in North London’s Tottenham district, the inner-city neighborhood where Duggan lived and where the rebellion kicked off, as well as around the country. There had been a widespread sense that foul play was involved in Duggan’s death, that the police were hiding something—so how could this not come out after three months of evidence?

English Youth rising up against the murder of Mark Duggan

Cities across England rose up in rebellion against racist police who shot and killed a 29 year old Black young man, Mark Duggan on August 4, 2011. Photo: AP

In a sense, something of the truth did surface when you take a look at the rest of the jury’s verdict—and this shows a lot about how the system of criminal justice functions in the world’s oldest bourgeois democracy. Among the jury’s findings of fact was that, first, Duggan’s death at the hands of the police was a “lawful killing,” but second, that Duggan was unarmed at the time he was gunned down. But how can a killing possibly be “lawful” when armed police shoot down an unarmed man in the street!?

What this seemingly absurd conclusion reveals is that first, the British authorities were fiercely determined to ensure that this case served their continuing efforts to take revenge for the mass 2011 revolt against their system no matter what, and second, that they were going to protect the front-line enforcers of that system, the elite firearms squad that shot down Duggan, at all costs. This is reflected in what the jury concluded, and what they didn’t conclude, in reaching their verdict.

In August 2011, when Duggan was gunned down, the authorities immediately issued a statement claiming that Duggan had fired on them as he emerged from the taxi that police cars had stopped, and that their officers had killed him only in self-defense. This claim resounded through the media for 24 hours until, due to repeated testimony to the contrary, it finally came out that Duggan had never even fired a shot, and that the gun he was supposedly firing was found 15 or 20 feet away from his body, behind a fence. The fact that the authorities had lied so blatantly was widely seen as one more sign that they were covering up the cold-blooded execution of yet another young black man.

But the police maintained the claim that they fired in self-defense, so a central question facing the coroner’s jury was, how did the gun get where it was? The explanation, in line with the police story, was that Duggan had gotten out of the taxi, gun in hand, and then when shot must have thrown it in his death throes. Leaving aside how improbable it is that anyone, when stopped by police cars with a total of 31 policemen surrounding you, would get out of a car brandishing a gun, the problem is that 1) all the witnesses other than the cop who shot him, which included the testimony of several bystanders and the taxi driver, said Duggan did not have a gun in his hands when he got out of the taxi; and 2) there was no forensic evidence showing that Duggan had ever even touched the gun.

But there was another possible explanation: several witnesses testified that they saw a police officer go into the car, rummage around, then walk directly to the back of the fence where the gun was found shortly afterwards. This pointed to a version of the “throw-down” weapon which is known to be frequently used by cops in the U.S. when they shoot someone who’s unarmed. But to accept this version, the jury would have had to go up against a tremendous amount of pressure and prejudice, including systematic attempts to glorify the “brave” work of the firearms specialist unit and to undermine the credibility of the evidence given by bystanders. And the jurors would have been forced to conclude that at least two members of the elite firearms specialist unit—the shooter and the cop who allegedly took the gun and planted it behind the fence—conspired to cover up a blatant murder.

This was clearly a step too far for the jurors—but it’s what is widely believed by millions, including many who’ve seen the workings of British justice from the wrong end of the police baton. And it’s totally consistent with the exposure of the systematic lying that has characterized other police murders, such as that of the Brazilian youth Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, when police claimed that he’d acted suspiciously in so many ways that they’d been forced to conclude he was a “terrorist”—which was later established to be a tissue of lies.

The jurors instead concluded by an 8-2 vote that Duggan got out of the car and immediately threw the gun over the fence and then was subsequently shot down by the police while unarmed. This finding flies in the face of the witness testimony and the forensic evidence—but it is the “least unbelievable” of the versions that let the cops off the hook and it avoids coming to a conclusion that most of the jurors would undoubtedly have found to be deeply disturbing.

The announcement of the verdict was met with anguished cries and outrage by the dozens of family and friends who had gathered at the Coroner’s Court. Duggan’s brother said that the family “had come for justice, but all we’ve gotten is injustice.” His aunt, Carol Duggan, cried out “no peace, no justice.” The efforts of the Met’s Assistant Police Commissioner on the court steps to justify the verdict were drowned out by cries of “murderers, murderers,” and the police immediately put hundreds of riot squad police on full alert in Tottenham and around London.

The stepped-up police presence was accompanied by a frenzied media attack justifying or “explaining” the verdict—including vicious attacks on Duggan himself, with the Daily Mail headlining its coverage with talk of the “thug whose death sparked riots”—as if when the police gun down an unarmed man it’s alright so long as you can later establish his disreputable character. This evoked comparison with the way that the American media tried to use character assassination of Trayvon Martin in Florida to justify his murder at the hands of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman.

