Activists from across Birmingham’s African Caribbean and Asian communities are uniting to call for peace and justice in the wake of last Saturday’s riots in the Lozells area. These left at least one man dead and several injured.
While tensions between the two communities remain high, people from across the city were horrified by the violence and were urgently appealing for calm and solidarity. Activists are planning a peace vigil in the area later this week.
“People are right to be angry about the state of Lozells — the area has suffered years of deprivation. But the problem has not been created by the Asian community,” said Alliya Stennett, a local African Caribbean activist who works with young people at City College.
“If you impoverish both the black and Asian working class communities, whip up hatred against Muslims, discriminate against refugees and throw all of these things into the cauldron, then it’ll boil over. The only way to improve things is to unite for social justice.”
These calls were echoed by Salma Yaqoob, chair of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and prominent Respect activist. “There’s a lot of anger, grief and tensions between the communities — but people are determined not to be divided,” she said.
“We need to create a genuine space for people to listen to each other, while recognising how high emotions can easily be manipulated. We had the example in Leeds after the 7 July bombings of the sort of positive action that’s possible.
“People from all communities in Leeds marched through the streets calling for peace and unity. Those are the kinds of initiatives we need—direct solidarity that people can experience.”
Saturday night’s violence came after a week of rising tensions sparked by allegations that a 14 year old Jamaican girl had been gang raped by a group of Asian men.
The victim was scared to come forward because of her fears that she might be deported, it was claimed.
The story of the alleged sex attack was picked up by DJs at local community radio stations, who called on people to demonstrate for justice for the alleged rape victim.
These calls led to an angry 300 strong protest in Perry Barr on Tuesday of last week outside the Asian-owned beauty parlour where the attack was alleged to have taken place.
The shop owner completely denies the allegations, saying that the rumours have been stoked up as part of a campaign against Asian-owned businesses.
By Saturday of last week local African Caribbean churches had stepped in to try to calm the situation down. They organised a 1,000 strong Campaign for Silent Victims demonstration.
Local MP Khalid Mahmood spoke at it, but he was angrily heckled by the audience.
Many speakers expressed bitterness directed against the Asian community. But others, including Warren G, one of the DJs that had called the protests, insisted that Asians should not be blamed and justice for the alleged victim was the key issue.
Side by side
After the demonstration community leaders met the police to discuss their concerns. This meeting went well, according to local activists. But later that night rioting broke out, with people, shops and taxis being attacked as rival gangs clashed with the police.
Isiah Young-Sam, a young African Caribbean man returning home from the cinema, was stabbed during the riots and later died.
After the night of rioting the police and council called together key activists and leaders from Birmingham’s communities to hammer out a joint appeal for calm.
But that meeting, held in council offices on Sunday, vividly illustrated the anger of all communities in the area against local police and politicians who had failed to tackle the social problems of the city.
There was a strong feeling running through the meeting that the councillors and police were out of touch.
People believed they were only interested in rhetoric about “community cohesion” rather than in action to address the problems faced by local people.
Some African Caribbean activists, mostly from the older generation, blamed Asians for the riot and claimed that the police had failed to protect them from gangs of Asian youths.
But other younger people at the meeting, both Asian and African Caribbeans, denied these claims and insisted that the communities had to unite to tackle the problems they both face.
“I live right in the middle of all of this,” said Anthony Gordon, a young African Caribbean.
“All my neighbours are Pakistani and Bangladeshi. I want to know what we can do together to make our communities safer.
“We need to see black and Asian people out on the streets together. We don’t want to hear about blaming each other. We need to be walking about Handsworth tonight, standing side by side.”