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Custody deaths: Britain’s Police brutality most pertinent for black communities

Published time: July 24, 2014 14:46
Family members of Mark Duggan release doves during a vigil for him outside Tottenham Police Station in Tottenham, north London January 11, 2014 (Reuters / Neil Hall)

Next month on the August 4, we will mark the third anniversary of the killing of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police on the streets of north London.

His death sparked riots in Tottenham which spread nationwide.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that at the time the establishment and mainstream media did their best to ignore the role the police ultimately played in the events leading up to the riots, not only in with the death of Duggan, but also with the willful incompetence they showed in failing to communicate with the Duggan family following Mark's killing. The lack of respect afforded the Duggan family is systemic of a wider culture of institutionalized racism which was acknowledged following the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

It is also important to remember that as the riots began to spread, the media and their friends in government sidelined any of the political and socio-economic factors which contributed to the disturbances, and instead explained away the phenomena with a neat little phrase which was quickly parroted throughout the media. The riots were simply a result of 'pure criminality' David Cameron said. As if people wake up in the morning and decide to burn their communities to the ground, with no chain of events beforehand, and this is before even considering the very real political history of certain areas in London, like for example Broadwater Farm.

Mark Duggan is one name among many thousands of others who over the last few decades have lost their lives while in the custody of the police, often in extremely controversial and suspicious circumstances.

This case of Mark Duggan however, marked a dangerous precedent, as despite the controversy and doubt over the stark inconsistencies in the Met's version of events, a judge ruled that Duggan's killing was “lawful.” The Duggan family is challenging this verdict.

Deaths in custody are a particularly pertinent and sensitive issue for Britain’s black communities. Despite making up only a small minority percentage of the population, if you are black and born in Britain you are more likely to die at the hands of the police.

Disproportionate levels of force are used by the police when dealing with Britain’s black communities, and it is no secret that this pattern of excessive force is also prevalent within the mental health system, part of an overall culture where many from black communities find themselves disproportionately brutalized with excessive force and detained under the mental health act even when displaying the same behavior as white people.

In fact as film maker and academic Nathan Edward Richards described it "Asked why, mental health professionals indicate that although black patients exhibit similar psychological stresses and symptoms as white patients, health professionals perceive these symptoms as more threatening, to themselves and to the community, this is not based on their actual interactions with individual patients, but on notions of violent and threatening blackness, perpetuated in mainstream media, and the historical narrative that has informed the field."

Supporters make a banner before a vigil for Mark Duggan outside Tottenham Police Station in Tottenham, north London January 11, 2014 (Reuters / Suzanne Plunkett)

It is also true that black communities are over represented in the prison system; a system which like the US is becoming increasingly privatized. When we consider that overall crime is falling, prisons for profit are dangerous. They need to be full in order for shareholders to make money. Often as a result, we see the police criminalizing the most vulnerable. The high stop and search rates among black people is a disgrace, but you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never see the police stopping men in suits in Westminster despite the evident corruption. No doubt were they to stop and search the political class they would probably find plenty of class A drugs, more than they would find elsewhere.

Many in the right-wing media suggest that black and brown people have a genetic disposition to criminal behavior, the Daily Mail for example often using phrases like ‘knife crime’ and words like ‘urban’ as code words for what they perceive to be black culture in order to stigmatize certain communities, some of whom often live in some of the worst possible social conditions.

The same right-wing individuals and newspapers, just as they spew their lies about immigrants, Muslims, so-called benefit scroungers, ignore race, and ignore the role of the police in contributing to these problems.

Despite the political establishment's attempts to remove the racial politics from the issue of deaths in custody, to try to frame the case of Mark Duggan in isolation, and to ignore the socio-economic factors which led to the riots, and also the increasingly disturbing behavior by many in the police at public demonstrations, it has become apparent that in the same way systemic and endemic corruption is at the heart of the political establishment's failings, the same can be said of the police. As well as the noted corruption brought to light concerning how Britain's undercover police often operate, according to fairly recent reports the upper ranks of the police are just as tainted.

The social conditions which undoubtedly acted as fuel for the riots in 2011 remain. Government cuts are continuing to bite. Relations between Britain's police and the communities they are supposed to serve remain fragile and estranged.
There is absolutely no reason to think that at some point we will not see a repeat of 2011. The anniversary of Duggan's killing approaches, and we now understand the wider backdrop.

There will be many people hitting the streets too, protesting the government's actions and also inaction, as more and more of the reality we face as a collective community breaks the surface.

More than ever before we need to call for a reformed police force and IPCC. It will not happen by magic, and we simply cannot wait for another black man, or anyone for that matter to die in police custody before we demand it, and we certainly cannot wait for the next lot of riots to spark. Reforming the police must be our goal, and it starts with a real conversation about their failings and what causes them.

Richard Sudan for RT

Richard Sudan is a writer, political campaigner, and poet. He tweets @richardsudan

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