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The So-Called Lozells Riots

Birmingham IMC | 19.11.2005 15:49 | Anti-racism | Birmingham

Over the weekend of 22-23 October 2005, the Lozells district of Birmingham witnessed unprecedented violence between Asian and Afro-Caribbean youths. And while some, on both sides, were quick to exploit the events for their own agendas, ordinary people from both communities were equally let down by the police, the mainstream media and self-styled 'community leaders'.

Needless to say, the problem is very sensitive and controversial; it involves a wide range of issues, from racial relationships to socioeconomic structures. It was often difficult to get balanced accounts of the events from local people without falling into exaggerations, arbitrary accusations and prejudgments. Nonetheless, here is an attempt to understand what happened, how and why.

Reports and comments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Peace & Unity Initiative
Peace & Unity Initiative

What Happened

It all began with a rumour that an Afro-Caribbean teenage girl was gang-raped by Asian men. It is said that, after being caught shoplifting in a beauty shop near Lozells, the 14-year-old Jamaican pleaded for leniency, but was raped by a number (between 3 and 25) of Pakistani men. When the attack was supposed to have happened was never clear, and the rape was never reported to the police, because the girl is said to be an 'illegal' immigrant who feared she and her family would be deported if approached the police. This reflects another sad reality that failed asylum seekers and 'illegal' immigrants have to live with every day.

For over a week, the rumour spread among the Afro-Caribbean community, creating increasing anger and tension. Chatting forums on sites such as BlacknetUK, an Afro-Caribbean community-based website, were soon filled with angry, and sometimes racist comments. One comment, for example, called for "boycotting every single Asian business in the country." Interestingly, the British Council said it has removed links from its website to the site until it was able to discuss why these comments were allowed to be published, never mind that the site had put a call for calm on its homepage: "As the UK's international organisation for cultural relations, we would not wish to link our websites to any discussion online which promoted intercultural conflict."

On Tuesday, 18 October, the rape allegations were given even wider circulation when the story was broadcast on pirate radio station Sting FM, on a talkshow hosted by DJ Warren G.

Meetings and protests had been ongoing throughout the week in protest at the lack of action by the authorities over the rape, although a West Midlands Police statement on Tuesday claimed "police have been actively investigating this allegation since being first alerted to it on 12 October by an anonymous caller." Police had conducted a forensic examination of the beauty shop in Perry Barr but found no evidence of rape, and said they cannot do anything without the victim coming forward.

Protests, sometimes involving more than 100 people, included one outside the salon, where traffic was stopped for a while. On Wednesday, 2 Asian shops in the area were firebombed, and several other shops were closed down by mobs of Afro-Caribbean youths, who had reportedly also been bricking Asian cars driving on Heathfield Road. Over a thousand people in the area had also signed a petition calling for those who raped the teenager to be brought to justice.

There are other rumours, according to locals, that other black women had been the victim of such attacks. A woman in her 30's claimed she had been indecently assaulted four months ago at a "similar premises". Five men have since been arrested and bailed in connection with this allegation.

On the other hand, the owner of the shop, where the teenage girl was allegedly raped, says it was just "a plot to harm my business." Ajaib Hussein, who owns the Beauty Queens salon, told the BBC Asian Network he believes the rumour was started by commercial rivals.

On Saturday, 22 October, a late-afternoon public meeting was held at the New Testament Church of God over the alleged rape. It coincided with the Campaign for Silent Victims rallies in Birmingham and London to protest against the negligent reporting and lack of support from the media and the authorities for the victims of crime. An estimated 150 people took to the street in a peaceful protest that was allowed through by police, following another rally at the beauty shop earlier that day.

At around 5.45pm, violence erupted outside the church as a group of Asian youths tried to get into the meeting and began to racially taunt those who attended it, calling them "niggers" and "slaves". The police, who were already there, stood between the two groups, but the youths carried on stoning each other.

The violence escalated towards the evening as groups of hooded youths roamed the streets with wielding batons and baseball bats and started terrorising the neighbourhood. According to eyewitnesses, gangs of up to 40 marched down Lozells Road and the surrounding streets, occasionally attacking motorists, burning cars and smashing shop fronts.

