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Fire and fury: The inside story of Knowsley’s night of shame
How anti-asylum seeker sentiment boiled over outside the Suites Hotel
By Jack Walton
Looking out of his window, Hassan could see flames. The source of them, on the night of Friday 10th February, wasn’t clear. He didn’t know then that the charred husk of a police van would be left on the roadside when the night was over, but he certainly knew something very bad was taking place. Roughly 4,000 miles from his old home, in Iran, he sat in his new one, the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, as a baying assembly of protesters, counter-protestors, far-right agitators, police and teenagers who just enjoy breaking things hustled, traded insults and launched missiles outside.
Hassan — not his real name — tries to recount the events of that Friday night, but only remembers flashes. “From my room I just heard the sound and saw fire,” the 30-year-old says, adding sporadic details; an arrest, the launching of a firework towards the police, a helicopter overhead. But little else. “I hardly slept that night,” he says, realising that he and his fellow asylum seekers were the ultimate target of the mob outside.
He and the others watched in real time the images and scenes that would disseminate through social media in the days that followed: a vandal wearing a police helmet, eyes gleaming through the grimy plastic visor; two men swinging stolen riot equipment above their heads and bringing it down onto the windscreen of a police van, again and again and again, with a degree of overkill indicative of pre-meditation, a resentment that hadn’t swelled up from nothing.
The smoke from the burning police van was so strong that it could be smelt several streets away, drifting through Knowsley with the accompanying sound of “Get them out! Burn it down!” Before it was set alight outside the Suites, protesters jumped onto the vehicle, spray painted the word “nonce” onto its side and bashed it with sledgehammers as the crowd cheered. Blue police lights –– emanating from force cars that had not been seized by the mob –– filled the front rooms of nearby houses. A loose line of police officers formed on the East Lancashire road and were pelted with missiles from the crowd. “Get them out!” chanted the demonstrators. “Burn it down!”
It hadn’t taken long for the demonstration to descend into violence. Initially, some families with young children had shown up, carrying signs reading “PROTECT US KIDS” and “OUT OUT OUT”, posing for videos that would appear on TikTok soundtracked to John Lennon’s Power To The People. But just before 8pm –– when the demonstration was officially set to begin –– a crowd had formed in front of the police, members of which called officers “nonce protecting cunts”. By 8.30pm, protesters were spoiling for a fight. “If ya want it, let’s have it!” shouted a man at the police in a Facebook video posted around this time. “I’ll fucking take ya right out. Get them rapist ISIS bastards out that hotel!”
By 9pm police had lost control of their van: it was looted and set alight. A counter-demonstration in solidarity with the asylum seekers looked on in horror. Among them was Alan Gibbons, a city councillor for the Liverpool Community Independents, who said at one stage he feared the crowd would break through the police lines and storm the hotel. “I was shocked by the numbers, disturbed and worried about getting everyone out safely,” he recalls. Fifteen people have so far been arrested, one charged with assaulting an emergency worker. One of them has been named as Jarad Skeete, a 19-year-old from Aigburth, around ten miles away.
A viral video
How did it get to this point? The Post has been investigating the causes of the Suites riot, trying to understand what drew around 400 people to the hotel last Friday. Initial press coverage of the incident said it was organised by far-right groups, which now seems an exaggeration. They were involved, certainly, but the real picture is more complicated.
To start at the beginning: the government uses hotels as temporary asylum seeker accommodation, in this way housing around 37,000 people. Some of them are Afghans offered the right to settle in the UK, others will have come via the Channel in small boats from different countries. Since spring 2020, when this policy was expanded, resentment against asylum seekers has grown: it costs around £7 million per day in hotel bills, a fact not lost on the far-right activists who come to these hotels to berate staff and guests and then post footage of these encounters online. The Suites has been targeted in recent weeks by Britain First, a far-right political party based in Manchester, and members of Patriotic Alternative (PA) an extremist organisation run by a neo-Nazi whose favourite book is Mein Kampf.
Among PA’s rank and file is a man named James Costello, a longtime far-right activist from Kirkby who is formerly associated with National Action, a banned terrorist group that plotted to murder an MP. Costello is now a prominent player in PA, and was posting leaflets around town about refugee hotels in the run-up to Friday. He is also a leading figure in the Creativity Movement, a white supremacist organisation, in which Costello boasts the grand title of Pontifex Maximus (although his stomping ground of Kirkby is somewhat less august than the holy buildings of the Vatican from which he draws inspiration). Costello was there on Friday, and has claimed, fancifully, that strangers have since been coming up to shake his hand and thank him for his activism. Also present that night were anti-refugee YouTubers like Amanda Smith, alias Yorkshire Rose, and Alan Leggett, known as Active Patriot. These activists claim that there are no asylum seekers staying in hotels, just “fighting-age males”: lascivious young men cheating the system to gain access to benefits and white British women.
