The white man walking determinedly down Brixton Road in Brixton, south London, as if in a hurry to leave an area that had been recently looted and firebombed, implied he knew that trouble had been coming. ``It's the attitude of the police. I've actually seen two white coppers walk toward two black men and force them to walk in the road. Now how can you expect black people to respect the law when that sort of thing happens?'' he asks incredulously.
The role of the police has become the single most controversial aspect of the urban riots that have swept through Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton in south London, Toxteth in Liverpool, and, just yesterday, London's northern suburb of Tottenham.
Gus Williams, a black community leader in Birmingham, interviewed at his office in front of a local artist's drawing of Martin Luther King Jr., says he doesn't envy the police their job.
In many inner urban areas, whites say police are not coming down hard enough on drug pushers. In places like Handsworth, Asians who own bombed-out shops seek greater protection for their properties and want to see much more of the police. Blacks, on the other hand, charging harassment and discrimination, want to see much less of the police.
Up and down Lozells Road in Handsworth, which erupted in violence shortly before Brixton, individual blacks spelled out their grievances against police.
``They say we're lazy, but what can we do? There are no jobs for us and there's no place around here where blacks can go to when they've got nothing to do,'' says a young black woman.
Clyde Waldo, a black man in his mid 20's, says the police hurl abuse at blacks without provocation. ``A few weeks ago there were a lot of police vans around. There must have been something going on. When I walked past they all called out `nigger.' I said `you'll get what's coming to you.' ''
As he talks, two policemen -- one white, the other black -- stroll past, engaged in cheerful conversation with a black woman. They greet people on the street and are willing to stop and banter with anyone disposed to talk to them.
So what about charges of police harassment, three policemen clustered together on a street corner are asked.
The policemen look at each other to find a volunteer. Eventually the sergeant pushes his rolled sleeves up above his elbows and says matter of factly: ``When we come up and ask questions of a white person they say `too scared to touch a black man, eh?' When we approach blacks they say ``you're discriminating against us.''
``We are the ones caught in the middle,'' he says.
Brixton blacks are unhappy with outside agitators from Birmingham coming into the area to exploit the tension and ostensibly rile the police.
The image of the police has been muddied by the fact that good community relations work done in recent years by individual policemen threatens to be undone by an armed, outside, tactical police squad, which broke down a door in pursuit of a suspected criminal.
Instead of finding his quarry, an experienced police inspector shot and seriously injured an innocent black woman, Sherry Groce. This is the fuse which ignited the Brixton rioting.
As a result, pressure is intensifying for much greater control of police firearms. Only about one tenth of the policemen in England and Wales are authorized to carry firearms. In 1984, firearms were issued in 2,667 operations, but according to the Home Office, only 17 shots were actually fired during that year.
The Tottenham rioting yesterday has changed the complexion of the situation because of the first known use of firearms in a British city riot when shotgun fire injured two policemen and three journalists. In response police reinforcements were brought in including marksmen from the crack D11 firearms unit.
Many policemen prefer to be unarmed. So far, the government's reaction to the recent riots has displeased both the opposition and many in the black community.
The government's decision not to dismiss the police inspector who critically injured Mrs. Groce in her home (he has been placed on sick leave) and to call for a police inquiry, instead of public inquiry into recent police action, has brought criticism from the black community.
The government is not eager to pour millions of dollars for development and jobs into Britain's urban areas. Money on that scale had already flowed into Brixton and Handsworth, but to no apparent affect.
Yet the recent riots, rather than embarrassing the government, could militate in the government's advantage.
The Conservatives pride themselves on being a law and order government. Its view is that the riots are noteworthy, not for revealing social deprivation, but for highlighting ``unadulterated lawlessness, disorderliness, and sheer criminality.''
Yet, the Conservatives are confronted with the disquieting news that unemployment has recently increased. According to figures released Thursday, unemployment stands at its highest level ever: 13.9 percent of the population.
Leading Conservatives openly acknowledge that they have no hope of winning the next election if unemployment stays this high. The government is equally aware that the opposition are pointing to unemployment as a major contributing factor for urban rioting.