BIRMINGHAM RIOT. What fanned the flames that burned Handsworth

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

``It's all a load of rubbish,'' he blurts out. He characterizes the youths that recently went on the rampage here as ``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.''

The police officer, who has lived all his life in Handsworth, wears the injured look of a man who feels the rioters have betrayed his neighborhood's good name.

He has a point. The news media reporters who descended en masse on Handsworth for two days -- and who then left like lemmings just as quickly -- wrote of the neighborhood as though it were one of Britain's worst inner-city areas.

Yet Handsworth is not the horrendous slum it has been made it out to be by some reports. It does have very high unemployment -- 38 percent -- and a number of houses without inside toilet facilities.

At the same time, Handsworth -- beyond the area where rioting destroyed shops -- doesn't look decayed and crumbling. There are pleasant communities such as Carpenters Road, which sits right on the edge of the burned-out buildings of Lozells Road.

With its picture-postcard gardens, overflowing window boxes, climbing wall plants, and neat Victorian facades with brightly painted doors and shiny door knockers, the homes on Carpenters Road would not disgrace Chelsea.

Even Lozells Road, the focal point of the rioting, has rows of freshly painted buildings with repointed walls, new roofs, and new windows. Some of them are now charred from petrol bombs thrown through upper windows.

They're all part of a multi-million pound investment put into Handsworth to correct the housing problems that led to the last Handsworth riot a few years ago. Birmingham City has renovated some 16,000 to 17,000 properties in Handsworth in this fashion.

But behind the prettied-up facades is ugliness. Only 6,300 interiors have been touched by the renovation effort.

Neverthless, Asian shop keepers here say it was no reason for destroying what had been put right.

If there was any one to blame, they say, it was the police for failing to act sooner to prevent the arson and looting. The police are also crticized by many whites and blacks for turning a blind eye to the drugs traffic.

Residents complain that youths could be seen openly selling drugs on the street outside a notorious pub on Lozells Road. ``And the police would do nothing about it,'' says one resident. ``Now they are acting.''

As she spoke, a plainclothes policeman walks around her with three brown Doberman pinschers firmly leashed to a strong chain. ``Part of the police drug squad,'' she says.

Asked about community criticism that the police have been either too strong-armed, or not done enough, the Hands- worth police officer gives a long-suffering sigh.

``If we search them for drugs because we think they may have it,'' he says, ``we're [considered] 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 100 policemen. Otherwise the black fellows will come out of the wood- work and charge harassment.''

But black youths charge they are targets for abuse, while whites and Asians are not discriminated against.

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