A death in the ghettoby Rosemary Harris / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
in the spring of 1994, Rosemary Harris, reader in anthropology at University College, London (UCL), sat in on a meeting in a London school between a white couple and one of the teachers. The school is in Somers Town, a multi-ethnic working class neighbourhood near UCL. Harris was engaged in a study of racial conflict in the area. The parents had come to complain about the treatment of their 14-year-old son Richard, who had been knocked to the ground and threatened by a large crowd of Bangladeshi boys.
In August 1994, during the summer holidays, on a Saturday evening when he had gone out for some chips, Richard Everitt was stabbed to death after being chased by a Bangladeshi gang. As the murder hit the headlines, Somers Town-less than a mile from the fashionable parts of Islington-resembled Belfast as police helicopters kept surveillance overhead.
Published here for the first time is an edited version of Rosemary Harris’s account of the tit-for-tat cycle of violence which led to the death of an innocent boy. One might expect that a report from a distinguished academic, based on first hand observation, would have been welcomed by the local authority, Camden. It was not. There were even allegations that the report was “racist.” Perhaps this was because Harris found little evidence to support the official anti-racist line-that the violent assaults on Bangladeshi youngsters that preceded the murder were part of a campaign by political racists such as the British National Party. Instead Harris states that in Somers Town inter-ethnic violence is “kids stuff,” rooted in the playground rivalries of teenage boys.
Anti-racist groups tend to overlook inter-ethnic divisions and rivalries among young people, preferring to view racism as a “black” and “white” issue with “black” as victim. This is often interpreted by whites as branding all of them racist, while labelling black and Asian youngsters as helpless victims. Harris’s account shows that this is not the reality. Her report also shows that many people in positions of authority in the inner city feel muzzled. Teachers and youth workers have had their common sense notions of discipline undermined by politically correct attitudes, and feel intimidated by the indiscriminate accusations of “racism.” Of course, a child can be damaged by a racist teacher. But damage may also be done by a teacher’s failure to exert authority because of the fear of the accusation of racism. As Harris says: “Think what you and your friends as 14-year-olds might have made of the knowledge that just by making an accusation you could put the fear of God into any teacher!”
This report shows children literally at each others’ throats having had it drilled into them in school that racism is one of the three cardinal sins. (The other two are sexism and homophobia.) Political correctness and multiculturalism claim to celebrate difference, but they are part of a mentality that demands conformity. In the case of the youth of Somers Town, that requires the construction of “false selves” to conform to the attitudes expected of them.
But what of the feelings of people from minority communities themselves? Minority community parents are often deeply religious and troubled by the climate of sex and violence to which children are exposed, and by what they see as the collapse of authority in schools. In Somers Town the only institution in which the minority communities are not well represented is the police service. Even so, the main reason why the police are hated by the criminal youth in this account is not their racism, real or alleged, but the fact that the police are often the only people who dare to confront them.
Above all, Harris’s study shows how programmes for the inner cities, however well endowed, should not ignore the difficulties caused by nihilistic young men, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, who are outside the labour market and often criminal.
Much of the data was collected by Gary Armstrong, a gifted field worker who has produced fine studies of football hooligans. Another unsung hero is Ian Baxter, head of Somers Town youth club. Baxter is the man in the middle. Born and raised in the neighbourhood, a white, heterosexual working class male, he became the object of intense suspicion among some council officials who would have been delighted to prove him a racist. At the same time Baxter was threatened with retribution from white “nutters” for allegedly taking sides with Bangladeshis. Fortunately for the past two years not a fist has been raised in anger against Baxter or anyone else. Swift police action led to the arrest and conviction of five youths for Richard’s murder. The hard core of thugs from all sides have been put out of commission. And an increasing number of white families, including Richard’s, have moved out of the area.
