Underneath the Brixton overhead railroad, inner London is at its best. The open market stalls line the main road and snake into the narrow back streets. Vendors, with varying degrees of formality, sell everything from high-quality leather goods to cheap ball-point pens.
The canvas awnings on one side-street hang from gracefully curving Georgian row houses. Their aloofness adds to their charm.
At the heart of the shopping district on Atlantic Road, Caribbean reggae music pulses, interrupted only by the hum and the roll of the trains above. Loudspeakers mounted outside assure the characteristic rhythm a powerful and undeniable presence. Reggae shops have become as much a part of this street scene as the family ''chemist,'' operating in the same spot for the past century.
A hundred yards away from the stalls, Atlantic Road becomes an urban wasteland. Corrugated iron fences cordon off burned and crumbled buildings. The road branches into a ''Y'' -- bordered on one side by the railroad tracks and on the other, beyond empty lots, by the backs of still neatly kept row houses. The area is called the ''Front Line'' and is a central meeting place of the young. Many of the houses along Railton Road, the continuation of Atlantic, are derelict, and many are occupied by squatters.
The Front Line provides a grim reminder of last April's riots -- the worst in the history of the British mainland, according to Lord Scarman, one of Britain's five prestigious law lords.
''In the center of Brixton,'' he writes, ''a few hundred young people -- most , but not all of them, black -- attacked the police on the streets with stones, bricks, iron bars and petrol bombs, demonstrating to millions of their fellow citizens the fragile basis of the Queen's peace.''
Brixton has been much in the public eye and the news media's cameras since the disorders. The period of self-reflection and examination has begun to culminate. In November, Lord Scarman delivered a comprehensive report on the causes of the Brixton riots to the government. A public debate ensued. The police, national civil rights spokesmen, local community leaders, and the political parties have had their say. Now the parliamentary debate has receded behind the closed doors of the home secretary's office and 10 Downing Street, and the new year awaits Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's detailed proposals on what to do about Brixton and other inner-city areas. Among the questions demanding an answer are:
* How can police-community relations, scarred by years of distrust and hostility, be healed?
* How can racial discrimination, which many feel contributes to tensions in Brixton and elsewhere, be dealt with?
* How can the government restore confidence that it is doing the best it can to provide jobs, housing, and better social conditions for inner-city residents in the face of profound economic difficulties?
''What do you want?'' a young black demands. When he finds out it is a reporter asking questions, the edge to his voice sharpens.
''I'm tired of hearing about Scarman, the riots, the government,'' he says. ''What the . . . is another newspaper article going to do? We need money down here - jobs, housing. I'll tell you the real story behind the riots - how much will you pay me?''
Others gather in front of the house. Two Jaguars are parked in front. Inside, crowded voices carry over reggae music from a portable radio. Boarded-up windows conceal the actions within, but a waft of marijuana smoke tells most of the story.
The idle youths, many in their late teens, leave school with scant job prospects. Unemployment in Brixton among black males under 19 is estimated to be as high as 55 percent by the Manpower Services Commission. Britain's unemployment rate is 13 percent and thought to be higher for blacks. During 1980 , national unemployment increased 66 percent overall, compared with an increase of 82 percent for ethnic minorities. And, according to most indicators, the situation did not improve last year.
Although the population of the Borough of Lambeth, in which Brixton is situated, decreased 20 percent during the 1970s and now stands at about 246,000, the percentage of youths keeps increasing. Most of those leaving the area are professional and skilled workers between 25 and 60 - the working population.
''I was born here and will probably die here,'' says Kevin, a 27-year-old white construction worker with Manpower Services. His group, which is mostly black, is renovating three decaying houses on Railton Road. Kevin has worked on the government job since the spring. Before that, he was unemployed for several months, after being laid off from a similar work program. Employment is erratic for Brixton's unskilled workers and salaries are low - Kevin makes (STR)40 (about $75) a week.
