Unemployment and recession fuel race riots in London

Embattled police pelted with bricks, burning pieces of wood, and Molotov cocktails; police cars overturned and set alight; 100 shops looted, and 110 young people arrested.

The latest dramatic scenes were played out in south London over the weekend -- the second major urban clash between youths and police in a year.

Recession and joblessness are sharpening social and racial tensions in Britain.

Particularly resentful are the sons and daughters of West Indian and Asian immigrants. Born in Britain, many of these young people have graduated from high school, facing no jobs, and unwilling to accept the kind of menial work their parents were only too happy to find.

Now the Conservative government, social workers, police, and others are urgently looking for ways to build confidence between police and young unemployed blacks and whites.

The situation appears primarily economic, with racial overtones -- youths versus police -- rather than purely racial clashes between blacks and whites. But racial elements do exist.

The British social fabric is far from tearing. Police still do not carry guns. Britain remains one of the most stable and tolerant places on earth.

But prolonged hard times magnify the tensions that have built up in recent years. The longer the recession goes on, the more the potential for trouble.

A number of government and private plans are being tried, including a government youth opportunities program designed for 440,000 people. But unemployment remains high: 2.48 million overall or 10.3 percent. Inner-city areas, crammed with West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and others say they bear the hardest brunt of all.

Unemployment among blacks is as high as 35 percent in places. Many blacks leaving school in recent years say they have never worked at all. Total unemployment is expected to rise above 3 million, according to government figures, before any improvement is seen. And that is thought to be many months away yet.

A year ago, police raided a West Indian cafe in the St. Paul's area of Bristol on the west coast of England and the resulting riot make made world headlines.

On April 10 this year, three policemen in Brixton in south London were injured in a 20-minute clash with about 100 black youths after police had questioned a young black man wandering the streets with a wound in his back.

The next afternoon, April 11, police questioning the driver of a West Indian minicab (gypsy cab) were jeered by blacks. When police tried to make an arrest, bricks flew and clashes worsened for the next eight hours.

At one point, about 1,000 police had been called in. Palls of smoke rose above Brixton Street. Twenty-four policemen were still in the hospital April 12 .

Yet it was not a US-style racial clash. "It was the community against the police," black youths insisted.

Whites in Brixton said they were left alone when blacks recognized them as local people. At least one white youth was photographed helping blacks overturn a police car.

The first reaction of Scotland Yard was to vow to keep order on all London streets, and to deny there were any streets police could not enter. But solving deep-seated social and economic problems will be more difficult. Already government officials have warned that the youth opportunities program, already offering 440,000 places at a cost of L270 million ($607.5 million), needs to be expanded for 40,000 more school leavers.

That means that only government-created training jobs are keeping almost half a million young people off the unemployment rolls -- at a time when the Conservative government is trying to cut government spending, not boost it.

But racial overtones are there. As in the US, blacks tend to be last hired, first fired.

In Brixton, blacks and Asians make up only 29 percent of the population. (Sixty-two percent is white and the rest is of Vietnamese, Chilean, Maltese, Cypriot, or other origin.)

But of those unemployed between the ages of 16 and 19, a full 50 percent are black.

Blacks and Asians believe police and employers single them out for harassment.

A recent survey by the London Policy Studies Institute, covering the year 1979, said that 82 percent of West Indians and 59 percent of Asians questioned believed employers discriminated against them. The figures were sharply higher than a similar survey in 1974.

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