Somers town, the area immediately to the east of Euston station, was rebuilt from old slums in the 1920s and 1930s by a charity, the St Pancras Housing Society. The society set out to give stability to the area by re-housing the former slum dwellers and encouraging as new tenants the relatives of those already there. In the 1950s it was still a very traditional working class area. Most of its sons from the age of 14 found work in the local railway goods yards, in the main postal sorting office nearby or in the large numbers of small businesses within the area. There was a large boys’ secondary school in the middle of the area, but it was not expected that many pupils would aim any higher than an apprenticeship with a local employer, and most would become unskilled workers. Those who lived nearby, in places such as Kentish Town, saw the Somers Town families as different—rougher and tougher—and they themselves boasted of such differences.
In the past 30 years the railway yards have been closed, the sorting office has been downgraded and mechanised, and small businesses and even market stalls have closed or moved out. This is central London, however, and for the smart youngster prepared to turn up regularly and work hard, there are many opportunities for regular employment, sometimes with decent chances for advancement. Yet for some of the Somers Town under 25s, “work” is something fathers do, or did. What wages these youngsters get are mostly the result of temporary cash-in-hand jobs. For the weak, easily led kid, there is the ever present lure of drugs with which almost all the boys experiment; there is also the temptation to steal, mainly from cars and shops (mugging is rare).
By the 1990s there was still a core of the old Somers Town white working class, but they had been gradually moving out, partly because they were finding it difficult to find housing. In their place came people from abroad and from other parts of the British Isles: Greek Cypriots, West Indians, Africans, Turks and others. From the 1970s there was also a large influx of settlers from Sylhet in Bangladesh. They have increased in numbers rapidly, both because they consider birth control sinful and because a high proportion of new marriages among them are arranged with young people from Sylhet who, as spouses, can enter Britain with relative freedom. They come not from Dhaka but from a rural corner of Bangladesh, and their (unwritten) mother tongue is Sylheti, not Bengali.
Somers Town whites and Bangladeshis found themselves in unavoidable competition. The policy of giving preference to the kin of existing tenants was declared “racist” by Camden council and was discontinued, taking a valued privilege from those who had few others. On schooling, the Somers Town boys’ school became a co-ed comprehensive, and its facilities improved enormously. However, the fact that over half the school’s students are now Sylhetis and that the dominant language is Sylheti, is believed to slow down the progress of native English speakers. In 1995, the school, located in the heart of the white area, had a pupil population that was 15 per cent white, 25 per cent black and 60 per cent Asian.
Inter-ethnic violence has been mainly “kids’ stuff” in the school, the street or the Somers Town youth club. (The club, next to the school, is well run, strives to be inter-ethnic, and within its modest budget has acquired games and equipment which attract kids from all groups.) Confrontation in these places has been almost always linked to the activities of teenage boys (mostly 14-16), of all ethnic groups. In Somers Town the BNP is notable by its absence.
Each group keeps memory files that always seem to be composed of “the wrongs they have done us” and seldom contain information about “the wrongs we have done them.” For ethnic confrontations, boys recruit allies on the basis of neighbourhood and school friendships. Sylheti boys recruit Sylhetis exclusively: their numbers mean they do not need to seek outsiders. Black boys and white boys, much fewer in number, recruit others, on a basis of skin colour across a wide spectrum of cultures. A black group with an Afro-Caribbean core may also include Nigerians and Somalis. Similarly, a white group with a core of locals may include boys from elsewhere in the British Isles and from other European countries.
Trouble does not always originate with school boys. There is a small group of hard “street kids” who have fallen out with authority of all kinds. Tyke is an example. His mother comes from a local family and his father is in prison. Even at 14, Tyke seldom attended school. He was always strong for his age and fought routinely with boys of all ethnic groups. He was a thief and it is suspected that, outside his home district, a handbag snatcher.
Tyke had two close mates who lived locally. One was Andrew, who came with his family from Liverpool. He was a habitual burglar; at 13 he was taken into custody for five months. He is said to have been “naturally high,” that is, hyperactive. The second of Tyke’s mates was Art, who came from a local family considered to be “scummy”—one of his sisters was thought to be a prostitute.