''Young people find daily routine jobs like in grocery stores boring,'' Kevin explains. ''I think young blacks are capable of taking this kind of work,'' he says, referring to house renovation, ''but there aren't enough jobs. It would be better if we could get more houses. Some of them are rotting so bad that they won't be able to be fixed up at all.''
One of the difficulties that the first generation of West Indians faced when they began emigrating to Britain in the late 1940s was the breakup of the family. Single-parent households stand at 50 percent among blacks, who make up only 12.5 percent of Lambeth's population.
According to the Melting Pot Foundation -- which houses and tutors young blacks who have quit school or are in conflict with parents or police - there are 200 to 300 homeless youths who sleep in abandoned houses or in the rough.
''We act as parents,'' director Rene Webb says of the 10 Melting Pot staff members. ''We deal with about 30 young blacks. There is much more demand for services than we can provide.''
Compared with America's black population, the West Indian community in Britain is relatively new. Most came here after World War II, and it is only now that the second generation of blacks is reaching employment age.
''There must be change of attitudes,'' reflects Mr. Webb, a West Indian who joined the Royal Air Force during World War II and afterward decided to move to England. ''We came here and expected everything to be done for us.''
He says that many of the original West Indians did not expect to remain in Britain long and therefore kept quiet about what they felt was racial discrimination.
''But the children born here don't feel they should be condemned to the jobs we were willing to do,'' Webb says. ''They no longer question why and whether they should be here. They feel British and are demanding to be treated equally.''
Young blacks come and go from the abandoned Front Line house. Those standing guard outside are attentive but not unduly concerned when a police car slows down before passing by.
''They haven't been hassling us as much lately,'' says one.
Since the riots, crime has risen dramatically in Brixton, according to Sir David McNee, the London Metropolitan Police commissioner. ''No doubt in part,'' he wrote in response to Lord Scarman, ''because officers have felt constrained and apprehensive.''
Some residents told this reporter that muggings have been on the rise recently in the Front Line area. Mary, a white law student, and three of her friends had been squatting in a building on Railton Road for two years before the April disorders. She says she never had any problems until after the riots, when a ''general sense of lawlessness seemed to take over.'' After their house was robbed and they began to feel hostility from young blacks in the area, the group decided to move. On the evening they were packing, their van was broken into and some of their belongings stolen.
Mary and others blame a small number of ''troublemakers'' for the heightened tensions in the community.
''The ordinary relations between blacks and whites are excellent,'' says Darcus Howe, editor of the black militant magazine Race Today. He lives and works near the Front Line. ''We have no problems with the whites who live next door to us. We share the same telephones, the same washing machines -- and some of the same problems.''
The same attitude was heard time and again in dozens of interviews.
''I've lived here six years,'' says Malcolm, a worker at The Grain Barn, a health-food store on Atlantic Road, ''and relations between blacks and whites have always been very good. The only hassles seem to be with the police. There's still a feeling of 'them and us.' ''
''I'm sure it could be broken down,'' he continues, ''if people feel it could be. It's just a matter of communicating.''
In March 1979, the borough council commissioned a study on police-community relations in Lambeth with the stated purpose of determining the effects of certain policing methods. The methods were: the so-called ''sus'' law, which allows police to arrest anyone engaged in suspicious behavior; ''stop and search'' procedures; and the Special Patrol Group (SPG), or ''saturation'' policing.
Some community groups have long opposed ''sus.'' The lawyer who compiled the study for the Lambeth Council, David Turner-Samuels, explains that to obtain a conviction under the law, ''it is only necessary to show that the defendant was seen to perform an act which aroused the suspicions of watching police officers and then another act which made the police think that the person was about to commit an arrestable offence, e.g., steal.''
Critics complain that the police need to produce no independent witnesses to obtain a conviction, nor do they need to prove that there was anything worth stealing. Mr. Turner-Samuels says that under ''sus,'' justice is reversed: The defendant has to prove his innocence.
