If a riot is the language of the unheard, as Martin Luther King Jnr put it, then what happened across England in August 2011 needs to be listened to and understood. The violence, looting and arson that spread across the country resulted in five deaths and caused some £200 million worth of damage to businesses and property, but the police argued that it was first instigated by one man: Marcus Knox-Hooke.
Knox-Hooke and his friend Kurtis Henville grew up on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham along with Mark Duggan, who had been shot dead by police on 4 August. Two days later they were attending a protest outside Tottenham Police Station asking for answers and justice for their friend when violence broke out. Their story is now being told in a new documentary called ‘The Hard Stop’. Filmmaker George Amponsah first met Knox-Hooke and Henville in 2012, and he followed them over the next two years as Knox-Hooke faced trial.
“When I first met Marcus, he had an electronic ankle tag and was being accused of being the man who started the riots,” explains Amponsah. “Given that at the time people were being sentenced to two years in prison for stealing a bottle of water in the riots it looked like they were going to throw the book at him. It felt like I was filming the last wishes and confessions of a condemned man, and he really wanted to set the record straight before he went and did his time.”
In the end, the accusation that Knox-Hooke started the riot was eventually dropped but he was found guilty of four other charges, including burglary and robbery, and sentenced to 32 months in prison. As well as following his trail, Amponsah the film was motived by trying to understand more about the life of Mark Duggan. Amponsah’s background is in making documentaries about ‘hard men’, like Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men, Macintyre’s Toughest Towns and Ross Kemp’s Extreme Gangs. However, he says that meeting people like Knox-Hooke and Henville was a very different experience. “The first time I met Marcus and asked him to tell me what happened when Mark died he started crying,” he says. “My question was: if Mark Duggan was such a menace to society, so much so that the police had to use lethal force, then how come he was loved so much by his community?”
In the film, Knox-Hooke himself describes most of the rioters and looters as “opportunists”. What becomes very clear though is that those who were there on the initial protest had legitimate grievances about the way Duggan’s death – during the ‘hard stop’ by police that gives the film its title – and its aftermath was handled. Initially the police told the press that Duggan had died while shooting at them, which was not true. While an inquest later decided that he did have a gun in his possession when he was stopped, it was inside a sock and did not have any trace of his DNA on it. They concluded that he was unarmed at the time of his death.
“The police simply need to say they made a mistake,” says Amponsah. “Two things were concluded by the jury on that inquest: that he was unarmed, and that he was lawfully killed. It’s that ‘lawfully’ part that a lot of people have a problem with, including the coroner. That was why people took to the streets in Tottenham in 2011, and that was the spark that ignited a feeling that a lot of people had even if didn’t know Mark Duggan at all. They had all sorts of grievances about the state of the nation, the state of their lives and the state of society.”
In ‘The Hard Stop’, Amponsah traces the history of distrust between the police and the Broadwater Farm community back to the riots that happened on the estate in 1985, when Duggan, Knox-Hooke and Henville were all still children. Those riots occured a week after a woman named Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce was shot by police in Brixton, and were themselves sparked by the death of Cynthia Jarrett of heart failure during a police search of her home. In the resulting violence, PC Keith Blakelock was stabbed to death at Broadwater Farm.
It took until 2014 for the Metropolitan Police to apologise for the shooting of Cherry Groce, and Amponsah argues that Mark Duggan’s case needs to be handled much more swiftly if there’s to be any hope of resolving the breakdown between the police and the community they’re supposed to serve. “Can we wait 20 years for that apology?” he asks. “These events are cyclical. History repeats itself. What are we facing in terms of potential escalation when the next riot happens in five, ten or fifteen years time? My question is, can we afford to wait that long for the police to apologise?”
The larger issue is that even if it was Duggan’s death that sparked the protests that led to the riots in 2011, they could well have happened anyway. The kindling was already there, built by years of anger, frustration and resentment about the perceived unaccountability of the police. ‘The Hard Stop’ concludes with the statistic that in Britain since 1990 there have been over 1500 deaths either in custody or following police contact, but not a single conviction related to them.
It will take real change to restore trust in the police, and in a Britain now divided even further by the result of the EU referendum it’s more important than ever than we listen to the voices of the unheard.
“In 2011, there was a community in Tottenham who saw a member of their community killed in highly contentious circumstances by the police and it reopened a psychic, emotional scar that goes back to 1985 and the Broadwater Farm riot,” says Amponsah. “But then, after that happened in Tottenham it spread across London and then to other cities in England. Those people who were rioting had no knowledge of Mark Duggan. My point is, there were a lot of people rioting who were just pissed off with things in Britain, and with their lives in Britain. They felt a sense of unfairness and injustice and inequality and disillusionment. As of last week and our decision to exit Europe, I think we can clearly see that that is a widespread feeling. If you voted to leave, you’re very dissatisfied with the situation. If you voted for remain, you’re now very dissatisfied with the situation. So we’ve got a lot of very dissatisfied and disillusioned people in Britain, which are the same adjectives I was using to describe the people who took to the streets in 2011. It just takes a spark.”
Originally published in Shortlist, 14 July 2016.