All these boys were excluded from school and they were also banned from the youth club because their behaviour was abominable. On the streets the three stole radios and telephones from cars, and bikes and scooters which they disposed of through Tyke’s uncle, a drug dealer and fence, based at a local pub. For a few weeks in 1993 Tyke disappeared from the streets: he had given his uncle a stolen bike and when he did not get his money he went after him with an air gun, much to his uncle’s displeasure. Tyke hid for two weeks with Art’s family.
The names of Tyke, Andrew and Art figured in a high proportion of “rumbles” that took place between the white boys and the Bangladeshis in the early 1990s. Occasionally they instigated trouble but more commonly they were recruited. The other white boys were chary of the three; but as they had a reputation as fighters and were often hanging around, other boys brought them in.
In the 1980s, when Bangladeshis first arrived at the school, individuals among them were intimidated, and sometimes roughed up, either in the playground or on their way through the core white district around the school. The school coped, so far as it could, by making it a crime of the utmost gravity for a white boy to fight a Bangladeshi under any circumstances. There was no debate about the rights and wrongs of a particular quarrel: to stamp on what staff perceived to be a problem, the white boy caught in such a fight was immediately excluded. A senior teacher from that time said that he and his colleagues were particularly anxious to recruit Bangladeshis: the school did not have a good academic reputation and, based on the reputation of the children of other Asian immigrants, it was hoped the Bangladeshis would raise the success rate. (This policy of special protection for Bangladeshis became redundant as the proportion of Bangladeshis rose from 5 per cent to near 60 per cent between 1990 and 1995.)
The background to serious conflict between the Bangladeshis and the white boys goes back to 1991, when a white boy who had offended them was caught outside the school by a group of Bangladeshis, two of whom had knives; his back was lacerated. He was saved by an older white boy, an amateur boxer who broke the jaw of one of the knife-wielders. From this incident both the Bangladeshi and the white boys nursed a sense of grievance and it was then that white boys first began to be sent to schools in other areas.
Trouble between Bangladeshis and blacks began at the school in July 1992, when the fifth formers finished their exams and started their holidays, leaving a power vacuum. As a large number of white boys were leaving, the Bangladeshi and black fourth formers were left to contest the top dog position for 1992-93. There had been sporadic clashes at the school, but nothing too serious until this end-of-term occasion. The Bangladeshis brought knives and hid them outside the school. At the end of the day, the weapons were retrieved and positions taken up. Six black lads, all aged 15, left the school gate and were almost at once ambushed by the Bangladeshis backed by a group of “elder brothers” (either unemployed or at home because they were night time restaurant workers). Five of the black youths managed to escape but the sixth was caught, stabbed ten times and had to spend three days in hospital. The stab wounds were to his legs and back and one of his kidneys was damaged. Three Bangladeshis were arrested by the police; but it was impossible to prove who was responsible.
In the 1992-93 school year, relationships between whites and Bangladeshis improved because the former were no longer contenders for leadership. At the youth club Bangladeshis dominated in the afternoon and whites in the evenings, but it became more common for Bangladeshis to attend in the evening too. Many of the regular users of the snooker room were young whites in their early 20s, known to the club leader to be prejudiced against “Pakis.” He told them that he would stand no nonsense: they were too old to be youth club members but, as they valued its facilities, they would be allowed to stay provided the Bangladeshis were not harassed. Because the club leader, a Somers Town local, had the family connections and the clout to carry influence, the Bangladeshi boys were not only tolerated but given coaching in snooker.
In May 1993, however, a series of conflicts began at the school which were to reverberate both there and in the club. During a fifth-form lesson, a senior teacher, as she later told me, asked a white boy called James (to my own knowledge intolerant of “Pakis”) to give a work sheet to a Bangladeshi boy. As James did so the paper brushed against the latter’s face. Although this teacher was actually looking at the boys at the time she said she could not determine in her own mind whether or not the brushing was accidental. But the Bangladeshi boy took the matter as an insult and demanded an apology. James suggested they settle the matter outside at break. The two boys exchanged words but nothing worse happened. When James left school that afternoon he was set on by a group of Bangladeshi boys. The next day James and his group of six friends, the last significant group of senior white boys, known to staff as “the magnificent seven,” attacked the Bangladeshi boys on their way home. Little physical damage was done, but tensions remained for the rest of the school year.
