Scattered violence for a third night in town hit by race riots
OLDHAM, England (AP) – In this hardscrabble former mill town, they swept broken glass and piled up heaps of shattered bricks on Monday, cleaning up after Britain’s worst outbreak of racial violence in years.
Harder to rebuild, community leaders say, will be the harmony they insist Oldham – a onetime textile center of about 220,000 people on the outskirts of the northern city of Manchester – once enjoyed.
After two nights of fierce rioting, police and activists alike called for calm – and laid much of the blame on far-right groups they say exploited tensions between the town’s whites and its large population of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants.
Police, who were pelted with bricks and firebombs during fighting that raged Saturday and Sunday nights, were out in force Monday night, dealing with scattered violence for the third night.
At one point eight police vans and riot police blocked a road to prevent a group of white youths moving toward the Glodwick district, where many people of Pakistani descent live. The youths threw garbage cans and bricks at police and set up a burning barricade.
In other areas, youths from both sides of the ethnic divide broke windows of cars and houses.
But there was no sign of violence at the level of Saturday night’s battles.
Those clashes, reminiscent in their ferocity of riots that tore through areas like the London district of Brixton in the 1980s, came less than two weeks before Britain’s June 7 general election.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, out on the campaign trail in northeast England, said he did not believe the rioting was indicative of widespread racial problems in Britain.
”This is obviously a problem that has got to be worked through by community leaders on the ground in Oldham,” he told supporters in the town of Middlesborough. ”I do not think it is typical of the state of race relations in Britain today, where I think the vast majority of people want to live together in peace and harmony with one another.”
Oldham has been the scene of growing racial tensions in recent months – greatly exacerbated, community leaders said, by the presence of the National Front, a small but vocal extremist group, and British National Party, another right-wing group that is fielding two candidates from Oldham in the coming parliamentary elections.
The party’s leader, Nick Griffin, advocates the separation of whites and nonwhites, with dividing walls to keep the communities apart.
”They are evil racists,” Oldham council leader Richard Knowles said of the right-wing groups. ”They have got vile intentions and have been whipping up tensions in this town for some time. They heighten the tension, provoke a reaction, and then withdraw.”
Oldham made national headlines back in April, when a 76-year-old pensioner, Walter Chamberlain, was mugged and badly beaten by what he said was a gang of ”Asians,” the term Britons use to describe people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian descent.
After the mugging, members of the National Front and the British National Party began traveling to Oldham on weekends, shouting abuse at nonwhites and ”going into poor white areas to spread their very crude and evil message,” Knowles said.
He and others acknowledged that economic hardships and unemployment helped feed Oldham’s racial tensions as well.
Between one-quarter and one-fifth of the townspeople are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Many arrived in the 1960s or 1970s to work in what was then a busy textile industry.
”When the parents came in the 1960s, they got abuse and they just took it,” said Kessar Bhatti, 40, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1979 and has lived in Oldham since then. ”But this generation – by their skins, they’re Asian, but in terms of everything else, they’re British, and they won’t put up with the abuse,” he said.
Bhatti complained police did not always swiftly respond to complaints of attacks by whites against Asians. Police in turn said such attacks were not always reported.
”We have redoubled our efforts to get the Asian community to report their victimization, and we are having some success,” said Chief Superintendent Eric Hewitt of the Greater Manchester police, whose district includes Oldham.
On Monday, the streets of Glodwick and Westwood, the predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas that saw the worst of the rioting, were quiet and drizzle-soaked. Dozens of businesses had their windows boarded up with plywood, and scorch marks could be seen where cars were torched or firebombs landed.
In the Live and Let Live pub, which police said was attacked by a mob of Asian youths on Saturday night, patrons were nursing grudges along with their drinks. Whites, they said, felt unsafe in Oldham.
”I’ve lived here since 1978 and in the past four years my son, who’s 17, has been attacked four times by gangs of Asians,” said Mark Charlton.
Ashid Ali, a 25-year-old schoolteacher who is chairman of the Oldham Bangladeshi Youth Association, said in the long run, economic revitalization was the best way to dampen racial tensions.
”The problems of Oldham have never been a race issue for us,” he said. ”It is about social inclusion for both white and Asian youths. That means a long-term investment in jobs, health care, housing – improving the community for everyone.”
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