Hearing The Unheard: ‘The Hard Stop’ Reviewed
A ‘HARD STOP’ IS A MANOEUVRE used by the armed wing of the Metropolitan Police. Three unmarked police cars surround a suspect’s car, behind, in front and to the side, and force it to stop. What happens next is hard to determine – each case is different and, after all, the police control the narrative – but it might involve police marksmen shooting the car’s tires, smashing the windows, pulling the occupants out and employing ‘pain compliance’ techniques or assassinating the suspect. The Operation Trident Police unit used the technique when they killed the Tottenham resident Mark Duggan in 2011, but it was also used in the death of Azelle Rodney in 2005 and the brutalisation of Husani Williams in 2013. The hard stop is a technology of chaos and control, instilling in its victims an awe of state violence. George Amponsah’s documentary of the same name begins by examining this deadly manoeuvre when it was used against Duggan and the three days of rioting his death generated. Despite the riots’ national character, he localises the story to Tottenham and the working class population’s relationship to the police, following Duggan’s family and friends for three years after his death.
Trident, we learn early on, was surveying Dugan because they thought he was trying to acquire a weapon to avenge the fatal stabbing of his cousin, Kelvin Easton. (The police attribute only the crudest motives to their subjects.) Amponsah doesn’t bother dispatching this weak justification for the police’s actions – his sympathy for Duggan is absolute – but counters it with a more plausible revenge story, one born out of lived experience: the Metropolitan Police have had it out for the kids of the Broadwater Farm Estate, where Duggan and his friends lived and grew up, for at least a generation. In 1985, having arrested a black Broadwater resident, Floyd Jarrett, for driving with a suspicious tax disc (he was released without charge), the police searched his mother’s house during which she died of a heart attack. In the ensuing riots – a veteran tells us with infectious brio that the community gave the police “a bloody good hiding” – Police Constable Keith Blakelock was killed. His murder remains unsolved, haunting the estate and emboldening the police whenever they invade. As Mark Duggan’s mother, Pamela, tells us, “This is all about PC Blakelock. The intimidation that the kids have on Broadwater Farm is simply because of the death of PC Blakelock and they’ll persecute them until they find his murderer – every black kid on Broadwater Farm is paying the price.” Amponsah uses this inter-generational strife to make a convincing claim for the rationality of hating the police.
The Hard Stop then shifts modes, from investigation to observation, and documents the conditions that make a riot possible. The film becomes a character study of Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kutis Henville, two of Duggan’s closest friends. Marcus is accused of “instigating” the riots by smashing up a police car when the police commissioner refused to speak to the crowds gathered outside Tottenham police station on 6 August 2011; when we meet him he is awaiting sentencing. Whatever confidence those fleeting moments of control during the riots gave him is gone: he is diffident and inarticulate, smarting from the injustice of his friend’s “lawful” murder, unsure what to do with his anger. Kurtis is more comfortable with the camera’s presence, giving confessional soliloquies, inviting Amponsah to capture his precarious life. He tries and fails to get a job at Carphone Warehouse, where he regularly lingers outside to use their Wi-Fi; he loses his temper when the police confiscate his dog and refuse to return it until he buys a proper muzzle; he eventually finds work that involves commuting to Norwich, the strain of which buckles the relationship. Amponsah doesn’t use these two studies of alienated life to ‘humanise’ his subjects – as some reviewers have insisted – but to dehumanise the economic and social regime under which they live.
But this isn’t a militant film, and its conclusion is tempered by liberal instincts. Marcus leaves prison, he received only a 32-month sentence, to become a youth mentor so he can reform himself and the next generation – a decision Amponsah’s gaze endorses as a step in the right direction. In an awkward anti-climax, Marcus arranges a meeting with a youth programme run by the police. He hesitates outside the office and is visibly uncomfortable inside, sitting as far from the ex-cop as possible. Nothing much comes of the stilted meeting – he has vague plans to bring kids to visit prisons so they can see the consequences of breaking the law and the cop, annoyingly gregarious, offers his help – but it’s an odd conclusion for a film so focused on deep, structural wounds. Thankfully, we find out afterwards that Marcus retains his ingrained suspicion of dialogue with the police. ‘Part of me’s a bit wound up that I even sat down and spoke to him,’ he says with a smile. The Hard Stop begins with a title card that borrows Martin Luther King’s famous aphorism, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ But its content tells us something that challenges King’s premise, and you get the sense it’s on the tip of Marcus’s tongue: the unheard should not be defined in relation to who listens; they are a force in and of themselves.