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Urban Violence : Britain: The Turmoil of Adjustment

October 22, 1985|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The street paralleling the Broadwater Farm public housing project is quiet now, and there is little evidence of the brief, violent battle that was fought there.

It was not Britain's first race riot but it was by far its most savage. Disaffected black youths hacked a police officer to death with a machete and, using weapons that ranged from a shotgun to hundreds of Molotov cocktails, injured 230 other London policemen trying to contain the riot.

The ferocity of the violence, and the smoldering anger that lingers among young blacks in the neighborhood where the riot took place Oct. 6, are warnings that Britain's racial problem has worsened dramatically since the last major outbreak of urban unrest swept the country four years ago.

The Broadwater Farm riot was the latest of three serious inner-city confrontations between minority youths and police that reflect Britain's painful, uncertain adjustment toward a multiracial society.

Traditional Tolerance

Most white Britons accept this adjustment as inevitable, for this is a nation that has traditionally viewed tolerance and restraint as among its greatest social assets. But the level of tension and anger accompanying it has come as a profound shock.

The vastness of the divide that now separates much of Britain's urban black population from the national mainstream was driven home by remarks made by the area's senior elected local official, who not only refused to condemn the rioters but said the police were given "a bloody good hiding."

Bernie Grant, who emigrated from British Guiana as a teen-ager 22 years ago and, last April, became the first black ever elected to head one of London's 32 borough governments, complained bitterly about police harassment of blacks. He accused law enforcement authorities of practicing overt, aggressive racism that has steadily worsened.

'Important Factor'

"I represented the views of the young people," Grant said when asked about his remarks, "and that was an important factor in defusing the riots."

The monthlong violence in ethnically mixed, working-class areas of north London, south London and in Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city, culminating in the riot at Broadwater Farm, has occurred because of confrontations between blacks and the police.

In Birmingham's economically depressed Handsworth district, violence was set off last month by a parking ticket issued to a black youth leader. The incident triggered two nights of arson and looting that left two post office workers dead, 40 people injured and a model police-community relations program in shambles.

Rioting erupted in the south London suburb of Brixton 18 days later after London policemen accidentally shot a 38-year-old mother of six during a raid on her home in search of one of her sons. The most recent violence, at the Broadwater Farm housing development in the Tottenham area of north London, followed the death of a 49-year-old woman, apparently of a heart attack, in another police raid.

These incidents ignited the volatile mixture of hatred, disillusionment and alienation that has simmered in Britain's inner cities since the eruption of violence in the summer of 1981.

Exactly what produces these emotions is the subject of intense debate among Britain's political parties--as is the question of what to do about them.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government blames criminal elements and common hoodlums for stoking disaffection as a diversionary tactic to overstretch the police and create conditions more to their advantage.

"The cause is crime, not social conditions," said Thatcher's Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, the man responsible for law and order.

Leftists Accused

Some of the prime minister's supporters accuse militant Communists and other leftist extremists of whipping up emotions to further their revolutionary aims.

So far, Thatcher has responded by authorizing the police to use plastic bullets and tear gas to combat any future disturbances and by proposing to tighten existing public disorder law and impose harsher penalties for those who break it. Her advice to unemployed youth is to get out and look for a job.

On Oct. 11, however, at the Conservative Party's annual conference, the prime minister spoke in conciliatory tones of the hardship of unemployment and called job creation a primary goal of her government. She pledged tough punishment for rioters but also promised expanded job-training programs.

But leaders of the opposition Labor Party continue to argue that the unrest stems mainly from social deprivation, which has been exacerbated by Thatcher's tight government-spending policies and by her uncaring image.

Public spending on housing, for example, has declined by nearly two-thirds since she became prime minister in 1979, and central government grants to local authorities for next year will be a quarter less than in 1983.

"This government is completely insensitive to the problems of the inner cities," said Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

75% Unemployment

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