It's all the other police deaths that should really trouble our politicians

Almost a thousand people have died in police custody since 1990 in Britain, and only one police officer has faced any sort of professional sanction.

The Mark Duggan verdict divides people. It divides me. Part of me wants to say: if the jurors accepted, eight votes to two, that he had thrown his gun away, that he had no weapon, that he had got out of the car, how can they decide by the same margin that his killing was lawful?

But there’s another part of me that says: a killing doesn’t have to be just or right to be lawful. Mark Duggan was a convicted criminal. He was a member of a gang that terrorised people – most of whom, it has to be pointed out, were also black – and he went to considerable lengths to acquire a gun, either because he wanted to scare people or he wanted to shoot them. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that one of the people he scared with that gun was the police officer who ended up shooting him.

And I don’t doubt that that second part of me is right. Mark Duggan was a dangerous gangster. He wanted a gun so he could frighten or murder people. Even a police officer with unimpeachable anti-racist credentials could have genuinely believed that their life was under threat.

The problem is that the first part of me simply doesn’t believe that there are police officers with unimpeachable anti-racist credentials. I know that they exist, but when I think of the police, I think of being stopped-and-searched, aged 15, on the Embankment in broad daylight with everyone looking at me, an experience as humiliating as if I had been stripped naked right there on the Strand. That’s the part of me that gets nervous when I see police officers at Highbury and Islington Station of an evening, or quickens my pace around the Palace of Westminster. That’s the part of me that fears, in the way I think that most black men in London do, what will be left of them are words like: he was running away, he fired first, he had a pre-existing condition.

That fear isn’t groundless; it is the result of lived experience. Mark Duggan wasn’t the only person to die after police contact in 2011; 32 other people did as well, 23 of them in police custody. To put that figure into an international context: when the US nonprofit Human Rights First estimated the number of deaths in US custody in Iraq during the first four years of the Iraq war, the annual toll was 25. And 2011 wasn’t even a particularly bad year for the British police.

One thousand, four hundred and seventy six people have died following police contact in Britain, and almost a thousand of them in police custody since 1990 in Britain, and, at the time of writing, only one police officer has faced any sort of professional sanction for any of those deaths: PC Simon Harwood, who was found not guilty of killing Iain Tomlinson in 2012.

Now it may be that none of those other one thousand, four hundred and seventy-five deaths had anything untoward about them, but that seems, to me at least, highly unlikely. Even if they were, it seems, to me at least, highly troubling that someone like Simon Harwood, who already had a rap sheet a mile long, could have been kicked out of one police force and allowed to walk into another, and that not one of his superior officers was called to account for him being there in the first place. If a teacher smacked a pupil in Nuneaton and walked into a teaching job in Lambeth there would be a national outcry: but Simon Harwood is held up as a bad apple, and we all move on.

Did Officer V53 truly believe Mark Duggan to be armed when he fired the fatal shot? That’s a question without a clear answer. Was Mark Duggan a dangerous criminal? That’s a question with a fairly obvious one. But the question that should trouble our politicians isn’t about the death of Mark Duggan. It’s about the other 32. 

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley speaks to reporters outside The Royal Courts of Justice on January 8, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue