Nearly 20 years have passed since that day in November 2000, when the 10-year-old Damilola Taylor died on a landing of the North Peckham Estate in south London. Thousands of newspaper stories have been written about the circumstances – there was a Panorama special and a Bafta-winning BBC drama, Damilola, Our Loved Boy – and yet with this Channel 4 documentary, Yinka Bokinni has made an essential contribution to our understanding of his legacy.
Bokinni is now a popular Capital Xtra DJ, but back then she was one of the kids who hung around with Taylor on the estate, playing on the grassy “hills” between blocks and in each other’s flats. Bokinni explains how Taylor’s death, followed a few months later by the demolition of the entire estate, became, for her and her peers, an immovable line separating childhood and adulthood: “Us kids never saw each other again. For 20 years, we never even talked about Damilola.”
It seems fitting that, as a successful broadcaster, Bokinni should be the one to finally break that silence. She begins the process by reconnecting with people who also knew “Dami”, such as her childhood best friend, Fran. They share memories, including the time when Yinka and Dami got into a physical altercation over something minor. “When I say it to other people it sounds like I’m speaking ill and I don’t …” says Bokinni, searching around for the right words, before landing on the shattering truth: “I mean that he was a 10-year-old.”
The rapper Tinyman also remembers that 10-year-old with the freckles. He and Taylor got to know each other in a homework club at the local library. Sitting in that library with Bokinni now – it is the first time either of them have returned to the area since – you can almost see the weight lifting off his shoulders. “One of the things that I had compartmentalised has been taken out the box today, because we’re here,” he says. The Oscar-nominated film-maker Cornelius Walker did not know Taylor personally, but he grew up in the same Nigerian community, and Taylor’s death changed his life. It was what convinced his mother to move the family out of London to what she hoped would be safety. “I didn’t know what racism was until I moved to Essex … and I didn’t have my community around me, I didn’t have that love,” he tells Bokinni.
These conversations are tough, but beautifully soul-baring, too. It is quite a thing to see adults unpacking their shared childhood trauma like this and finding some healing in each another’s understanding. The producers have also dug up a clip from that 2002 Panorama episode in which a sweet-faced, wise-beyond-her-years Bokinni is interviewed. Even as an 11-year-old she seemed to intuit – certainly more deeply than her interviewer – what little point there is in seeking explanation for tragedy: “I felt like: ‘Why …?’ But that question will never be answered.”
It still has not. Peckham’s then-borough commander, Rod Jarman, briefly but compassionately outlines to Bokinni the police’s theory of what happened – a schoolyard disagreement carried out into the street; a broken bottle in the wrong place – but there is no more detail than that and the convicted killers are never named. Instead, Bokinni’s film sets out to counter the media-constructed image of her friend as a lonely little boy, lost in the alienating inner city. He had friends, she says. He laughed, he played, he was surrounded by love.
Panorama, at least, took the time to talk to the people who knew this, but flicking through a newspaper archive, Bokinni is upset to find that most contemporary coverage fell back on dehumanising cliche and classist, sometimes racist, assumptions. “You move people into hell and then you call them devils!” she gasps, concisely summarising the attitudes to social housing of successive governments.
It is proof of Bokinni’s journalistic integrity, however, that she also introduces some nuance into her own possibly rose-tinted recollections. Was 1990s Peckham really the Kiss FM-soundtracked, jollof rice-fuelled, multicultural paradise that has now passed into legend?
It is complicated, but fundamentally, Damilola Taylor was part of a community and that community had value. To have this truth affirmed is very moving, not only for people who come from a similar background to Bokinni – I was also a kid on a London council estate back then – but for anyone in any frequently misrepresented group. There are quite a few of us, when you think about it.