Costello and his ilk may have helped to stoke anti-asylum seeker sentiment, but they were not the main catalyst for the rally. It was a video that kicked things off. Three days before the protest, a clip went viral on Merseyside social media: it’s filmed by a teenage girl, her phone camera trained on a man asking for her number. They’re on a residential street. She’s wearing her school uniform, he’s wearing trackies. “How old are ya?” she asks him. “Twenty-five,” he responds in a foreign accent. “I’m only 15,” says the girl. “Good,” says the man, asking for her WhatsApp details. “No, that’s not good,” she replies. “You don’t do this in this country. You go to jail if you do this.”
Posted on the morning of February 7th, this video rocketed through local Facebook groups and Telegram channels. That same day a protest was organised at the hotel for the 10th. A meme page on Instagram called Around Liverpool shared details: it is the first mention that we can find of the rally. “We protest against the people staying in the hotel and the effect it’s causing on the city,” said the advert. “No violence.”
For what it’s worth, the man’s actions have been condemned by fellow residents at the Suites, and we have been told that he is no longer staying there. “All of them here are angry about his attitude,” said one asylum seeker, although others wondered if there was missing context from the short clip that went viral. Another resident of the hotel, a 24-year-old man from Sudan who asked to remain anonymous, told us: “Of course I was angry at him. I did not accept what he did, and he should be the only one punished, not all of us.”
Quickly after the advert was first posted, it was shared by a man named Dylan Cresswell, a former English Defence League organiser who has called for arson against mosques. A failed independent council candidate for Anfield (94 votes) under his “Make Anfield Great Again” tag, Cresswell is believed to be one of the key figures behind the Suites protest. “I’ve had all the names under the sun thrown at me over the years,” he posted in an Instagram video after the incident. “But I couldn’t give a flying fuck because I believe that what I’m standing up for is right.”
Another early mention of the protest came from an account called lvplstopchecks, which posts updates of police locations around the city. In the aftermath of the riot, this account began asking for the personal details of Echo journalists to share online. “Let’s find all their addresses and post them online like they do us Scousers,” it said.
There are many accounts of this type around Liverpool and they share an eclectic conglomeration of tropes: the wellness industry, admiring Donald Trump, anti-vaxx, anti-lockdown, psychedelics, the debunked Great Replacement theory, a shared belief that mass migration is exposing the country to paedophiles. They seem to represent the blurring of lines between old-school Scouse anti-establishment sentiments (distrust of police, the state, the “Cosmic Scally” trope etc) and outright far-right conspiratorialism, a transition probably exacerbated by the pandemic (see Sine Missione: the street artist known for his hippie-ish anti-state slogans stencilled around the city, who took a turn over lockdown towards conspiracies about George Soros and government plots to turn animals gay).
An uncomfortable truth
In the wake of unsavoury events, our politicians are fond of condemning perpetrators as unrepresentative. “This is not who we are,” said Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, after the riot. “There are a small number of far-right activists who whip up hate and hostility in this country. We all need to speak with one voice when we say we utterly condemn them. This is not who we are as a country and they do not speak for people in Knowsley.” That may be wishful thinking. Clearly the protest, which drew around 400 people, did speak for some people, even if Nandy doesn’t wish to admit it. Sure, Knowsley isn’t awash with far-right die-hards, given that more than 80% of it voted for Labour in the 2019 general election. But to reject the Friday night incident as being entirely unrepresentative of the borough seems out of touch with reality.
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This week, The Post interviewed residents who live close to the hotel and came away with a picture more complicated than the one Nandy paints. Many residents we speak to express sympathy for the position the asylum seekers find themselves in, thousands of miles from their home countries, fled due to war and turmoil, now stuck in a hotel on an industrial estate by the side of the M57. However, others also describe how their initial goodwill is evaporating after alleged encounters with men (who they believed to be asylum seekers staying at the Suites) which left them feeling uncomfortable.
A taxi driver named John says his 11-year-old daughter was stared at on the bus, and came home crying, saying “they’re pervs, dad”. Another man, asking to remain anonymous, lives on Ribblers Lane and says he awoke to find a stranger breaking into his home, someone he believed to be a resident of the hotel across the road. A woman named Connie describes being followed by a man in Asda, and her best friend Megan says she was once sexually propositioned by men staying in the hotel.
John, Connie and Megan attended the protest on Friday, although they say did not participate in any of the violence. We couldn’t verify their stories of harassment –– how, for instance, did John’s daughter know that it was asylum seekers staring at her on the bus? And why did the man believe the stranger breaking into his home came from the hotel across the road? Perhaps these anecdotes were only being offered to retrospectively justify attendance at a controversial event. What is certain, however, is how these residents are dead against the housing of asylum seekers nearby. The view is now circulating among the area that the police are not just protecting paedophile migrants but putting them up in four-star hotels at taxpayer expense. Not only that, but there is a conspiracy theory that police officers purposefully left their van to be trashed and give Knowsley a bad name.
