Pauline Pearce did not know she was being filmed when she spoke out against the rioters running amok in her Hackney neighbourhood. Standing in the darkness, on a debris-strewn pavement in front of graffiti that read ‘Fuck Cameroon’, she seemed a lone voice of conscience amid the carnage. ‘Get real black people. Get real!’ she shouted, waving her walking stick. ‘You lot piss me the fuck off! I’m shamed to be a Hackney person. Because we are not all gathering together and fighting for a cause. We are running out of Foot Locker and thiefin’ shoes.’ Within hours, the video clip had hundreds of thousands of views online: Pearce learned of her accidental fame the next day when strangers came up to her and asked if she was the woman everyone was talking about on Twitter.
‘It’s been insane,’ Pearce says, shaking her head and gripping her stick tightly. ‘I’ve been on This Morning and I can’t walk out on to the street without someone wanting to thank me for speaking out.’ We are in the living room of her rented one-bedroom flat in Hackney. There is reggae music on the stereo, a statue of a jazz musician blowing a trombone stands next to her sofa and a Bible on the table. ‘I live on £180 a fortnight incapacity benefit and my television is back from when Noah built the ark,’ she jokes. On the night of the rioting, Pearce, a singer and DJ, had gone to a music studio; she emerged from it into violent chaos. Cars were set alight, bins were ablaze and yet no one seemed to care. It was hearing someone say the looting did not matter because the businesses were insured that provoked Pearce into her tirade. ‘It came from a place of anger,’ she says. ‘It was the mother in me — the emotion and adrenaline all sizzled inside me.’
In the weeks since the riots, politicians have offered competing explanations of what led to the disturbances. Ed Miliband has compared the rioting with the MPs’ expenses scandal, while David Cameron has claimed it reflected the ‘slow-motion moral collapse of Britain’. Pearce says they both have a point. ‘The politicians were caught stealing and we all saw it,’ she says, ‘so what sort of a role model are the politicians for our kids?’
‘But what about role models inside the family?’ I ask. ‘Why aren’t the parents controlling their children?’
‘A lot of families split up because the benefits system doesn’t encourage people to stay together,’ she replies, ‘and so the mother is often expected to be both mother and father and children are not getting that basic training in right and wrong.’
Pauline Pearce grew up in Hitchin, the grammar-school-educated only child of parents who had come to Britain from Barbados. At age 45, she has four children from two different fathers, one of whom beat her ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for years’ before she walked out. The longer I spend with Pearce, the more her life resembles a one-woman daytime chat show: she became a grandmother at 35, when her 14-year-old daughter became pregnant; she served three years in prison for drug-smuggling; her daughter was raped, her son was stabbed and three years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘I have had six operations and silicone reconstruction,’ she tells me, ‘but this week I got the all-clear.’
Perhaps it is because she has battled so much in her life — she uses a walking stick due to arthritis and two slipped discs — that Pearce was so fearless when confronting the rioting youths. She is equally so about historian David Starkey’s controversial claim that hip-hop culture and in particular a ‘particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture’ was to blame for the riots. ‘What do you I think of that?’ she says. ‘Well, in the Queen’s English: balderdash. Pigswill. What’s been going on has no link to hip-hop. Instead of guessing in his suit and tie he should put a pair of jeans on and get out there and walk around with the people.’
For the past three years, Pearce has been hosting a weekly show on community radio where residents talk about their concerns about knives, guns and violence. ‘The complaint I hear constantly is that discipline has been taken out of parent’s hands,’ she says. ‘How are we supposed to keep our kids out of trouble when I can’t grab my son by the collar as he will do me for assault and I can’t send him to bed without tea because I will be done for neglect? It’s gone too far.’ She argues we need to go ‘back to basics. National service — I am all for it. We need to get these young people off their bums and doing something.’ The harsh sentences doled out to the looters are counter-productive and a knee-jerk reaction, she argues; the youths will simply be released with a criminal record and even less chance of employment.
‘If I was in charge I would get those kids doing community skills,’ she says. ‘They should be painting churches, doing Saturday deliveries. Let’s get them digging gardens and supporting the community.’
With her cancer in remission and her newfound fame, Pauline Pearce is able to look to the future with hope rather than dread. ‘If the Labour or Conservative party asked you to speak at their conference, would you accept?’ I ask her.
‘Do you think I would be capable?’
‘I think you’d be brilliant.’
‘If the opportunity came then yes I would because I want to do all I can to help my community.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 3, 2011