Middle England appears to have delivered its verdict on Mark Duggan. He was a gangster. He had a gun. The police shot him and there’s nothing to see here. Move along. And that is a persuasive line of argument, more so now that an inquest jury has decided that the killing was lawful. Richard Littlejohn in today’s Daily Mail puts it as only Richard Littlejohn would want to. “Duggan was a gangster not Nelson Mandela,” is the heading above his broadside, as though nothing exists between those two extremes.
“There’s no need here to revisit Duggan’s well-documented criminal career and associates in order to see through some of the sentimental and misleading guff which has been spouted over the past 36 hours. If ‘Starrish Mark’ wasn’t a gangster, how did he make his living — if not from trading drugs and guns? There’s certainly no evidence that he had ever been in lawful employment. If he wasn’t a gangster, why was he given a full-scale gangster’s funeral? If he wasn’t a gangster, why was he carrying a gun on the day he died?”
Duggan’s family say he wasn’t a gangster, insisting that he had only a minor criminal record. The police, meanwhile, bring forward much intelligence to suggest he was steeped in gang activity – one of the most violent criminals in Europe, the inquest jury was told. Both arguments predictable in an adversarial process. But if we concentrate too much on who and what he was, don’t we miss the point?
The concern being widely expressed by campaigners, MPs and the contributors to the Guardian that Littlejohn so despises is not really about Mark Duggan. Few outside his personal sphere and away from the bit of the Broadwater Farm estate where he grew up really knew him enough to give his lifestyle any sort of endorsement. And what we do know from the inquest does not speak well of him. We know that another man, Kevin Hutchinson-Foster, was jailed for supplying Duggan with a firearm. Anyone who has been forced to reflect on the carnage visited on inner city communities by hoodlums with illicit guns will deprecate the practice of young men ferrying arms across the capital in minicabs. They will also be realistic. The fate of that gun – whoever might ultimately have carried it – was to inflict more misery on deprived communities already plagued by gun crime. So there was clear justification for robust policing.
The concern is that the process for assuring the public that his life was taken in a manner everyone can accept, has been a mess from the start to the present-day. There was untruthfulness at the outset.
The independent police complaints commission – briefed by the police – told the media that Duggan had fired at police officers. He hadn’t.
The officer told the inquest that he fired because he could see a gun in Duggan’s hand. The jury says there wasn’t one.
Police accounts of what transpired conflicted sharply with those of independent witnesses, and didn’t even tally with the evidence provided by the cab driver, the unwilling recipient of a front-row seat to gruesome history.
That the inquest jury felt able or perhaps obliged in law to consider all this and still deliver a lawful killing verdict implies no criticism of them, but it inevitably raises questions as to whether the process was the right one to provide the necessary reassurance. It doesn’t undermine confidence in that jury or provide undue endorsement of Duggan to ask whether we now know as much as we would wish about what happened in his final moments outside Tottenham Hale station.
What would be truly ruinous would be a situation where the taking of Duggan’s life was treated as a less serious matter for society than anyone else’s, and when we strip away the hyperbole about who he was and what he might have done, there is an essential truth. Whatever he was, whatever transpired, the police cannot take life, even in error, mislead the public as to how it occurred – as has been proved – and move on without satisfactory explanation or repercussion. There are still too many loose ends for anyone who prizes order and the rule of law to feel comfortable. Society’s protections exist for angels, but no less for sinners.