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Uneasy peace in Brixton

By Mark MuthStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 1982


Underneath the Brixton overhead railroad, inner London is at its best. The open market stalls line the main road and snake into the narrow back streets. Vendors, with varying degrees of formality, sell everything from high-quality leather goods to cheap ball-point pens.

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The canvas awnings on one side-street hang from gracefully curving Georgian row houses. Their aloofness adds to their charm.

At the heart of the shopping district on Atlantic Road, Caribbean reggae music pulses, interrupted only by the hum and the roll of the trains above. Loudspeakers mounted outside assure the characteristic rhythm a powerful and undeniable presence. Reggae shops have become as much a part of this street scene as the family ''chemist,'' operating in the same spot for the past century.

A hundred yards away from the stalls, Atlantic Road becomes an urban wasteland. Corrugated iron fences cordon off burned and crumbled buildings. The road branches into a ''Y'' -- bordered on one side by the railroad tracks and on the other, beyond empty lots, by the backs of still neatly kept row houses. The area is called the ''Front Line'' and is a central meeting place of the young. Many of the houses along Railton Road, the continuation of Atlantic, are derelict, and many are occupied by squatters.

The Front Line provides a grim reminder of last April's riots -- the worst in the history of the British mainland, according to Lord Scarman, one of Britain's five prestigious law lords.

''In the center of Brixton,'' he writes, ''a few hundred young people -- most , but not all of them, black -- attacked the police on the streets with stones, bricks, iron bars and petrol bombs, demonstrating to millions of their fellow citizens the fragile basis of the Queen's peace.''

Brixton has been much in the public eye and the news media's cameras since the disorders. The period of self-reflection and examination has begun to culminate. In November, Lord Scarman delivered a comprehensive report on the causes of the Brixton riots to the government. A public debate ensued. The police, national civil rights spokesmen, local community leaders, and the political parties have had their say. Now the parliamentary debate has receded behind the closed doors of the home secretary's office and 10 Downing Street, and the new year awaits Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's detailed proposals on what to do about Brixton and other inner-city areas. Among the questions demanding an answer are:

* How can police-community relations, scarred by years of distrust and hostility, be healed?

* How can racial discrimination, which many feel contributes to tensions in Brixton and elsewhere, be dealt with?

* How can the government restore confidence that it is doing the best it can to provide jobs, housing, and better social conditions for inner-city residents in the face of profound economic difficulties?

''What do you want?'' a young black demands. When he finds out it is a reporter asking questions, the edge to his voice sharpens.

''I'm tired of hearing about Scarman, the riots, the government,'' he says. ''What the . . . is another newspaper article going to do? We need money down here - jobs, housing. I'll tell you the real story behind the riots - how much will you pay me?''

Others gather in front of the house. Two Jaguars are parked in front. Inside, crowded voices carry over reggae music from a portable radio. Boarded-up windows conceal the actions within, but a waft of marijuana smoke tells most of the story.

The idle youths, many in their late teens, leave school with scant job prospects. Unemployment in Brixton among black males under 19 is estimated to be as high as 55 percent by the Manpower Services Commission. Britain's unemployment rate is 13 percent and thought to be higher for blacks. During 1980 , national unemployment increased 66 percent overall, compared with an increase of 82 percent for ethnic minorities. And, according to most indicators, the situation did not improve last year.