BIRMINGHAM RIOT. What fanned the flames that burned Handsworth
Dawn was just breaking over Handsworth as the double-decker bus heading for the center of Birmingham pulled up at the bus stop diagonally opposite the disused bingo hall. That was the spot where violence erupted this September, leaving in its wake two dead and more than 70 shops gutted, vandalized, and looted.Skip to next paragraph
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Only one white working man boarded that otherwise empty bus, ample evidence of the high unemployment here.
A skinny white youth leaned truculently against the side of the bus shelter. He didn't clamber aboard the bus. Why he happened to be standing at the bus shelter was immaterial. He was just killing time.
He suggested to this correspondent that they take a walk through the town to ``see the damage that had been down.''
A weathered haversack hung over his shoulders. His clothes were uniformly drab and gray. He had blue eyes, but they were cold and metallic-looking. His nails had been chewed down to the point where they were scarcely visible. His hair was just as short. He was 18 and unemployed with no hope, he said, of getting a job.
Ask his name and he says ``pass.'' First name?
``I'll pass again,'' says with a tone of sardonic, brittle humor that comes from his feeling that he's been treated unfairly and is therefore accountable to no one.
He speaks softly, but his questioning is rapid fire. ``What's your salary,'' he asks. ``Where have you put your coat?'' (It was a fresh early morning.) ``Where's your car?''
Each question is phrased to suggest that these are things he lacks.
He characterises the general feeling of Handsworth 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.''
For all the many complex reasons for why Handsworth went up in smoke that night -- hooliganism, lawlessness, inadequate housing, social deprivation, drugs, unemployment, or controversial police action -- a lack of jobs was the reason that strikes the most responsive chord with residents here.
But the sour, apathetic feelings of the white youth at the bus shelter pale in comparison with the angry feelings of black youths here. Only four out of every 100 young blacks here can expect to get a job soon after leaving school.
A black man with a pronounced West Indian accent, which means he's of the older generation, gives 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 says. ``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 want jobs.''
Yet if you mention high unemployment to a high-ranking police officer, he will almost choke with indignation.