On the last day of the school year in July 1993 a large group of Bangladeshis went hunting for the magnificent seven, but failed to find them. They sought another white target and found it at the club. Camden council had sent young, mainly white workers in their late teens from a youth training scheme to redecorate the club. Coming back from their lunch at a pub, three decorators were waylaid and then chased by about 30 boys, including some “elder brothers.” The three sought refuge by dashing through the club and into the school grounds. The Bangladeshis, some armed with bricks and sticks, decided not to follow them, but threw whatever they could at the front of the building. The police were called.
Trouble rumbled on through that summer but with no further serious injury, and for a while things seemed calmer. Teachers attributed this to a meeting—called at the school between the two sets of ringleaders and their parents—at which two formidable black women told the boys in no uncertain terms to behave themselves. The opinion of the black lads was that they had intimidated the Bangladeshis by bringing in “carloads of blacks from Hackney.”
By the school year of 1993-94 there were still the three main divisions at the school, but the main protagonists were the blacks and the Bangladeshis. Trouble between white boys and the Bangladeshis remained low level but endemic, as the normal tiffs that occur in every school were translated into ethnic terms and thereby given extra edge. On one occasion, Haroun, a fourth form Bangladeshi boy, joined the dinner queue with his mates and then left for a few minutes. When he came back, he tried to join them, but the white boy now next in line said he was shoving in. Perhaps because as the “leader of the hard-nuts,” as one teacher put it, Haroun had his reputation to think of, or perhaps just because he lost his temper, he pulled out his lighter and, calling the white boy a racist, set fire to his hair. Haroun was excluded for a week; it distressed his father, a relatively affluent man, but the exclusion did nothing to dent Haroun’s reputation with his mates.
In the autumn term there was a series of clashes in the playground that the black group mainly won. The blacks, although fewer in number than the Bangladeshis, had earned a reputation as fighters. They included boys much bigger than the Bangladeshis and at least two 16-years-olds, recent arrivals from southern Sudan and Somalia who were rumoured to have been active in militias.
There were still some conflicts between whites and Bangladeshis. Greek Michael, one of the “seven” who had left the school in July 1993, became embroiled in trouble when he returned in November to ask for a reference from his old form teacher. A crowd of Bangladeshis waited for him outside the teacher’s office. He walked through them, supported by the arrival of more teachers. A couple of days later, Michael recruited 16 of his friends to waylay the Bangladeshi ringleaders after school. Michael’s group included the young toughs Tyke and Andrew. A group of about 30 Bangladeshis were routed in a set-piece punch-up, with a few being badly beaten.
Another incident, in the autumn term of 1993, showed a different pattern, as Bangladeshi youths learned to apply numerical superiority in what they regarded as the hostile residential areas around the school. A Bangladeshi boy was bullied and roughed up by white lads in a block of flats where he lived near the school. That day the word spread and, in the evening, there was an immediate response from a large group of Bangladeshi boys. The majority were pupils at the school but they included a few “elder brothers.” They pushed their way through the corridors of the block, looking for the homes of the bullies. The residents, most of whom knew nothing of the earlier incident, were frightened by the “posse,” as they called themselves, who were wearing dark glasses and had scarves around their faces. The headmaster, who often works late, was alerted and, arriving at the scene before the police, recognised several of the boys and simply told them to go home. They obeyed him meekly enough—but the residents were left resentful, seeing what happened as an unprovoked Bangladeshi invasion.
