Birmingham tries to defuse racial tensions after deaths
BIRMINGHAM, England |
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - At the scene where three young British Asian men were killed in Birmingham this week, some of their friends are standing in the road, collecting money for a memorial to the men whose deaths sparked fears of race riots in Britain's second city.
Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir, all British Pakistanis, were killed in the early hours of Wednesday during a wave of disorder and looting. The following evening, Tariq Jahan, Haroon's father, called for calm, as fears of retaliation rose when it emerged that the driver of the vehicle involved in the fatal hit-and-run incident in Winson Green was Afro-Caribbean.
Local leaders from both the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities in Birmingham have also sought to defuse racial tensions after the city was hit with the same kind of looting, arson and violence which has swept London and other British cities this week.
"If the racial tension level in Winson Green and Birmingham was 2/10 before the riots, and increased to 8/10, he (Tariq Jahan) certainly brought it back down to 3 or 4/10," said Councillor Waseem Zaffar for Lozells, Birchfield and Handsworth, neighbouring areas that have been hit by riots in recent decades.
Two hundred metres down the high street in Winson Green, an area to the west of the city centre, Alton Burnett, vice chair of the Afro-Caribbean Millennium community centre, is grabbing his dinner, in between interviews with TV broadcasters.
"This is not a racial issue," he stressed. "We'll be working with the Asian people ... to strengthen the good relationship we had before," he added, claiming that the media and right-wing groups had made statements to incite racial tension.
The most deprived areas of ethnically-mixed Birmingham have been on high alert over fears of reprisals from the Asian community, a minority of whom are claiming racial elements to the attacks.
"It has been suggested by people -- and I don't agree with this -- that it's black kids robbing the Asian shops. It's not the case," said Zaffar, who witnessed looting and riots on Soho Road in Handsworth on Monday evening.
"If ethnicity was the agenda they would have attacked every Asian shop. But they don't attack the chip shops or the butchers, they attacked the high value goods shops," he said, after speaking by phone to a local police inspector to find out what resources would be available to the area in the case of further disorder.
Another community member said that Asian youths would probably have been involved in the looting and rioting if it hadn't been for Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer.
"If it would have been any other time of year, I guarantee they (Asians) would have been there in the city centre, but their religion actually pulled them back," said Azkar Mohammed, co-founder of Birmingham-based charity Pioneers, a youth-mentoring project based in Winson Green.
At a candlelight vigil, Tariq Jahan issued a powerful plea for peace after the killing of his son Haroon, aged 21, earning praise from Prime Minister David Cameron.
"Blacks, Asians, whites, we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another?" Jahan said.
"Step forward if you want to lose your sons, otherwise calm down and go home, please," he said.
Councillor Zaffar said the words had a powerful impact on the community, after tension surged in the wake of the deaths, exacerbated by rumours that Asian people from across the country would descend on Birmingham to seek revenge.
"What he said really conveys what an average member of the community feels, that was the face of the United Kingdom," said Zaffar, who worked as a community organiser during riots in Lozells in 2005, sparked by racial tensions between black and Asian communities.
Police, who were criticised for their lack of presence at the start of the week, responded to local concerns and "wrote a blank cheque" in order to beef up policing on subsequent days, Mohammed said.
Dudley Road, the scene of the hit-and-run incident, was teeming with police officers and riot vans on Wednesday evening, while community organisers such as Zaffar walked the streets of Lozells until 2 a.m. alongside police officers in a bid to reassure the community and monitor tension.
"It has increased racial tension, it would be stupid for me to say it hasn't," he added. "(But) we got the message out to various groups that we don't want tension," he added, and confirmed on Friday that another evening had passed peacefully.
On the high street in Winson Green, an Afro-Caribbean grocery store had just reopened, opposite a Halal butchers, doors down from a Polish grocery shop and an Indian fabric shop.
"This area is very peaceful, it's like a family, everyone is mixed, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian. We've never had any problems," said Mohinder Singh Nasran, who runs a small hardware store on the edge of the high street in Winson Green.
At the Afro-Caribbean centre, Burnett said the communities would continue to work closely together. "We share this loss as one," he said.
(Reporting by Lorraine Turner, Editing by Rosalind Russell)
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