The back streets of rundown Victorian row houses along what local black residents call the "front line" in the Brixton section of South London resemble neighborhoods in the "riot corridors" of 7th Street or 14th Street NW in Washington in the late 1960s.
The scene last week on the morning after the most recent rioting in Brixton -- the last serious disturbance of two long weeks of violence in more than 30 cities and towns in England -- also appeared to be a flashback to one of those long, hot summers in the Washington ghetto.
As workmen cleared away debris from the overnight violence, knots of angry black people filled the sidewalks to complain about a police raid on several houses along the front line on Railton Road that led to the street battle in which several hundred youths threw bricks and molotov cocktails from behind barricades of burning cars at twice as many police with clubs and riot shields. b
It was the same place where Britain's disillusioning summer of violence began with a much bigger riot that injured 600 police officers and civilians and destroyed a number of buildings in Brixton on an unseasonably warm weekend in mid-April.
"This happened in a society that had been complacent about its stability and institutions," said John Brown, director of the department of social policy at the Cranfield Institute of Technology. "We've been an untested society since the Industrial Revolution."
A very old society is undergoing painful change forced by economic decline, an influx of nonwhite immigrants since World War II, and what many believe to be a deterioration of its institutions from its political system to its schools and family life.
"There has been a gradually weakening of controls in British society," Brown said. "There is more divorce, more single-parent families, less parental control."
When the debate moved across the Thames River to the all-white House of Commons, members of Parliament argued about whether the response to the upheaval here should be concentrated on restoring law and order with saturation policing and military-style riot control equipment or whether equal priority should be given to underlying problems of police-community relations. Their discussions in many ways echoed the post-mortems that followed the riots in American cities.
Yet while it may have appeared on television or from the sometimes hysterical headlines of the popular press here that all of Britain was burning, the disturbances never approached the scale of violence and destruction of the 1960s rioting in Washington and other American cities. No one was killed, no guns were used or shots fired, and no troops were used. Tear gas was fired only one night in Liverpool.
There were no attacks by blacks or whites, although there were firece fighting with the police and widespread looting by both whites and blacks. The number of people participating in the rioting in any one place seldom exceeded several hundred, although much larger numbers of unarmed policy were needed to contain them.
Only in the portside Toxteth neighborhood of Liverpool were large lots reduced to rubble by firebombs. Although buildings were burned in many places -- particularly Brixton, where serious disturbances have flared, from April until last week -- the majority of stores, hit by looters are back in business behind boarded-up windows. Brixton's colorful central market, where the Cockney patter of street traders mixes with West Indian accents, is filled with black and white shoppers.
Nevertheless, despite a history of occasional civil disturbances and the traditional roughneck violence of its working class, Britain was clearly shocked by the rioting.
The only reliable national public opinion poll taken since the rioting began shows public support for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's tough-talking emphasis on law and order, despite the controversy it has caused among politicians, commentators and community leaders.
Four of every five respondents in the polls conducted for Britain's independent television network favored severe treatment of rioters, the use of water cannon by police and creation of special antiriot squads. The poll also reflected considerable confusion about the causes of the violence.
"The first reaction has been panic," said Brown. "The danger is that we're likely to lump the causes together rather than differentiate them into varied parts, and this will bring a police reaction."
While Thatcher has emphasized that "there is no future for anyone unless law and order is restored," the opposition Labor Party's spokesman for home affairs, Roy Hattersley, has warned that "while the causes of the disturbances remain -- poverty, unemployment and deprivation -- the chances of violence breaking out again will remain and perhaps indeed increase."
The causes appear to vary from place to place and from one person's perspective to another's. Where the rioting and attacks on police were most violent -- Brixton and Liverpool -- rioters and community workers blamed insensitive policing in racially mixed neighborhoods.
Despite Liverpool's long economic decline and very high unemployment rate -- more than 50 percent for young adults in its inner city -- community workers who met Thatcher during her tour of the riot area complained only about the treatment of blacks by the police.
In Brixton, according to David Lane, chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, "tension between police and the black community is at its worst."
