On the morning of Saturday the 6th of August 2011, all was well in London. In a city that prides itself on diversity, many woke up that morning unaware that the shattered reality of the Duggan family was about to test the foundations of that pride. A few days earlier, a man had been shot and killed by police during a pre-planned operation to tackle gun crime within the black community.
The facts of the incident have always been clouded in claims and counter-claims. The police have always asserted that Mark — who had been under surveillance for some time – had purchased a gun, and in their attempts to arrest him, he pulled his gun at an officer. Eyewitnesses dispute this, with some claiming a gun was nowhere to be seen on Mark. Others believe the gun found near his body was planted by the officers. There is one fact we know for sure: the police failed to inform his family that he had been killed. I repeat: after killing 29-year-old Mark Duggan, the police felt that this was not an issue worth raising with his parents. It was not quite worth the paperwork. His family had to endure the horror of hearing about his death on the news.
There was more indignity to follow: a peaceful protest led by his mother, Pam, ended at the Tottenham Police Station where his family and friends were expected to be met by a senior police officer to explain why they had not been offered the courtesy of basic reason. Hours passed, tensions grew. The late summer’s morning passed to match the cold and gloom the protesters had felt for days. Eventually, when it became clear another day would come and go without any offers of decency, the mood turned, and a riot erupted. Over the next few days, flames lit by anger and bottled up tensions spread from Tottenham in the North across to Hackney in the East down past Clapham and Brixton. London was on fire; the residual smoke choked anyone who dared to claim that this was the same diverse, united city they had woken up to.
Over time, the damage was “fixed,” the looters punished, and the tension returned to the clear bottle it came from. The 2011 riots did not turn out to be the catalyst for a period of greater social action. There hasn’t been a major race riot in London since. To put this in context: the last time Londoners took to the streets in large numbers to defend the right of people of colour to exist with dignity, Tamir Rice was 8 years old; George Zimmerman was still your friendly neighbourhood watch; Eric Garner could breathe; and Freddie Gray had a future. And with the luxury of time and hindsight, it could easily seem like the tragedy bestowed upon the Duggan family was just an accidental smudge on the pristine pallet that is race relations in the UK. The police have since apologised to the family for not informing them, though the killing has been deemed lawful. Many have returned to the complacency that led to an unprepared city when the riots first happened.
Last week, nine people were shot and killed in a South Carolina church in the United States. The news was delivered as a matter of fact amidst the long list of daily happenings. It was too early for me to fully process the news. The words that really filtered from the radio and into my conscious were “gun, killed, USA,” and for what felt like the millionth time upon hearing news of this nature, my shoulders dropped, and a quick shake of the head was punctuated with a sigh. It was a natural but easy response, the sort that comes when you recognize a tragedy that seems permanently fixed far away from you. It is the general response across homes in the UK when word of a mass shooting travels across the pond.
Over the next 24 hours, casual conversations in offices that traditionally rotate around the weather and the cities’ dysfunctional subway service is replaced by benign statements. “Can you believe it’s happened again?” Of course they can. “What is their obsession with guns?” one may ask, with the other replying, “I think it has something to do with their 4th amendment.” “Those poor parents.” And finally, before they both return to their desks: “Thank God it couldn’t happen here.”
As more information came through about the nature of the devastating crime, the heat of the summer morning began to feel far more constricting, and the weight of the news began to spread and crush. Black existence was again under attack, not only from the man wielding the gun but also from the same institutions that will always treat a white mass murderer with more understanding and compassion than a black man who dares to question an officer’s right to wave their basic rights.
In 2015, African-Americans still had to plead with the rest of the country to recognise this tragedy for what it is: an unspeakable act of terror that should be seen as an attack on everyone, a declaration of war. It’s at this point the range of responses over here always begin to diverge. The black British community can immediately see our experiences reflected across the vast Atlantic sea, gathering in reflective recognition and prayer, acknowledging the life lost as if it was of our own. However, that doesn’t spread into everyone’s consciousness.
Even as the details of Dylann Roof’s racial hatred become more apparent, or videos of Eric Garner being strangled emerge, the conversations in workplaces don’t change. The hot takes and think pieces won’t be altered. Phrases like “America’s racial history” are used to fog the issue of Britain’s racial present. “Thank God it couldn’t happen here” is comforting for non-people of colour because it avoids having to ask the hard questions and truly understand what it is to exist in environments that were not built for you. That is the height of privilege. To be black is to recognise the dark corners that shape the deep foundations that many countries stand on and to never be able to shake off that inconvenient truth out of convenience, because wherever it comes from, it still applies to you.
What exactly is it that you think couldn’t happen here in the United Kingdom? It is true that mass shootings are not a common occurrence, and the easy access to weapons is a unique freedom expressed in the United States. A quirk of British life is that police officers on daily patrol are unarmed, with specialist firearm response units brought in special circumstance. In the 15 years I have lived here, I have never encountered an armed officer one on one, and so, on the most basic level, if stopped, my immediate reaction is not to fear for my life. But ask any black British person, and they will tell you that that in itself is no comfort, because the reality is far starker.
To live is far more than to breathe. I may not fear for my life, but I fear for my dignity, because to be black in some parts of the UK is to know that I am over 20 times more likely to be “randomly” stopped and searched than a white friend. During those dreadful few minutes when the eyes of others bear into you, you are nothing more than another suspected dark-skinned thug taking up space. I may not fear for my life, but I fear for my future, because you can literally count on two hands the number of non-white journalists who have a regular column in a national newspaper. To reach the highest rungs of professional life is still a march too far in most industries; we’re unable to articulate our own stories, and when others tell them, it is to demonstrate our otherness. I may not fear for my life, but I fear for my ability to not live in a constant state of rage. In the past 15 years, over a 100 people of colour have died in police custody in England, and despite ten unlawful killing verdicts delivered by juries, we still await one successful prosecution. How do you keep calm in such circumstances? Let me ask our black Prime Minister. Oh wait.
And so in many ways, I do fear for my life. Because what is life but the ability to carry on at speed with some pride, knowing that the promise of tomorrow is real and attainable for me?
Thank God it couldn’t happen here.
The devastating reality is that to be black is to know the chances of your survival are proportional to the access to the means others have to destroy it. To know that alone is heavy and heartbreaking, and it’s why we stand so firmly with Black America, which has for so long been surrounded with far more literal means of destruction. Black Lives Matter, whether uttered in the rough cut rhythmic tones of a Brooklyn accent or the soft but loud cadence of a South Londoner, is more of a prayer than a plea, that we may one day live in a community that rids itself of all the many complex and systematic ways that are artfully maintained to undermine our right to occupy a space in our wider communities.
When Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel A.M.E church, he was consumed with an unspeakable hatred, but it took only one hour in the presence of the unshakable humanity of the black church to begin to turn that hatred. “I wanted to start a race war, but almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so kind,” he said to police. The act may not have occurred at all if he had chosen to spend a second hour. A lifetime worth of interactions, and he could have been leading the prayer group he sought to destroy. The subsequent acts of forgiveness the family have shown is as much for themselves as it is for Dylan Roof. It was the same when Pam Duggan and her family first attempted to peacefully engage with police officers in Tottenham, North London, who had so violently betrayed them when they decided that carrying news of their son’s death was an unnecessary load.
To be black anywhere around the world is to possess a superhuman amount of grace and willingness to travel forward anew in the face of devastation, because, simply, your life depends on it. To be black around the world is to have that strength and humanity tested and challenged daily, in every language possible. But you already knew that.