To understand how such an improbable verdict could be reached by the British courts, it is important to put it in the context of what has happened since the 2011 rebellions. The British ruling class was shocked and thrown on the defensive by the mass fury that exploded from the “lower depths” of its class order, as the rebellion shined a spotlight on the deprivation and misery that are daily life for millions. The rebellion grew stronger and spread like wildfire from day to day over three days, from Tottenham through London’s inner-city neighborhoods and then to much of England – clearly showing the fury seething just below the surface of the existing social order – before finally burning out amidst massive police repression and heavy rain.

The British ruling class immediately closed ranks, from Labour Party to Tory (Conservative Party), in a campaign of retaliation. Participants in the rebellion have been ruthlessly hunted down and punished – over 5,000 have been arrested in the last two and a half years, and over 3,000 imprisoned, the vast majority of them based on CCTV footage long after the events. Even today, two and a half years later, Scotland Yard is continuing to issue new arrest warrants using CCTV images and face recognition technology.

Quite a few young people were incarcerated for two or three years for nothing more than taking soda pop or candy from convenience stores looted during the rebellion, and one young man who, in a state of inebriation, put up a call on his Facebook page to gather and “riot” the next day, but who never even left his apartment—with not a single person showing up in answer to his call except the police—was condemned to four years, longer than the sentence given to many convicted of rape in the UK. The severity of the sentences was, and was meant to be, shocking, but was aggressively justified by British justices as warranted due to the “organized character” of the rebellion.

The rebellion inspired plays, films, poetry and music, many of these produced by black radicals and campaigners against “stop and search” and racism. Some, like the documentary film Riots Reframed, focused on repudiating the efforts of the media and politicians to portray rebels as “mindless thugs,” “hooligans” and so on – showing instead the harsh life of the “underclass,” the limited choices they face and the daily brutality they endure at the hands of the system’s enforcers. Others, like the “spoken evidence” play The Riots, which played to sold-out houses in Tottenham for several weeks, tried to give a more accurate picture of the actual events that transpired during the three days of the rebellion, in contrast to media efforts to spotlight instances when masses were attacked by participants in the rebellion.

This battle brought to the surface major fault lines in British society and exposed the real role of its institutions. The mass media bared their fangs as a propaganda organ for the capitalist state, parties like Labour came out forcefully for brutal repression of the marginalized youth, and social-democratic organs like the Guardian wrung their hands and “explained” the problem as “excesses” that needed to be “reformed.” And on the other side, tens of thousands of youth demonstrated their willingness to take enormous risks to stand up against the front-line enforcers of the system, with gang truces being called in an effort to forge unity against what was perceived as the bigger enemy. The eruption even won sympathy from many among the middle strata, which led to a great debate throughout the country about the real source of what the youth face. This battle also gave a brief glimpse of the potential for forging a revolutionary force for the overthrow of the existing system – not, it is true, as the youth, or anyone else, are today, but forged out of the fury seething just below the surface that burst forth from those with no stake in the existing society, in the realignment that eruption provoked so immediately from broader social strata, and in the clarity it brought about the real role of all these different forces.

How did the organized marxist and “revolutionary” forces in the UK fare In the light of all this? Miserably. The largest of the so-called Marxist parties, the Socialist Workers Party, argued that “riots” like this, while caused by the inequities of the British social order, were ultimately ineffectual and that what was needed was instead … an organized revolutionary onslaught against the existing powers?! Dream on—no, far from that, the SWP concluded that the “riot” pointed to the need for … an “organised labour movement”—in other words, more of the trade unionism and economist reformism that has long characterized the Marxist forces in the UK, and which time and again winds up sucking up the revolutionary energy of the masses and then being sucked into the Labour Party’s wake. The “labour movement” is still a hallowed term in the land where Marx laid the foundations of the communist revolution.

Once again, following the inquest verdict, the police commissioners are promising reform—such as having the firearms specialist unit wear “body cameras”—and from Prime Minister David Cameron on down politicians and pundits are demanding that any discontent with the verdict must go through the “proper channels” - in other words, further investigations by this or that official body, in particular the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The widespread nickname it has been given—the Independent Police Cover-ups Commission—is indicative of just what can be expected from that body.

Inquest, a documentary put out by a local NGO, showed that of 300 deaths in police custody in the UK over slightly over a decade, not one cop has ever been successfully prosecuted for a killing. In a dozen rulings in coroners' inquests, it has even proved possible to obtain a finding that someone who died while in police custody was a victim of an “unlawful killing”—findings that were widely hailed as showing “the system works”—yet even in these dozen cases, when the victim was inside a police station entirely under the control of the police, not a single policeman has been prosecuted successfully.

So in conclusion we would like to ask: If this case—in which the jury has ruled the killing of someone “lawful,” even though it accepts that the person was not armed, and after a rebellion of hundreds of thousands delivering the verdict of the masses on Duggan’s murder, and with everything that has ensued since then—if this doesn’t show the impossibility of reforming this system, then what do you need to convince you of this?


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.


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