I Was Saved in the London Riots by the Hackney Heroine

Exactly 10 years ago, the Hackney Heroine saved my life in the London Riots.

After the death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man who was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, London, riots that first started in the local area expanded throughout London and major English cities in August 2011. The reasons behind what happened are complicated—the prevalence of systemic racism, a lack of socio-economic opportunities and an increasing distrust of police action, particularly against Black British men—and are still debated today. Many of the underlying issues are still very present with the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell fire and the British arm of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But 10 years ago, as the rioting took place in Hackney, East London, one voice made international headlines in a YouTube video. Pauline Pearce, known in that video as the Hackney Heroine, stood on the street with her walking stick, calling out the local community for fighting against itself. "We're not gathering together to fight for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker," she said. "If we're fighting for a cause, let's fight for a f***ing cause. You lot p*** me off."

I was there as a junior reporter talking to protesters and business owners, trying to understand what was happening and get some footage of the burning vehicles before I was challenged by those there.

"What the f*** are you doing? No photos," one protester said to me as I was filming a burning van. I was confronted by three protesters and it quickly escalated. "Delete it right now or we'll kill you."

The commotion had attracted attention and in what in my memory seemed like an instant, around 10 protesters moved towards me and a road-full of people were now paying attention.

"Put the phone down and run," said one bystander, but all the noise meant that by now around 30 people were surrounding me. I was held, punched, kicked and my phone was stolen. Then I was grabbed by a woman and rushed towards a block of flats. "They will kill you," she said at the time. "There is no law here. What the f*** do you think you're doing? Run."

I was helped to make an escape through a local block of flats by this lady who I was expecting to hear no more about and never speak to again. As the video of the Hackney Heroine started going viral, I realized that the woman who saved me was Pauline Pearce. While I was trying to piece together exactly what happened, she was appearing on the news everywhere.

In the decade since, I had never spoken to her to thank her properly and speaking to her felt like a most unusual type of reunion. She was worried that she might have imagined it all and there was always a lingering doubt that I'd exaggerated what happened or it wasn't her after all.

"10 years on and you've brought me tears," Pearce says when we talk for the first time. "I'll never forget that moment and I'm overwhelmed. I'm really happy to find out that you're alive after all this time. I've often wondered what happened to that young man. I was worried stupid about you, and no one seemed to know what I was talking about, apart from the two young lads who I think escorted you, they were meant to take you to a cab station. But I had no more news about you.

"It was a lot. I remember it being with my bottom being in a burning car and my friends were trying to pull me out because they were coming at you and all I had as a weapon was my walking stick. Do you remember? I was trying to hold them off. Oh my God, what a night that was."

I was shaken, bruised but fine. For a whole host of legal reasons, that story was never told in the press but Pearce's story was one of the biggest in the country. She ended up holed up in a hotel in west London at the request of a British newspaper for the exclusive interview. In it, she mentioned a "young boy" she saved.

"I've told the story about you but I don't think they believed me," Pearce said. "I think they thought I was trying to extend my heroism because I wasn't doing anything heroic when I was shouting at the top of the road. That [viral video] was recorded maybe 15 minutes before you came along, the police were coming through and then we started making our way down towards the shop where they started chasing after you. That was one absolutely crazy moment."

In the years that have followed, Pearce's life changed forever. She has been on a political party's leadership board, appeared on BBC radio talking about what it is that makes us human, auditioned for Britain's Got Talent, got stuck in The Gambia during the COVID-19 pandemic and too many more things to mention.

"I've just had an amazing rollercoaster, whirlwind of an experience for the past 10 years," Pearce says. "It didn't make me rich, which would have been nice, but what it did was it gave me a profile big enough that I got involved in politics, for God's sake, I became a spokesperson for the youth.

"Everyone has this fairytale-like made-up vision of what they feel happened with my life. For me, it's quite hilarious to listen to people sometimes—'Oh, you're all right.' I am alright but I'm living in a housing association home with stairs so I'm a little bit housebound. It's just that's where my life is. If people really knew what a heroine lived like, they would shut up. I've got people who think that I suddenly became massively rich overnight, you know, but the imagination of the public is unbelievable."

Rioter stands next to burning van
The rioting started in north London but traveled across many major English cities Getty Images

Pearce was vocal about knife and gun crime before the 2011 riots and has maintained that campaign since. But, she sees what is happening now in the "culture war" and the treatment of communities of color as deeply troubling.

"What's going on here in the U.K. is frightening," she says. "And we need strong people to pull us through it. You see two Black men walking down the road and someone shouts [racist expletives], we Blacks are expected to take that.

"We're expected to just take it as a tap on the chin and carry on walking and smile: 'We're used to it. It's what we get all the time. Oh, don't worry about it, sticks, stones and all that'. I'm 55. And to be honest, I'm sick to death of sticks and stones. I'm emotional because I'm actually sick to see my grandchildren... In this day and age, they can still be called things. And nobody will be held accountable for it.

"Who says whose color is superior? Who has the right to choose? You know who is a minority? I hate that 'ethnic minority' term. How dare you? Who put us under? Who made that decision? It needs to be changed. It needs to be addressed. No one's a minority and no one's superior to everyone. We are equal. There are a thousand shades of brown from the palest of the pale white right up to the darkest black richest chocolate, that royal black, and I feel my job now is to help our youngsters to embrace that.

"The youth out there, they need support. All of what's going on now is because they've never been given an alternative. It's just getting to the point where if I think there's going to be an explosion, I think Black people have had enough. They've seen enough injustices over the years.

"We don't have to be out on Hackney street dealing drugs and shooting each other. We need to be out there, embracing our rich royalness. If we don't move now as a people and join together, I don't think we'll ever be heard. As you can see, my whole advocacy, my whole preaching and my whole being now is totally on a different level to what the Hackney Heroine started out to be. Now I'm going to be the Scary Heroine."

Whether she's the Hackney Heroine or the scary one, Pearce likely saved my life 10 years ago. She might be glad to find out that I wasn't "just a figment of her imagination" but I will forever be grateful for her stepping in that evening to help a stranger. For the record, if a film ever is to be made of her life, she wants Whoopi Goldberg to play her.