What’s behind the battle of Lozells?
The black v Asian riots in Birmingham have roots in the politics of multiculturalism.
‘It’s not about the girl anymore.’
One Asian teenager reflected on events in the Lozells area of Birmingham over the past week. It had started with a rumour about Asian men raping a Jamaican girl, and ended up with pitched battles between young British Asians and African-Caribbeans – the teenager nursed stitches in his head from a crowbar strike, and had lost teeth from a blow with knuckle-dusters.
According to the rumour, a 14-year-old Jamaican was caught stealing a wig from an Asian-run shop selling black beauty products in nearby Perry Barr. One of the shopkeepers threatened to call the police, but she pleaded with him not to (‘she was an illegal immigrant, and didn’t want the police to be led to her house’, one black man told me). The girl agreed to have sex with the shopkeeper if he wouldn’t tell the police. But then he called his friends, who came around and raped her – some say she was raped by three men, others say 13 or 19.
There is no evidence that such an attack took place. Police forensic experts have reportedly checked out the beauty parlour but found nothing. No girl has come forward, in spite of police pledges of leniency. Nobody knows her name or when the attack happened, though some claim to know her family.
The two communities are divided by the story – most local black people claim it’s true, most Asians say it’s a myth. But this is less about the girl, real or imagined, than about simmering economic grievances. One local black community activist told me: ‘Blacks get nothing, no funding, no support. Blacks made Asians rich, we support their shops. It’s a joke.’ According to a 17-year-old originally from Somalia, ‘The word on the street is that a war is on, and it’s Asians versus blacks’. On the other side, a young Asian man claimed that blacks are ‘stupid people. They go to school but don’t learn anything. I don’t know what they are moaning about. We did well because we worked hard’.
These kinds of sentiments fuelled the disturbances. At a rally outside the beauty parlour on Tuesday 18 October, black demonstrators carried placards reading ‘Raped, violated, disrespected, how much more can our women endure?’ and ‘Time to unite’. Another meeting last Saturday at a local church became a flashpoint. Black youths who gathered outside the church ran through the area, smashing up Asian shops and businesses and attacking police. Young Asians came out on to the streets in retaliation. A young black man was stabbed to death in a sidestreet off Lozells Road.
Certainly, a glance down the Lozells Road shows an economic disparity between the two communities. The vast majority of the shops are run by Asians, generally British Muslims of Pakistani descent – including a substantial supermarket, a smart restaurant and two Asian clothes shops. A large new mosque is nearly finished at the west end of the road – the builders told me that the marble alone cost £600,000, and that in total the bill is well over £1million. By contrast, there are only a handful of British African-Caribbean-run shops – two takeaways, a hairdresser, and a run-down grocery store. In the past, say residents, there were more African-Caribbean- and Indian-run shops.
It’s no surprise that tensions exist in a run-down inner city area such as this. This is often presented as a case of two communities hating each other, with the police standing helpless in between. In fact, the script for the conflict in Perry Barr was written at the top of New Labour’s Britain. Today, different groups are encouraged to play up their victimhood and unique cultural identities, in a bid for public funds and social authority. The fireworks in Lozells demonstrate the fractious consequences.
Black campaigners were talking the language of identity politics, saying that they didn’t get any ‘respect’ and their ‘grievances haven’t been understood’. ‘[Asians] look at Jamaican people like we are nothing’, said one black woman quoted in the New Nation (1). Respectable community organisations have helped to broadcast the issue over the past week. Maxie Hayles, head of the Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Group, has been one of the more vocal activists: he was quoted on BBC News as saying ‘There are a lot of [black] people who think that the Asian people look down on African-Caribbean people’; while the New Nation recorded his comment, ‘We are not going to tolerate our women being abused. We have a zero tolerance against it’ (2). Hayles has contributed to a number of official consultations, and in 2000 was awarded the government’s ‘Active Community Award’.
Meanwhile, one of the websites that played a role in spreading the rumours, Blacknet UK, has connections with official bodies including the Commission for Racial Equality. The mainstream British black newspaper The Voice ran with the headline GANG OF 19 RAPE TEEN – forgoing the usual practice of using inverted commas for reporting alleged crimes.
Some black people in Birmingham claim that they have been sidelined in the bidding war for funding – particularly the government’s SRB6 regeneration funding, which is mainly dolled out to petitioning community groups. One black man, who is seeking funding for a youth music project, said: ‘The head of the committee is Asian. If you’re not part of a magic circle, you don’t get nothing.’ He even asked me if I could help to get him a grant from ‘someone like the European Social Fund, Advantage West Midlands, or the Learning and Skills Council’. As it happens, there is little evidence for disparity in funding. But the whole set-up encourages people to feel hard done by, and to feel that their ‘community’ isn’t getting enough.
