Saturday, 13 August 2011

UK riots: A View From Black Britain: by Simon Woolley, Operation Black Vote.

The African and Caribbean community faces its biggest challenge since the riots of the 1980's. Some even argue the challenge today is even greater than back then.
The complexity of the civil disturbances that have raged through our cities over the last few nights cannot easily be categorised in two dimensional terms: Black and White; them against us; the haves and the have not's. On race for example, in many parts of the country including Manchester and Salford the looters were predominantly White. In some areas such as Hackney and Tottenham there was a visible ethnic mix, whilst in Brixton and Lewisham the racial makeup was predominately Black. However, the way these events are now being viewed, shockingly skewed by the tragic events in Lozells, Birmingham, that has left three innocent men dead, will lead many to conclude that this is largely a 'disease' within the Black community and it is all of us that will face the wrath of societies back lash.

Truth is, over the last 20 years literally hundreds of Black leaders up and down the country have sought to improve the lives of young Black men and women and in doing so, the image of Black Britain in general.

Organisations at the forefront have been 100 Black Men, From Boyhood to Manhood, Mighty Men of Valour, The Windsor Fellowship, Runnymede Trust, The Black Powerlist, our own organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV), and many more. These voluntary groups have been dedicated to encouraging, inspiring and supporting tens of thousands of Black men and women to become model citizens: magistrates, councillors, MP's, lawyers, scientists, and business entrepreneurs. OBV's two very visible success stories have been the Conservative Party Chair Baroness Sayeeda Varsi, and the Conservatives' first MP of African decent Helen Grant. The churches too have played an even greater role guiding hundreds of thousands of Black Christians to a level of morality that the Prime Minister David Cameron's own moral crusade could only dream about.

And yet a few thousand woefully alienated, angry and self-centred Black individuals could put the whole Black community back 30 years in regards to race relations. On radio, TV and the print media, Black MP's and leaders are fearful of discussing contributory factors to the disturbances such as; Black deaths in police custody, high levels of unemployment, cuts in youth services, the lack of hope, and a police force that stops and searches Black youths 26 times more than their White peers. The politicians' fear is that if they talk beyond condemnation they will be portrayed as apologists for lawbreakers. What also stifles Labour's Black MP's from raising the issue of lack of opportunities for example, is the simple fact that under their 12 year reign, the social-economic divide has actually got worse.

Because of the irresponsible actions of a few, many Black people from Brixton to Birmingham and beyond feel we are at mercy of an unforgiving society. At one end of the spectrum the race hate groups see this as a way of raising their profile as the 'defenders' of White Britain. English Defence League (EDL) opportunists have momentarily moved their bile and hatred away from the Muslim community and are now targeting Africans and Caribbeans. 'We are defending our towns' cry EDL members such as its leader Stephen Lennon, who, when he is not 'holding the line' against Muslims, is inciting violence at football matches for no other reason than his personal gratification. Other EDL members call for a 'final solution'. EDL member Lewis Smith boasted on his blog 'we should gas all the coons' with other members enthusiastically agreeing.
At the other end of the 'blame the community' spectrum will be the Government and, I suspect, many cowardly opposition MP's. They will argue that they have zero responsibility for creating a climate for these disturbances to occur. 'Its not about equality' , they argue 'its about their lack of responsibility'. The reality is of course it is somewhere in the middle.

If society is angry, the Black community is in pain. Many simply feel this is not a good time to be Black. Yesterday for example, I spent the morning in Lewisham, at a summer school put on by the local church. Aspire2Be brought young men and women - all Black, all church goers with an average age of 15, to learn business skills. Their parents ensured they were not dressed in jeans and hoodies, but shirt and ties, notebooks at hand. Their mood was sombre, their views illuminating.

More than half of the group of 30 had been stopped and searched by the police, some on their way to school. Many had witnessed the rioting from the safe place of their bedroom windows. They all felt the shame of the actions of a few. In the question and answer session one young man bravely said, 'We're lucky. Most of us have stable homes and the church is our extended family. I have friends at school who have one parent. That parent isn't up to it. They are on the streets. The gangs become their family. There they have power and respect'.

Whilst the majority are gorging themselves in condemnation of the looters, we'd do well to take note from that 15-year-old boy. Let's punish the wrong doers particularly those who have had total disregard for lives of others, but let's try to understand, and take responsibility for helping fractured families and communities survive and excel.

In relation to the Black community's collective response, we must do so quickly, effectively and visibly. I am encouraged. As you read this Black Church leaders and others are discussing ways in which we can show our communities and society that we deeply care, and that we will redouble our efforts to help put things right for now and the future.

Beyond the political point scoring we'll witness today in Parliament we hope though we'll find willing and genuine partners on all sides of the political divide.