THE WOMEN WHO RIOTED
The dominant images of the August riots were of angry men, but the interviews by “Reading the Riots” (a partnership which include the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics) suggest females were a significant presence…
On the third night of riots, two 20-year-old women made their way from Brixton to Peckham, egged on by friends and pings on their BlackBerrys. Once there, they saw an abandoned police car. Within minutes a petrol bomb was sailing through its window.
“One of my friends … just said: ‘Let’s fuck it up,’ because there was no one there, there was nothing to be seen, and all our faces were covered as well,” said one of the women, who lives in Westminster. “We kind of just went in on it. And then one of my [male] friends came at the last minute and just petrol-bombed it. So, quite satisfying.”
The women stood watching as flames engulfed the car. “It felt good, that police car, it felt really good,” she said. Asked why she had attacked it, her friend, from Lambeth in south London, said: “We just thought like it was kind of, not for a good cause, but in the beginning it was to protest about the [ways] we’re being treated by police and that nowadays.”
The dominant images from the riots – and the political debate that ensued about their causes – focused on the notion that they were caused by a group of exclusively angry young men.
Government data – based on a breakdown of those arrested over the riots – indicates only 10% of those who took part were female. But of the 270 interviews with rioters carried out as part of the Reading the Riots series, 21% were with girls and women, and they appear to have played a significant role in the disorder.
The 56 interviews with female rioters revealed complex reasons for their involvement. Like the men who took part in the disturbances, some were there only to loot and exploit the lawlessness; others described having no intention of stealing and said they were caught up in the moment.
There were times when the brazen involvement of older women surprised people in the crowd.
A 15-year-old girl from Brixton who looted in Clapham Junction described an atypical family scene. “I saw a woman and she came out of her house with her daughter and she was like: ‘Oh, where’s Debenhams?’ And I was like: ‘Why?’ and she was like: ‘Oh, we’re going to go looting.’ I was like: ‘You’re with your daughter and you’re going looting?'”
In Birmingham a 22-year-old man described seeing “a girl as well, about 13 years old, chucking things at the police”, while a 23-year-old man in the same city summed up the surreal nature of the riots with the words: “Chaos. I see even big women robbing, you know.” One of the youngest looters charged with criminal damage was an 11-year-old girl from Nottinghamshire.
A different kind of looting
Many of those interviewed suggested that women had looted differently from the men involved, tending to steal lower-value items or pick up the spoils others had left behind. The retail targets were also different, sometimes adhering to gender stereotypes.
A 22-year-old student from Kennington in south London described seeing girls venturing into Boots. “Her friend was telling her to go in there and saying: ‘Oh, get me a lip gloss, make sure you get me a lip gloss.'”
An 18-year-old man from north-west London said he saw girls target a hairdresser’s. “Girls were stealing weave, literally everything,” he said. Other female looters were of a more practical bent.
A 22-year-old woman from Bow, east London, recalled seeing a woman struggling with a large box of soap powder: “I said to her, ‘Why did you take soap powder?’ and she goes, ‘Because I need it,’ and I just looked at her and I couldn’t even be bothered [to] laugh or say ‘Have some pride,’ because I could understand.”
Women were seen taking nappies, baby food and bags of rice. But one 17-year-old from Merton, south London, admitted looting at least £300 worth of clothes. “I felt bad in a way because when I went back home and I was like, in front of my mum and stuff … I felt bad because she was watching the news every day and saying that all these stupid people rioting, [I] hope they all get caught,” she said. “So in a way I did feel bad but in a way I felt good because I got free stuff and I got away with it … I didn’t really mind.”
Many of the women interviewed stressed that they did not lead the assaults on the businesses targeted over four nights of looting, but stood back and waited for the shopfronts to be broken into.
A 21-year-old from Wandsworth, who picked up looted goods outside shops in Clapham, explained why she had not gone into any shops herself. “They were just ram-packed,” she said. “You ain’t getting in there unless you’re willing to fight someone or draw a little blood from your body … I’m a girl as well … do you know what I mean? I’d rather just pick up whatever you’ve dropped.”
An 18-year-old woman who said she only observed the riots in Liverpool explained why she had not got directly involved. “At the end of the day I’m 18 and I’m a girl, I’m not going to go around smashing cars up,” she said.
Women and girls questioned were more likely than their male counterparts to admit to being scared during the riots. “I got a little bit frightened because all the police started running towards us and me and my mum were on our bikes so it was quite hard to turn around and start cycling,” recalled a 13-year-old from Tottenham.
