After The Verdict

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The harsh neon lights were on in the Samuel Lithgow youth club but the room was deserted, the single snooker table abandoned halfway through a game. Taped to the front door was a notice that the club was closed until Monday. At the door, a young black man was trying to mollify a group of white girls in their early teens.

"You can't come in. We're closed. Because of the verdict."

"You were closed last night."

"We're closed until Monday. Because of the verdict."

"Why?"

"Because of the verdict."

"What's a verdict?" asked one of the girls. Everyone ignored her. Everyone else knew. The verdict was the life sentence passed earlier in the week on Badrul Miah, a 20-year-old Asian found guilty of the murder of Richard Everitt, a 15-year-old white youth. Everitt was killed with a single stab wound in an attack by a gang of Asian youths in the Somers Town area between Euston and King's Cross stations in north London in August 1994. Miah, the court decided, had not wielded the knife but was one of the ringleaders. Everitt's blood was found on his shoes. Miah is to appeal.

"It's our club," said one of the girls. "You can't keep us out."

"The management committee has decided to close it," the youth leader said. "We don't want any trouble."

"So you think it's safer for us on the streets?"

"You could go home."

"Why should we? They're our streets."

The girls were lippy, disgruntled. Their language was aggressive and acquisitive. They spoke of rights, not of responsibilities.

Some time later, I met them wandering the street on the borderline between the white and Bengali areas. The two communities live cheek by jowl in this dense inner-city area, but maintain their separateness by attending, in the main, different schools and separate youth clubs. Were there any Bengalis in their club?

"No chance. We have whites and blacks. But no Asians." None at all? "We did have three, a while back. They live in that block there," one said, pointing to one of the Regent's Park Estate towers. "But they don't come now."

What were they like? "They were all right. Some of the boys used to talk to them. But they don't come now."

They began to talk about what had changed, of the rising racial tensions in the area. Very studiedly, they talked of Asians and Indians. "Pakis" slipped out only once, though it was clearly on the tip of their tongues throughout. "One white boy was badly beaten up by eight of them last night in Drummond Street." No matter that the logbook of the police - who are currently watching the area like hawks - records no such incident. Myths become realities by repetition.

In any case, the realities are bad enough. There were 136 "racial incidents" recorded by the police in the area last year. This year, there have been 362 in the first 10 months. There has been a real rise in tension both before, and most especially - once the months of eerie stillness passed - after, Richard Everitt's death. Almost half of the incidents in the Somers Town and Regent's Park wards involve confrontations between groups of youths, a dozen or so of which have resulted in broken bones or wounds.

"Don't get the wrong idea. It's not West Side Story," insists the local police commander, Chief Superintendent Linda Newham, who eschews the word "gangs" and talks of "groups of youths". In part, the increase in incidents reflects an increase in reporting - because of the heightened sensitivity among the two communities and because police have appointed a "racial incidents officer" who logs under this heading everything from serious assaults to racist insults shouted across the street.

While the white girls sulked and postured in Stanhope Street, groups of Bengali youths gathered and struck poses at their regular meeting place near St James's Gardens. "The verdict stinks," said one. "It is impossible for an Asian to get a fair trial in this country."

"Our parents have taken everything lying down for years," said another, "but we were born here and we won't put up with that. We will fight back."

But most of the community takes a more sanguine view. "These are bad boys," said one middle-aged Asian as he left the Shah Jalal Masjid E Noor mosque in Starcross Street after evening prayers. "But they will grow up."

Anxiety rather than alarm is what characterises the mood among both communities. "The problems are those of almost any inner city," says Barbara Hughes, a former borough councillor and currently a governor of two local schools. Aged 64, she has lived in the area all her life. She speaks of a familiar cocktail of poverty, poor housing and unemployment - 40 per cent among the area's males, and higher among Bengalis than whites. Her fear is more of the drug dealers who have twice tried to move into the area than of large-scale racial gang warfare. "Local people keep asking where are all the gangs they keep reading about in the newspapers. The truth is that it is no worse than when I was a child, when the Kentish Town boys used to go out looking for a scrap with the Holborn boys."

