“We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”
The Combahee River Collective Statement
Last week I found myself at the BFI Southbank watching the preview of George Amponsah’s The Hard Stop, a documentary following the lives of Kurtis and Marcus, two close friends of Mark Duggan, as they deal with life after the 2011 riots and their search for justice for Duggan’s death. Aptly timed following the recent series of Black Lives Matter protests across London, the film was a necessary reminder of how pertinent the issue of police brutality in black British communities is today.
‘The hard stop’ is the name given to the police procedure which was used to capture Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of the police sparked nationwide riots back in 2011. Drinking in the intensely moving emotional journey depicted in the film, I marvelled at Amponsah’s success in humanising and returning dignity to a person who was previously branded a gang member and thug by the media.
Photo: BFI Image Gallery
Following Marcus through court battles as he is charged with inciting the riots, we are not molly-coddled into believing him to be the perfect victim but rather shown a man whose grief and rage had a severe effect on him. Yes, that was him on CCTV trying to destroy a police car and yes, that was also him trying to save a chicken shop by getting rioters out of it. Similarly, there is no filter applied to the picture of Kurtis. Unrelentingly passionate that justice must be served for Mark’s death, we watch Kurtis get on with the daily grind, trying to escape unemployment so that his kids can enjoy Christmas and dealing with the strain of a long distance relationship.
It seems patronising to have to spell out the point: these men are human beings with a full range of emotions, individual characters and complexities, just like their friend who was taken from them by police. Although the film focuses the characters of Marcus and Kurtis, it succeeds in paying homage and recognition to a whole community as well as to Duggan himself. Whilst it may seem patronising to so carefully indicate the humanity of a black man, in 2016 people still need convincing that black lives matter and The Hard Stop makes this point perfectly.
Documenting the 2013 inquest into the death of Mark Duggan the film also raises a broad spectrum of questions about the justice system and the historical relationship between black communities and the police. Contributions from Stafford Scott and Mark’s mother, Pam Duggan remind us that there is nothing new about police violence. In 1985 the death of Cynthia Jarrett sparked riots on the same Broadwater Farm Estate from which Mark Duggan hails. During those riots PC Blakelock was killed; the identity of his killers remains unknown. His death is largely credited for the sour relations between the police and the Broadwater Farm community, begging the question over 30 years later: can there ever be peace?
The effects of heavy-handed policing, routine harassment to remind you that you are powerless, that you are nothing, that you can do nothing about police violation, are evident throughout the film. Both Marcus and Kurtis express their discomfort, resentment or outright disgust when forced to deal with members of the police force. During the Q + A which followed the preview Marcus affirms that fear and hostility towards the police is something that will never go away.
Of course, this isn’t about one grudge between one police department and one estate, police brutality and institutional racism operate in far more insidious ways than bobbies on the beat throwing their weight around. When Mark’s death was ruled as lawful in 2013 the verdict spoke volumes: the fear of a police officer means more to the law than the life of a father, a son, a partner, a black man. Adam Elliott-Cooper of StopWatchUK who chaired Q + A recalled the reaction of a police officer asked to reflect on what went wrong the day Duggan died; “wrong?” he queried, seemingly unable to accept that a different outcome would have been preferred, that it is worth considering how not to kill the innocent next time.
The Hard Stop also presents a powerful portrayal of the lengths to which unheard voices will go to make their pain known. The causes of the widespread riots in 2011 are multifaceted but the results were clear: whilst composed vigils vied for media attention, £200 000million of property damage later, everyone wanted to know who this Mark Duggan character was.
The “seismic discrepancy” that George Amponsah describes in the portrayal of black and white victims will surely persist in mainstream media for some time. Yet, in the midst of #AllLivesMatter and cries of “but not in the UK” The Hard Stop provides a healthy antidote to the toxic narratives around black communities in the UK. Offering a depiction of Mark’s family and friends that is not fetishized, not dehumanised, not glorified but simply whole, Amponsah, Kurtis and Marcus safeguard the legacy of a man killed unjustly, who is sorely missed.