Masarykova univerzita Filozofická fakulta Katedra anglistiky a amerikanistiky Magisterská diplomová práce

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II. 2. Urban unrest in the 1980s

The issue of racialisation and the race relations were influenced by the development of British immigration policy. For that reason, the next part of the work follows the most important immigration acts issued in the 1970s and it stresses the importance of local politics in the question of race relations. After a theoretical debate, the riots of 1980–1981 are discussed.

II. 2. 1. Immigration and race since the 1970s

There were further legislative changes concerning immigration during the 1970s. The Conservative Party promised in the 1970 election to reduce the number of immigrants. Consequently, the 1971 Immigration Act was introduced which distinguished citizens of Britain and its colonies (patrials) from non-patrials. Patrials had the right of abode in Britain whereas non-patrials had to ask for permission. Based on the Parliamentary debates, “the new Act was rightly seen as racist because it allowed potentially millions of white Commonwealth citizens to enter under the partiality clause and settle in Britain, a right denied to almost all non-white Commonwealth citizens” (Solomos, 1993: 69). It is evident that three legislation acts between 1961 and 1971 try to prevent black immigrants from entering Britain. Even though the wording of the acts is different and the definitions of citizens of Britain as well as conditions for entry vary, the conclusion is that the acts excluded black immigrants and thus contributed to the institutionalisation of racism.

The policies towards racism changed after the 1979 election when the Conservative Party with its leader Margaret Thatcher stressed even more the dangers of black immigration often described as ‘the enemy within’ which would ‘swamp’ British culture and social values (Solomos, 1993: 72). Under Thatcher’s administration, many changes were added to the immigration rules leading to tighter controls of immigration. It was mainly the 1981 British Nationality Act which came into force in 1983. This Act further divided the category of British citizens into three groups: British Citizens, British Dependent Territories Citizens and British Overseas citizens (Solomos, 1993: 71). Nevertheless, the category of British overseas citizens did not include the British of Asian origin and as Macdonald implies, “The 1981 Act enshrines the existing racially discriminatory provisions of immigration law under new clothing of British citizenship and the right of abode” (qtd. in Solomos, 1993: 71).

However, the aim of this work is not to follow the issue of individual acts one by one but rather to focus on the issues of racial inequality and dealing with racial discrimination and the perception of British society towards immigration.

Debates about racial discrimination and the race relations belonged to one of the most important issues on the political scene since the 1950s. The impact of black immigration on British society was widely discussed by both politicians and media. Two aspects have to be taken into consideration. Firstly, it was the attitude of whites towards the blacks and their negative reception of the immigrants because of the problems especially in housing and labour which followed after their arrival. Then it was the impression of black immigrants who did not feel welcomed and accepted by British society and faced racial discrimination. These two aspects only led to later conflicts (Solomos, 1993: 82).

The 1980s came with much more theoretical debate on race issues and local politics. As Solomos states, it is not possible to understand social relations without looking at the local context. It was recognized that racial issues should be included in the urban politics and local authorities should act in the question of racial inequality, because the attention of local authorities was limited at that time as they had relied on the central government and voluntary agencies. “As late as the 1970s a common complaint of activists and community groups was that local authorities had failed to develop an adequate policy response to the increasingly multiracial composition of their populations” (Solomos, 1993: 97). Because one of the aims of the work will be to discuss the local policy, it is important to analyze the process of racialisation of local politics.

British society underwent significant changes in the question of racialisation since the 1960s and especially since the 1980s. “During the early 1960s and 1970s the local political context of race was a central theme in debates about immigration, particularly in parts of the West Midlands” (Solomos, 1993: 98). As a consequence, more attention was paid to the racialisation of local politics and many local authorities started to deal with issues such as education, social services, and housing related to the issue of race inequality. Solomos also summarizes that “the main distinguishing feature of the earliest stages of racialised politics at the local level was the use of race as a symbol of the changing nature of local social and economic conditions” (Solomos, 1993: 99). The main topics were the impact of race on both local and national politics, the role of the media and how the local authorities responded to the question of racialisation. The suggestion is that the local authorities should be concerned with the politics of race and focus on the various political, social, and economic aspects of it as well as on the question of geographical distribution of ethnic minorities leading to segregation which is visible in every multicultural town in contemporary Britain.