Unemployment does play a role, said German Ousley, a local government race relations adviser in Brixton, because it leaves more people on the streets with nothing to do but attract the suspicions of young white police officers. The police may be hostile to the life style of these offspring of West Indian immigrants who had been recruited to this country to drive buses and work on construction projects.
"If the police see you laying about, they think you're drunk or a criminal," said Derrect Smith, 32, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1964. "If you're black, you're a target."
Smith, a bus driver who said he's never been out of work or charged with a crime, described how he frequently has been stopped, questioned and searched by police. Recently, the rugs were pulled out of his car in a what he was told was a drugs search, he said.
Police officials point to Brixton's high crime rate and arrest statistics, which show most of the miscreants to be young blacks even though, as in most racially mixed areas in Britain, blacks are only a minority of the area's population. But 17-year-old Lloyd Tomlinson echoed many black teen-agers in Brixton when he said, "They just don't like us. They hate black people." i
While conceding that some officers lose their termpers police officials contend that the brutality charge feeds on a mythology that bolws the number of incidents out of proportion. In such major cities as Birmingham and Nanchester, they have tried to change policing policies in recent years, putting more stress on "bobby on the beat" patrols to encourage closer contact with the public and directing officers to become invovled in local school, church and social activities.
But the riots have shaken the tolerance and confidence of even the deepest believers in such programs. "We're all shell-shocked," said Manchester Police Superintendent Michael Mulroy.
The larger role of race in the rioting is unclear. Many looters in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham were white, as are the left-wing political activists blamed by police and community workers in Birmingham and other places for helping stir up trouble after the initial clashes between police and black youths.
Only about 3 percent of Britain's population is nonwhite. Instead of the large ghettos found in American cities, black neighborhoods in most British cities are fragmented and surprisingly integrated with surrounding white areas. The term "black" here refers to everyone from the descendants of African seamen who settled in Liverpool in the 19th century to West Indians and Asians who came here in much larger numbers from the Commonwealth nations after World War II.
The victims of window-smashing and looting in such places as Birmingham's Handsworth neighborhood were not white but mostly Indian and Pakistani shopowners, who have been more successful economically in Britain than West Indians. They complain that they get too little police attention, particularly when attacked or threatened be white racist toughs, amny of them "skinheads," who identify with a growing number of neo-Nazi groups.
An invasion of west London's predominantly Asian Southall neighborhood by busloads of "skinheads"touched off rioting there, with young Asians violently turning on the police.
"On the surface, the cause doesn't appear to be race," said James Hunte, a black community worker in Birmingham's Handsworth, "but below the surface, racism is as much a factor as unemployment."
Racial discrimination in employment in Britain is well-documented. Outside London, local government, the largest employer in many inner cities, employs very few nonwhites. Manufacturers who had hired Asians in textile mills and West Indians in auto factories have been laying them off during Britain's deep recession.
Unlike Thatcher, Home Secretary William Whitelaw acknowledged some of these problems when he gave a statement of the government's response to the rioting during last week's parliamentary debate. He said "an underlying strand of racial difficulties" ran through some of the disturbances and many of the young rioters "lived in inner-city areas which suffered relatively from a range of disadvantages, including serious unemployment."
Besides equipping the police with new riot equipment, the government has dispatched several senior officials to Liverpool to study how better to coordinate government aid to inner-city areas, although no new money has been promised. A High Court judge, Lord Scarman, who was selected to investigate the mid-April riot in Brixton, has broadened his inquiry to include the disturbances throughout the country and all their possible causes. His report could become Britain's equivalent of the Kerner Commission study in the United States.
It remains to be seen whether the riots will affect Thatcher's approach to the country's economic and employment problems. A majority of her Cabinet favors injecting more government money into the economy and an expensive program for combating youth employment pushed by Employment Secretary James Prior. But Thatcher's Treasury ministers oppose these ideas as disruptive to what is left of Thatcher's monetarist strategy for restructuring the British economy.
Both black and white residents of these areas are becoming increasingly disillusioned, said David Rice, a white, 30-year-old unemployaed engineer in Birmingham. "We have no collective aspiration in Britain like the American Dream," he said, "but in this city, if you worked hard and if you had a bright idea, somebody would find a way of making it. Now, it's as if some force has changed the pieces in the puzzle overnight. They no longer fit."