On the sixth day, the kids set up barricades blocking the main road north out of the City of London for nearly seven hours, because Rashan Charles is dead and they want justice.
It was an initiative that deserves not to be lost amid the lies and hype about “rioters”, and I’ll come back to it below.
Rashan never saw the enormous wealth of the City, the shining financial district just over the borough boundary. The gentrified bars and trendy hangouts of Shoreditch, just down the road, and Dalston, just up the road, are there for rich white hipsters and tourists: their prices make clear who is welcome and who is not.
The young people, the poor people, the workers and the pensioners who have long made up multiracial Hackney are being driven to the margins here now.
Housing costs are pushing long-term residents far out of the borough, old-school local pubs and greasy spoon cafes struggle to meet the rising rents. The once-busy and bustling Kingsland Waste market – where people could get tools and clothes and household goods cheaply – was strangled by the council, the fire station was closed by Boris Johnson.
Rashan, a young black man aged just 20, was unemployed, but friends said he was doing his best to turn his life around after the birth of his own little child.
That baby, loved and looked after by young Rashan, will grow up without a dad now, because Rashan died after what we are supposed to politely term “contact with police”.
Arrested in the local shop, thrown to the ground, head banging off the floor and the fridge cabinet, with a heavy-looking police officer all over his head and neck and upper body as he lay face down… Rashan died on 22 July.
His death would have been unknown and unreported if his friends had not spent the next day circulating the horrendous CCTV footage of his death on social media with the hashtag #JusticeForRash. They pushed and pushed until a few news outlets grudgingly picked up the story. That was the first day.
On the second day, we marched. Hundreds assembled outside Stoke Newington police station, further up the road, at a protest called by Stand Up to Racism. The protestors – many of them black, but also white, Asian, Turkish and Kurdish people – gathered together: angry, heavy-hearted and appalled.
But not totally surprised. This is the second time a young black man has died after “contact with police” in east London in a month. Edson Da Costa, 25 years old and also a father, died in Newham.
Rashan met his untimely end on 22 July – the anniversary of the police shooting dead Brazilian electrician Jean-Charles de Menezes in Stockwell in 2005. Friday 4 August will mark six years since the police killed Mark Duggan in Tottenham. There is not enough room in the calendar for all these grim anniversaries.
And Stoke Newington police station is notorious for its death rate. There have been many Hackney victims over the years – we used to have an annual march to remember them.
Who killed Colin Roach? Who killed Michael Ferreira? Who killed Aseta Simms? Who killed Tunay Hassan? Who killed Shiji Lapite? Who killed Harry Stanley? What exactly happened to Trevor Monerville inside Stoke Newington police station that day?
There are speeches outside the police station, but tension too. Hurt, angry people asking those around them, what is going on? How much are we supposed to take?
The police are clearly not going to keep the road open outside the cop shop. A long line of buses, parked up and emptied of passengers, stretches south. Children decorate the windows of the one at the front with placards: “Black lives matter.”
You can feel the anger in the demo – and also the fear: the parents of small black children holding their hands extra tight. In a release of energy the whole crowd moves off quite suddenly southwards.
I saw my workmate A up there by the cop shop, and other friends. The march gained in size as it moved down the road, pulling in people from the crowded Monday evening pavements. The chanting is loud and heartfelt. Another workmate, N, pops up beside me with his bike.
You see your friends and long-time neighbours on a march like this, a proper Hackney demo for a young man from our community who should never have died like that.
“Who are the murderers? Police are the murderers. Who are the racists? Police are the racists.”
“No justice, no peace, fuck the police.”
We marched down to Haggerston, to the spot at the bottom end of Kingsland Waste outside Yours Locally, the shop where Rashan lost his life. Some more speeches, a mourning silence. The policeman involved in the incident was still on duty, not even suspended, one of the speakers says. My workmate N emphasises the point.
As we stand there listening, a handful of kids turn back cars from the sidestreets to stop them cutting across the protest. Maybe that was the precursor…
Marching back up to the police station, demonstrators heckle the police lining the march. “Murderers, fucking murderers.”
A young white mother with a baby in a pushchair tells a copper to get away from her. The baby – chubby-cheeked and beautiful – is black. The young woman tells the policeman very forcefully where to go.
“I’m just smiling at your baby, don’t tar us all with the same brush,” says the policeman, who has perhaps had special training to remove all sense of irony.
It is a chance at least for people to get together, to tell the cops what we think. But by the end of the demo, the anger hasn’t gone away.
And so, on the sixth day our young people, our kids take their own initiative.
At lunchtime on Kingsland High Street, between Dalston Junction and Stoke Newington police station we can hear young voices chanting, down the road. “What do we want? Justice!”
They come up the road, a group of about 30 or so, some from a local youth club, with a couple of banners demanding justice for Rashan. All the way up the road, people come to the doorways of the shops and cafes to wish the marchers well and to talk about what happened.
