Current Affairs

Riot Cities: chaos or community?

 

When Asian and white youths, fascist groups and police clashed this summer few observers reckoned the conflict would soon spread across a fiery crescent of more than a dozen once prosperous, now run-down, cotton mill towns in the English Midlands, north of Manchester.

The contributing causes - unemployment, poor housing and schools, and race inequality - are metaphors of struggle and renewal that must be addressed by New Labour government policy makers. But more than this, as the latest outbreaks in Bradford in July clearly demonstrate, Britain must come closer to its best self, and rescue tolerance from the jaws of racism.

Roots of conflict
Britain's summer of racial strife erupted following clashes between white and Asian youths after a Hindu wedding in April in Bradford, a city district of 486,000 people, 15 per cent of whom are of Muslim Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. Violent conflict enveloped deprived Oldham in April, May and June. Leeds erupted June 6th. Then came Burnley and Accrington in late June. Sporadic outbursts have occurred in close by towns, among them Bury, Nelson, Blackburn, Ashton-under-Lyne, Rochdale, Wigan and Halifax.

 

The affected areas vary in size from small towns to large cities. Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations range from a handful of families to 20 per cent of local majority white populations. But they share noticeable common characteristics of deprivation and disorder highlighted in extensive reports byThe Times, the Guardian, and the Independent newspapers.

Post war Asian workers drawn to the mills in the 1960s were hit hard when the mills fell silent two decades later - decimated along with Britain's manufacturing base. Half of the males are unemployed and their 3rd and 4th generation children smoulder in under resourced schools with little chance of advancement in British society.

White flight to the new suburbs, encouraged by estate agents and local authority policies, left Asians increasingly segregated in poor housing conditions. Inept and technocratic renewal policies have splintered their communities or passed them by. "This situation has been at best facilitated, and at worst encouraged, by local councils presiding over a form of municipal apartheid," says Gary Younge, Black feature writer for the Guardian.

Recurrent themes
This pattern of social and physical neglect is confirmed by Prof Anne Power of the London School of Economics in a report to housing experts in Bradford. Typically, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have shunned relocation on public housing estates. They prefer to cluster in poorer inner city terraced houses that provide back-to-back security and accommodation for large families, and are close to their mosques, specialist shops and popular schools.

Upholding segregated housing and schooling has taken its toll among their near-neighbours - the equally impoverished working class whites. Whites claim that town authorities and the media give Asian concerns too much attention, while their own interests are ignored. "Asian rubbish is better collected" and "they get special assistance and translation services that we have to pay for," are comments often heard.

On the whole, the newspapers have given a convincing account that squares with the known facts. The feverish atmosphere between Asians and whites gives pedlars of intolerance a fertile opportunity. Politicians who play on people's fears have gained office with frightening ease. Islamophobic threats against Muslims and demands to "send the Pakis back home" are recurrent themes of the National Front, a white supremacist organisation.

More guarded racist tones - such as "we have the right to defend our selves, our freedom, and our land against foreigners" - come from the right-wing British National Party. The BNP won an unprecedented 11 per cent of the Burnley vote in the general election. Party leader Nick Griffin polled more than 11,00 In Oldham's two seats, and got 16 per cent of the ballot in one constituency.

 

Recent history fuels these events.Twenty-five years ago national representatives of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities expressed their fears to Prime Minister James Callaghan, leader of the Labour Party, and Margaret Thatcher leader of the Conservative Party opposition. They warned that the worsening climate of unemployment, poverty and racial tensions was a volatile mixture exploited by the National Front.

Their conclusions resonate today. The stricken districts and towns of significant Asian settlement "will remain in turmoil for some time and we fear that this will spread to other areas. Once colour warfare starts, there is no end to it. It can still be contained, but only if the Government takes action now."

What to do?
Clearly the search for solutions must take into account a range of economic, cultural, social, political and religious factors. Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, says, "Lessons have not been learned from the past. There are tensions between white, blacks and Asians, but the underlying problem is lack of resources for effective change," he said when interviewed.

Prevailing inequalities in life conditions are enough to cause any town "to blow", says Chris Myant, a spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Gary Younge made this point precisely when he said: "Ethnicity describes the protagonists; economics shapes the narrative".