II. 2. 2. Brixton riots

Even though the politics of race as well as public debates changed during the 1970s and policing tended to concern the economic and social conditions of the minorities, the phenomenon of unrest and public disorder is connected with the issue of racialisation and during the 1980s it became a serious racial issue. The riots in the first half of the eighties were said to be the worst in British society and they caught the attention of the community, media, both local and central governments, and voluntary agencies. It is important to stress that the riots occurred not so much between the blacks and ethnic minorities but rather between the blacks and the police. This antagonism between two groups was visible already in the fifties and the bad relations culminated and erupted in the eighties.

Selling drugs, mugging, and alcohol reflected the bad images of blacks in the eyes of the police who very often harassed them. The statistics show that the police arrested blacks more often than whites, according to the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which enabled the police to arrest anyone just on the basis of their suspicion (known as Sus arrests). The statistics prove the police bias, as in some parts of London, for example in Lambeth, the sus arrests of blacks made 77 per cent of all the arrests (Hiro 84). It is important to mention that the period of economic recession in the second half of the seventies caused that many Afro-Caribbeans were made redundant as in Brixton where “55 per cent of black males under nineteen were registered as unemployed and, overall, black joblessness was three times the figure for whites” (Hiro 84).

First unrest took place in the St. Paul’s district of Bristol on 2 April 1980 when the police arrested the owner of the Black and White Café, as he sold drugs and served alcohol illegally. In the meantime a crowd of black people gathered outside and threw bottles, stones and other missiles on extra 100 officers who were sent to help the police inside the café. About 2000 black citizens participated in the riots, there was only a small proportion of white youths. 134 people were arrested and the total cost of the riots was £500,000. Disorders in London escalated when a fire was set during a party at New Cross Road in Deptford where thirteen young Afro-Caribbeans died and many were injured. The police did not manage to discover the cause of the fire and tension between the black community and the police mounted. As a result, Operation Swamp 81 in Brixton was expected to solve the situation. During that operation 943 people were stopped and arrested; the majority of them were black. On Friday 10 April, a 19-year-old Michael Bailey was attacked, he died, and the police was blamed for his death, which only deepened anti-police feeling and many incidents followed which turned violent and continued for two days. These took place especially on Atlantic, Mayall and Railton Road (Hiro 88).

Britain experienced other series of attacks in Toxteth in Liverpool in July when Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford was arrested for stealing a motorcycle. After that a crowd of blacks gathered and violence erupted for two days. A similar situation broke out in Moss Side in Manchester, also other areas in Greater Manchester were affected. At that time, riots in Brixton broke out again. Figures available show that the total cost of damage was £45 million. “The racial composition of the defendants varied from place to place. In Brixton and Southall blacks and Asians were two-thirds of the total whereas in Toxteth and Moss Side whites were dominant to the same extent. Of those arrested 70 per cent were under twenty-one and overall majority of the defendants were jobless” (Hiro 90). It can be seen that the riots occurred mostly between the police and the blacks.

II. 2. 3. Responses to the riots

As Hiro analyzes the causes of the riots, there is no straightforward view. Either the crime can be caused by behaviour of young hooligans who try to copy what they see on TV. Or further interpretation might be that the poor living conditions of ethnic minorities and segregationist attitudes of whites accumulate the anger of ethnic minorities which demonstrates itself whenever there is a chance to give vent to it. Another reason is entrenched in institutional racism and segregationist and arrogant behaviour of the police towards the ethnic minorities. The latter two seem to be more probable and also the polls show that the public was of the same opinion and attribute the riots to both social conditions and police misbehaviour. According to the surveys conducted by The Times and The Guardian, there were different views on the behaviour of blacks and the police. “About a quarter of the population, predominantly white, held blacks responsible for the troubles. On the other hand a third of the black and Asian respondents (with a much higher proportion among the young) placed the blame on the police” (Hiro 92). The surveys and comments proved that the disturbances aroused much attention from both the media and general public and that there was a call to react upon the violent period.

