Eight years ago, London was rioting. Shops were looted, five people died and an estimated £200m pounds of damage occurred in just two and a half days. Within hours the anger and violence of a grieving community in the capital had spread as far as Birmingham and Manchester.
Marcus Knox-Hooke was 29-years-old at the time. On Saturday 6th August 2011, he was trying to make sense of the news that his best friend Mark Duggan had been killed by police officers after the taxi he was riding in was pulled over two days earlier. The police initially described it as a shootout – a story that’s since been retracted – while an enquiry eventually ruled that Mark hadn’t been carrying a weapon at the time of his death.
Along with Mark’s family and members of the community, Marcus marched down to the police station in what started as a peaceful protest. “We didn’t come to start a fight,” he tells me, “we just wanted answers.”
For six hours, they waited outside the police station, but nobody came out to talk. “It’s the way the community is dealt with,” Marcus explains. “Mark’s partner wanted to ask why nobody had told his family that he’d passed away. They deal with you like you’re rubbish.” Marcus’ grief turned to anger, his anger turned to rage and when the crowd were finally told to go home, he vandalised a police car in protest.
Marcus’ actions became a catalyst and a peaceful protest turned into a riot that would last days, leading to reported effects in cities as affluent as Oxford. In the summer of 2011, he was, at least in the prosecution’s eyes, the instigator of the British riots.
I first met Marcus in 2016, a few years after his 32 month sentence (the charge for starting the riots had been dropped, and he’d accepted a plea deal for violent disorder, robbery and burglary). He was the subject of a documentary called the Hard Stop which followed him and Kurtis Henville (another of Mark Duggan’s close friends) as they navigated life following the aftermath Duggan’s death. It’s not an easy watch, with the pair battling grief, anger, homelessness and unemployment, but Marcus’ determination to become a positive role model is powerful and moving.
This month marks the eighth anniversary of the riots. It also marks the announcement of a new wave of policy changes under Boris Johnson’s government, including a pilot scheme which lowers the authorisation needed for a section 60 stop and search. It allows officers to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion for a defined period if police anticipate serious violence, despite the fact that only 2% of all stop and searches carried out under section 60 between April 2017 and March 2018 led to an arrest for an offensive weapon.
Eight years on, The Face meets with Marcus to discuss police tensions, mental health and whether the 2011 riots could happen again.
“I grew up going to youth clubs. In summer they’d take us go-karting or we’d eat ice cream on trips to Southend. You and your friends would come and chill. You could play outside, or on the computers. There was painting, football. Whatever you were doing you were never bored. We had a nice upbringing, but today kids have nothing to do. You see them sitting around smoking weed. We need more youth services, if you brought back these clubs they would definitely utilise them. A lot of the big organisations like Tesco, JD Sports… these franchises in deprived areas should help make it a little easier for youth to get work. When you’re on the streets with nothing to do, that frustration builds and they take it out on each other.
“Could the 2011 riots happen again? 100%… It’s the way the community is dealt with, like you’re rubbish. We didn’t come to start a fight. 2011 was another example of how they treated a community. If they had just stuck to their word that someone would come and talk to us, then we would have gone about our business. We were out there for six hours, there’s no explanation, no chance to ask questions. That’s why it escalated the way it escalated. You’re not going to listen to us, you’re not going to give us a voice.
“Since they killed Mark, I’ve noticed a lot of people are physically fighting back against the police. I saw a video last year of two kids being stopped by officers, one of them kicked the officer and managed to escape. It takes two to tango. The stigma that police are coming up in, they automatically see gang members even if it’s just a group of kids coming from college. The community also needs to do their part as well. If you’re innocent, [being searched] shouldn’t be a problem, but when you’re stopped regularly throughout the week, you might be in a rush to get somewhere and then you’re being pulled over, it gets annoying. The police need to change their approach in how they patrol the streets, and they need to be held accountable. The whole criminal justice system needs to change. At the moment It’s one rule for them and another for us. The system wasn’t created to benefit black people and ethnic minorities. We’re about to tour the Hard Stop [a 2015 documentary about the riots] in America and we’ve been reaching out to policy makers. It happened here – they take notes and they talk for the sake of talking. We need to get people into positions where they can talk about policy and laws. Be in positions where they can help benefit their own community.
“I think they do need to lengthen the sentence if someone is caught with a knife. If you stab someone it can be GBH, it should be straight attempted murder. I think that definitely would put people off carrying a knife. Gun crime in the UK isn’t as heavy as stabbings because if you get caught with a gun you’re going to get a very heavy sentence. Kids aren’t just walking around with flip knives, they’re walking with big Rambo knives and machetes. If you get caught with those the sentence should be lengthy. We need to teach people it’s not acceptable… Mums are crying weekly, day in day out, kids are getting stabbed for sometimes no reason, do you know what I’m saying?
“There are so many amazing grassroots organisations [working to end knife crime]. There’s the Kiyan Prince Foundation [an organisation offering workshops to dissuade young people from carrying a knife], a young boy named Farron Paul collects knives from kids in exchange for JD vouchers; he has a cult following and a lot of people reaching out to him. You have these organisations trying to do something but we’re not investing enough into them. If [the government] don’t want to do the work at least give them the funding to do it. I tried to set up a mentoring organisation and it was difficult. I reached out to all the schools in Harringay and pitched my idea to them, only one or two got back to me and no one was interested in my idea. Applying for funding is difficult. But if people reach out to me I’m still willing. Because of my profile I get asked to do workshops. I want to show these kids, look, I’ve come from where you’ve come from – it’s not all about the streets. That’s not the be all and end all.
“I’m a father and I’m about to be a grandfather. In the years that have passed, I feel like I’ve done a lot of growing up. I’m all about family. I lost a brother last September, that had a major impact on me and my family. I’m close with the mosque that was doing the funeral service. I said I wanted to go and pick him up myself. When I got to the hospital mortuary where he was I went in there and saw him lying cold on the table, it was so surreal. I felt so disappointed, there were signs he needed help, but I think I dealt with it in the wrong way. I thought he was trying to seek attention but I didn’t understand that he was actually in real need of help. Losing Mark was devastating, then losing my brother as well has been very difficult. You go through a lot of emotions and you see your family go through a lot of emotions, but my experiences have definitely made me a stronger person. It’s taught me to pay more attention to family. I used to live, according to street culture, but now I live according to me. I put myself and my family first.”