Meeting Marcus Knox-Hooke, the Man Who "Started the London Riots"
What happens after you're blamed for destroying London?
The Hospital Club is a central London members' bar that's equal parts lavish and lifeless. It's a classic setting for things like film junkets, where a queue of journalists get five minutes to ask famous people the same two questions. A few half-drunk bottles of water scatter the table.
Today is a bit different. Opposite me is the star of a film, but he's not an actor. When he's finished doing press, he'll go back to Tottenham. Trying to make ends meet, he's currently shifting from one friend's sofa to another.
He is Marcus Knox-Hooke, the best friend of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old father of four who was shot and killed by police officers in 2011. Duggan's killing sparked some of the worst scenes of civil unrest in recent British history. What is commonly referred to as the London riots actually spread as far as Bristol and Birmingham, with violence being reported in cities as affluent as Oxford. As people looked for someone to blame, eyes focused on Marcus. He was involved in the (initially) peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station, but on CCTV, he seems to be the first person to engage in an act of violence, trashing property and the like. Even now he doesn't deny that he "started the riots". He was given 32 months for violent disorder, robbery and burglary. It was his first criminal record.
Now his story is being told in The Hard Stop, a new documentary by George Amponsah that views the riots and their aftermath from the perspectives of those closest to Duggan.
You might think that after losing a best friend and being held accountable for a riot that spread to cities you'd never even set foot in, the last thing you'd agree to is having a guy follow you round with a camera for years. But when Amponsah approached him about being in a documentary, the relationship between them turned out to be a powerful one.
"There were times when I'd be rude," Marcus explains. "I'd say to George, 'Are you sure you're not police? Are you sure you don't have a different agenda? Are you trying to find information and then you'll run back and tell them?' But he stuck by me."
Filming for The Hard Stop started in 2012, which Marcus remembers as one of the worst points in his life. He was staying in a hostel in Dagenham awaiting sentencing for his involvement in the riots. Even before he was imprisoned, he couldn't go anywhere. "I was banned from London, I couldn't contact anyone in the city. Most of that four-month period, George and Kurtis Henville [the other subject of The Hard Stop] were the only people around me, so I became really close with George. He supported me in my hardest times. He helped me in different ways, and that's why I gave him my confidence and put my trust in him."
Marcus says that previously, he had associated being filmed with the police, or with the surveillance cameras on his estate. In the weeks following the riots, journalists and photographers would show up to Broadwater Farm for stories about what had happened, writing pieces which often demonised and condemned Mark Duggan and the estate which both boys had grew up on. But through George's lens, Marcus says he found a kind of salvation.
I thought: whatever happens today, I don't care. If I'm dead by the end of the day, I don't care. Because, you killed my brother.
Through the film, we learn that prior to Mark's death, Marcus had "stepped away from the streets" for two years. He'd been living away from Tottenham, a decision he made after reconnecting with his religion. After a long period of "rating badness", he tells me it was the happiest time in his life, because he'd found "peace with myself". He only returned when he heard Mark died, marching to Tottenham police station. Mark's family were there; there were children and mothers, including both Mark's and Marcus' own mum. They waited six hours before being told the police commissioner wasn't going to speak to them. "And that was that," remembers Marcus, "no explanation."
I asked him how he'd felt that day. Marcus explained that when he'd first heard Mark was involved in a "shootout", it made no sense to him. "Number one, not him. And two? No one does that! You understand me? No one has shootouts with the police, it's just unheard of."
So what happened? How did things turn from a protest to violence? "On that day, I'll tell you the truth; it wasn't that I was trying to sacrifice myself. But I thought: you know what, whatever happens today happens, and whatever it is, I don't care. If I'm dead by the end of the day, I don't care. Because, you killed my brother. And that's someone that I've been with forever. I'm 34 years old; we went to the same nursery, do you get what I'm saying? We'd been together forever."
The results of the 2014 inquest found that Mark Duggan had not been carrying a gun, yet the verdict remained that his death was still "lawful killing". Many have accused the police of racism, but Marcus is somewhat reluctant to join that chorus. "I don't really know," he sighs. "I can't tell you that. Growing up, the situation with Mark stemmed from the situation with PC Blakelock [the officer killed in the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots]. I don't think it comes down to race. I think it comes down to a personal vendetta. People blame this and that. Race is still an issue. Look at the US, black people are getting killed for just nonsense. A guy reaching for his licence, a man getting shot for a broken taillight. It's a lot for the brain to digest."
Marcus says he's practising Islam again. In between promoting the documentary, he's launching a mentoring scheme aimed at vulnerable Tottenham youth, in memory of Dugga. The idea came from looking after Mark's son, Kemani, in the aftermath of his father's death. "He was very frightened, very timid when his dad passed," Marcus explains. "Mark was his world, they were very close. But as time goes on, he's getting his confidence back. He just needs the right support, continuously, because if he doesn't have it, I know he'll spiral out of control."
We return to the subject of race, and the recent killings in America. "It reminds me of how black people lived in the days of slavery," Marcus says. "Obviously growing up we didn't really witness that; but it's something your parents kind of spoke about. We couldn't really imagine it. But you're starting to get a sense of what life was like in those times. I've got young boys growing up. What's the future going to be like for them?"