Given this scenario, the downward spiral of social relations can be halted, say professional experts and prominent Asians. All concur that equally impoverished whites have as much to gain from cooperation, rather than conflict, with Asians over access to scarce public and private resources.

Recently ennobled Lord Ouseley, in his long-awaited report to Bradford Council, has urged the integration of de facto segregated schools to reduce racism. The former CRE chairman also strongly recommends that public bodies monitor their minority ethnic hiring, upgrading and retention procedures.

Town councils should join with local entrepreneurs to work for city development across divided communities, says Raj Patel of Greater London Enterprises. Politicians should work with Asians to create a "virtuous circle" of shops, businesses and services, he says. For example, "Bangla-towns" could, like Chinatowns, harness ethnic identities, provide attractive destinations for the white population and promote trade and social harmony.

Farrukh Dhondy calls for an "Islamic academy" to channel the energies of wayward Muslim youth into constructive activities, he told the Independent on Sunday. The academy's governors and teachers would inspire youth with a new commitment to "a liberal, dynamic and progressive Islam," said the novelist and former commissioning editor of multicultural programmes for Channel 4. This provision would contrast sharply with the Islamophobia prevalent in many local schools, he said.

Opening up Asian access to safe, quality housing in the public sector is an important task, according to Prof Anne Power, a social policy expert and consultant to the Home Office social exclusion unit. Her Draft Action Plan for Bradford Council seeks innovative ideas to improve the success of Muslim youth in schools.

Some urban regeneration experts champion the recycling of the old textile mills to make new workshops. The Dean Clough project in Halifax is cited as prime example. Other professionals support the growth of Asian businesses to rival the success of thriving Indian and Pakistani enterprises in other cities, such as Leicester.

 

Many experts believe that revitalising the public realm, the schools, hospitals and security services, is essential to social harmony. They also promote the construction of middle-income housing, cultural and leisure centres to attract a mix of social classes and racial groups.

To achieve these renewal goals, planners and policy makers will have to put collective local participation at the heart of every programme of urban regeneration. The most adventurous among them should aim to counter the negative effects of "domicide", a virulent policy strategy often used to destroy the homes and properties of vulnerable people deemed to be in the way of lucrative development or other land uses.

Government action needed
Viewed from a national perspective, the crisis of Bradford, Oldham, Burnley and other northern towns is only a partial manifestation of the state of race relations in Britain today. Systematic racism and prejudice against asylum seekers have been identified. There is widespread discrimination against Blacks and Asian in health, education and the workplace. Bereaved families and their supporters have expressed deep concern about the rising number of Black people dying in mysterious circumstances and in police and prison custody.

This mounting pattern of race-related problems has been condemned by UK civil rights groups and Amnesty International in a report to the UN Human Rights Committee in July.

Of course, Britain is not as woefully retrograde as Germany, a country that stands accused of gross intolerance by a leading human rights body in a Council of Europe report. However, now is the time for the UK government to undertake positive remedial actions in riot-prone towns, and, for that matter, in every section of country where vulnerable communities of people of colour seek to live in peace and dignity.

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Riots, Resistance and rebellion - Forty-three Years On

1958: August-September - Three nights of rioting by local whites and fascist activists in Notting Hill, London. Blacks are blamed for the overcrowding and bad conditions that, in fact, afflicted everyone in the district.

1979: April - The Indian community in Southall, London, was attacked during a National Front march, and anti-racist activist Blair Peach killed.

1980: April - Riots followed a police raid on an Afro-Caribbean club in St Pauls, Bristol.

1981: April - Two days of clashes in Brixton, London, resulted in 300 injured and more than £5m damage to property.

1981: July - Four day uprising occured in Toxteth, Liverpool. Young people, black and white, fought against police. Hundreds of buildings were set ablaze. Rebellion spreads to Blackburn, Halifax and more than 30 places around the country.

1985: September - Two Asian shopkeepers killed in Handsworth, Birmingham, dozens pf buildings firebombed. Black youths battle police in Chapeltown, Leeds.

1985: October - Resident's death during police raid triggers riots and resistance on Tottenham's Broadwater Farm housing estate, London. Police constable Keith Blakelock is killed.

1991: April: - Outbreaks of riots and clashes with police in Brixton, London.

1995: December - Police incident resulting in death of Wayne Douglas sparks riots in Brixton, London.

1995: June - Protests by Asian youths lead to three nights of rioting in Bradford.