Hours later (around 7.15pm), the police finally arrived. Certain parts of Birmingham were cordoned off and police helicopters flew over. Violent clashes then broke out with bricks and bottles thrown at lines of riot police in full gear. More cars were set on fire and shop windows smashed as the youths ran amok. Witnesses spoke of people being pulled out of cars and attacked and their vehicles set alight, but also accused the police of unnecessary heavy-handedness. One witness said, "I was coming out of 104 (an Afro-Caribbean cultural centre) when I was confronted by armed police and forced back inside. As soon as I opened the door, I was blinded by a torch and then saw a policeman pointing a laser sight at me." The local ambulance service also said one of its vehicles was attacked with sticks.

At this point, two people had already been stabbed by a gang of youths on Carlyle Road. One, 23-year-old Isiah Young-Sam, of Afro-Caribbean origin, would die from a single stab to the chest in City Hospital. One of his friends was also stabbed in the buttocks. Around 9.15pm, another man was stabbed at Farcroft Hotel, Rookery Road, and minutes later a man was shot in nearby Oxhill Road and another was stabbed at the Uplands pub. Around 10pm a police officer was shot in the thigh with a ball-bearing gun.

In total, 36 people were taken to hospital, of whom only nine were admitted. At the time of writing this report, seven remain in hospital, one with a fractured skull. Police reported up to 80 separate criminal incidents that night, but only five people were arrested and charged: four men, aged between 16 and 27, for violent disorder, and one, aged 22, for possession of an offensive weapon.

A group of Asian youths were said to have gathered in response to an alleged attack on a nearby mosque, but they were, according to the police, dispersed by "a series of operations between 2200 and 0100 BST", and perhaps the heavy rain across the West Midlands also helped to break up the crowds. There are rumours that this was all about a tawdry war for street influence between rival gangs, who have allegedly planned to use minor community differences to escalate racial tension. There were also rumours of black gangs coming in from Nottingham to attack Asian businesses, and Pakistani gangs coming down from Bradford to prepare their response.

On Sunday morning, burnt-out cars, blood stains and bricks littering the streets of Lozells told of the violent events. And as usual, a press conference was hastily called to "condemn the violence and urge all members of the community to work towards peace." Over 40 'community leaders', including MP's and church leaders, as well as two senior police officers addressed an angry crowd of some 500 people. In the words of Chief Superintendent Tom Coughlan, the aim obviously was "to reassure the community... using many, many community leaders, and I think that message has started to get through."

But all that failed to prevent another night of sporadic outbreaks of violence, although they were more or less kept under control by a large police presence. Eight people were arrested; four have been charged with possession of offensive weapons and breach of the peace, and four were released without charge.

The most significant incident on Sunday was the murder of an Afro-Caribbean man in Melbourne Avenue, Newtown (less than a mile from Lozells Road). Aaron James, 18, died from a gunshot wound to the head, although it is not yet clear if the incident was connected to the riots.

By Monday, things had calmed down a little, but there were still some isolated troubles here and there as well as a great deal of tension. More than 10 days later, on 4 November, the first day of the Islamic Eid, people visiting the Muslim part of Handsworth Cemetery were shocked to find that some 30 or 40 Muslim grave stones had been smashed and pushed over, in an apparent act of desecration. Leaflets, with insults against Muslims, were also scattered. They were attributed to a group calling itself Black Nation.

However, many argue that the attack had all the hallmarks of outsiders, possibly the far-right, trying to create further tension and distrust between the two communities (fascists have a long history of grave desecration against Jews and Muslims). At the weekend of violence, another spurious leaflet, bearing the name Islamic Jihad, had been circulated. Originally handed out in Birmingham in 1996, it called for Muslims to shed African-Caribbean blood. Again, many doubt that the leaflet was produced by Muslims, and was merely intended to provoke racial hatred.

