A walk through troubled Brixton, in search of answers

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The underground train takes only a few minutes to rattle from Waterloo to Stockwell and on to the end of the Victoria line at Brixton, south London. By then almost all the faces in the carriage are black.

AT the top of the stairs is Brixton Station Road -- and the start of this correspondent's walk through Brixton, where he talked to residents about possible solutions to Britain's worst rioting since World War II. Here is his report.m

Standing with their backs to me are two members of the police force, in dark blue uniforms and distinctive helmets with silver badges, that black youngsters accuse of racial harassment of Brixton people.

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I hesitate, checking street names. Two more police on foot patrol pass me from the right. Seconds later, a third pair comes from the left.

A week before, more than 1,000 police, almost all white, battled for hours April 10-12 against bricks, gasoline bombs, and thousands of young Brixton residents, both black and white. Some 143 police were injured, 285 people (mostly black) arrested and charged, nine buildings demolished, more than 100 looted, five burned out. Total damage: about L10 million ($24 million).

I turn left. Yellow signs announce Williams Furniture. The shop windows have all been smashed in and boarded up.

Another police patrol, always two men together. Two-story slums. Window after window boarded up.

It doesn't have the same feel as the streets of American cities after the race riots of the 1960s. No guns: Britain has gun control laws that, by and large, work.

Here it's not strictly "racial" confrontation, but young people, out of work, frustrated by recession, tempted by street crime, rebelling against the symbols of authority: the helmets, the lapel radios, the truncheons of the police.

It's economic and social as well as racial. By British standards of tolerance and stability, it is horrendous.

A year before, blacks rioted in Bristol. Social workers say more riots could come in other cities if relations between young people and police are not improved soon.

Only 0.4 percent of London police are black (117 men). West Indians make up 30 percent of the population of Brixton as a whole and a much higher proportion in the riot area.

In Birmingham, "community policing" puts older police on regular foot patrols in the same area, and involve them with the people through probation, housing, and social service work. Can it be done here?

West Indian youngsters (and whites as well) say young, just-out-of-training-school police constables overreact to abuse and tension. Police saturated Brixton between April 1 and April 10 to try to cut down on 50 to 60 street crimes (robberies, assaults) every week, the highest rate in the city.

They stopped 1,000 people for questioning. They arrested 150. The other 850 are still angry and humiliated.

Older Brixton residents attest to the crime rate.

Doris Smith is feeding bread to pigeons on the corner of Coldharbour Road. An old brown coat and hat try to keep out the wind. She worked for Woolworth's in the City for 30 years before retiring. She is white and she has lived in Brixton for more than 20 years.

"I don't blame the police," she says. We walk together toward the street now nationally famous for its violent clashes: Railton Road. Locals call it "the front line."

"I don't dress up to go out, so I won't be set on [attacked.] You've got to have law and order everywhere." She stops, opens her bag, rummages in it. Suddenly she shoots a look at me. "I know youm won't snatch my bag, anyway.

"Mind you," she goes on as we move down Atlantic Road toward the point where it divides into Railton Road to the right and Mayall Road to the left, "the blacks have a point.

"We brought them here to work on the trains and buses and so on. We gave them houses no one else would have."

She points her walking stick across Atlantic Road. Two-story tenements stand desolate, neglected. Sheets of corrugated iron block the upper windows. Doors hang open to reveal litter and empty liquor bottles inside.

"We have to be nicer to blacks," says Miss Smith emphatically. "They're very sensitive. You can't be snooty with them, and you'd better not be."

Two West Indian teenagers hurry toward us, hair hanging down in long finger-curls. They are down at heel, and unsmiling. They glower at another pair of foot police. I can feel the gulf between the blacks and the dark blue uniforms with black lapel microphones.

A middle-aged Jamaican, on his way home from a local Pentacostal church, stops to talk. He came here in 1962. "Those young kids," he says, "they'll take your money soon as look at you. We need the police. But man, that rioting was terrible. I stayed out of it."

What is to be done? He shrugged. "Got to be less tension, man."

Lord Scarman is to head a government inquiry into the riots. He says relations between police and the Brixton community have gone wrong. He wants to find out how and why.

Young West Indians talk and drink inside shops, in parked cars, in tenements. They have no jobs. They are surrounded by drugs, prostitution, petty crime.

Ten thousand adults are said to be out of work in Lambeth, the borough in which Brixton is located. Three thousand are between 16 and 19. Eight hundred are said to be in Brixton, where the number of registered jobs open is just 17.

Unemployment, 10 percent nationwide, hits blacks hardest. Educated young blacks protest the loudest. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calls the violence "criminal," says money alone doesn't solve problems, and wants to limit immigration.

Black leaders say too little money doesn't help either --and violence makes government sit up and take notice.

Pink blossoms provide a touch of color on Barnwell Road. "Effra Parade," nods Miss Smith. "Where the prostitutes work." What was once George's Pub is now a pile of blackened rubble.

Back at the station, Littlewood's (a betting shop), a saving and loan office, a shoe store, radio rentals, all with smashed windows boarded up. Debris everywhere. Police patrol on foot and in cars.

Miss Smith heads for her apartment, two meat chops for tea, and her black-and-white television set. I catch the train back to Waterloo. Answers need to be found. Quickly.

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