As a result, the Scarman Inquiry was set up to investigate the Brixton riots. It came up with the Report in November 1981 which is an influential analysis of the disorders. The Report discussed a link between the disorders and race stating that “the riots were essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people and the police” (qtd. in Solomos, 1986: 12). According to Lord Scarman, all political, social, and economic factors need to be analysed so that it is possible to understand the situation. He maintains that the most important from all the factors was the position of the communities in the inner-city areas. He looked at the unrest from two perspectives. The first causation was the policing and harassment of blacks. He identified the second causation in the behaviour of deprived black people who saw the attacks as a possibility to catch attention to themselves and their position in the society. According to him, these aspects were a ‘simplification of a complex reality’ and he focused on the following issues:

  1. the problems which are faced in policing and maintaining order in deprived, inner-city, multi-racial localities

  2. the social, economic, and related problems which are faced by all residents of such areas; and

  3. the social and economic disadvantages which are suffered particularly by black residents, especially young blacks (qtd. in Solomos, 1993: 170).

Scarman concluded that these aspects created predispositions leading to the violent disturbances. In his view, young blacks perceived the violence as a way of protest and that is why the riots became ‘an outburst of anger and resentment’ (Solomos: 1993, 170). Scarman also occupied himself with the social conditions of black families and gives the example of a young black in Brixton:

Without close parental support, with no job to go to, and with few recreational facilities available, the young black person makes his life on the streets and in the seedy commercially run clubs of Brixton. There he meets criminals, who appear to have no difficulty in obtaining the benefits of materialist society (qtd. in Solomos, 1993: 170).

Such a view cannot be generalized as not all the blacks youth drift into crime, but it points at the alienation the young blacks experienced in the place of their living, usually in the deprived inner city areas. It is also the question of segregation and living on the margin of society and the way to overcome this would be to integrate all the communities to take part in the events of the areas so that they have a feeling that they are accepted rather than excluded from the society.

Scarman’s view of the riots was considered to be liberal as he did not understand them as ‘race riots’ but rather he considered the connection of social conditions, racial discrimination and policing as the predispositions to the unrest. His standpoint is in contrast to many others who saw the ‘race’ as the core of problems. Those who linked directly race and protests were Enoch Powell and other right-wing politicians. Enoch Powell, supported by Conservative MPs, made many parliamentary speeches and wrote articles in the press, voicing his strong belief that race is the explanation of the riots. He strongly disagreed with the opinions that poor social conditions of the communities and institutional racism could be reasons for the disturbance. He offers three arguments to support his view. Firstly, in some parts of London and other big cities, there is one quarter to one half of the population under 25 who come from the New Commonwealth. He predicted that this number would double or treble over the next generation. Consequently, conflicts between New Commonwealth people and the British population would increase. “This would lead to places like ‘inner London becoming ungovernable or violence which could only be effectually described as civil war” (Solomos, 1986: 14). Thus, the only solution that Powell suggested was repatriation.

Another comment, so far not mentioned, was made by Ronald Butt, a columnist of The Times and the Daily Mail on race related issues, who takes into consideration traditional British society. According to him, the most important fact was that violence was influenced by the impact of immigrant communities on traditional British culture and values. Values of those communities were different from the English majority attitudes and it is understandable that the clash of the cultures caused the unrest (Solomos, 1986: 14).

II. 2. 4. Conclusion

The debate on whether the riots were or were not racial has no straightforward answer. The conclusion of the polls was that only a minority of the press and public saw the race or immigration issue as a central theme of the riots and a majority put the riots down to the bad behaviour of young black people and their position in society. On the other hand, analyses and figures concerning the numbers and arrests of black participants as well as many attacks show bad relations between the police and black youth and from that point of view the riots can be called racial.

With the increasing violence during the 1970s, the debate concentrated on the role of the police and there was a need to strengthen the police so as to maintain the order in a ‘violent society’. However, the riots of 1981 illustrate the change in British society. Although an important one, the phenomenon of race is not the only factor which would give rise to disorder, as both blacks and whites took part in the riots. “In a very real sense, therefore, the dominant fear that emerged through the response of official discourse, political commentators and the media to the riots during 1980–81 concerned the changing character of law and order in contemporary Britain and the dangers that this represented to the values of society as a whole” (Solomos, 1986: 10). The occurrence of the riots was a visible problem in British society. Nevertheless, it uncovered deeper problems Britain was facing. The British started to realize that their traditional values were endangered by the people coming to their country or those who had already settled in Britain but had never assimilated. The clash of cultures, religions and different attitudes and ways of life led logically to the unrest. Finally, it was not only the question of race or unsuitable conditions or unemployment. It was the whole British system being undermined and not only areas affected by the riots; the situation was concerning the whole society.

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