Many grassroots organisations and concerned individuals have taken positive actions in response to the sad and worrying events, in attempts to absorb the tension and avoid further violence. At Saturday's demonstration (just before the outbreak of violence), for example, a statement condemning all forms of violence against women was distributed by the South Asian Alliance. SAA, along with Punch Records and The Drum, have also set up a Peace and Unity Initiative. On 30th October, posters bearing the words "Asians and Africans Unite! Prejudice & Poverty - A common enemy" were put up in the area.

On 24th October, a group of "concerned and affected citizens of Birmingham" met to discuss the events. The outcome was a petition that was handed to the City Council on 1st Nov, demanding "a public enquiry looking at the failures of the police and ambulance services to provide timely and appropriate protection for the residents and traders of Lozells, Perry Barr, Handsworth and surrounding areas."

One should also mention that the pirate radio station, which broadcast the so-far unsubstantiated rumour, has "voluntarily" closed down, as have a number of other stations operating without a licence in the area.

999: No Answer!

A week after the violent weekend, 600 police officers were still patrolling the Handsworth and Lozells areas. This is widely portrayed in the mainstream media as the authorities' working to "reassure the community and keep them safe;" "the real policing that had the effect of calming the situation." In any case, almost none of these "mass media" have questioned the inefficiency with which the whole problem was dealt with from the beginning.

Operation Javari - the operation set up to deal with the "outbreaks of disorder" in Lozells - involves more than 7,000 policing hours and an estimated 600 police officers deployed to the area each day. It originally began on Thursday, 20 October, with officers carrying out patrols in the Perry Barr area following a number of minor incidents. These incidents were "quickly dealt with," and three people were arrested for public order offences. Patrols then increased on Friday and, apparently, throughout the weekend, with support from other "specialist departments." The policing resources were under the command of senior (Gold) commanders responsible for "the deployment of appropriate and proportional policing tactics."

Yet, the operation came several hours late when it was most needed; tens of youths had been roaming the streets for hours on Saturday evening, attacking people, vandalising properties and terrorising the neighbourhood before the police arrived and began to chase them away.

At a meeting in Handsworth with Chief Superintendent Steve Jordan, from OCU Headquarters (Operational Command Unit that covers the Handsworth, Aston, Newtown, Perry Barr and Great Barr areas of Birmingham), many local residents expressed their resentment and anger at the way police had dealt with the situation and their failure to provide timely and appropriate protection for terrified residents.

Asked why so many people were unable to get through when calling 999 or were kept waiting for some time, C Supt Jordan flimsily argued that the 999 infrastructure was designed "to deal with normal situations and does not have the capacity to deal with as many calls at the same time." One resident shouted in frustration: "But this is supposed to be the emergency line, for God's sake!"

According to West Midlands Police's own records, 209 incident logs, relating to incidents in and around the area of the disturbances, were created between Saturday evening and Monday morning. Other local emergency services (West Midlands Fire Service and West Midlands Ambulance Service) recorded over 150 calls in the same areas (117 and 57 respectively).

However, residents said they had heard another explanation from another senior police officer, who said it was a "tactical decision" not to get involved at the beginning. Perhaps the reason behind that was that they put cops' safety before that of people. Some angry residents wondered whether the police would have responded in the same way had it been a white neighbourhood. One eyewitness said: "At one point on Saturday evening, plain-clothes policemen were standing by, watching properties being attacked and people beaten up, yet they didn't intervene or do anything." Another resident told of his experience with the ambulance service. "After trying to ring 999 without success for some time, I eventually managed to get through and reported that my elderly neighbours were being attacked and might need to be taken to hospital. But the ambulance clerk said they had been told by the police not to go down to that area, and asked me to take them to hospital myself if anything happened, which I eventually did."

At the above-mentioned meeting, C Supt Jordan admitted, and apologised for, one "delay" in responding to phone calls on Sunday, but refused to admit any failure on Saturday at this stage, as he was still investigating why that happened. Of course, he promised that concerned officers, if found responsible for any neglect or shortcoming, would undergo appropriate disciplinary procedures.

