UK Riots: A view from Black Britain


The African and Caribbean community faces its biggest challenge since the riots of the 1980s. Some even argue the challenge today is even greater than back then.

The complexity of the civil disturbances that have raged through our cities over the last few nights cannot easily be categorised in two dimensional terms: Black and White; them against us; the haves and the have nots. On race for example, in many parts of the country including Manchester and Salford the looters were predominantly White. In some areas such as Hackney and Tottenham there was a visible ethnic mix, whilst in Brixton and Lewisham the racial makeup was predominately Black. However, the way these events are now being viewed, shockingly skewed by the tragic events in Winson Green, Birmingham, that has left three innocent men dead, will lead many to conclude that this is largely a 'disease' within the Black community and it is all of us that will face the wrath of society's backlash.

Truth is, over the last 20 years, countless Black leaders throughout country have sought to improve the lives of young Black men and women and in doing so, the image of Black Britain in general. Organisations at the forefront include the likes of 100 Black Men, From Boyhood to Manhood, Mighty Men of Valour, The Windsor Fellowship, Runnymede Trust, The Black Powerlist, our own organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV) amongst others. These voluntary groups have been dedicated to encouraging, inspiring and supporting tens of thousands of Black men and women to become model citizens: magistrates, councillors, MP's, lawyers, scientists, and business entrepreneurs. OBV's two very visible success stories have been the Conservative Party Chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and the Conservatives' first MP of African descent Helen Grant. The churches have played an even greater role guiding hundreds of thousands of Black Christians to a level of morality that Prime Minister David Cameron's own moral crusade could only dream about.

And yet a few thousand woefully alienated, angry and self-centered Black individuals could put the whole Black community back 30 years in regards to race relations. On radio, TV and the print media, Black MPs and leaders are fearful of discussing contributory factors to the disturbances such as Black deaths in police custody, high levels of unemployment, cuts in youth services, the lack of hope, and a police force that stops and searches Black youths 26 times more than their White peers. The politicians’ fear is that if they talk beyond condemnation they will be portrayed as apologists for lawbreakers. What also stifles Labour’s Black MPs from raising the issue of lack of opportunities for example, is the simple fact that under their 12-year reign, the social-economic divide has actually got worse.

The irresponsible actions of a few have left many Black people, from Brixton to Birmingham and beyond to feel we are at mercy of an unforgiving society. At one end of the spectrum the race hate groups see this as a way of raising their profile as the 'defenders' of White Britain. English Defence League (EDL) opportunists have momentarily moved their bile and hatred away from the Muslim community and are now targeting Africans and Caribbeans. 'We are defending our towns' cry EDL members such as its leader Stephen Lennon, who, when he is not 'holding the line' against Muslims, is inciting violence at football matches for no other reason than his personal gratification. Other EDL members call for a 'final solution'. EDL member Lewis Smith boasted on his blog 'we should gas all the coons' while other members enthusiastically agreed.

At the other end of the 'blame the community' spectrum will be the Government and, I suspect, many cowardly opposition MPs. They will argue that they have zero responsibility for creating a climate for these disturbances to occur. 'It’s not about equality' they argue 'it’s about their lack of responsibility'. The reality, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

If society is angry, the Black community is in pain. Many simply feel this is not a good time to be Black. Yesterday for example, I spent the morning at a summer school put on by the local church in Lewisham. Aspire2Be brought young men and women - all Black, all church goers with an average age of 15 - to learn business skills. Their parents ensured they were not dressed in jeans and hoodies, but in shirt and ties with notebooks at hand. Their mood was sombre, their views illuminating.

More than half of the group of 30 said they had been stopped and searched by the police, some on their way to school. Many had witnessed the rioting from the safety of their bedroom windows. They all felt the shame by the actions of a few. In the question and answer session, one young man bravely said, 'We're lucky. Most of us have stable homes and the church is our extended family. I have friends at school who have one parent. That parent isn't up to it. They are on the streets. The gangs become their family. There they have power and respect'.

Whilst the majority are gorging themselves in condemnation of the looters, we'd do well to take note from that 15-year-old boy. Let's punish the wrong doers, particularly those who have had total disregard for lives of others, but let's try to understand, and take responsibility for helping fractured families and communities survive and excel.

In relation to the Black community's collective response, we must do so quickly, effectively and visibly. But there are encouraging signs. As you read this, Black Church leaders and others are discussing ways in which we can show our communities and society that we deeply care, and that we will redouble our efforts to help put things right for now and the future.

Beyond the political point scoring we'll witness today in Parliament we hope though we'll find willing and genuine partners on all sides of the political divide.