Connie, a young mum of two who we meet outside Megan’s house, attended the protest on Friday night and left when the van was torched. Referring to rumours of a future demonstration by the hotel, she says she plans to return every week until the refugees leave. “Why should they be here?” Connie says. “When we go on holiday, we don’t go away to molest their kids. When they come here, they’re taking over our jobs, our houses, taking over our country. Now they’re trying to do stuff to our kids.” She mentions fears of attempted abductions in nearby woods, although the police have not reported any such cases and have instead issued a statement about how many local concerns are “based on misinformation and rumour”.
Megan is standing listening to this on her doorstep, dressed in coat and hat and ready to go out with her pal Connie. Both of them have a word for the crowd of people demonstrating in solidarity with the asylum seekers: “traitors”. Why? Referring to the asylum seekers, Megan says: “They’re getting accommodation for free. It’s hard for us to pay leccy, pay gas. And they get to live there for free? I understand what’s going on in their country but our country needs to help us first.” Connie says the area has changed, and like John, who lives up the road, explains she won’t let her young girls play outside on their own. “I’ve never known anything like this until they got shipped into the Suites,” she says. “You can’t walk around now. What happens if you get snatched?”
The former Conservative candidate for metro mayor, Jade Adamowicz Marsden, tells a similar story, although not one necessarily coded by the threat of sexual violence. She says she was walking through Liverpool city centre a few weeks ago when a man emerged from a hotel holding asylum seekers and started shouting threats at her daughter, who is autistic and became very scared. “I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the ordinary people who turned up to protect their daughters,” she tells The Post. “They wouldn’t have wanted to be in the middle of something [violent] like that, it was frightening for them too.”
Marsden accepts that there may be some confusion around the exact nature of many of the incidents described by residents. “It’s hard to tell if it’s an actual issue that’s occurring or some kind of cultural difference, but people are understandably worried,” she says.
What caused the mess?
Back to Friday night. According to Dr Rob Hesketh, a criminologist at LJMU, two theories explain why riots occur. The first is the “mad mob theory”: that individuals, all dressed in black, faces covered with balaclavas, can lose their sense of reason and rationality. The second is the “bad person theory”, which holds that there are some people who want to commit violent acts, and that in a crowd others will follow them. “Those two theories work in conjunction, allowing people to behave in ways they wouldn’t normally behave in crowds,” Hesketh explains. “Drugs and alcohol also act as facilitators.”
It isn’t hard to see what he means from the mess left in its wake. The protest, when it started, was clearly more than just a demonstration of political views. For some it was closer to a rave. Cars filled Ribblers Lane, the residential road closest to the hotel, and residents found it strewn with plastic lager packaging and McDonald’s burger wrappers. One woman who lives on the road said it was “like there had been a festival the night before”.
But what else caused the Suites Hotel protest to become a riot? Hesketh says negative stereotypes about foreigners, like the kind spread by the schoolgirl video, can also induce an “us versus them” mentality, like the kind that led to the showdown. But there are also other psychological factors. He says mob behaviour appeals to people “who don’t necessarily have any power to challenge authority figures and take control of a situation”. And there is also an element of group dynamics: setting fire to a police van and stealing their riot gear is a great way of getting kudos from peers.
Riots have an energy of their own, and once it is spent it is unlikely that they recur with the same ferocity, Hesketh says. While there are future protests planned (plus a counter demonstration featuring Jeremy Corbyn in St George’s Hall this weekend), the odds of them descending into the chaos of last Friday remain –– hopefully –– small. However, the impact of the riot upon the asylum seekers is just as fresh as the night it happened. The Sudanese man quoted above says his life in Kirkby has now changed “180 degrees”, explaining: “Before that I was walking around without fear, but now and after what happened, I am afraid to go out alone. I am afraid for my life.” He adds that he has twice since faced abuse from locals, once from young men on the bus and once at the market, when a woman and her daughter stopped and started shouting at him but he couldn't work out exactly what they were saying.
Another asylum seeker describes an incident where a group was making its way towards the market and a car with two women inside stopped next to them, lowered the window and began to shout. Again, he couldn’t make out what was being said but the women “made a sign with their fingers,” before driving off. Another man says that a WhatsApp group has been created by hotel residents so they can inform security if they find themselves being threatened in town, but that in the two days after Friday few of them have been out at all.
There’s an image of Liverpool, fondly projected by city leaders, that we are a sanctuary for refugees, a progressive haven for the most vulnerable in society. To quote Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor: “The disturbing scenes in Knowsley aren’t representative of our area or its people. Hatred is not welcome here.” But that now sounds a little naive. As Alan Gibbons, councillor on the other side of the barricades, put it: “I’m under no illusions about ‘Red, welcoming Merseyside’.” For all the professional agitators and out-of-town activists who had a hand in the riot, the main participants were ordinary locals, angry about asylum seekers being housed in the local hotel. Gibbons is clearly onto something: in order to project the image of Liverpool our politicians want, they have to bury something else in turn.
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Additional reporting by The Post team.