A couple of hours later, I can hear the unmistakeable sound of a police helicopter circling and circling. When I go to look, it is exactly where I thought it would be – hovering like a mosquito over the section of Kingsland Road where Rashan died.
It turns out that 150 or 200 local young people have made a different kind of demonstration of their own, blocking off the Kingsland Road at the nearest junction to Yours Locally with barricades of giant refuse bins, a mattress, miscellaneous bits of debris.
They have strung this across the road in thin lines. It is not a solid, wall-like barricade – it is a statement. Traffic will not be passing the spot where Rashan died. The physical obstacles are reinforced only by clutches of young people gathered by them.
It is about 3.40pm when the roadblock goes up. Shortly afterwards, police formally close the Kingsland Road off at Dalston Junction, half a mile to the north.
Barricades have a long history in struggle, of course, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one like this in London – certainly not recently. It is not defensively barricading a residential street or estate entry – this is a blockade of a major London route, the A10 as drivers know it, coming out of the City.
The kids have deterred police who thought they could move the stuff, and by late afternoon there is a tense but fairly calm standoff.
By just after 6pm the police have a line below the southern barricade and I can hear the young voices chanting at them: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
“It’s a protest,” a young woman explains to me and anyone else within hearing. “We’re protesting because they killed Rashan.”
And that is what it is – a protest that they have come up with, outside the place where Rashan died. These kids have not gone on some wild orgy of destruction and violence. They are blockading a major road.
I wander about a bit – towards the front where young people are engaging the police in argument. On the four corners of the junction, groups have gathered. Many of the demonstrators look very young – they really are kids. It’s striking that many of them are women and girls – they are proud and assertive, they are not hanging back. There are boys with bikes, there is a little kid clutching the tshirt of his young mum.
There are a few older locals like me, and there are people passing through on foot – the blockade is aimed at vehicles not people – who ask what’s going on. “It’s a protest – it’s for Rashan.”
By about 7.30pm, the roadblocks have been up for around four hours, but numbers are thinning out. Just before 8pm there are maybe 40 or so people left, all pretty young, and it looks as though the police have moved away.
At some point, as it gets dark, people set fire to the mattress and other debris – there is not much risk as the items are in plenty of space, in the middle of a very wide road. It is not like wrapping an entire tower block in cheaply flammable cladding or anything.
But after 10pm things change.
Now why would it be that the police, whose relations with the local community are already at a low point after Rashan’s death, assemble a full-on army of riot squads to break through the barricades in the most provocative way some time after 10pm?
Why would there be such an urgent need to batter the road open at that time of night when it had been closed during the rush-hour when there is so much more traffic?
Maybe with the presence of riot police, they aim to create the impression of a riot.
And of course as the ranks of armoured, shielded, baton-wielding police come forward, backed by riot vans with their blue lights blazing, a few kids chuck a few bits of debris at the cops as they run away. In case Rashan’s death wasn’t enough provocation, they had had some more that night.
The commentators so horrified at the odd bottle chucked by a retreating teenager really ought to bear in mind that more stuff goes flying through the air regularly at football matches, pop concerts and on raucous Friday nights outside large pubs in small towns without it being described as a riot. A minor incident, a bit of a skirmish? That’s it.
But the police apparently decided on a major show of force.
Why else would the army of riot police, storm in stages half a mile up the road – well outside the protest area – across Dalston Junction and even past Dalston Kingsland station?
Why would they block off all the residential sidestreets, with the riot cops facing down those streets as if “the enemy” is coming from there? Why would they provoke so many previously uninvolved young people – and not so young people – who don’t like being pushed down their own streets in this way?
Why would they bring out the full array of intimidation: the footsoldiers, the vans, the charging horses and the phalanx of barking dogs?
It is unnecessary, over the top – it is a show of power.
And there is something about police using dogs to chase mainly black kids that reminds me of footage from the US Civil Rights struggle, a good half-century ago.
On the seventh day it is quiet. The fathers of Rashan Charles and Edson da Costa speak movingly outside Stoke Newington police station.
But this time, the television outside broadcast vans are there. There is such a scrum of photographers that I can’t get a decent shot in with my crummy phone. How things change in such a short time…
I walked back down to Kingsland Waste afterwards to pay my respects to Rashan in a quiet moment. Outside Yours Locally there are flowers, candles, pictures and little notes. There are plenty of pictures of this around – I didn’t feel like taking a snap, to be honest.
There are friends maintaining a vigil outside the shop and there are other people coming up to quietly pay their respects too. We shake our heads. A woman hugs me. “My mum marched for Colin Roach,” says another.
Some people say that protest changes nothing. But would Colin Roach’s name and the circumstances of his death be known without those who marched for him? Would Rashan’s death have made the news without those who bombarded twitter with his name, those who marched for him and the young people who blocked a main road for seven hours?
Don’t let the police tell you this was a riot. It was a protest, demanding justice. And that demand stands.
There is a fundraising page to help Rashan’s family with funeral costs. Please donate.