Simon Woolley

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Archived Comments

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Damage limitation

I am no big speaker and I am not someone famous - in essence I am a God fearing individual who is a Muslim. I live in Birmingham and I am proud to walk and talk to all. Last Wednesday Winson Green and Birmingham was the centre of attention. Two of the three guys (Shazad and Abdul) I had known for the best of 12 years - I didn't grow up with them or was related to them. I was their local beat officer. You see I patrolled Winson Green and it was and still is the most peaceful area in Birmingham. And its down to the parents and elders and the cross learning between the Pakistani / Afro-Caribbean values. The area still respect their elders and live in harmony. In my time as a Police officer I came across one Afro-Caribbean youth no more than 13 years old - he stole from a friend's house and having never been in trouble with the Police - I had the opportunity to resolve the issue and he was given a formal warning. I felt that the kid needed a chance and like him I came across many other kids. I would give them all the same message, 'don't waste your lives'. This kid got involved in the wrong kind of people and made enemies of a Jamaican national - who shot and killed him, at the age of 18 his life ended. I have never forgot this kid. Now I see 3 guys get run over and loose their lives.
My point is we are too busy sitting on the side lines and never speak up. As Muslims, one would think its great for the first time in a decade we can breath easy - suddenly we aren't making the media headlines,"Ban the veil", "Terrorists!". For the first time in a decade we can walk down a street and not be ridiculed or have to worry about our children or our wives or our sisters or our mothers.
The tide has changed and now suddenly the Afro-Caribbean are in the firing range - all attention is drawn to them. On Wednesday Tariq Jahan (the father of one of the deceased) made a very emotional plea for calm and peace. He is a Muslim, lost a son and he wants calm and peace.
I know what it is like to be a victim of racial and religious hatred and believe me it is not nice. I knew one of the deceased, Shazad Ali (Degree in Business studies), but because the colour of his skin and attitude he drew attention to himself and his degree was worth as much as an old Pound note.
Now that the tide has changed it reminds me of the 80's when the Afro-Caribbean community were treated with contempt. I don't want to see those days and I ask the Afro-Caribbean community to hold out their hand and take hold of my hand and stand united. I assure you we, Muslims have faced our dark hour and from it we have come out stronger - its only a matter of time when we go back into the darkness but whilst we are in the light we want to share the light with our brothers and sisters.
The Afro-Caribbean youth of today many are sensible, decent, law abiding, friendly, loving individuals full of life and the pride of the Afro-Caribbean community as were my school friends in the early 80's. And I saw many end up on drugs, in prison or in the morgue. What went wrong? Society turned their backs on them and they suffered, their innocence and morals were destroyed. Lets not let history repeat itself.

British Governments: A Big Let Down.

A lot is expected of the Black Community and there is no surprise there. I am passing the buck to successive British Governments who have continuously failed us. We now face the threat of the 'Big Society' which hasn't been properly explained to us. Peharps someone in government would like to step forward?

Black community's response to the riots

I would like to know what is planned by the churches and community groups in response to the riots?As I am intersted in getting involved . The article thankfully gives a breakdown of the races that were involved in the riots. People need to see the positive side of being black , all the wonderful work that decent ordinary people do. There has been much talk about single parents. I am one and know what it is like to feel the force of a growing male who also to some degree feels he has the responsiblity of being the only male in the house. Where are the courses that can help these women set boundaries and be assertive? Many women are afraid to talk or have been worn down in their attempts at trying to discipline. Many women still lack self esteem and this can be manifested in aggressive behaviour. Cannot women in the same situation come together and help each other ? A problem shared is a problem halved. Thank you Operation black vote for the artile .

I know I'm not the only

I know I'm not the only person who is thankful that some of the most oppressed people in this society have finally done something to demonstrate the level of anger in their communities. It would be more worrying if people weren't responding to this government's attempts to drive down already-poor people's living standards, cut EMA, access to education and increase the level of societal racism in order to do so.

Don't get me wrong, there were some truly tragic moments in these riots; the loss of life, destruction of peoples' homes and small businesses could all have been avoided, but when chronically disenfranchised people begin to stand up for themselves the results are bound to be overwhelming and in parts destructive. But I do hope that those who came out on the streets last week find new ways to express and organise their anger so that they can build on the gains that they have already made. And they have made gains: people are starting to speak about AND speak to these people.

The uprisings of the 80s changed the political landscape of country, we should be proud of that. Likewise the riots against the poll tax and the student demonstrations last year. We should not be overwhelmed by what has happened, we should see it as a healthy sign, that people haven't been completely demoralised by the deepening of racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, anti-youth politics of this government. This is a real opportunity for black and Asian youth to organise in ways that make real on some of the latent demands these riots have brought to the fore.

Yes you are the only one

'I know I'm not the only person who is thankful that some of the most oppressed people in this society have finally done something to demonstrate the level of anger in their communities'

Sorry but that is a lame believe - people oppressed, you don't even know what the word means. If you want to look at oppressed - look at the middle east, North Africa Afghanistan Pakistan India China etc. Famine and war stricken.

Because of a time of financial crisis you think a few criminals are making a statement they are oppressed - I don't think so. The closest to oppression in this country have been the Muslim community in the last 2 decades. Especially since 9/11 and 7/7. You don't see them breaking into shops and causing destruction.

What these idiots have done is labelled themselves with a life sentence of being convicted as criminals and all the stress they have caused their parents - those who were caused stress. And I think those who have lost their loved ones will really feel comforted by your words.

Your statement is a mimic of the right winged nazis and BNP and EDL. 'The uprising ...' 'We should be proud...'