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Rashan Charles' Case Is Reminiscent Of Mark Duggan's, But Not For The Reasons The Media Will Have You Believe

06/08/2017 17:18
Alina_Fedorova via Getty Images

It turns out that Rashan Charles, a 20 year-old black man, who died after police contact, did not swallow an illicit substance, even though the police said he did.

For many this seems to vindicate their suspicions that the police overstepped their mark when they restrained him, an encounter that was viewed widely on CCTV footage. But in some ways the damage has already been done. The public already have a narrative formed around Charles' death. That police were apprehending a miscreant - a drug dealer. Someone relegated to the underclass. And protests in reaction were called riots - violence perpetuated by angry thugs. Riots some papers suggested were reminiscent of those that took place after the death of Mark Duggan.

There is much that is reminiscent in Charles's case of what happened around Duggan's death on 4 August 2011. But so-called rioting isn't it.

Protests asking for answers around Charles's death did indeed escalate on Friday 28 July in Dalston, east London. The road was barricaded, firebombs were thrown and windows were smashed. But a riot on par with the unpredictable nation-wide reaction that summer of 2011 it was not. The 2011 riots prompted numerous opinion pieces, academic research and policy papers. And it pinned the root causes of them to police mishandling and inequality.

One of those reports pointed its finger at another guilty party though - the media. And it feels eerily like groundhog day.

At the time of Duggan's death newspapers were wrongly reporting that Duggan had been armed. They were also saying he was a violent gangster but he had never done jail time and only had two minor convictions. And they were reporting this because of their reliance on police sources. Police organisations admitted however that the police may have misled journalists.

The report 'Media and the Riots: A Call for Action' says that the media should be widening the net and that there should be more diversity in the sources it uses. But instead of raising the platform for representative voices, right wing media is diminishing those voices, working to discredit them. And they're doing this in the worst way.

Take Hackney MP Diane Abbott's statement after the protests on 28 July 2017. Her exact words were:

"The anger and upset at the death of Rashan Charles is understandable. But Rashan's family have explicitly spoken out against hostile actions. We must respect their wishes and any protests must be peaceful."

These words were spun into "local MP Diane Abbott defends rioters" in a newspaper headline.

The same was done to a young black Cambridge University student, Jason Osamede Okundaye, who heads up the institution's equality group. By cherry-picking and conflating tweets, his words were made to sound as though Okundaye was praising violence while calling all white people racist. But Okundaye insists this was not the case and his words were twisted and placed out of context. Concerning is that the story was re-run by a number of media outlets without Okundaye's response on the matter.

Abbott and Okundaye are perhaps two BAME figures that occupy a rare seat at the table of elite institutions like Parliament and Cambridge. A rare flag-wave for the under-represented, raising the agenda of their issues. But this concerted effort to equivocate them with violence or segregation instead sends a message that they somehow do not belong within these institutions.

The language of the media has thus diminished their voices again.

A film about the 2011 riots from the viewpoint of those at the heart of them quoted Martin Luther King at its beginning - "A riot is the language of the unheard".

Are people being heard? Well we have rising inequality and between 10% and 30% of deaths after police contact are black men. Charles along with Edir Da Costa and Darren Cumberbatch are the most recent cases from the shocking statistics. And a perception that there still hasn't been any justice.

Saturday 4 August will be six years since Duggan's death and the month when the 2011 riots began. And the situation is all depressingly familiar.

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