Certainly, it is possible to walk through the streets of Somers Town - during the day, early evening and even late at night - without feeling any sense of menace. As everywhere in the inner city, there is graffiti and the shop fronts are protected at night by grids or shutters. But there are elegant Georgian houses amid the low-rise blocks of flats. And if the cheap bills of fare in the pubs reveals that the local people are on low incomes, the houses look well cared for and the streets are clean. There are far more notices advertising the AGM of the Somers Town Area Committee than there are posters by the Socialist Workers Party (the extreme right has also made few inroads, despite several attempts, local people relate).

Nor does South Camden Community School, which Richard Everitt attended, look run down. The place was this week the subject of attention by the Sun, which had bought up the rights to interview the murdered boy's parents for, local reports had it, a mere pounds 5,000. (No Wapping kiss-and-tell-sized payments needed here. The couple has since moved away and now live in Essex). According to the newspaper's caricature, this is "the most violent school in Britain ... a hotbed of extremism ... [where] race hatred was allowed to boil over". Police vans are stationed outside every afternoon, it claimed, in a report replete with quotes from the headmaster, Huw Salisbury.

There were none there this week when I visited. The head, who in passing revealed that he never spoke to anyone from the Sun, paints rather a different picture, as do members of its governing board and parents. The school has 730 children - 56 per cent are Bengali, 18 per cent African (mainly from Somalia and Eritrea) and 14 per cent white. Its pupils have 30 different mother tongues. "Over the past two years, the situation has ebbed and flowed but there have been long periods of calmness," says Mr Salisbury. "If there is tension within the community, it is reflected within the school. By and large, the school is effective at dissipating those tensions."

Earlier this year there were a number of incidents in which half a dozen white racists, who had been expelled or suspended from other schools in the borough, began to hang around the school in the hope of causing trouble. The head informed the police, who increased regular patrols.

"It's not a violent school," says Mr Salisbury. "As in any inner-city school, there can be confrontations among pupils, but it is fisticuffs rather than violence." The incident complained of by Richard Everitt's parents in the Sun (in which a knife was "jabbed" at the boy in the school canteen) was "one incident blown out of proportion".

The school is only one of a number of organisations engaged in the long, slow process of trying to build a sense of community from the area's disparate groups. It is a task that is not new to Somers Town. Ever since it was built as a garden suburb in the 1790s and became populated by painters and writers, it has been a home to refugees from foreign oppression - Huguenot, Spanish, Hungarian and Polish - and later immigrants from Ireland who built the railway termini and yards. In the Twenties, it underwent a remarkable programme of social renewal thanks to Fr Basil Jellicoe, who founded the St Pancras Housing Association which, together with the local council, still owns most of the tenement flats and houses.

The attempt to build a contemporary sense of community is centred on the Somers Town Area Partnership. Tenants' groups, voluntary organisations, religious elders, community groups, the police and the council now work together.

"Since the death of Richard Everitt, there has been an increased commitment to the process," says Sandra Machado, programme co-ordinator of the Hopscotch Bengali Women's Centre, which teaches English, maths and computer skills to Bengali women each day. "We are trying to increase awareness of each community in the other. We are bringing people together for certain activities. We will be holding joint parties at Christmas and at Eid.

"That might sound insignificant - having parties and teaching women to speak English - but we are trying to develop a sense of belonging which comes, not just from living somewhere, but by feeling engaged. Enabling a woman to be able to say hello to her neighbour is a first step."

There is no false optimism in all this. Nurul Islam, chair of the Bengali Workers Action Group which runs the Surmur Community Centre for Asians just down the road from the Samuel Lithgow club speaks of the real problems ahead. "The Bengali community was shocked by the murder of Richard Everitt and all agreed that the culprit should be punished. But people are also shocked by the verdict - they feel it is unfair that he got life," he says.

They compare it with the lighter sentences on white youths convicted of serious assaults and the attempted murder of Bengalis. "But we respect the law and will work with it, and in organisations like the Somers Town Area Partnership, to build bridges in the community and build respect for each other's religion and culture. In the end, I am optimistic that we will succeed."

The alternative, he and all the others know, is too unpleasant to contemplate.

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