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Tanzil Chowdhury (Northern Police Monitoring Project) on “Narratives.”

This was a speech delivered by Tanzil Chowdhury on behalf of the Northern Police Monitoring Project at Fade to Black’s screening of ‘The Hard Stop‘ at STUN Studio at Z-arts on the 29th July, 2016.


“I’d like to first start by talking very briefly about “truth.”

For many thousands of years, thinkers from around the world and throughout time have tried to determine what we mean by the truth- whether there is some kind of independent, objective reality out there and how we go about determining this objective reality. This branch of philosophy is typically called epistemology.

Some philosophers however, contest that there is an objective reality out there or that, while there might be, it is not possible for human beings to determine that objective reality.

Some of those people say we have to stop talking about truth therefore and have to start talking about discourses or narratives.

Discourses or narratives aren’t about trying to resemble truth (as they would doubt such a thing exists) but are about how we describe things and events and produce meaning for those things and events. Most importantly however, narratives are necessarily linked to power.

So the way a discourse or narrative is shaped necessarily reflects some power imbalance present.

This seems a much more appropriate way to understand how the state and media frame events and people- events like deaths by the police and those people who are its victims. Discourses and narratives therefore, are not only not about truth, but importantly reflect how these institutions, like the state, media and police reflect the power differences between them and the public whose opinions are shaped by these very discourses.

So when we talk about anything the police does, we need to recognise that the police are producing their meaning of what these events and people mean.

I imagine I am preaching to the converted when I now describe how Mark Duggan was vilified almost immediately after his execution.

So firstly, Police told the media that there had been a ‘shootout’, thus insinuating that Mark had a gun- and then later explicitly came out to the media confirming this. This was affirmed later by the shooter, V53, who said he was 100% sure Mark possessed a firearm. There was also the now infamous photo of a ‘hard faced Mark Duggan’ which was actually a cropped image of Mark mourning the passing of his daughter- the cropped version was published across the tabloid press with accompanying sensationalist headlines. At the Public Inquiry, a police officer from the witness box described Duggan as being “among Europe’s most violent criminals.”

Now a few days after the killing, the IPCC said there was no evidence that Mark had shot first. The IPCC said a few days after that, that they may have misled journalists on suggesting Mark had fired shots. Please take a moment to appreciate how catastrophic a blunder this was- but instead as a naive public we accepted this as a admirable concession. These public bodies need to be held to an incredibly high standard given the power we instil with them. Most conclusively however, in 2014 an inquest found that Duggan had not been carrying a weapon- though remarkably, his killing was deemed lawful.

Let’s be clear however. The moment that the term gang or gangsters had been uttered in the same sentence as Mark’s name, the damage had been done and his murder had been seen, not as another tragic episode of the institutionally racist police force’s vilification and disproportionate surveillance, stopping and searching and harassment of the Black community, but as the heroic bobbies ridding our streets of another gangster.

Only now, despite the years of research (much conducted by local academics such as Patrick Williams) are MPs beginning to recognises the toxic and racist labelling of groups of young black men as gangs. Let’s be honest, gang is used because its slightly less acceptable today to say that the police are killing, arresting and harassing black people.

This following quote from the Institute of Race Relations sums it all up saying:

“On examining deaths that have occurred over the years involving members of the African-Caribbean community in particular, it becomes clear that, in the immediate aftermath of death, information is placed in the public domain, citing unnamed police sources, which casts doubt on the character of the deceased, tending to frame him as a violent and dangerous black criminal. 

Mark Duggan had already been labelled a ‘gangster’ or ‘suspected gangster’ and the Daily Telegraph and the Sun, amongst others, had published stories that he was linked to ‘Manchester gangsters’.[13] The Daily Mail went even further claiming that ‘Duggan was a “crack dealer” linked to a string of feared gangs’.[14]”

The police and state don’t deal in truth, they deal in narratives.

Final two points – often families like the Duggan’s, Alder’s, Rigg’s, Graingers etc have sometimes been labeled paranoid, conspiracy theorists whenever they level attacks about how the police and state surveillance their families and campaigns.

But then 2 things happened.

The first is that it emerged that Doreen Lawrence (the mother of Stephen) and her family had been spied upon by undercover police.

The second is that of Hillsborough. What the Hillsborough Inquiry illustrated is how the State and its agencies shaped narratives to mitigate or avoid accountability. For many, it had taken the phenomenon of state cover up and collusion, spying and sureveille-ancing out of the realm of conspiracy and into the realm of possibility.

It’s therefore essential that we all re-think Duggan, Alder, Smiley Culture, Joy Gardner, Anthony Grainger, Habib Paps Ullah etc.

Linking US and UK & the ‘History of ideas’

I want to firstly mention  a common criticism levelled at the Black Lives Matter Movement. Firstly, to those that say All Lives Matter – African Americans comprised 15% of all police deaths in 2015, but only make 2% of the population. So at the very least, race plays a part.

Now while there are differences with the hypothetical I am about to present, imagine for a moment saying to Jews in the 1930s while they were being systematically executed, All Lives Matter. Or saying All lives matter to Bosniain Muslims while 800 of them were executed in Srebenicia.

Of course, all lives matter.

But in the states, Black lives have never really mattered. African Americans are underrepresented in key areas of employment, overrepresented in the mass private prison industrial complex and let’s not forget that the US was built on the backs of their ancestors. And perhaps most significantly, the only time the US government bombed its OWN citizens, was a black neighbourhood in Philadelphia in 1985.

But why do these remote historical things matter?

It is important to understand how ideas repeat themselves throughout time, albeit with different contents, contexts and situations.

In 2015, more African Americans were killed by the police than were lynched during the worst year of the racist Jim Crow laws. This is liberal America. And there are also the appalling responses to natural disasters in predominately black areas in the US, the selective grief of those they mourn, the US media’s sanitisation of terrorists going on shooting rampages in black churches, stop and searches etc etc.

But to quote Akala’s fire in the booth, ‘That’s America, This Britain, something similar, some different.”

1558 deaths have occurred in police custody or contact since 1990, 60 which were by way of shooting. Indeed in 2012, greater Manchester police killed Anthony Grainger not too far away from here.

500 Black and Asian people have died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention in the past 24 years according to a study conducted last year by the institute of relations.

In Greater Manchester, as a black person, the moment you step out of this building, you are almost 3 times more likely to get stopped and searched than your white counterparts.

And as I speak to my friends, many whom are respected community organisers and youth workers in this area, Operation Excalibur, the GMPs ‘gang’ program, seem to be adopting a tactic of ‘stop and harassing’ of predominately black youth in the area.

And of course there is also a context too in the UK that the Black Lives Matter UK movement will soon articulate- not of slavery of the black population, but of colonialism, of socially engineered poverty, of criminalisation following the Windrush and gentrification- which I won’t go into now.

The point am trying to make is this- we have to stop looking at these events in their historical context and instead start looking at them in their genealogical context. What do I mean by that?

It means that we have to stop presuming that just because time passes, we think ideas and the society and institutions they create necessarily progress and get better.

They don’t.

Ideas, unless they are challenged, just reformulate themselves which is why in 2015 more people were killed in liberal America, than lynched in the worse years of racially segregated American.

The content, contexts and situations of these ideas of oppression may change, but the ideas endure.

Only once we know that, will we stop relying on these same ideas, and the institutions and paradigms they produce, and will we begin to emancipate us.

No Justice, No Peace, Rest in Power Mark Duggan.”

Tanzil Chowdhury

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hÅb is a production and development organisation specialising in the production and development of live art and contemporary performance in the North.

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