Windsor: A town divided by race hate?

The media spotlight has left the royal town but the portrayal of minor skirmishes as race riots has left behind resentment.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘Race riots in Windsor’ screamed the Sun on Friday, reporting that ‘extra police officers were drafted into the royal town of Windsor yesterday as residents braced themselves for a fourth night of race violence’. The paper even speculated that the Queen might avoid her usual weekend residence, Windsor Castle, as a result (1).

The Independent reported: ‘Fighting between white and Asian youths culminated in a petrol bomb attack on Wednesday night on a dairy owned by the Muslim businessman whose plans for an Islamic centre have proved bitterly divisive in the Berkshire town.’ (2)

According to some reports, this was in retribution for an attack on a mother and her 20-year-old daughter by a gang of Muslims equipped with pitchforks, baseball bats, led pipes and other weapons. Violence then allegedly escalated with rival gangs of whites and Asians drawing ‘battle lines’ around Vale Road and Shirley Avenue in the Dedworth area where the dairy is located.

Yet, just six people have been arrested, and to date only two people charged; one with racial abuse, the other with carrying an offensive weapon (3). Was ‘Windsor’s week of violence’ really a political or religious clash between anti-social white ‘yobs’ and fundamentalist Islamists? I went to Medina Dairy, the ‘epicentre’ of the Windsor riots, to find out.

On Saturday afternoon, Windsor town centre was buzzing with locals enjoying coffees and ice creams in the early October sun, and tourists posing for photos in front of the castle. Outside the town hall, wedding guests admired a bride’s dress while an old-fashioned horse cart drove a family of three through the picturesque cobbled streets.

On my way to the Medina Dairy, I walked through quiet suburban areas where neighbours greeted each other while mowing their lawns, and signs by a construction site allured house hunters with pictures of luxury penthouse flats. The parks were bustling with young boys playing football and parents watching their kids on swings and jungle jims. This did not look like a town recovering from a week of race riots.

Near the dairy, I talked to a woman with a toddler who lives a couple of blocks from the scene of the trouble. She told me that she herself had not noticed anything of the ‘riots’ until she heard helicopters circulating over the neighbourhood and saw police gathering on Vale Road. She told me the whole thing had been exaggerated in the national papers and she didn’t believe there were any gangs in Dedworth.

Just three days after a petrol bomb was hurled at the Medina Dairy – it failed to detonate but has left a black scorch mark on the front of the building – it felt as if Dedworth had never seen any violence at all. While I was there, a few trucks offloaded stock at the dairy, occasionally a car drove down the main street and friends and couples of different ages walked through Shirley Avenue, which cuts through the Medina Dairy premises and leads to a park.

Two police officers were stationed across the street from the dairy and a couple of teenage boys were chatting to them. When I came by, notebook in hand, they were keen to act tough. ‘The Asians have been beating us whites up’, claimed one. His friend told him, in a cynical tone, ‘you can’t say that – it’s racist’.

The boys’ mothers pulled up in a car and told them off for hanging around in the area. They became quiet and got into the car, as ordered. At first the two women were not keen to speak to me because they were fed up with all the media attention Dedworth had received in the past week.

‘It all started with pranks by some kids and youths are nosy – of course they are – so if they hear that there’s something going on, they’re all going to go down there and see what it’s about and then the press make it seem like they are part of some gang. For these kids, it’s all a big drama. My son has been stopped and searched five times in the past two days and he was interviewed on national television, which I was not at all happy about.’

What have the local politicians done about the situation? ‘My son has been approached by some councillors.’ So, reporters and councillors talk a lot to the local kids, but what about the adults? ‘No, they haven’t spoken to any adults.’ Well, if the kids gave the same ‘tough talk’ to the other reporters and local politicians as they did to me, then it is not surprising that they could report back on whites and Asians beating each other up. As it turned out, they were not so tough in front of their own mothers.

The women told me that they are opposed to the site of the Medina Dairy being used as a mosque because it’s ‘not designed for around here’, but they insisted it has nothing to do with racism. Instead, their main concern is with traffic and parking. One of them told me local Muslims want to set a mosque up because at the moment the nearest one is in Slough and there isn’t enough room for everyone there. She is worried that residents from Slough will start using the mosque in Dedworth and that traffic and the lack of parking will get worse.

According to the 2001 census, out of the 31,015 residents of Windsor and Eton, only 448 are Muslim. That’s 1.4 per cent of the total population – one of the lowest ratios in the country. (4) So where did all the rioting Asian youth come from? While I was there, the only Asian people I saw were the ones working at Medina Dairy. A young man working in the dairy said that only the managers live in Windsor, everyone else is from Slough. In other words, this is a largely white area where there is bound to be reactions against plans to build a mosque, but to see any dispute as racial aggravation reveals officials’ sensitivity to anything that might offend minorities rather than deep-seated racism amongst locals.

Even if the opposition to an Islamic learning centre in Dedworth is about more than just traffic, it’s not that shocking that locals are wary about having one in their neighbourhood. After all the rumours in the media and by other commentators of ‘mad mullahs’ preaching hatred to young Muslims in Mosques across Britain, it is not surprising that some might take ‘Islamic learning centre’ to be just a code word for bomb factory.

The dairy worker told me that over the past two years, local youths have stolen stock and broken vans belonging to the dairy. They have also verbally abused staff. ‘It is not common, but it has happened’, he said. He gave me a detailed account of the events of the past week, but said he does not know anything about the group attack on the woman and her daughter as he was praying while that supposedly took place. ‘If there had really been big-scale fighting here, the police would have made more than six arrests.’ He said there were no riots and there is no racial division. ‘Look at how many houses there are around here – if the majority of residents had a problem with us, there would be lots of trouble all the time.’

This man does not think there are any major problems with racism in Windsor or in Slough where he lives. Others disagree and insist that this is all about divisions and victimisation. Slough MP, Fiona Mactaggart, told the Windsor Express that ‘…Islamophobic attacks are unacceptable. In this holy month of Ramadan it is particularly distressing for the Muslim community to be victims of hatred’. She has asked the local police to make ‘tackling the dangerous violence and anti-social behaviour a top priority’ (5). It seems they have listened to her recommendations.

Two 15-year-old boys told me that there has been an evening curfew since Thursday. Until the end of this year, under-16’s will not be allowed outside after 8pm. They showed me one of the dispersal orders that have been stuck on lampposts throughout the area. It said anti-social behaviour has been a persistent problem over the past 12 months, that there have been ‘racially aggravated offences’ and ‘damage to vehicles’ and that members of the public should not have to be intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed.

The boys had heard about smashed up cars and windows and they had been warned during a school assembly not to get involved, but they hadn’t seen any of the violence themselves. There seems to be lots of rumours around about what happened in Dedworth, but no one I spoke to had witnessed any of the assaults, and they all thought it had been exaggerated. As one of the women I spoke to said, ‘it’s like Chinese whispers’.

Whatever the reasons for local opposition to an Islamic centre at the Medina Dairy, politicians’ and media commentators’ have chosen to see the situation as a case of racial divides. The result has been that young people have had their movements restricted and there is the potential to polarise the situation. To exaggerate the threats posed by a few bored and cocky teenagers can only make matters worse.

(1) Race riots in Windsor, Sun, 6 October 2006

(2) Violence flares between youths in Windsor over plans to build a mosque, Independent, 6 October 2006

(3) Six arrested over dairy attacks, BBC News, 9 October 2006

(4) Fire-bombing of Muslim dairy highlights tensions in Windsor, The Times (London), 5 October 2006

(5) Pitchforks and a bomb – Windsor’s week of violence, Windsor Express, 5 October 2006

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