A 20-year-old from south-east London described the scenes of pandemonium in Peckham: “I saw so many people running towards me, I thought I was going to get trampled over. I had a panic attack; I was running up some next road. I was scared,” she said.
But several of those interviewed said they were more fearful of the police than fellow rioters. “I felt safer in the group of rioters than I did next to the police,” said a 19-year-old from Manchester who went into town and got caught up in crowds running from police. A similar view was expressed by a 22-year-old from Stockwell, who looted in Clapham Junction. “[There was] fear of the police, because they wasn’t there, and thinking any minute they could just run through and grab or hit anyone.”
Like many of the men interviewed, women and girls who took part cited a deep-seated mistrust of the police as a motivation for rioting; only 7% thought the police did a good job, mirroring the finding among men we questioned. “We hate them,” said one 16-year-old from north London. “They always want to stop and search us all the time even without no reason. They do it to me every time I walk on the street.”
The sentiment was repeated by a 22-year-old from Bow, who said she drove rioters to the scene of the disorder because of her hatred of the police. “There’s not one police officer I feel like I like,” she said. “They’re normal like us but yet they treat us like we’re shit. Do you know how many times I’ve been stopped and searched? I’m a girl.”
Of the women questioned, 43% had been stopped and searched in the last year, compared with 78% of male interviewees. But women and girls were often also angry about police treatment of their friends, brothers and fathers.
“My dad, he’s black South African, he lives in Tottenham and the amount of times he’s been stopped for no reason by police because he’s black is ridiculous. It’s horrible,” said a 13-year-old girl from Tottenham.
The 20-year-old from Westminster present when the police car had been petrol-bombed in Peckham said she hated the police because they had broken her brother’s nose. “I feel like they’re all corrupt, they’re all working for the government, and the government’s telling them: target young black males with hoodies on,” she said.
For many of the women interviewed the consequences of taking part in the riots had been severe. The mother of one 16-year-old girl interviewed was imprisoned after police found stolen items at their house. Asked how she felt about receiving the stolen goods now, the girl said: “Kind of upset because like my mum’s not here, then like an idiot because I went there, and then sometimes I just don’t know what to think, or how to feel.”
Another 18-year-old described the panic she felt after being taken into custody for burglary on 9 August. “[I] felt very vulnerable. [I had] never been to prison in my life. Everything that I’ve heard about prison scared the life out of me. When I actually got remanded I actually split my head open with the fright. I actually smacked my head off the wall because I couldn’t believe it.”
Persuaded to plead guilty by her lawyer, she was filled with regret about getting involved. “I would turn back time because I wouldn’t want to miss the moments that [I’ve missed] with my daughter,” she said.
Only 27% of the girls and women said they would take part in the riots if they happened again, compared with 37% of men and boys. Many of those interviewed, on reflection, felt their actions were wrong.
A 42-year-old who handed herself into the police said: “I felt guilty because I saw the aftermath. Some of the shops that had been hit we used, so we knew the owners,” she said. “I felt pity for them. I saw the devastation of what happened. I didn’t feel good about myself basically, so I thought it was the right thing to do.”
After the initial excitement had passed, one 16-year-old, who rioted in Clapham Junction and received looted goods, said she regretted the impact on the local community. “It’s stupid because now everyone’s thinking why did we actually do it? Like, you didn’t really benefit from it; if anything we’re just thinking what did we do to where we live? You’re basically breaking your own community.”
Some had been critical on the night itself. The 22-year-old woman who gave a lift to rioters said she told them: “You guys are kind of using Mark [Duggan]’s death as an excuse to steal,” while a 17-year-old from Merton dismissed the idea that rioting was a legitimate form of protest: “Shouting at police and … looting things are totally different,” she said. “Rioting is totally different, because you’re hurting more people. You’re not just hurting the police, you’re hurting everyone else.”
The young woman who had delighted in the anarchic moment when the abandoned police car in Peckham had been petrol-bombed, who felt “the government needed a waking call … they deserved it” said she felt no remorse about what they had done, hoping the “message” they had given would not be ignored.
“It felt like all us youths were pulling together, like just trying to make a point really. It’s sad it got to the point where it did riot, where something had to be done for us to be kind of heard,” said the 20-year-old from Lambeth.
She added: “There were other ways we could’ve gone about it – it did get a bit out of hand at the end – but still, I think we were still heard. We were still recognised, like, and I think it was worth it.”