I can still recall the phone call on 4 August 2011, informing me that police officers had been involved in the shooting of an “armed gangster” who had allegedly shot at them. I was getting the call, from the chair of a policing advisory group, as this incident had taken place in Tottenham, north London, where for decades I have been an active campaigner for police accountability.
My initial reaction was surprise: it was extremely rare to hear that someone had fired at a police officer, let alone that they had been stupid enough to shoot at an armed unit. But my thought processes began to change when she went on to inform me that the gun that had allegedly been fired could not be found. Later, I received a second call telling me that the gun had been found, but that it was some distance away from the “gunman’s” body.
The whole case felt even more bizarre, and deeply personal, when I learned that the victim was Mark Duggan – the son of my friends, Pam Duggan and Bruno Hall.
When, two days later, the police had still failed to contact Mark’s parents, his partner Simone Wilson and a few of her friends decided to go to Tottenham police station to complain about the lack of contact. I agreed to lead the delegation, and about 40 of us walked the half mile or so from Broadwater Farm, where Mark had lived, to the station.
People were angry, but the anger was contained. We wanted action from the police, we were not there for a confrontation. We agreed that only Simone and two other women should go inside: we did not want the police to feel threatened by the presence of “angry” Black men.
But the station’s response was to tell the three women that officers could not discuss the matter as it was being investigated by the then police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. They ushered the women out of the station and rolled down the shutters as if “closing up shop” for the day. Those of us outside felt as though we were all being treated with disrespect in much the same way Mark’s parents had been.
We told the local officers that we wanted a senior officer from Scotland Yard to address our concerns. We were told that such an officer would be with us shortly. As the day wore on more and more youths began to gather outside the station: the mood grew angrier.
By dusk, hours later, it became obvious that the officer was not going to attend. Simone and her friends began to leave, but on seeing them head away the crowd started to vent their anger and frustration at the police.
As we walked back to Broadwater Farm there were a number of unmanned police cars lining our route. These were like red rags to an already inflamed bull. Some youths torched the cars and seeing the lack of a police response they then went on to torch everything else that could burn.
That night much of Tottenham went up in flames, and within days rioting had spread across the whole country.
So what’s happened since, in terms of the relations between the Tottenham police and the local community. Surely, you might think, the force would have learned that it can’t lose touch with the community, otherwise mistrust can quickly escalate into a massive unleashing of tension.
Yet, locally, exactly one decade later, relationships between the police and the Black community are as fraught now as they have ever been. A number of Black men have died at the hands of the police in the borough of Haringey since Mark’s death. Many more have faced excessive police force.
In 2015, Jermaine Baker was fatally shot outside Wood Green cown court. The public inquiry into his death is finally under way, and has heard that officers were aware Baker was unarmed. The outcome of this inquiry will be as important to Tottenham’s Black community as the inquest into Mark Duggan’s death.
Since the start of the pandemic there has been a rise in incidents. In the first few months of 2020, according to the police monitoring group StopWatch, stop and searches in Haringey were up by a staggering 110% through April, May and June compared with the same time in 2019. It should be noted that 80% of all of these stops resulted in no further action being taken by the police.
During the same period my own brother, Millard, who’s 63 (and father of artist Wretch 32), was shot with a Taser in his home while coming out of his disabled son’s bedroom. In a sickening police video he’s seen landing heavily on his back, on the staircase. Officers claimed they were searching for drugs but none were found.
A few weeks later, in May 2020, Tottenham resident Jordan Walker Brown was tasered by a Met police officer while on top of a wall. The injuries caused by his fall have left him paralysed from the chest down. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has since referred an officer to the Crown Prosecution Service, to consider bringing charges.
In June 2020, Andrew Boateng and his 13-year-old son Huugo, cycling on a charity bike ride along the River Lea in Tottenham, were threatened with a Taser and put in handcuffs. Video of this encounter was widely shared on social media. Police were looking for a suspect after a stabbing in a local park, but the only information they had was “Black men on a bike”. So, for them, every Black cyclist – even a father with his child – was a suspect.
Last October, a young Black man died in the same river, in almost the same spot, having been chased by police officers on bikes. And just this week the local police have revealed that someone else has died following contact with officers who had been called because of concerns for his mental wellbeing.
Then there are the hundreds of lower-profile incidents. My 26-year-old university-educated son, for example, has been stopped and searched by police more than 50 times in the past 10 years; yet he has never been arrested, let alone charged. How is this possible in this day and age? Innocent young Black people being picked on, on such a regular basis. What is abundantly clear is that the nature of policing in the capital has changed over the past decade.
Today there is far less pretence from the Metropolitan police hierarchy that they are policing us all in the same manner. Instead, they seek to try to justify that difference in treatment by claiming they are targeting resources on areas of high crime. This means that boroughs such as Haringey and Hackney, Lewisham and Lambeth – all of which have been identified as having a “‘gang” problem – receive a different style of policing to other boroughs. It’s a style of policing where anyone who is Black and happens to be passing through the “target” location will be viewed as a suspect.
This is why politicians such as Dawn Butler, along with police officers, athletes, doctors, nurses and bank managers who also happen to be Black, can be caught up in the racist dragnet that is now everyday policing for London’s Black communities. It is a violent and brutal style of policing that will inevitably lead to more community conflict, and more lives being lost.
Ten years on, the Met shows no sign of letting up whatsoever. And many now believe that not only could an excessive-force incident lead to an uprising on the streets again, but that it will definitely happen.