Judge in Brixton riots inquiry takes to the streets

How do you dig out the truth about an incident around which powerful public emotions are swirling? In Britain, the tendency is to turn to Lord Scarman, widely regarded as the nation's most liberal-minded and inquisitive senior judge.

Lord Scarman has begun an inquiry into last April's race riots in the south London suburb of Brixton in which 143 police were injured and damage worth nearly L17 million (almost $14 million) was done to property.

For some weeks before hearings were due to begin, Scarman descended from his chambers in the Inns of Court and carried out a series of private visits to Brixton, walking its streets, chatting to residents, getting, his fellow lawyers say, a "feel" for the district, its residents, and their problems.

A confirmed lover of classical music, he rapidly came to realize that the bouncing rhythms of reggae were part of the heartbeat of Brixton. So he listened to a lot of reggae, and discovered the significance of a local reggae hero, Bob Marley.

In part, the effort was to try to understand Brixton better. But it was also an attempt to convince the black people of the area that he was genuinely interested in finding out the truth about the riots and about their community problems.

One by one, suspicious black citizens' groups said they would be willing to give evidence to the Scarman inquiry. When the hearings opened, there were some pickets outside the building, but the judge appears to be reasonably satisfied that the voice of Brixton will be properly heard before he comes to any conclusions.

Scarman has a lot of experience pursuing facts in an atmosphere where passion rules. He did a term as a judge in northern Ireland, where he had to come to grips with violence and communal tension.

In recent years, he has conducted inquiries into violent street demonstrations and a long-running industrial dispute involving low-paid Asian workers.

A committed believer in human rights and their prime place in a democratic society, he has pressed for the promulgation of a British bill of rights to secure the liberties of citizens. In this he is in a minority among his fellow judges.

One of the thorniest topics Scarman must confront in Brixton is police behavior. It is undeniable that there has been severe tension between police and black youths.

Typically, this tall, mildly spoken lawyer has made it clear that he will not be content merely to pinpoint the immediate causes of one of the worst weekends of violence Britain has ever seen.

He is determined to present government and public with a detailed study of community relations in a neighborhood where black people claim police habitually harass them and the police say special measures are needed to ensure maintenance of law and order.

In the first few days of public testimony Lord Scarman heard sharply conflicting accounts of why Brixton for 48 hours was transformed from a sprawling, seedy suburb literally into a battleground.

The police case rested on the fact that Brixton, with its high proportion of black residents, had become a place where crimes of larceny and violence were rapidly increasing.

No, said advocates of the black people of brixton. The fault lay with the police themselves. They showed scant respect for blacks, and too many constables were young men and women with little or no experience of race relations.

Scarman's technique is to let testimony wash over him for a while, then raise a hand and begin probing witnesses.

He asks about the effects of unemployment on mothers and children, the strains created within families by substandard housing.

That his public inquiry is hearing evidence from blacks at all is something of a personal triumph for Lord Scarman. Shortly before he opened the inquiry in the cavernous gloom of Lambeth Town Hall, organizations representing Brixton's blacks threatened to boycott the proceedings.

Spokesmen claimed that Scarman had been asked to carry out a whitewash that would automatically exonerate the police. They didn't reckon with the judge's capacity for hardwork and patient persuasion.

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