Thursday, 9 January 2014

My thoughts on the Mark Duggan inquest verdict

Yesterday (8/1/14), the jury delivered  their verdict at the end of the inquiry into the shooting of Mark Duggan by armed officers from the Metropolitan Police in August 2011. His death sparked a wave of riots across England, resulting in five further deaths, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage. The jury decided by 8 to 2 that he had been 'lawfully killed', which prompted understandable anger from his family and supporters, who described the decision as perverse, given that the jury also agreed by an 8 to 2 margin that Mark was unarmed when he was shot. This anger was expressed by Carole Duggan (Mark's aunt) who started a chant of 'No Justice no Peace' outside the courts after the verdict, and the police statement that was read out afterwards was largely shouted down by angry protestors. I can sympathise with the family's anger and disappointment with this verdict, as it seems inexplicable how a jury can decide that someone was 'lawfully' killed despite also believing that he was not holding a firearm (and so posed no credible threat to the officers who shot him). However, I think it is also worth exploring how disorder can happen after such incidents, as I worry that fatalistic narratives can emerge arguing that riots inevitably follow, which need not necessarily be the case. So, I will explore the sequence of events leading up to the two major disturbances Tottenham has seen in the last 30 years, which were both sparked by fatalities at the hands of the police, and argue that such killings can certainly create incendiary situations which make disorder more likely, but that there are also often other specific factors that can lead to such riots happening.

Tottenham, August 2011:

The BBC provides a timeline of events after Mark Duggan's shooting, and what I think is significant is that he was killed early in the evening of Thursday 4th August, but the initial disorder in Tottenham didn't begin until late Saturday night on the 6th- which was over 48 hours later. In an interview with a friend of the Duggan family (Stafford Scott), he makes the point that if the police had behaved differently after the shooting, then the subsequent rioting may not have happened, and it seems that later events also sparked off the disorder in Tottenham which then spread nationally. Firstly, soon after the shooting, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) briefed the Press that there had been an exchange of gunfire (when it was only the police who had actually fired any weapons), and this misleading information was not corrected until August 12th (after the riots had largely died down), meaning that the right wing Press (such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail) had already wrongly reported that Mark had fired at police first. The family had also received minimal information from the police in the immediate aftermath of Mark's death, and so called a protest march of around 300 people on the afternoon of Saturday 6th. They then waited over five hours outside Tottenham police station in an unsuccessful attempt to discuss the situation with a senior police officer. As the crowd became increasingly angry and more frustrated, a young female was apparently pushed to the ground by police reinforcements. This infuriated onlookers, and many concluded that it was this incident that triggered the initial riot in Tottenham, which then spread across London and various towns and cities in England over the next five days.

London riots August 2011

Broadwater farm riot, Tottenham- 6/10/1985:

The 1985 Broadwater Farm riot which saw some of the most serious rioting that has happened in mainland Britain in recent times, also has striking parallels with Mark Duggan's death. Over 600 Police were involved at its peak, and officers with plastic bullets were also deployed, (the first time this happened in mainland Britain) although they did not actually open fire. The riots happened after Cynthia Jarrett (a local Black woman) died of a heart attack during a bungled police raid on her house in the early evening of 5th Oct 1985, after her son had been arrested by the police. In this case, there was also a delay over 24 hours between Cynthia Jarret's death and the disturbances, and I would suggest that a chain of events developed after her death that led to the disorder. For instance, at 2pm the day after Cynthia died, an angry crowd gathered outside Tottenham police station, and began throwing stones, breaking a window. The local Police commander took a decision to not react and allow this expression of anger to happen, so the protest passed off peacefully after about 90 minutes. However, later on the same evening, an attempt by locals to leave the Broadwater Farm estate after a meeting and hold a similar protest had very different results. The local police had by now been reinforced by the Territorial Support Group (the specialist public order unit of the Metropolitan Police) and officers in full riot gear emerged and prevented the march from leaving the estate. This escalated into a full-scale riot in which 71 police officers were injured, and PC Keith Blakelock was killed (the first British police officer to die in a riot since 1833). The official inquiry by Lord Gifford (1986) concluded that the difference in policing at these two points in the day was a major factor in the specific timing of the riot, and describes the mood during the evening of 6th October;

'The youths leaving the estate were extremely angry. They not only knew that a Black woman had died in the course of a police raid; they were also sure that senior officers had not taken this death at all seriously. They were leaving the estate to demonstrate their feelings outside the base of local police power. They are confronted by 3 police vans with riot protection containing Police in riot gear. They express their anger by banging on the side of the lead van with their hands...the police response is massive. It takes the form of officers in riot gear coming out of their vans, stopping the youths from going further and pushing them back into the estate. For many of the youths this blocking of their free movement at such a time is intolerable. They react to it by using any means which are available. Yet in the same afternoon a different method of policing had been used. The same youths had stood and expressed their anger for 90 minutes in front of the police station. Here, the police had accepted that it was necessary to allow this to take place. We have no doubt that the youths were just as angry at this time as later on when they were leaving the estate. But in the afternoon there had been no disturbance'   p 103-4 Gifford (1986)

The Broadwater Farm riot 6/10/1985

Conclusion (or why we shouldn't predict a riot!)

