New round of urban violence hits Britain

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

First Handsworth in Birmingham. Now Brixton in south London. Within the space of three weeks, Britain's two principal cities have been shaken by urban violence that is starting to follow an all-too-predictable pattern.

As burglar alarms rang unchecked all over Brixton Sunday morning following the overnight violence, the scenes of devastation bore an uncanny resem- blance to the Handsworth riots that took place earlier this month.

There's the smell of burned-out buildings, the sight of streets scarred and blackened by petrol bombs, and the crunch of broken glass under foot. Scribbled crudely on the side of a shoe store is the message: ``Back the Handsworth riot.''

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Such look-alike riots carry an ominous ring. Police can easily touch off an incident. Blacks are always involved because these are areas of high black concentration. Petrol bombs are thrown. Stores are smashed and looted. Demands are made for police inquiries.

The police have apologized for the accidental shooting of a black woman that triggered this most recent Brixton riot, in which 36 people -- including 10 policeman and several journalists -- were injured. The police called the incident a tragic mistake.

The incident occurred after seven police officers burst into the house of Sherry Groce looking for her 19-year-old son Michael in connection with a shooting incident two days earlier. The police did not find the son, who had not lived in the house for some time, but a police inspector with 21-years' experience fired twice, seriously injuring Mrs. Groce.

The police inspector fired the shots with a Smith & Wesson .38 pistol, which does not have a safety catch and which is similar to the gun used by a policeman who accidentally shot dead a five-year-old boy in a Birmingham raid five weeks ago.

As a result, calls for much greater police accountability are becoming a pervasive factor in the aftermath of violence in Britain's inner-city areas.

Some Brixton residents say that, while the police action was the cause of the riot, it would have happened anyway.

``It's been boiling for weeks. It's just an excuse for it to go off,'' says a white shop assistant whose owner had taken the precaution of boarding up the store while stones were hurtling into shops on the other side of the street.

``The older ones are lovely,'' the shop assistant said. It's the kids, she's about to say, who are to blame -- but she's interrupted by a white youth standing next to her: ``There were white kids too and white girls, as well, walking around with bricks.''

A white businessman blames the police: ``What we need to focus on is not what the blacks have or have not done. What this community wants is for justice to be seen to be done. They want to see that this experienced officer is charged and dismissed from the force.''

Several blacks claim their quarrel was not with whites, but with the police. One young black woman is convinced that blacks are assaulted when brought into the police station. An African student says he thinks the police are ``predisposed'' to dislike blacks.

Police complain that it is too easy for blacks to charge harassment as justification for their criminal acts. Police also say that they resent the fact that they have to assume responsibility for all society's ills.

At the same time the Scarman Report, produced in the aftermath of the last and more serious Brixton riot in 1981, pointed to greater police sensitivity in black areas as the single most urgent need.

Social workers say that the police have made great strides since then. Blacks and police have been meeting in the Lambeth Town Hall every two weeks for 41/2 years debating the issues confronting them in Brixton.

Yet observers have said that the residual problems, such as street crime and unemployment, have proved too great to prevent resentment from boiling over when a police officer accidentally shoots a black woman. Police increasingly find themselves the focus of controversy.

While many middle-class Britons have no quarrel with the police and admire them for their civility and helpfulness and the fact that they generally go unarmed, poorer areas perceive them quite differently.

In Handsworth, Birmingham, recently, a white working woman said that if a police officer stopped a white or black in ``a posh area like Solihull, there would be no problems. But down here we're all under suspicion.''

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