According to the rumour, a 14-year-old Jamaican was caught stealing a wig from an Asian-run shop selling black beauty products in nearby Perry Barr. One of the shopkeepers threatened to call the police, but she pleaded with him not to (‘she was an illegal immigrant, and didn’t want the police to be led to her house’, one black man told me). The girl agreed to have sex with the shopkeeper if he wouldn’t tell the police. But then he called his friends, who came around and raped her – some say she was raped by three men, others say 13 or 19.
There is no evidence that such an attack took place. Police forensic experts have reportedly checked out the beauty parlour but found nothing. No girl has come forward, in spite of police pledges of leniency. Nobody knows her name or when the attack happened, though some claim to know her family.
The two communities are divided by the story – most local black people claim it’s true, most Asians say it’s a myth. But this is less about the girl, real or imagined, than about simmering economic grievances. One local black community activist told me: ‘Blacks get nothing, no funding, no support. Blacks made Asians rich, we support their shops. It’s a joke.’ According to a 17-year-old originally from Somalia, ‘The word on the street is that a war is on, and it’s Asians versus blacks’. On the other side, a young Asian man claimed that blacks are ‘stupid people. They go to school but don’t learn anything. I don’t know what they are moaning about. We did well because we worked hard’.
It’s no surprise that tensions exist in a run-down inner city area such as this. This is often presented as a case of two communities hating each other, with the police standing helpless in between. In fact, the script for the conflict in Perry Barr was written at the top of New Labour’s Britain. Today, different groups are encouraged to play up their victimhood and unique cultural identities, in a bid for public funds and social authority. The fireworks in Lozells demonstrate the fractious consequences.
Black campaigners were talking the language of identity politics, saying that they didn’t get any ‘respect’ and their ‘grievances haven’t been understood’. ‘[Asians] look at Jamaican people like we are nothing’, said one black woman quoted in the New Nation (1). Respectable community organisations have helped to broadcast the issue over the past week. Maxie Hayles, head of the Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Group, has been one of the more vocal activists: he was quoted on BBC News as saying ‘There are a lot of [black] people who think that the Asian people look down on African-Caribbean people’; while the New Nation recorded his comment, ‘We are not going to tolerate our women being abused. We have a zero tolerance against it’ (2). Hayles has contributed to a number of official consultations, and in 2000 was awarded the government’s ‘Active Community Award’. Meanwhile, one of the websites that played a role in spreading the rumours, Blacknet UK, has connections with official bodies including the Commission for Racial Equality.
The battle for cultural recognition is another source of friction. An article in The Voice detailed all the local African-Caribbean community’s grievances: the carnival was moved from Handsworth to Perry Barr, and renamed the ‘Birmingham International Carnival Enterprise’, while ‘unadulterated’ Asian celebrations such as Vaisakhi have taken their place; Black History Month is now apparently run by an Asian man, as is the Drum (a Birmingham centre for black arts); and the BBC has banished African-Caribbean programming to Saturday nights, while establishing the Asian Network as a 24-hr station.
On the other side, Asians also claim that everybody is set against them, and appeal for protection.
Why did it take the rumour of a rape for recent tensions to explode? Perhaps it suggests the lack of a vocabulary for discussing social and political inequalities in their own terms. Instead, conflicts are conceived as an allegory, as a personal attack on a member of your community. The rape story seems to express the fact that black people feel they are being screwed over. Some seemed to identity with her: the campaign is called ‘Silent Victim’, and speculation abounds about what the girl could be feeling. ‘She could be hurt’, said one black man. ‘It’s obvious why she did a deal [to have sex]’, said another: ‘You got no power, no position. Who is going to listen to you?’ Asians have their share of victimisation stories, too. One young man said that he heard a story about two Asian girls being attacked – ‘I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what I heard’. Another said that he heard worshippers had been attacked inside a mosque.
Beneath it all, though, it seems that some are trying to put their differences aside and move on. Certainly the last thing this community needs is council-supervised intercultural dialogues. Black people are still buying in Asian shops; most of the broken windows have been replaced, and shops reopened. A number of people I spoke to blamed the trouble on outsiders. One Asian man said that the rioters came from London; a white man blamed coachloads of visitors from London, Leeds and Bradford. At Khan’s carpet shop in Lozells Road, the young shopkeeper told me: ‘I got no tension with black people. Some local black people are driving past and saying “we’re neutral”.’
One thing that did seem to unite the communities was common hostility to the media. I was chatting to a group of young British Asians when a young African-Caribbean man cycled past. ‘News reporter?’ he asked. ‘I say fuck off. You’re not from around this area, so mind your own fucking business’. There was a pause, then the young Asians responded: ‘That’s what I say, too’, ‘and me too’.