The ongoing struggle for police accountability
Almost exactly four years on from the release of director George Amponsah’s The Hard Stop it feels right to revisit a documentary missed by many filmgoers in 2016. While activists are fighting for their rights in America, it has sparked demonstrations around the world, including the UK, allowing many to highlight the systemic racism ingrained within society on these shores. Police brutality is just as present here as it is in the US, and Amponsah reflects on the murder of Mark Duggan by the British police in 2011, an atrocity that ignited riots across England as anger and frustration boiled over onto the streets.
Documentaries always struggle for screen space in cinemas, and a film about being young, Black and male in the UK is even more of a rarity – in fact, given the often insurmountable barriers put in place for filmmakers of colour, it’s something of a minor miracle The Hard Stop got made at all. We should be glad that it did, as not only does it offer Mark and his family and friends the dignity they deserve, but it highlights the abuse and racism suffered by the Black community at the hands of the police for the past seven decades.
The title takes its name from a controversial police practice involving the use of unmarked police cars to intercept a moving vehicle without issuing a warning. This is the tactic used by plain-clothes officers seconds before Mark was gunned down. Information first released by the police insinuated they returned fire, a statement they backtracked on two days later, with forensics later revealing the gun found 20 feet away from Mark’s body contained no traces of his DNA or fingerprints. The 29-year-old was killed in cold blood during a botched police manoeuvre, with a jury at the official 2014 enquiry (yes, three years later) deciding by 8-2 that Mark was not holding a firearm. However, the official verdict declared it as a ‘lawful’ killing because the officer involved (known only as V53) ‘believed’ Mark had a gun in his hand when he was stopped. Such is the level of impunity given to an agency that operates above its own laws whenever it needs to.
It’s another example of the institutional racism that continues to exist throughout the British police, with Black British and other non-white communities across the UK experiencing the worst of it. Amponsah examines this through the eyes of two of Mark’s closest friends: Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. Both grew up with Mark on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, site of the 1985 riots that saw resident Cynthia Jarrett die from heart failure, and PC Keith Blakelock killed in retaliation. Fast forward 30 years and people living there today believe the police have held a grudge against the local Black community ever since.
Marcus was pinpointed as one of the main instigators of the 2011 riots and we meet him three months ahead of sentencing. Kurtis, meanwhile, is trying to turn his life around as he searches for a job to support his wife and two young children. While the temptation of returning to the drug game is always there, Mark’s murder has given him the clarity he needs to lead a more constructive life. By giving Marcus and Kurtis centre stage they are able to express themselves as individuals rather than stereotypes, an opportunity rarely afforded away from the constant demonisation of young Black men by the media. Both are determined not to become yet another victim or statistic of their environment, and while still processing the grief of losing a friend they attempt to rebuild and to expand on the limited options made available to them.
Amponsah follows Marcus and Kurtis over a three year period between 2011 and 2014, listening to their childhood recollections growing up with Mark and regrets of the past. We are also introduced to Mark’s wife and children, along with his mother, aunt and others affected by his passing, creating a portrait of a family fighting for justice against a system built to dampen their voices. Amponsah’s direction is simple, but effective, immersing us into their lives and letting them speak the truth they have experienced living in a such a neglected area of North London. Home video footage and photographs of Mark are intercut to bring us closer to his personality, while each year we see family members solemnly return to his graveside to commemorate his death.
While the 2011 riots started in reaction to the killing of Mark, it was soon hijacked by opportunists, washing away a lot of public support in the process. Marcus admits the part he played in kick-starting events, although he explains how he wanted the initial protest to be peaceful and his attempts to stop others looting local businesses. Since then he has embraced Islam and once out of prison (he was sentenced to 32 months) he becomes a youth worker determined to keep local kids away from gang life. That also means meeting and organising with the people he hates the most – the police – but it’s a mark of the man that he is able to keep sight of the bigger picture and work with an organisation that has had such a negative impact on his life.
Beginning with a quote from Russian author Leo Tolstoy (“Everybody wants to change the world but no one wants to change themselves.”) and ending with a grim statistic that of the 1,500 deaths that have occurred in police custody since 1990 (with Black people twice as likely to be killed) there has yet to be a single conviction, Amponsah’s film demonstrates the true value of self-determination. The strength of will displayed by Marcus and Kurtis proves to be far stronger than the injustices placed upon them. More recently, in late 2019, Mark’s family settled a high court claim against the Metropolitan police, although no admission of liability was offered as part of the deal. Until they receive it they will never truly find peace, and until the police are made accountable for their actions it’s our duty to show solidarity and refuse to remain silent.
Please donate to any of the organisations below if possible:
Black Lives Matter UK (GoFundMe)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum