There was nothing progressive about the riot that broke out in the Lozells area of Handsworth, Birmingham over the weekend of 21-23 October. The disturbances were fuelled by poverty, racism, mass hysteria, criminal drug gangs, religion and communalism.
The disturbances were sparked by a rumour that had spread throughout the Afro-Caribbean community over a period of months: that a 14-year old black girl had been gang-raped by an Asian shopkeeper and his friends.
The police have been investigating this rumour for some time, but have yet to find any evidence for it. The explanation offered by some is that the girl is an illegal immigrant who is afraid to come forward. If true, this would be a horrific matter, but it is not just the police who say there is no evidence: Afro Caribbean and Asian people living in the area whom I have spoken to and whose judgement I trust, describe the story as an “urban myth”.
Nevertheless, the allegation was broadcast over a pirate radio station by a black Christian DJ, Warren G, and carried in the influential Afro Caribbean newspaper The Voice. The rumour spread and festered.
In a tragic irony, the first fatality of the rioting was Isiah Young-Sam, a former school friend of Warren G’s who was, apparently, stabbed to death because he was mistakenly thought to be Asian.
The rape allegation was — and is — widely believed to be true among Afro-Caribbean people in Birmingham. It served as the catalyst for an outburst of anti-Asian racism specifically directed at Asian shopkeepers. Asian businesses were attacked and calls went out from “respectable” Afro Caribbean figures for a boycott of Asian shops.
Unfortunately it has to be said, as well, that the response of some Asian commentators, on e-mail lists and in the press, has been very nasty anti-black racism, using language normally associated with the likes of the BNP.
There is no doubt that the rioting was initially encouraged and exploited by Afro Caribbean drug gangs (the “Johnsons” and the “Burger Boys”) who have been terrorising working class people of all races in Handsworth for several years. However, the response of Afro-Caribbean people (mainly, but not exclusively, male youth), was not simply due to the influence of the gangs. It was fuelled by genuinely held, real and imagined, grievances.
Notable amongst these is the perception that Asians have been more successful in business than Afro-Caribbeans, and have taken over traditional Afro-Caribbean specialisms like the sale of hair products, whilst not employing Afro-Caribbeans.
Another source of grievance is the way that local authority and central government funding has operated — in particular the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB 6) that allocates grants to local initiatives and has traditionally looked with favour upon “ethnic” organisations. This funding regime is almost calculated to exacerbate ethnic tensions, with Afro-Caribbean and Asian so-called “representatives” slugging it out for places on the SRB board.
Again, there is a perception amongst Afro-Caribbeans that Asians have done better in this process, due to their ability to raise matched funding from Asian businesses and the banks. Both Asian and Afro-Caribbean “community leaders” are self-appointed and not especially representative — particularly not of youth, who in both “communities” are increasingly influenced by gangs.
As well as the Afro-Caribbean drug gangs (who, paradoxically, soon realised that the rioting was bad for business and started appealing for “peace”), Asian gangs, calling themselves the “mujaheddin”, were widely rumoured to be mobilising from Leicester in response to an alleged threat to mosques from Afro-Caribbeans. Some of the more responsible Asian community leaders are said to have prevented the gangs arriving.
Exactly twenty years ago there were superficially similar riots in the same part of Birmingham: then, however, the violence was started by police harassment and could be directly traced to unemployment and racism. Although some on the left (notably Darcus Howe) romanticised the 1985 riots as an “uprising” and conveniently ignored the death of an Asian family in the Lozells Road Post Office, it was still possible to ascribe some just and progressive content to the riots. Nothing similar can be said about the events of the weekend before last.
These events were a thoroughly reactionary and divisive cry of despair and frustration from one oppressed group against another. It was unwittingly encouraged by government and council funding policies that encourage difference over unity and promote ethnic exclusivity and inter-ethnic rivalry. One minor, but highly distasteful, footnote to the events was the attempt by George Galloway’s “Respect”, an organisation largely based upon ethnic and religious communalism, to promote themselves as “peacemakers” through their very own self-appointed “community leader”, Salma Yaqoob!
What the tragic events in Lozells demonstrate is the need for class politics and unifying demands that avoid simplistic “blame the government/council/war in Iraq” posturing, but that address the real issues of black unemployment and under-achievement, while steadfastly refusing to blame Asians (or any other ethnic group) for the present plight of young Afro-Caribbean men.
Jim Denham, Birmingham AWL