UK: An Anatomy of a police shooting By Tony Mckenna

10 August 2011 — New Left Project

Consider the following hypothetical situation: a group of policeman unlawfully kill a suspected criminal. We do not know what has lead to the unlawful killing – only that it takes place and – having taken place, must now, somehow, be presented to the public as a ‘lawful kill’.

The officers who have killed the criminal are panicked but they think fast. ‘We have to show that we were in the midst of a fire-fight, that we shot the suspect only as a last resort in order to preserve our own lives.’ How can they set the scene so it corresponds to such a sequence of events? Well, they need to show signs of having themselves been fired upon. But this is a bit problematic because the most obvious sign of having been fired upon is the presence of a visible bullet wound and none of the officers are keen to take a bullet in order to provide such evidence.

One of them hits on a good idea. Officer A imagines a scenario in which the suspect fires upon him but, by some fortuitous accident, the bullet lodges in the radio, saving him from injury but at the same time providing the requisite physical evidence for the lethal intentions of the suspect. Officer A fires into the radio and the fantasy scenario is presented as fact with evidence to boot.

But there is a problem. The ballistics examination is more thorough than they had hoped. The report notes that the bullet lodged in the radio is police issued and at once a fug of suspicion descends upon their account. They now need to contrive a new set of lies only these have to be more convoluted in order to account for the ‘bullet in the radio’ evidence they themselves have introduced. What can they possibly say?

Once more Officer A comes to the rescue; what we need to do now is say that we fired on the suspect but that somehow the bullet ricocheted and embedded itself in the radio. That might just swing it.


At the time of writing only the officers involved in the shooting of Mark Duggan know what really happened. But there are some aspects of this case that we are sure about. Firstly Duggan was shot and killed by police. Secondly Duggan had been in possession of a pistol cosseted in his sock. Thirdly the police involved claimed Duggan had opened fire on them and consequently one of his bullets got lodged in a radio. Fourthly the IPPC concluded that Duggan’s weapon had not been fired. Finally, the police then changed their story arguing that the bullet lodged in the radio was a result of them firing on Dugan and the bullet ricocheting from him.

The logic of the police story; the one position (Duggan firing on them/bullet lodging in radio) suddenly metamorphosing into the second position (them firing on Duggan and the bullet ricocheting) seems to make sense only when set against the hypothetical narrative outlined above. It is the (hypothetical) sequence of events which most effectively corresponds to the (real) sequence of police lies and it provides a strong indication that what we are dealing with here is nothing short of an unlawfull killing by the police.

And yet. There is almost no coverage of this on-going investigation in the media. It has been drowned out by the hysterical shrilling which presents as ‘analysis’ of those riots which have broken out in the aftermath of Duggan’s killing. Such ‘analysis’ focuses exclusively on the elements who are looting and burning buildings (and there does seem to be a fair few people doing this) while at the same time offering up no type of explanation for this other than the deviant and evil natures of the rioters. Indeed the compulsion to dissolve the social conditions and events which preceded the riot in the acid like evil of those individuals who are looting has become so pronounced that some politicians have arrived to the astonishing proposition that the cause of the riots lies with ‘political correctness’ – that is, the police, hampered as they are by bleeding heart liberal legislation, are so tentative and fearful, that the cities’ youth know they have a free hand. With quite resplendent, wobbly arse-faced cheek, these commentators are saying that the riots are the result of the kid-gloved tactics of the police all the while ignoring the fact that the incident which sparked them in the first place was the shooting and killing of a man by police. It would be almost laughable were it not so sad.

But those few who do refer to the slaying of Mark Duggan squeal indignation; how could this or any other event justify the looting of small business and residential homes? And of course they are right in this. And pointing out that the killing of Mark Duggan is the event that ignited the riots falls far short of a convincing sociological explanation. For that we have to factor in the general poverty accentuated by the economic crisis, cuts to education and public services – a looting and burning committed by our current government against the futures of the majority of poor young people. To this mix we have to add an ongoing day to day experience of being arbitrarily stopped and searched, the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – a sense that police can at any time interrupt your life only for the fact that you are wearing the wrong type of clothes, drive the wrong type of car or have the wrong type of skin. Such arbitrary, random and often brutal interventions teach young people that the police have little respect for their day to day lives, and the ultimate confirmation of this must surely be the point at which the police feel they have the liberty, not only to intrude on those lives, but also to take them.

Ultimately it is this; the disbelief and the outrage, which fans the flames of our burning cities. A riot is an unadulterated and spontaneous outpouring of anger; it channels a white hot hatred motivated by injustice and oppression, but these things blend with other elements and inclinations. In any community there are thieves and yobs and loan-sharks and the rest and in the maelstrom these elements exert influences too. A riot is not a ready-made political protest; a march which is coordinated according to a pre-planned route. It is chaotic and uncontrolled and feeds on itself, much like the fires it leaves burning in its wake. But to extirpate it from the set of concrete economic and political conditions from which it has exploded; to see in it only the ‘evil’ intentions of ‘looters’ is to leave any possibility of comprehension behind.

Tony Mckenna’s writing regularly appears in ‘Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory

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