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The unrepentant vigilante

Last August she led the protests against paedophiles in Portsmouth. Many condemned her, but behind the mob fury lies a tale of personal misery. Euan Ferguson meets Katrina Kessell

2-4-2001 United Kingdom:
It's called rough music. 'Saucepans, frying-pans, pokers and tongs, marrow-bones and cleavers, bulls' horns, etc, beaten upon and sounded in ludicrous procession,' according to Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796; it's been with us for a long, long time, as a weapon - wielded most usually by the women of the community - to humiliate or scare a neighbour suspected of filthy morals. So nobody should, in all honesty, have affected shocked surprise, as if this were some new modern outrage when, for seven days last August, the women and children of the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth, led by 33-year-old Katrina Kessell, marched and shouted and swore and bayed for the blood of local paedophiles.
But the scenes were still fiercely ugly, in Paulsgrove and elsewhere, particularly to London commentators, of all political hues, who thought this kind of behaviour had been consigned to history along with buboes and ducking-stools. The condemnation was swift and righteous, and made more sustained by anger at the News of the World's 'name and shame' campaign, and the violent stupidity of the mobs it whipped up in the weeks following Sarah Payne's murder. Innocent families were hounded from their homes while convicted paedophiles went safely awol. A group in Gwent attacked a paediatrician by mistake. And right at the centre of it all, it seemed, was this spiky-haired Portsmouth harridan, self-appointed mouthpiece for the worst of the mobs, who became, last week, the first person to be convicted of public-order offences during that tawdry summer.

What might surprise us instead is the fact that Katrina Kessell possesses not a brutal manipulative cynicism but a distressing naivety. She is far more vulnerable and nuanced than the cuttings - with their talk of 'aliens' and 'monsters' among us - would suggest. She's wrong-headed and self-deluding, and not given to lengthy discussion of such abstract concepts as irony, principle or the Rule of Law, but she's still not the cardboard cut-out tricoteuse of stereotyping.

She's angry, for instance, at that News of the World campaign. 'I think they were wrong; they shouldn't have done it that way. I think it was all too cynical. And I don't think they checked everyone properly, which allowed mistakes, and damaged all of us.' She had been campaigning, she explained, for about a year before the paper's first 'outing', of convicted paedophile Victor Burnett, to have him removed from Paulsgrove. 'We'd been trying for a long time. Parents complained to police. People said things to Burnett. But their statements were just "noted" and nothing happened.

'Anyway, after the paper came out, other people saw his picture and it kicked off. I went down to the green that night with the rest. There were a lot of people there, just chatting. And I suppose I found myself being shoved up the front. Sometimes I have a big mouth, I'm not afraid to say what I want to say, and I knew about Burnett.' And so she became spokeswoman and leader, and so was born Residents Against Paedophiles - and seven nights of foul vigilantism.

Kessell accepts that it wasn't pretty. 'Yes, there can be something ugly about a mob.' And the use of the tiniest of children, chanting 'sex beast!' and 'hang him!'?

'Yes, I know, some of that was out of order; they didn't really know what a paedophile was. But they do now. And you're right, I couldn't control everything. Every protest is going to have hangers-on. We tried to tell some of the teenagers to calm down. But, look, how else do you get noticed? How else is anyone going to listen to a common person like me? Even the local papers weren't interested before, let alone the nationals. At least we were being listened to, and we got something done. Answer me this: if you were a paedophile coming out of jail now, and you were offered a place in Paulsgrove, would you take it? I thought not. This is now the safest estate in England.'

But at what cost? Kessell and her mother, Mavis Canizares, a blowsy fast-lipped blunderbuss of a woman who hardly lets her daughter get a word in, are adamant that no one was wrongly targeted by them; that the list of names of offenders, which they 'kept in our heads', was strictly checked. 'If a name came up we wouldn't do anything until we'd checked the library,' says Kessell. 'If a case went to court it would go in the papers; if it wasn't in the papers it wasn't proved.'

They're wrong, of course. At least four innocent families fled the estate, and at least one convicted paedophile went to ground. One man was targeted because he lived alone and often spoke of how much he loved his mother. A policeman's nose was broken; cars were torched; truly, the mob ruled.

Kessell appears honestly, naively, to believe this was nothing to do with her actions, and that she strove to stop the worst of it. She is also careful to distinguish between types of offence, distrusting the scatter-gun approach which brands anyone who has sex with an under-age girl as a paedophile; 'it's not paedophilia if they're given consent. I'm talking about the little ones. The ones who have no idea what's happening.'

Such as herself. She talks quietly, hesitantly, with her mother out of the room, of the drive behind her anger, her own sexual abuse at the ages of five and six by her paternal grandfather. 'I was convinced I was just getting extra affection and attention. And no, I still haven't dealt with it, and I don't think I ever will. How do you deal with that? I'll take it to the grave.'

Later, she was further abused after she was put into care by her mother. 'I had all of them, all on my own,' says Canizares defensively, 'and her and her brother were legging it off everywhere but I had three babies in the house so I was breaking the law if I went looking for them, so I went to the social services and asked how to cope and they couldn't help so I said fine, take them off my hands.' Did Kessell now, I asked, resent her mother for this? She shook her head. 'Not now, no. I've got children of my own, I know what it's like.' Five, in fact. The first was born when she was 16, after she was made pregnant while in care. Three more followed to a father who is now 'in a mental home. He fucked up on drugs'. The father of the youngest is back in his native Egypt.

It was into this story, and thousands like it, and not into the quiet terraces of London's lawmakers and pontificators, that we dropped the country's convicted paedophiles, as we drop its more violent murderers and rapists on release, only to condemn the residents when they reacted in time-honoured fashion. Katrina Kessell got a result. Wrongly, stupidly, illegally, and helped by some brutal manipulative cynicism from rich journalists, she got a result. Just an everyday story of British council-house folk, from the First World War to 2001 and counting; of rough music, and rough justice. ..more.. by Guardian Unlimited

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