This law also came under attack from those who felt that it was used to discriminate against blacks. The Lambeth study documents these cases. Other examples were related to this reporter.
While the sus law is now history (it was abolished last summer), ''stop and search'' procedures took its place on the firing line. Under the Drugs Act and the criminal code, a policeman can stop and search someone if the person is suspected of possessing illegal drugs or stolen goods. According to a London police inspector, the procedure was intended to be used in fairly obvious circumstances. ''Like if someone is running down the street with a television set or standing on the street corner smoking dope,'' he says.
According to others, it has become the symbol of police harassment.
''I don't object to stop-and-search per se,'' states Mr. Webb. ''It's the manner in which they[the police] do it. Far too many times, blacks are treated like animals.''
Lord Scarman says he doesn't doubt that some of the allegations of harassment made against individual police officers are true. But he cautions against the power behind rumor and gossip. ''There must be a tremendous temptation for every young criminal -- black or white-- stopped in the street or arrested in Brixton to allege misconduct by a police officer.''
Some, like the Brixton Community Law Center, advocate abolishing stop and search. Monica Morris, coordinator of the Brixton Defense Campaign, the center's program to defend those arrested during the April disorders, says that because blacks feel so alienated from the police, the police will have to make the first gesture toward improving relations.
While Scarman agrees with the police -- that stop-and-search is a useful tactic if not abused -- he recommends a clarification of the present law, which he says, is a ''mess.''
One of the reasons Lambeth launched an investigation into police tactics was that several attempts to establish a police-community liaison committee had failed. Represesentatives to the group included George Greaves, leader of the Council for Community Relations in Lambeth (CCRL), plus local councilors and the police.
Mr. Greaves says the reason the liaison committee failed was that the two sides could not agree on the group's purpose. The CCRL and others say they wanted to discuss procedures like ''saturation'' policing; they also wanted a say on when and whether this type of operation would be used. Greaves claims the police viewed the committee merely as an exercise in public relations.
Greaves says that the CCRL made several attempts to warn the government of the deteriorating police-community relations in Brixton. In a letter to the then-new Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, on May 16, 1979, Greaves wrote that growing tensions between police and youths require the government's ''major concern and immediate attention.''
He received a brief note from Mr. Whitelaw's office, saying that the Metropolitan Police authority would look into the matter. In November, Greaves sent a more urgent letter but received no reply.
Shortly before the April riots, Greaves wrote to the Brixton police commissioner at the time, Comdr. L. Adams, expressing the urgency of the situation, but received no satisfactory response.
''We did our homework,'' Greaves says, exasperated. ''But if they don't pay attention to you, what do you do? We get blamed (by the police) for inflaming the situation -- for saying 'it's going to be a long, hot summer.' But we did warn them.
''The present Brixton police commissioner, Brian Fairbairn, and the community relations officer, Superintendent Frank MacLennan, declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police (or Scotland Yard), through which all requests for interviews with the police are channeled, said: ''We feel it's more important to be out catching muggers than talking to the press.''
A police inspector in London, however, told this reporter that many police leaders agree with the age-old principle of policing by consent. ''People have to give us guidelines,'' the inspector says. ''If they want to do without saturation methods and have a greater chance of being mugged, that's their choice.'' The inspector went on to say, though, that police feel the liaison committees too often become political showcases.
Hopes to restart a police-community liaison committee are lifted by Scarman's proposal to give such groups legal clout. Sir David McNee and other police commissioners oppose such moves, saying that voluntary committees should be tried first. Home Secretary Whitelaw, while agreeing with the commissioners, has not ruled out giving the committees legal status.
Community leaders and outside observers say that statutory bodies will solve the problem only if it is specified exactly what powers the groups would be given.
''What is needed is a definition of who has final say - the police or the committees,'' says Sara Spencer, research -director for the Cobden Trust. The independent research group is preparing a comprehensive report on the legal status of liaison committees, due out within the next few months. Ms. Spencer suggests dividing the powers, leaving the work of investigating complaints against individual policemen with the existing police authorities and transferring the powers to regulate general police methods to revamped liaison committees.
