Express & Star

How one Wolverhampton woman's act of defiance turned the tide on rampaging rioters

For a few days in August 2011, mob rule threatened to take over.

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Louise still runs the salon in Queen Street.

Disgraceful, shameful, scary - there are many words to describe what unfolded during the riots 10 years ago.

As people retreated to the safety of their homes, there was an uncertainty and fear about what would happen the next night after shops and businesses were damaged and looted by rampaging thugs amid clashes with police.

The dark chapter in British history was over as almost as soon as it began but for those few days the country was in crisis, with no real sign of when things would return to normal.

Over the last 18 months, we've all had to experience staying inside because of the threat of something menacing outside and there was a feeling then, for a short time, that it could be unwise to venture out, particularly in urban areas.

The nationwide riots were sparked by a protest in London over the shooting of Mark Duggan by police and the wider treatment of minority communities by the police.

Mark Duggan, the man whose death provoked the riots

What appeared to be an issue confined to the capital - the burning of the Tottenham carpet shop was a memorable image of the riots - suddenly began to spread across the country thanks to social media. From nowhere, copycat events were springing up across the country.

They soon reached the West Midlands, where youths caused carnage in Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Birmingham, trashing shops and torching vehicles.

Louise Johnson unwittingly became a symbol of the Wolverhampton riots as she bravely stood up to the thugs trying to attack her hair salon on Queen Street.

Powerful images showed her surrounded by a group of hooded youths as she blocked their path arms outstretched. The rioters had met their match - and the fightback had begun.

"I went completely berserk and told them they were never having my shop. I was screaming at them," recalls Mrs Johnson 10 years on from her actions which earned her an Express & Star award.

Louise Johnson standing up to the yobs became a lasting image of the Wolverhampton riots.

The grandmother is now able to look back and chuckle about the instinctive bravery she showed that day standing up to the rioters, but at the time it was no laughing matter.

"I wasn't scared. I was more scared about losing my business than being afraid of them.

"It was just adrenaline. It was like I wasn't there but I was there. I did break down after when I got home, I cried."

The businesses which lined historic Queen Street were a tight-knit bunch, they looked out for one another and Mrs Johnson, 62, from Heath Town, was not prepared to accept them coming under attack.

She believes it was her strength of character which allowed her to stand up to the yobs.

She said: "I remember being in the salon and being told they were coming up the road. I said 'I'm not leaving my salon'. I looked up the road and saw all these people coming down and smashing everything in sight.

"I think it was just my nature. My salon had not long opened, it had been open for two years and to have them destroy it... I just thought 'you're not having this place'."

The ludicrousness of the whole situation became clear when one of the rioters shouted to leave Mrs Johnson's shop alone as she cut his grandmother's hair.

Louise Johnson was given an E&S local hero award.

And Mrs Johnson believes children, some very young, were easily led and lost themselves amid the chaos.

She said: "They were from about nine, 10 up to about 20. The older ones were leading the other ones. It was a copycat thing. They were just out to cause trouble."

Wolverhampton MP Pat McFadden remembers there being calls to ban social media, still in its relative infancy back in 2011, because of the impact it was thought to be having in organising the riots.

He said: "I remember going into the city centre that evening and there just being a really threatening atmosphere.

"There was a feeling at the time that it exposed how fragile law and order is and how we take it for granted and that it doesn't take very much to lose it. It just shows how important law and order and public safety are for people's freedom to go about their daily lives.

The infamous site of a burning carpet shop in Tottenham, London, during the riots

"The Prime Minister, David Cameron, came to the city and we met in the Civic Centre and I remember saying to him: we have a situation where people are finishing work at 5pm and just going home as they don't know what's going to happen. It felt like that went on for two or three nights."

Roger Lawrence was the leader of the city council at the time, watching the concerning events unfold.

He said: "There were undoubtedly elements of copycat. That's not to deny there were elements of disenfranchisement and alienation which had a significant impact on this.

"It doesn't justify it but highlights young people in particular felt they didn't have a great stake in society. I'm not sure over the last 10 years, nationally or locally, that has changed significantly.

"It was an alarming incident which took an amount of time to recover from."