We were true vigilantes, not kidnappers

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THERE are vigilantes and there are vigilantes. Just as there are men and women. The Dickleburgh men who kidnapped and then held at knifepoint their 'innocent' suspect have become a model of vigilantism that depends on a repertoire of force only available to and enjoyed by men.

The reduction of their five- year sentence to six months appears to vindicate these Village Vigilantes.

But there is another model of the vigilante - known by their Granby Street community in Liverpool 8 as the Women of the Barricade. A couple of years ago they built the barricade after two 'deathriders' crashed into a lamppost and killed two neighbourhood children, Adele Thompson and Daniel Davies.

The Women of the Barricade directed the police to the perpetrators - now in prison - but they were no kidnappers.

The mothers of Ely estate in Cardiff a year ago mobilised another barricade to stop cavaliers in stolen cars carving up their neighbourhood. Mothers in Scotswood, Newcastle organised a long campaign against the young men whose culture of crime overwhelmed their community. Chided by the police, they, too, were vigilantes.

A group of 'owd wifeys', none taller than five foot five, tried to stop a bunch of big boys setting fire to a bench in their Tyneside park.

The wifeys, me and my friends and relations, were playing rounders with a team of children when we saw smoke. We approached the big lads with militantly good manners and suggested, in low, slow voices, 'Put the fire out please.'

They did. Our team of children cowered, ashamed of us and afraid that we'd get done.

The following evening two of us were walking the dog and saw a group of the lads on the grass, swearing at us. We ambled across and said, 'Were you saying something?'

One big boy, with hair a centimetre long and the pectorals of a body builder, leapt on to a park bench and began to undo his flies. Their collective attention was drawn to his body, to talk of what they do to their mothers and where, and how we wanted it from them.

Every word was personal, using the lore and language of sex to overpower. We looked at each other and the hopelessly amiable dog, searching for wit, for some surprising homily that would dissolve the danger.

Our speechlessness taught us something: we didn't have to do anything. We could just wait. A silence that seemed stupid, paralysing, was also steadfast and it was saying something significant: that we would not give up this shared space. But we didn't feel safe. Were we being daft? Could we have been dead?

The lads' triumph was to take control of a collective social space by making it unwelcome or uninhabitable. Anything we might have said would have betrayed us - because we might have wanted to hurt them.

Everything they said mobilised our bodies, or theirs. The injunctions from one boy fixed him in my thoughts. I saw a steel-capped boot smash his small, freckled face. Even though I never connected that boot with my foot, I was instantly ashamed.

I see him around our allotments and we always stare at each other. What do I want him to know? Just that he is seen.

'You can't go around abusing people who are entitled to enjoy the park, just like you are,' we said. Then something extraordinary happened. The freckled face shouted, 'We're human too, you know]'

The conversation had produced a crisis: for them the concept of co-operation felt like an attack. Their refusal produced a conflict - they victimised us, but when they were challenged they reincarnated themselves as victims. They misread our waiting game. Every few minutes we made a move to go, only to hear an echo of obscenity. We only left when they shut up.

We later called the police with a carefully formulated request: we wanted them to help us think about what might be done. This is what we were told: there's not a lot we can do, they may know you so they'll be worse another time, don't rise to it, it's just bravado.

So, we said, we shouldn't have stopped them setting fire to the park bench? Oh yes, but don't rise to the name-calling.

Well, we said, we spent nearly an hour there in that argument, it might take similar commitment from you. It's a problem of parental control, said the police, there's a lot of swearing these days.

We had asked them to think, to help. When they were challenged, they, too, behaved like victims, and like the lads they blamed us for provocation. We thought we were only being wakeful and watchful - the definition of a vigilante.