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how to make a riot

pickled politics, 21 april 2009

On 9 September 1985 police arrested a young black man near the Acapulco Café in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. A few hours later they launched a drugs raid on the nearby Villa Cross pub. Hundreds of people – blacks, whites and Asians – took to the streets in protest, attacked police and property, looting, smashing and setting off firebombs. Two people were killed and dozens injured. It was almost the last flicker of the eighties inner-city conflagrations.

Almost exactly twenty years later, on 22 October 2005, another riot erupted in Lozells, next door to Handsworth. This time the fighting was not between youths and police but between blacks and Asians. An unsubstantiated – and untrue – rumour that a Jamaican girl had been raped by a group of Asian men led to a violent clash between the two communities during which a young African Caribbean man was murdered by an Asian gang.

Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other twenty years later? The answer lies largely in the policies introduced by Birmingham City Council after the original riots of 1985. The council borrowed the GLC blueprint to create a new political framework through which to reach out to minority communities. It created nine so-called ‘Umbrella Groups’, organizations based on ethnicity and faith, which were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities and help the council develop policy and allocate resources. They included the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society, the Council of Black-led Churches, the Hindu Council, the Irish Forum, the Vietnamese Association, the Pakistani Forum and the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras.

The council hoped that by setting up these groups it could draw minority communities into the democratic process and so keep anger off the streets. The trouble was, there was precious little democracy in the process. The groups themselves had no democratic mandate – indeed, no mandate at all. After all, why should the Council of Black-led Churches presume to speak for the needs and aspirations of African-Caribbeans in Birmingham? Why should all Bangladeshis be represented by an Islamic organization, or all Sikhs by the gurdwaras? Indeed, what is the Bangladeshi community, or the Sikh community, and what are their needs and aspirations?

Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in Birmingham? Clearly not. Some whites vote Conservative, some Liberal, some for the Labour Party, and a few for the communists or the neo-fascists. And some don’t vote at all. Some whites are religious, others militantly secular. And most whites would not see their interests as specifically ‘white’. A white Christian probably has more in common with a black Christian than with a white atheist. A white communist would think more like a Bangladeshi communist than like a white Conservative. And so on.

Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African-Caribbeans are any different? They are not. It is simply that the council’s policies, like all multicultural policies, seemed to assume that minority communities had somehow arrived in Birmingham from a different social universe. Cosmologists believe that the physical universe in its infancy was homogeneous and uniform. Multiculturalists seem to think the same about the social universe of minority groups. All are viewed as uniform, single-minded, conflict-free and defined by ethnicity, faith and culture. As the council’s own report put it, ‘The perceived notion of homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs or views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.’

Birmingham’s policies, in other words, did not respond to the needs of communities, but to a large degree created those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts which arose out of class, gender and intra-religious differences. They empowered not individuals within minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’, who owed their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state.

The writer and theatre director Pervaiz Khan grew up in the Sparkbrook area, not far from Handsworth and Lozells. In the 1960s and 1970s, he says, the first generation of immigrants who settled there were involved largely in Pakistani politics. Most were supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party, presided over by the Bhuttos – first Zulfikar, and subsequently his daughter Benazir. Political support was organized largely on biradari lines, and PPP meetings in Birmingham often degenerated into physical fights between different clans. By the 1980s interest in Pakistani politics had waned. In 1977 General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in an army coup and later executed him. By the 1980s Zia had fully consolidated his power in Pakistan. PPP supporters in Birmingham turned their attention from Pakistani to local politics.

The Labour Party took advantage of this shift in focus by recruiting from the Asian communities. It did so, however, largely on clan lines. ‘What the Labour Party was really interested in’, says Khan, ‘was recruiting clan elders who could deliver votes en masse. At election time, the elders would simply tell everyone in the clan to vote for their candidate.’ He tells the story of his uncle, who came to Britain in the 1950s and who became, a decade later, the first non-white shop steward in the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Birmingham. He developed strong relationships with the local Labour Party hierarchy and had, by the 1980s, become an essential cog in the Labour Party machine.

‘He was never an elected councillor,’ says Khan, ‘but he was treated as if he was. He had his own office in the council building, a pass and a parking space. He effectively acted as a “whip”, making sure that other Asian councillors voted the “right way”. In return, he got council grants for the Asian community, for community centres and other projects.’ Second-generation Asians, who had little interest in Pakistani politics and despised the biradari system, also accommodated themselves to what Khan calls ‘machine politics’, recognizing it as a useful way of gaining resources for their communities.

Such machine politics inevitably created conflicts between minority communities. As one academic study of Birmingham observes, the ‘model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between BME communities for resources. Rather than prioritizing needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximize their own interests.’

Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of their ethnicity, and only their ethnicity. ‘People are forced into a very one-dimensional view of themselves by the way that equality policies work,’ says Joy Warmington of the Birmingham Race Action Partnership, a council-funded but independent equalities organization. ‘People mobilize on the basis of how they feel they will get the resources to tackle the issues important to them. And in Birmingham it helps to say you’re campaigning for the needs of your ethnic or faith community, because policies have tended to emphasize ethnicity as a key to entitlement. If somebody in Handsworth or Lozells wants a community centre or a health centre it is often easier to get funding if they say “We want an Asian community centre” or “We want an African-Caribbean health centre.” They are forced to see themselves in terms of their ethnicity, their race, their culture and so on rather than in broader terms that might bring people together.’

Birmingham council’s policy created rifts between communities where none had previously existed and exacerbated divisions that had previously been managed. The greatest estrangement was between the Asian and African-Caribbean communities. African-Caribbeans resented the economic success of many Asians and, in particular, felt aggrieved that many shops selling what were regarded as ‘black’ goods, such as African-Caribbean beauty products or West Indian food, were Asian-owned. Asians had achieved their success, many believed, by manipulating the council funding process and by strangling African-Caribbean political influence.

To a degree they were right. The biradari system had allowed Asians to influence the political machine far more successfully than the more individuated African-Caribbean communities. ‘We have a South African situation here,’ claimed Maxi Hayles, chair of the council funded Birmingham Racial Attack Monitoring Unit and one of the city’s most respected African-Caribbean leaders. ‘White on top, coloured Asian in the middle and African at the bottom. If you want a taxi – Asian. If you want petrol – Asian. Off-licence – Asian. Access to banks – Asian. Even Afro-Caribbean food – Asian. Our community feels trapped.’

A few months after the riots I went to Birmingham to make a TV documentary about community tensions. Most African-Caribbean leaders refused to talk to me, not because they found the cameras too intrusive but because I was Asian and therefore ‘on the other side’. One of the few who was willing to talk was Anthony Gordon, chair of the Partnership Against Crime. Before I could interview him, however, he wanted me to account for what he saw as the crimes of the Asian community. I can only speak for myself, I told him, I cannot speak for all Asians. He snorted. ‘But Asians have always had it in for the black man. It was like that in South Africa. It was like that in Kenya and Uganda. And it’s like that here. It’s in your blood.’

Birmingham City Council began with the intention of bringing minority communities into the democratic process. It ended up with communal politics so deeply entrenched that it eventually led to communal rioting. Hostility is not in the blood of Asians or African-Caribbeans. It is in the DNA of multicultural policies.