As I write this on the evening of Thursday 9th Jan, a vigil has been called by Mark's family outside Tottenham police 2pm on Sat 11th Jan, to peacefully call for justice for Mark. The British media are already speculating whether there will be more disorder as there was after a similar protest in 2011, and I worry that this risks inflaming an already tense situation. For instance, the Times newspaper ran an alarmist story about riot squads being on standby in London after the verdict (and neglected to mention that the Metropolitan Police will probably have at least some specialist public order trained police on duty at all times, so they can be deployed at short notice if necessary). However, Stafford Scott  pointed out on tonight's Channel 4 News that there have been many protests outside Tottenham police station against the disproportionate rates of deaths amongst members of the local Black community at the hands of the police that have not become riots. I remember going to one in 1999 after the death of Roger Sylvester, (who died in police custody after suffering a mental health crisis) and while it was angry and determined, it did not become a riot. I believe this was at least in part due to the fact that while there were police present at this protest, they stood back and did not interfere with the movement of the crowd up and down Tottenham High Road, leaving people to disperse in their own time.

I won't make any predictions as to whether or not there will be any disturbances in Tottenham this Saturday, as collective disorder involves a complex set of situations and social processes, that are also dependent upon how different groups interact with each other at specific points in time. It also concerns me that if we expect disorder at such events, we will not be surprised when it happens, and this will make it more difficult to properly explain them when they occur. Finally, it may also serve to obscure the apportioning of blame onto those whose actions may have been responsible for such disorder occurring. Both of the major disturbances in Tottenham in the last 30 years  following fatalities that I have looked at can be explained at least in part to specific police actions after the fatal incident itself, and I worry that it is all to easy to overlook such actions if one assumes that disorder is inevitable after such incidents.

Postscript 12/1/14:
Further to my previous entry, the vigil for justice for Mark Duggan passed off peacefully, with no repeat of the disturbances of 2011 that spread across the country. Estimated numbers of those attending vary from 500 to 1000, and Mark's family and supporters released doves into the crowd. The police decided to close Tottenham police station for the afternoon, and their presence appeared relatively low-key with only Police Liaison Officers visibly present outside the police station as the rally began (see photo below), although there certainly would have been reinforcements in the vicinity and riot vans were spotted nearby. These tactical moves by the police may have been a factor in why the rally remained peaceful by removing possible sources of conflict between protestors and the police.

However, the peaceful nature of this rally was not helped by media speculation about whether or not there would be a riot (described as 'collective salivation' on Twitter), nor by the following extract from the statement put out by the Metropolitan Police Press Office, which seems to finish rather belligerently;

 "Today is a busy day in the Capital and we have a policing operation in place across London. This includes having additional officers on standby that could respond to any incident that occurs. Part of this operation includes assessing all available information and intelligence, and we are aware of a limited amount of information that indicates a small number of people are expressing their desire to use this vigil as an opportunity. This information includes the intention of protest groups to attend and of people looking to provoke disorder. We will be ready to intervene immediately if required"

It doesn't surprise me any more that the reporting of crowd events  is often sensationalised, with violent protests usually receiving disproportionately more coverage (how many times do you see the front-page headline 'protest march remains entirely peaceful'?!). However, I do wish that both the media and the police would be more responsible in how they prepare for and report such protests in highly charged circumstances (especially when there have been deaths involved), as disorder is not an inevitable consequence. Furthermore, assuming that such events will always become riots, means that detailed and objective study of their causes, should they happen, becomes that much more difficult in their aftermath.  

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Crowd gathering outside Tottenham police station for vigil c. 14.00, 11/1/14 

References & further reading:

See my previous post for a Press release issued when I was at London Met University, just after the August 2011 riots had finished. In it I argued  against simplistic and knee-jerk reactions to the disorder and also that debates about introducing more robust policing tactics (such as water cannon) were not only missing the point, but would also most likely be counter-productive.

Lord Gifford (1986) The Broadwater farm inquiry; available via;

Reicher, S. D. and Stott, C. J. (2011). Mad Mobs and Englishmen: Myths and Realities of the 2011 ‘riots’. London: Constable Robinson. available on Kindle via (excellent detailed coverage of the August 2011 riots, that challenges many of the unsubstantiated myths that emerged in the media afterwards) .