Back at the school at the start of 1994, the position of blacks and Bangladeshis had not been finally decided. On the first day of term in January 1994, a black group was mobbed by a much larger group of Bangladeshis and a Vietnamese, a constant companion of the black lads, was hit over the head with a brick and spent a few hours in hospital. In this attack, as in some others, the most prominent part seems to have been taken by two former Bangladeshi pupils, Shabdiz and Meehran, who had been excluded from the school for violent behaviour.
At the start of the spring term 1994 there was a very serious fight in the school playground which I saw myself. It involved a lot of black and Bangladeshi boys who were grabbing any heavy objects at hand and using them as weapons. The blacks won and two Bangladeshi boys were hospitalised. One of them was 17-year-old Shabdiz who had no business to be on the premises. To me the fight was evidence that, contrary to what is often said, few Bangladeshi boys routinely carry knives for no one was stabbed, despite the fact that the anger and violence generated in the conflict were considerable. After the main antagonists had been separated I saw a six foot Sudanese boy whose whole body was contorted with fury because he had just had a ten foot scaffolding pole wrenched from him. Experienced staff were genuinely frightened both for their own safety and that of the boys—for the first time I heard one say: “Someone will get killed.”
The black boys’ dominance was much reduced after the spring of 1994, because the best fighters among them had been expelled following the battle I witnessed. Without them the Bangladeshi boys again became dominant at the club in the afternoons. In the evenings local white boys retained their predominance, although black boys also came. The only ethnically mixed group at the club was a group of girls. They gathered defiantly around the jukebox, in the face of jibes from boys. This group of girls, black and white (of various nationalities), and Indo-Chinese, about a dozen strong, bonded for protection against male chauvinism. There was no question of Bangladeshi girls mixing in because they simply did not come at all, except to girls-only events on Fridays, run by older Sylheti women.
in the spring of 1994 I was present at an interview with white parents who had come to the school to complain because their 14-year-old son, Richard, had been knocked to the ground and threatened by a large crowd of Bangladeshi boys. He was a big and sometimes clumsy boy and in a game of football he had wrongly, but as the result of a genuine error, made a late tackle on a Bangladeshi boy who had fallen and slightly hurt his hand. After the game, backed up by seven of his friends, this lad had confronted Richard in the playground, punching his face. Immediately the Bangladeshi boys in the vicinity encircled him and he had to be rescued by a teacher; he had not been badly hurt but he had been frightened. Moreover, the parents complained, this was not the first time such a thing had happened. A year earlier a mild argument in a classroom had led to a Bangladeshi boy pulling a knife on Richard.
The teacher listening to the parents’ complaint could only say that the school was very sorry, that it would try to ensure Richard’s safety, but that it could not guarantee his security between home and school. His parents said that if such an incident happened again they would send him elsewhere.
In the next summer holidays, on 13th August 1994, on a Saturday evening when he had gone out to buy chips, Richard was stabbed and killed after being chased by a group of Bangladeshi boys. How did it happen? Richard is known by everyone to have been innocent of racist violence or indeed of any anti-social behaviour (he was a rather slow, stolid lad whose main companions were younger boys, and his only real interest was repairing bicycles). The trouble that led to his death seems to have originated elsewhere in a quarrel between two older, streetwise groups of teenagers, one Bangladeshi and one mixed black and white, led by an Irish lad, X. The two groups had in the past had some business dealings over stolen property. But on this occasion the Bangladeshi group had stolen articles from cars and the other group had taken the goods from them without payment. Enraged at having been cheated (just as Tyke had been enraged with his uncle), the Bangladeshis called on their mates to seek revenge. Thus it was that a group of aggrieved Bangladeshi youths was cruising around Somers Town. They were looking for X, but willing to have a go at any isolated white boys. Two other white boys out on their own had earlier had to run for it.
The undoubted innocence of Richard made the local white community even more outraged at the killing and a great bank of flowers marked the spot where he had been found bleeding to death. The area was swamped with police, on foot, horse and even in helicopters, who imposed what was, in practice, a curfew, breaking up all groups of young white men on the streets in the evenings. The head of the youth club with his helpers was out for about ten days on the streets until 1 am, cajoling any boys who might be looking for trouble, telling them that they would certainly be caught and given prison sentences. Somers Town for weeks was a very unhappy place. Many parents, of all ethnic groups, were frightened to let their young children out and anxious about the activities of their older boys. Bangladeshi families scarcely went out, communicating with one another by telephone. Children themselves, both white and Bangladeshi, seemed terrified of ethnic strangers.
