Liverpool riots: where people put blame

From 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., Ahmad Tabit, an immigrant from Yemen, stood guard with three brothers, one brother-in-law, his Alsatian dog, and supply of steel bars outside his small shop on Lodge Lane, while Britain's worst street rioting in memory raged around him.

Now that the worst is over, Mr. Tabit and the rest of a startled country ask what can be done to prevent it happening again.

Standing behind the counter and serving a steady stream of blacks and whites buying groceries and newspapers, he told me he blamed "vandals" and "criminals." He wanted more and better trained police on the streets, and parents to keep their children at home at night.

He echoed many others here in insisting that is was not a race riot. He felt it was a mixture of unemployment, boredom, laziness, and plain criminality combining to touch off a kind of collective insanity among young people in the area.

His story -- of choking on the smoke of fires all around, of being charged by a stolen car, of his dog snarling at vandals as young as eight and nine years old -- is part of a national mood of alarm and concern that has led to:

* A feeling that prolonged and high unemployment, especially among young people, is having a belated but definite social impact in Britain.

The jobless rate is as high as 50 to 60 percent among young people in many cities. Estimates in Toxteth put unemployment among black youths at 60 percent. In city centers these figures are combined with ancient housing and social sevices lower than those of Western Europe.

* A fresh look at Britain's famous police force and its tradition of not carrying firearms or using riot gear or emergency tactics outside Northern Ireland.

* New calls by Home Secretary William Whitelaw and police chiefs for parents to keep their youngsters off the streets at night.

The country is now in the midst of an intense public debate. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the riots in Liverpool " the worst experience we have yet had in this country." The Conservative Thatcher government has condemned the rioting, has promised to strengthen the police, and has blamed parents.

The opposition Labour Party stresses the long-term need to spend much more money on basic causes: "decaying central areas of old cities where there are intolerably high levels of unemployment, unacceptably low levels of social services, and abysmally inadequate housing," according to shadow home secretary Roy Hattersley.

A general concern now is that more riots may be on the way as many thousands of teenagers leave school this summer and go straight onto the dole (unemployment relief). Britain already has 2.7 million out of work, almost 11 percent of the work force and the worst that Britain has known since the depression of the 1930s.

Youngsters who have never held a job since leaving school, frustrated, bored, and angry, are seen as major factors in the riots in Bristol a year ago, and this year in Brixton, Southall, and now in Liverpool, Manchester, and Wood Green in north London.

An official inquiry into the Brixton riots, conducted by Lord Scarman, is to expand to include Liverpool. Unemployment Minister James Prior proposes a plan costing L1 billion a year ($2 billion) to provide jobs or training for every 16 -year-old leaving school in 1983-84.

The Conservative government, facing a general election in that period, was clearly surprised and upset by the ferocity of the Liverpool riots and is scrambling to respond.

Police are once again in the center of debate here. Local residents, particularly balcks and Asians, see many of them as young, ill-trained, and officious. Minority groups blame overly aggressive police for sirring up resentment in Brixtol, Brixton, and Liverpool, where rioting is generally ascribed to antipolice sentiment rather than racial conflict.

The riots in Southall in London recently were more racial in tone, pitting white "skinhead" youths against Indians and Pakistanis. Mr. Whitelaw, in a speech July 7 to the Indian community in London, said government studies had found evidence that racist activity was increasing. He attacked "brutish and irrational hatred" which he said had already cost human lives.

In Liverpool, police were caught off guard by the suddenness and intensity of the rioting July 4,5,and 6. REinforcements were brought in from surrounding areas. Mr. Whitelaw called for stronger helmets and fire-resistant clothing. He defended the use of "CS" gas against crowds in Liverpool. Until now the British had used this gas, developed in the US from the active ingredients of cayenne pepper and paprika, only in Northern Ireland.

The issue now is whether British police can continue to be as discreet and as defensive as before in the face of the new rioting, and whether they should be armed.

"I don't want our police to change but they may have to," said one Liverpool businessman. The British people are proud of their police traditions but have also been genuinely shocked by the scale of recent riots.

Another concern here is the number of children of school age, some as yound as 8, seen looting stores and stoning police in Liverpool.

Ahmad Tabit in his small shop agreed with Mr. Whitelaw and police chiefs that parents really ought to keep their yound children and teen-agers off the streets instead of allowing them to be swept up in mass hysteria.

But mothers in Lodge Lane were scornful. "You might keep the very yound ones home, but when they're teen-agers, all you can do is try to find them," said one mother as she bought bread in a Lodge Lane shop.

British newspapers have also reported that many of the 11- and 12-year-olds charged with looting during the riots already had long police records. Other sources agreed that a large element of "criminal greed" was seen here: youngsters andm their parents crowding through shattered windows to carry away television sets, refrigerators, clothing, and other goods while fire s and riots erupted all around them.

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