As the London Riots features in VICE's 50 Moments That Defined Europe, we asked Sephton Henry to describe what it was like to be at the centre of it.
A lot of heartache had built up by 2011. I was 22 years old and things had got worse for us: everyone was noticing what we didn't have but others did. That meant physical things, but also opportunities.
Say you've got a block of flats. Lots of people in that block are gang members, drug addicts, suffering with mental health problems. Everywhere you look is deprivation. Then you go a little bit down the road and there are these huge houses, people living completely different lives. This divide was just growing and growing. And the more it grew, the more we felt it. It's not jealousy – we were just asking, 'Why can't I have it? Why am I lesser?"
There was anger and resentment on the streets, and then when Mark Duggan was killed by the police on the 4th of August, 2011, something was sparked. It triggered the nation.
I heard about the news from north London – I had some connections, even though I'm from the south of the city. One of my boys called me and explained what had happened. For lots of people, myself included, it was payback time. We'd been treated so badly for so long, been made to feel inferior, like second-class citizens. Suddenly we could take back the streets, take back our power. For someone to get killed in north London, to reach South London, Birmingham, beyond – there's another reason. It's not just Mark, it was what he represented, something bigger.
Action was coordinated, but looking on you wouldn't have understood it. Yes, we used phones, text, BBM, messengers. But if you know the streets, you know we communicate by how we move, by going to places. We know where people are, we know who is where and doing what. We met at local spots – bookies, McDonald's, chicken shops, outside train stations – and started talking. It wasn't just gangs; they alone couldn't have done it.
At first there were no police, just groups of people getting ready to smash things, to crash things, to loot – whatever you want to call it. People were getting ready to rebel against all laws possible that didn't involve hurting people. Laws to do with society's makeup, the one's upholding inequality. We wanted to attack things so people saw us and heard us. And we wouldn't stop – we needed to show we could take over.
I woke up on the 6th of August not knowing I'd be involved in the riots. I took a train towards a local area where I knew things would spread to; I remember people looting and taking what they could. Most things I saw were normal to me. Robbing shops? I'd been doing that since the age of two. But I remember seeing fire. I remember the police coming towards me, and I remember the fear in their eyes.
One police car came past and a paving slab went through the window. It hit the driver and the two officers in the back jumped out. The driver drove off, the crowd laughing. The two officers pulled out batons – they didn't realise the boys on the streets had batons too. They ran down the road and caught the car. The officer inside jumped out and the car was set on fire. Aside from defending ourselves from the police, there was no violence. People were standing up to authority, to those in power, to those who oversee.
The feeling was immense, I'm not going to lie to you. For once, the streets were unified, were one. All these different gangs were standing together. People who were usually shooting each other were working together. It was unreal. There were mixed feelings, though. You'd look around and see how things were getting messed up. That wasn't what we wanted, but the only way to do it was to rebel. It wasn't a choice, but a necessity.
From what I could tell, the places targeted weren't premeditated. If there was better security and shutters, people left it. Nobody wanted small local businesses to get caught up in the crossfire. No one involved was happy about that, but we just went where we could.
A few things happened to bring it to an end. People robbed things in the moment, rushing on adrenaline and fired up, but then reality hit: the law has been broken, and we know there are consequences.
Everyone around me was being charged really fast in these emergency courts, given huge sentences for doing next to nothing. My friend's girlfriend got two years; she'd never been arrested. She robbed something stupid like a pair of trousers. One guy I know got five years for being present.
It was about a week until I was arrested. I was on bail for three months, and then also sentenced to two years in prison. But that wasn't new, not unexpected. I'd spent about 16 years of my life in gangs. I was groomed to sell drugs at the age of eight. I've been shot at, bottled, stabbed in the face. What was different this time is we'd all found freedom in that day, and we don't get that very often. It was enough for us to feel going to prison was worth it.
It'll happen again, I'm completely certain. The prison population is increasing, inequality and disenfranchisement continues to grow. People are being killed on the streets. Things aren't getting better. People are still going into crime because they have no other choice. But we still get the blame: not the structures, not the system.
When people talk about August of 2011 now, it's a time that's glorified. People talk about those days with smiles on their faces. And with hope, in a way. People went to jail, but this place feels like jail for us anyway. What happened gave us hope that change can come – we all came together in unity. For us to see what that could look like? That was special.
To stop it happening, people need to be empowered. We can't be oppressed and made the victims. If the people who currently have no voice and no say get a voice, things will change. The streets have their own systems, their own leaders, their own rules. But these aren't respected – aren't acknowledged – by the powers that be.
We have built our own world because we had to, but outside of it now we aren't allowed to rise. We aren't taken into consideration. I've found my voice now, but lots of people haven't. The question you have to ask is this: are people abiding by the rules because we have to, or because we want to? When you want to – when you feel empowered and content – you aren't waiting for a moment to express your anger and frustration. When you're playing along because you're forced to, though, you're always waiting for a chance to break free.