In the school year of 1994-95 there was virtually no confrontation between the Bangladeshis and the blacks. It was rumoured that “Yardies” visited the Bengali cultural centre and threatened the senior men there with dire retribution if they did not control their boys. Whether or not there was any such visitation to the centre, attitudes did change. On the one occasion when a black lad at the school was attacked by some of the younger Bangladeshi boys, the older boys intervened to stop it.
Peace had not, however, broken out. In the spring of 1995, a number of the local teenage white boys, removed by their parents from the Somers Town school, came home early from school one afternoon and joined up with some of the local roughs. At the end of the afternoon they gathered at the front of the school gesticulating; the headmaster shooed them away. They were then seen by Bangladeshi boys heading for the club. When lessons ended most teachers went off to a staff meeting while a crowd of Bangladeshi boys marched on the club.
One teacher did go over to warn the club and when he arrived 20 white boys were telling the club leader they had come “to take back our club.” They complained that they did not usually dare come in the afternoons when it was full of Bangladeshis. The club leader tried to reason with them, unsuccessfully. Suddenly he found he had about 40 Bangladeshis behind him. There was a stand-off while the two groups looked for objects to use in a fight—chairs, pool cues, all readily at hand. Fortunately, the teacher who had come over to deliver the warning was a new man, unknown to the white boys who feared he was a plain-clothes policeman, an idea that the club leader encouraged. In the breather the club leader managed to split them up and separate them into two adjacent rooms, and locked the doors between them. One young white boy was shut in with the Bangladeshis and, hysterical with fear, had to be physically shielded by the youth worker and teacher. To make matters worse a group of ten Chinese boys, strangers to the club (but probably summoned by mobile phone to come to the aid of the Bangladeshis, with whom they have drug-related links), arrived swinging small clubs and prepared to wade into the fray. Just in time police cars came rushing to the scene, their sirens sounding.
in somers town we have seen not only a place that has gone through dramatic change. We have also seen lives blighted in the process. Where are they now? Tyke, the delinquent, has disappeared from Somers Town; although he is still probably up to no good, he no longer fights Bangladeshis. Andrew has actually got himself a job. He is the van boy to a driver who goes around delivering newspapers. He has kept the job now for many months and it keeps him in the company of a driver who is a solid character. He is not yet a model citizen but he has disappeared from outside the school and is no longer involved in inter-ethnic fights. A change also appears to have come over the Bangladeshi boy, Haroun. He became a regular and helpful attender at the club. He also went away on a youth club weekend, and led a vote of thanks to the group of workers who had taken them—it is unheard of for any of the boys, whatever their background, to think of thanking anyone for anything. Haroun is now in the sixth form and just might make it to some form of higher education.
The majority of the boys of all races will suffer most from an inadequate education (and a youth culture hostile to education) that prevents them from aspiring to decent jobs. The Bangladeshi boys suffer less from racism than from the inadequate way in which English is taught. Their English often remains woeful because they are, essentially, expected to “pick it up”; they are not drilled in grammar, as they would be in Germany, and there is often no insistence that they should speak English at school. Inter-ethnic violence, sad and depressing though it is, carries less risk than that associated with drugs and drug-related crime. And for most of the boys, their greatest problem in life will be caused by the fact that they are fitted only for unskilled manual jobs in an economy in which these have become rare.
In Somers Town teenage fights have been an extremely emotive issue for the whole area, with adults extending sympathy and support to “their” boys. The obligation of people writing about such matters is less to take sides than to present so much accurate data that stereotypical judgements about particular events are no longer tenable. We must, of course, always take the side of the angels but they, I suspect, weep for the young men of every group.