The battle for cultural recognition is another source of friction. An article in The Voice detailed all the local African-Caribbean community’s grievances: the carnival was moved from Handsworth to Perry Barr, and renamed the ‘Birmingham International Carnival Enterprise’, while ‘unadulterated’ Asian celebrations such as Vaisakhi have taken their place; Black History Month is now apparently run by an Asian man, as is the Drum (a Birmingham centre for black arts); and the BBC has banished African-Caribbean programming to Saturday nights, while establishing the Asian Network as a 24-hr station.
On the other side, Asians also claim that everybody is set against them, and appeal for protection. ‘The government is trying to mess Muslims up, because we are doing well’, said one young man. Many blame the police for the riots. ‘The government can’t control West Indians’, said one of the builders of the new mosque. He claimed that when black youths threw stones outside the mosque, the police stood in a line and didn’t do anything. ‘The government makes criminals. If a thief goes into your shop, you’re asked to leave him alone. The police tell me I can’t put barbed wire on my wall because a thief might scratch himself.’ At a meeting between the police and the Asian community on Monday night, angry locals argued that the police should have shut down the demonstrations and stopped things getting out of hand (3).
The Westminster village has a hard time facing up to identity-politics-turned-ugly. In The Times (London), Alice Miles noted that the media had been oddly silent about the riots: ‘Imagine if rival gangs of white youths rioted, leaving one of them dead: you wouldn’t be able to move for posing, pontification and woe.’ (4) There were reporters in Lozells Road, but they seemed to be there for set-piece interviews: ITV interviewed councillors outside a damaged shop; a reporter from the BBC Asian Network waited for interviewees while sitting in a car on a sidestreet. One young woman reporter asked me: ‘is this the road where the man was stabbed? It looks really dodgy and I don’t want to go down there if it’s not.’
Police and local council figures have been similarly tentative. Lozells Road was packed with police, but most of them looked as if they would much rather be elsewhere. The talk was of listening to grievances and dampening everything down. The district director of Birmingham City Council made a trip to Lozells Road to meet with local traders. ‘There’s a lot of pain and distress, and it will take a long time to heal’, she told them, as if she was the community’s therapist. ‘We want ideas from you all, specific ideas about what can be done.’ The councillors I spoke to just seemed to want for it all to go away. Don Brown, a black councillor for the Lozells and East Handsworth Ward, said that ‘everything was calm before this. We just want it to calm down, and go back to how it was two weeks ago’. Mahmood Hussain, an Asian councillor for the same ward, said: ‘this community has a tradition of harmony – there is no problem with racist tension. It’s just that when something happens, criminal elements take over.’
Some see the conflict as a replay of the 1981 and 1985 Handsworth riots, as if this community had an inbuilt propensity for interracial conflict. Both 1985 and 2005 arguably had their roots in official policies, but that’s where the similarities end. The 1985 disturbances were sparked by the arrest of a black man, which was emblematic of a common experience of police racism, and Asians and blacks rallied together against the police. While the Handsworth riots involved two days of street battles, described as ‘communities in revolt’, the flashes of unrest over the past few days bore more resemblance to gangfights.
Why did it take the rumour of a rape for recent tensions to explode? Perhaps it suggests the lack of a vocabulary for discussing social and political inequalities in their own terms. Instead, conflicts are conceived as an allegory, as a personal attack on a member of your community. The rape story seems to express the fact that black people feel they are being screwed over. Some seemed to identify with her: the campaign is called ‘Silent Victim’, and speculation abounds about what the girl could be feeling. ‘She could be hurt’, said one black man. ‘It’s obvious why she did a deal [to have sex]’, said another: ‘You got no power, no position. Who is going to listen to you?’ Asians have their share of victimisation stories, too. One young man said that he heard a story about two Asian girls being attacked – ‘I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what I heard’. Another said that he heard worshippers had been attacked inside a mosque.
Beneath it all, though, it seems that some are trying to put their differences aside and move on. Certainly the last thing this community needs is council-supervised intercultural dialogues. Black people are still buying in Asian shops; most of the broken windows have been replaced, and shops reopened. A number of people I spoke to blamed the trouble on outsiders. One Asian man said that the rioters came from London; a white man blamed coachloads of visitors from London, Leeds and Bradford. At Khan’s carpet shop in Lozells Road, the young shopkeeper told me: ‘I got no tension with black people. Some local black people are driving past and saying “we’re neutral”.’
One thing that did seem to unite the communities was common hostility to the media. I was chatting to a group of young British Asians when a young African-Caribbean man cycled past. ‘News reporter?’ he asked. ‘I say fuck off. You’re not from around this area, so mind your own fucking business’. There was a pause, then the young Asians responded: ‘That’s what I say, too’, ‘and me too’.
(1) New Nation, 24 October 2005
(2) New Nation, 24 October 2005
(3) Birmingham Post, 25 October
(4) The Times, 26 October
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