People of Birmingham speak out on riots. `It's all about jobs,' says a black man; `rubbish,' says a policeman

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Dawn broke eerily over Birmingham's Handsworth district, which only days ago erupted in one of the worst incidents of urban violence in Britain. Silhouetted against the purple sky were the distinctive outlines of British policemen's helmets.

Four or five police were behind a barricade separating this community from the gutted post office where two Asians were burned alive in the firebombing of a row of buildings.

No other people were around. The scene of much of the rioting -- Lozells Road -- was now as vacant and empty as some of the burned-out hulks of buildings that flanked it.

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Looming over the street, a huge poster of bulging-biceped Sylvester Stallone as ``Rambo,'' with weapons blazing. ``No man, no law, no war can stop him,'' it read.

Immediately across from the sign were cars that black youths had overturned and set on fire a couple of nights before. There had been no man or law to stop them, either.

The smoke from the burning cars was so acrid that Harold Jardine's (not his real name) voice was still hoarse when he opened the door to his house. ``I've been in the Army for 61/2 years but nothing was as terrifying as [the rioting]. It was like a scene from the blitz [of 1941]. Explosions were going off all the time.''

Mrs. Jardine, offering me a cup of tea, said that they were at their front window when they saw the TV camera crew that came into the street have their cameras snatched and their pockets emptied of all money by both white and black youths.

The TV anchorman said at the time he had never been so terrified. He was dismayed that something like that could happen in Britain. What had struck the anchorman was that the youths felt no sense of remorse and appeared to act as though they were in charge ``for the first time in their lives.'' The Jardines also watched as a gang of black youths tried to open the cash register of the nearby garage they had just looted.

``When they finally got it open there wasn't a penny in it. Then they put a rope around it and swung it around and around. Fortunately it landed in the street.''

The Jardines were quick to point out that the black youths were not representative of the whole community. They spoke affectionately of Asian neighbors down the street and said relations couldn't be better. The burning of two Asians at the post office had left them grief-stricken. ``They were lovely men, those two brothers,'' said Mrs. Jardine. She said that people on the street took up a collection and sent flowers to the family.

Who was to blame? The Jardines weren't sure but they thought unemployment had a lot to do with it.

So did a black man with a pronounced West Indian accent. He gave short shrift to arguments about social deprivation or the need for better community relations.

``All the community do-gooders want to come in and say that what the community needs is community relations,'' he said. ``We've got all the community relations we need. This is not a police problem. It's all about jobs. These kids have got all this energy to burn up. They wanted jobs.''

A youth leans almost truculently against the side of a bus shelter. His nails have been chewed down to the point where they are scarcely visible. His hair is just as short. He's 18, unemployed, with no hope of a job.

Ask his name and he says, ``pass.'' First name? ``I'll pass again.'' He says with the sardonic, brittle humor that comes from feeling he's been treated unfairly and feels accountable to no one.

He speaks softly, but his questioning is rapid fire: ``What's your salary? Where have you put your coat?'' (It was early morning.) ``Where's your car?'' Each question is phrased to suggest that these are things he lacks.

He characterizes the general feeling as one of ``apathy.''

``It's a good word,'' he says with heavy sarcasm. ``It means a lot of things -- `no jobs.' No jobs for my friends, so why should I even try? They have training programs. It keeps the government happy but it's pretty meaningless to us.''

Yet mention high unemployment and a high-ranking police officer almost chokes with indignation.

``It's all a load of rubbish.'' Referring to the youths on the rampage, he said they were ``a drug-crazed, drink-crazed hooligan mob. They're just having one hell of a bonfire. They would be totally incapable of performing a useful job for society.''

There is considerable sensitivity about the use of drugs in a community which until now has been lightly policed for fear of provoking racial incidents. An Asian shopkeeper says that, since a recent clampdown, drug pushers who used to come into his shop with 100 (about $130) have been hurt and their presence has been scarce.

Asked about community criticism that the police have been either too strong-armed or have not done enough, one officer said, ``If we search them for drugs because we think they may have it, we're [considered in the] wrong from the start. Society expects us to handle them with kid gloves. When you raid a place you've got to go in with a hundred policemen. Otherwise the black fellows will come out of the woodwork and charge harassment.''

But black youths say they are a target for abuse, while whites and Asians are not discriminated against.

By midmorning the area is saturated with police in vans or walking down the street two or three at a time and sometimes only 50 yards apart. In some sensitive areas, by arrangement with black community leaders, police don't venture at all.

Right now calm prevails in Handsworth.

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