Whether community leaders would respond to the expected voluntary committees seems doubtful. On Dec. 16, the Lambeth Borough Council announced that it was setting up a permanent group to ''monitor'' police methods.
Councilor John Boyle, who will head the group, explains that the body will seek to ''tilt the balance in favor of blacks. The police are a body of confrontation -- not a consenting body. I don't think they have much to offer us in the way of liaison.''
One of the main obstacles to smoother relations between police and community is that local authorities have little voice in police policy and methods. Like much of British politics, decisions flow from the central government -- the party in power.
Since the Conservative Party led by Mrs. Thatcher took power 2 1/2 years ago, there has been constant friction between the central and local governments. In working-class areas like Brixton, the local council is frequently dominated by the left wing of the Labour Party, which walks to a different beat than the Tory Cabinet.
Local governments can often do little more than refuse to cooperate with Parliament. Edward Knight, described in more than one recent headline as the ''fiery'' leader of the Lambeth Borough Council, advocates a policy of ''deliberately created financial anarchy'' as a tactic to oppose parliament's Local Finance Bill. On Dec. 13, the Greater London Regional Council of the Labour Party adopted as an official policy the refusal to draw up budgets or levy taxes next year. This will foment ''a crisis of such dimension that you persuade the government to retreat or you force the very existence of that government on to the agenda,'' Mr. Knight said at the Labour Party meeting.
In a private interview, Knight accused the government of pretending to supplement expenditure to inner cities, while actually increasing the community's financial burden. According to Knight, Lambeth has lost about L40 million ($74 million) since the Conservatives took office, most of it from housing programs. He said that local councils cannot continue to raise taxes to make up for government cutbacks.
On Dec. 9, before the Labour Party announced its new opposition tactic, the secretary of the environment, Michael Heseltine, added L95 million ($175 million) to inner-city aid. The money will go primarily to boost the sagging land redevelopment programs.
Knight remains skeptical. ''He's made prior statements to this effect, but we haven't yet seen it. When we asked for money after the riots, he refused. It's a little late for Mr. Heseltine to be concerned about Lambeth.''
Up until now, the Thatcher government has doubted the value of a massive infusion of funds to inner cities. A government task force is exploring how additional spending might be most effective but is not expected to report until next autumn. In the interim, Heseltine has given some guidelines by emphasizing the familiar Thatcher tenet of combining public- and private-sector spending.
Knight says there is scant private capital available and calls the Cabinet minister ''a sick joke.''
Opening the parliamentary debate on the Scarman repor3989c. 10, Home Secretary Whitelaw repeated Scarman's call for ''positive action'' to redress past injustices to blacks and other minorities. Mr. Whitelaw introduced a system of monitoring the number of minorities in the civil service, with the expectation that other public employers and large private firms would follow suit. The minister also proposed that the police and civil service begin recruiting minorities, which recent surveys indicate are underrepresented. Political analysts consider the moves a signficant change of heart from the government's decision not to include questions about race in the 1980 census.
While black community leaders are encouraged so far about the government's actions, they say they don't go far enough. Recommendations like recruiting blacks on the police force are a ''nonstarter,'' says Mr. Greaves, until attitudes toward the police are improved. ''The farther we get away from April, '' he says, ''the greater is the chance for complacency. I feel a great urgency now.''
As nightfall approaches, Railton Road becomes desolate; the train echoes between empty buildings. Only a few voices are heard along the Front Line.
''Brixton is only the beginning, Scarman only the first stage,'' Darcus Howe at Race Today warns. ''The government won't respond -- not just yet. Not until a movement -- a flow of people around principles -- develops.''
Others, sounding less ominous, still sense danger in the air.
''As long as evils remain, the chance for riots remains,'' Mr. Webb says. ''And I think the government knows this.''