Police are currently investigating two murders: the stabbing of Isiah Young-Sam in Carlisle Street on Saturday and the shooting of Aaron James in Newtown on Sunday. Two men, arrested in connection with the latter, were freed without charge, but one has been re-arrested and charged with the murder. Dowaine Phillip Maye, 19, from Newtown, is also charged with possessing a weapon (a semi-automatic handgun) with intent to endanger life. He is due to appear at Birmingham Crown Court on 9 November.

Interestingly, the word on the street is that Mr James was shot by the police, not anyone else. Many said they were "pretty sure the police did it," but unfortunately we did not manage to get hold of any eyewitnesses. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is currently investigating the response by West Midlands Police and whether any firearm was discharged at the time of the shooting. WM Police said the IPCC had been informed "purely because armed officers were in the area at the time."

As for Mr Young-Sam, the 23-year-old IT analyst at Birmingham City Council, who died on Saturday evening from a stab to the chest, two men, aged 22 and 25, have been arrested with connection to his murder, and further three suspects are still being questioned. Police have not publicly confirmed the ethnicity of the mob behind the vicious stabbing, but detectives disclosed that up to 12 men were involved in the death and further arrests are expected. The men, all from Handsworth, appeared before magistrates on Tuesday and were remanded in custody until 8 November, when they are due to appear at Birmingham Crown Court.

"Race War"?!

As you are reading this on Indymedia, you are probably familiar with the rubbish the mainstream media come up with in covering such events. Distortion, inflammatory statements and racist stereotypes were commonplace in the majority of what we read and heard concerning the Lozells events. Indeed, the following examples from 'established' tabloids speak for themselves and do not need any commenting - perhaps except copious exclamation marks!

On 24th October, the Sun had this unbelievable headline: "Clash of Cultures - Black and Asian rift explodes in deadly city riots." The article then went on in the same racist tone: "Race is said to have played a part in the weekend riots in Birmingham. Not white against black, but Brown against Brown... Like the guns and the gangs, racism is abhorrent. There is no room for it in Britain, in any community... Asians and blacks in Birmingham's deprived Lozells district have lived for years in an atmosphere of distrust and hate."

The Telegraph frequenly used the term "race riots" to describe the events. Under the headline "Two men reported dead as race riots flare in Birmingham over alleged sex attack on girl," its 23rd October article read: "Lozells is not new to racial tension. There is a strong Afro-Caribbean presence - the biggest contingent among the black population originating from Jamaica. Asian gangs have also grown up in the area, and there has been simmering tension between the two racial groups. Often trouble has related to drugs - mainly heroin - and gun crime." Quoting Anthony Gordon, who was one of 70 self-styled community representatives to agree a statement calling for an end to the violence, it went on to say that "further rumour-mongering would 'fan the flames' of a potential race war."

The following day, the same paper had a yet more interesting headline: "Melting pot boils over in fight for respect," the "melting pot" being "Britain's second city [which] has been a jostling melting pot of white, Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities."

Like the Telegraph, the Birmingham Mail described the weekend events as "race riots [that] swept Lozells." It, too, quoted Anthony Gordon saying, "What happened is that black people and Asian people are on the cusp of a race war."

On the same day (24th October) the Independent wrote: "Night of violence in Birmingham leaves Asians fearing for their lives." The Times had "Leaders blame minority for clashes and call for calm" for a headline, and had a section titled "Divided district", which merely gave some information about the ethnic structure of Lozells and the surrounding areas.

As for the BBC, it is often more difficult to put your finger on specific outrageous phrases or headlines, due to the institution's long history of editorial manipulation. One obvious observation, however, is how their reports identify with the official narrative and adopt the authority's account of events, by means of quoting officials, while ignoring other possible interpretations and local people's perspectives.

Birmingham IMC



01.06.2006 13:08

Three Asian men have been convicted of stabbing Isaiah Young-Sam to death at Birmingham Crown Court. Waqar Ahmed, 26, Azhil Khan, 23, and Afzal Khan, 22, from the Handsworth area of Birmingham, were all sentenced to life in prison.

It is worth noting, though, that almost all mainstream media reports have said nothing at all of the second killing in Newtown - perhaps because, as the feature above mentioned, the police were behind it!