Friday, August 19, 2011

London Riots' Racial Blame Game

A former member of parliament, now, running for mayor of Birmingham, writes an anguished account of the riots that have ravaged Britain.

Few British mosques are places of mosaic or minaret. They are not fine buildings from which muezzins call. They are the adapted back rooms or upstairs quarters of working-class Muslims. The carpet I sat on in the Handsworth district of Birmingham on Aug. 10 was woven through with a religious motif, but was threadbare.

I was part of a circle of 20 barefoot men, their palms turned upward in front of their chests, making their dua for two brothers killed in “riots” the night before. The prayers were now led by the murdered men’s uncle, replacing their father, who was ushered away in distress.

Between prayers, the men took sober phone calls, talked mutedly, and sent text messages. A surviving brother, sobbing, wandered in and out. Outside, a crowd of young Kashmiri men milled. Some were in traditional dress, some in suits, most in the universal uniform of American hip-hop.

Fourteen hours earlier, at 1 a.m., the two brothers, along with a third man, had been “protecting their community” on the streets of Birmingham’s multiethnic Winson Green district. The night before had seen attacks on shops and looting in the city center and nearby Soho Road. As trouble seemed, on the second night, to be moving in their direction, Sajad, Haroon, and Abdul were part of a large group “defending” their area. In the chaos, a suspected looter drove his car directly at them. All three were killed. A 32-year-old man was almost immediately arrested on suspicion of murder.

This is my city. I grew up here. I love the place. I sat for nine years in the House of Commons as member of Parliament for the Erdington district of Birmingham. Last year I stood down in order to campaign for, and ultimately to campaign to be, our first directly elected mayor.

As a practicing politician in a city gripped by disorder, I find this article difficult to write. I have privileged access to private situations, afforded to me on the basis that I might help, not so that I can write it up in NEWSWEEK. But telling the story so widely is another unusual privilege. So I take the risk.

From the family of the dead brothers I went to a small, closed meeting of Afro-Caribbean community leaders called by one of the city’s two Muslim M.P.s, Khalid Mahmood. They are frightened. The man arrested on suspicion of the murders was black. Facebook is heavy with young Kashmiris venting fury and threatening reprisals. “We will take three blacks for the three that was took from us” is one message reported by a veteran community activist. She says it is the most scared she has been for 30 years.

Overlaid onto the fear of reprisals is the worry that such threats by themselves will provoke a response from gang-influenced Afro-Caribbean men.


"The rioters are not furious or alienated. They are bored.", Kerim Okten / EPA-Corbis

That would be a massive escalation because, hitherto, this nationwide civil unrest has been largely the work of children. The marauding bands that set London alight and shut down town centers across Britain were made up, unprecedentedly, of often very young teenagers. This has not been an uprising of the dispossessed, the unemployed, or particular ethnic groups, but a violent convulsion of kids on holiday from high school. According to the Metropolitan Police, just under two thirds of those arrested on the second day of the London disturbances were teenagers. Many were 13, 14, 15 years of age. Everyone who saw them was shocked.

“They were just kids, not more than 15,” the owner of a wrecked mobile-phone shop in Birmingham told me while waiting for the police to arrive in the cold light of that Tuesday morning. “The scarf covering his face fell down and I couldn’t believe it—he was so young,” said Miles Weaver, a young academic watching from the window of his city-center apartment as a gang looted a shop in the small hours of Tuesday night.Read more.

1 comment:

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