Greenwich’s new council leader says that he decided to enter politics after seeing Woolwich’s Wetherspoon pub burn down on TV during the London riots 11 years ago – and had to flee gang violence while he was at school.
Anthony Okereke, who replaced Danny Thorpe as Labour leader last month, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “As someone who grew up in Greenwich, and is passionate about the borough and someone who has seen the very best of this borough, it gives me a huge opportunity to lead it in a way I think will take Greenwich to a higher destination.
“My story is not the typical story of someone who has grown up in riches. I am someone who has faced a lot of difficulty. And to be in this position where I am at the helm of this authority, I can understand people’s difficulties, suffering and people’s want to just progress and live their life. I think I have the right lived experience of Greenwich and can work with our residents, and I hope I can do it justice.
Avoiding gangs while he was at school in Blackheath was a major influence on his life, he said. “I grew up seeing people wielding machetes near schools. I went to a school where there was a lot of gang crime. Sometimes it will be one gang versus the other, with one side wielding machetes and the other side wielding bricks and throwing them, and you’d just watch the clash in front of you while hiding behind a car.”
The 32-year-old was at university in Coventry when the London riots broke out in 2011 after the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. He said that seeing the violence spread to his home town of Woolwich inspired him to join the Labour Party.
Okereke said: “I was sitting in my student accommodation in Coventry, watching the TV as Woolwich was burning. I think it was the Wetherspoons that was burning. And I can never, ever forget that moment. That was the key turning point that activated my activism in politics. It’s such a vivid memory. That was the single moment that led me to being in this office.
“And when I turned on the TV the next day, what I saw was politicians saying ‘thugs’, depicting young people as though all we wanted to do was steal and thieve and all of that type of stuff. I was one of those young people and I thought there was no one that was representing my experience, speaking about the difficulties we faced.”
The torching of The Great Harry on August 8, 2011 was the defining image of the riots in Woolwich. The pub reopened a year later.
Asked if he would prioritise new Docklands Light Railway routes in the borough Greenwich, Okereke said: “Yes, 100 per cent. I believe we have some things coming up in the diary to talk to the mayor’s office about it. We want the DLR everywhere. We want the DLR to Thamesmead, the local MP Clive Efford has campaigned for it to come to Eltham as well.
“We need more transport this side of London. We haven’t had as much transport investment as other parts of London so we need that investment here. If you go to Eltham, people struggle to go places. They’re reliant on buses.”
Okereke will face questions from councillors for the first time as leader during a full council meeting next week.
Woolwich riot video is © Jellyfielder Studios.
Kiro Evans is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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