Hugh Muir and Riazat Butt, Guardian (London), Oct. 24
It began as a whisper, an inflammatory rumour that gained horror and currency each time it was told. It was said that after being caught shoplifting, a girl of 13 or 14 had pleaded for leniency, but had been raped by between three and 25 Pakistani men in a suburban beauty store.
When the attack was supposed to have happened was never clear. And the police, it was said, were never called because the girl was a Jamaican who feared that she would be deported.
By yesterday, six days after the rumour was given even wider circulation by a DJ on a pirate radio station, it was being blamed for much of Saturday night’s rioting in Birmingham which left one man dead and up to 35 others needing hospital treatment.
During the disturbances, shops were attacked, cars set on fire and hundreds of police in riot gear were confronted with bricks and bottles. Four people were stabbed, including a 23-year-old black man who later died in hospital. A police officer was shot in the leg with a ball-bearing gun, one of 12 gunshot incidents.
Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw, from West Midlands police, described the violence as “entirely unacceptable”. His officers said between 30 and 50 people were responsible for 80 offences in 75 minutes of clashes, which began when, according to police, “outsiders” tried to barge into a church during a briefing meeting for the African-Caribbean community.
There is still no evidence that the girl exists or that the attack took place. Police forensic checks on the scene of the alleged crime have failed to yield results and the owner staunchly denies any wrongdoing.
Yesterday, as police and community leaders appealed for calm, officers sought more information about the alleged assault that brought violence and disorder back to the Lozells area scarred by the Handsworth riots 20 years ago.
They disclosed that last week, when disquiet among the African-Caribbean community was at its height, a woman in her 30s also claimed that she had been indecently assaulted four months ago at a “similar premises”. Five men have since been arrested and bailed in connection with that allegation.
In the aftermath of the weekend’s violence, one activist yesterday claimed that Handsworth was “on the cusp of a race war”, an allegation quickly dismissed by most. But questions are being asked about the state of relations between Birmingham’s African-Caribbeans and Pakistanis and why so much violence erupted on the basis of an unsupported allegation.
Warren G, the DJ who aired the allegation on his radio talkshow and then staged a demonstration outside the store where the rape was rumoured to have occurred, told the Guardian he had merely sought to highlight a community concern. “I demonstrated because I firmly believe that something happened,” he said. “I have no proof and no facts, but I believe there are witnesses out there. They know who they are. The violence didn’t have anything to do with my demonstration.” He said he had never claimed to have any facts about the alleged assault.
“I said that I had heard that it happened. It has been a big talking point in the community for a little while. The people involved in the violence have their own agenda.”
Maxie Hayles, chairman of the Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Group, said the belief that an attack had taken place was widespread. “Ninety nine and three-quarter percent of the Afro-Caribbean community believe it took place and that is why passions are running so high. We believe the person involved has been traumatised and we are told it is not the first time that it has happened. We as community leaders are trying to calm the situation, but it is not easy.”
The rape allegation appears to have crystallised the growing ill feeling between certain sections of both communities. Since the Handsworth riots, the Lozells area has changed. Many white and more affluent African-Caribbean residents have moved out. In the meantime, the Pakistani community has put down roots and built itself an economic base.
On the Lozells Road there are Pakistani-owned bookshops, cash and carry groceries and jewellery stores. As well as catering for their own community, they sell foodstuffs and cosmetics favoured by the African-Caribbean community. That rankles with some of the local African-Caribbean traders, who see their customer base eroded.
Mohammed Saleem, of the Birchfield Traders Association, said Pakistani shopkeepers had closed their shops for an hour on Saturday afternoon as a mark of respect. “We put out a statement making it clear that if it [the rape] happened, we condemn it wholeheartedly, but you have to go by the evidence. We think the protests are basically an economic thing to stop people trading with the Asians.”
Another Pakistani trader, who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals, said: “Four days ago black boys stood outside my shop. They had rocks and they were telling me to close the shutters. They were using abusive language. All the black community leaders did was to arrange another protest. They went to the church and afterwards youths were throwing stones, breaking windows and attacking the local mosque. Then some Asian kids came to protect the mosque, but were driven away by the police.”
He added: “Black people say that we have taken all their businesses. They say we are taking over, including the African shops that sell beauty products to black people. These used to be run by black people, now they’re run by Pakistanis. They want to shut us down.”
A British-born Pakistani Muslim who runs a decorating shop on Lozells Road, said the violence could have been worse. “In Aston, which is about half a mile away, around 300 Asian lads were ready to come to Lozells, but the police stopped them from coming down here.”
He said the violence was terrifying. “We just saw black youths running up and down the road, smashing things up and kicking things over. You can smash up as many shops as you like and people will put up with it, but when you start attacking a mosque, people aren’t going to tolerate that.
“There are about 300 Muslims waiting for orders, but the imam stopped them from doing anything.”
Maxie Hayles said the problem transcends economics. “Afro-Caribbeans have been spending money in Asian shops for many years now, but they don’t give them enough respect. They don’t employ black people in their shops and it is about the way they treat their customers. The way they look at them.”
Dr Frank Reeves, chief executive of Race Equality West Midlands, said both groups were “severely disadvantaged and in competition with each other for jobs and other opportunities.” Amid the confusions and all the accusations, he said, the wider causes stand out. “It’s about anger, discontent and jealously.”
How it started
Rape rumour reaches journalists who seek guidance from police.
DJ Warren G airs allegation on pirate radio station. Community protest occurs at scene of alleged crime. Leaflets handed out.
Rally at shop at midday.
Violence erupts outside a church community meeting.
Police called out after two men stabbed. One man dies.
A man is stabbed at Farcroft Hotel, Rookery Road.
In nearby Oxhill Road, reports of a man being shot and another being stabbed at Uplands pub.
Police officer shot in thigh by ball bearing fired from gun.