Black and white unite in grief: As a racially mixed group protests at the killing of a black teenager in south-east London, Cal McCrystal finds an area keen to rebut its reputation

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The Independent Online
SOUTH-EAST London turned two faces to the outside world last week. In Thamesmead, Dave Douglas, chairman of the local community association, pointed to a lake where children paddled yellow canoes in morning sunshine, and asked: 'Do you see any racial violence here?' Thamesmead is 25 years old, created by the old Greater London Council as a working-class Utopia on reclaimed marshland between Woolwich and Erith.

A mile south, in Plumstead, the suburban idyll vanished. Most of the houses were older, built around the time of the First World War for the workers in Woolwich Arsenal. Unemployment in these parts has now reached 60 per cent. There, outside the home of a black couple, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, a racially mixed crowd, carrying wreaths and placards, set off on a short march to Eltham where the Lawrences' 18-year-old son, Stephen, was killed by a white gang a week earlier.

Eltham is only one-and-a-half miles from Plumstead. Many of the neater houses were also built for munitions workers. Behind ruched window curtains, pale faces watched the Plumstead crowd arriving at the bus stop where Stephen Lawrence fell, two of his arteries severed by a knife.

Stephen was the fourth black or Asian killed in suspected racial attacks in the area over the past two years. Last year, according to the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks, 241 racial incidents were reported (not all of them violent). This year the figure is already 194, including three involving firearms, and 21 knives. In Plumstead, police have set up a 'racial incidents' room.

Ben White, of the action committee, says there is 'a trend towards more violence' across south-east London. In one of two knife attacks in Woolwich, the victim needed 14 stitches after being slashed across the face with a Stanley knife. The second was lucky to survive being stabbed in the back, head, arm and stomach.

In Plumstead, another victim was chased by white youths who blinded him with a chemical and cut his face. A female victim had holes burnt in her car with a blowtorch, the brakes were tampered with, and dangerous chemicals were poured on her garden. Also in Plumstead, a woman was shot at with an air-rifle and later threatened by the gunman for daring to report the incident to the police.

In Charlton, a black family was threatened, over the garden fence, by a white neighbour armed with an airgun. In Thamesmead, a gang called on a pregnant black woman, waved a revolver and told her she was not wanted there. Mr White estimates that 80 per cent of the attacks are by white teenagers.

Thamesmead (population 40,000) has a reputation for violence. In February 1991, a 16-year- old black youth, Rolan Adams, was murdered, but the community association is desperate to salvage what it can of the district's reputation.

It is certainly no Utopia. It has streets named after Dickensian characters, a golf course, woodland, and a few neighbourhoods in charming contrast to Stalinesque blocks of flats. Since the GLC was abolished in 1986, it has been administered by a non-profit-making company. But hemmed in by a railway track on the south, a muddy Thames on the north, a vast sewage works on the east and wasteland on the west, it overlaps two boroughs (Greenwich and Bexley), has 40 per cent unemployment, no dry cleaners, no restaurant and no bank.

If Mr Douglas, an amiable Scotsman, is to be believed, it has 'no race problem' either. 'In the community club, a big West Indian comes up to me, slaps me on the back and says, 'Peace and love, brother]' We're well integrated. Most of the trouble I have to deal with is between noisy neighbours.' Thamesmead last year accounted for only 6.2 per cent of the racist incidents.

Mr Douglas, an unemployed British Telecom worker, read out two local newspaper headlines, 'Vigil For Race-hate Victim, Killed Just For Being Black' (Bexleyheath and Welling Mercury), and 'Racist Murder Fury Rises, Police Voice Fears of Black Backlash' (The News-Shopper). 'I'm really worried by the hype,' he said. 'If our young people are reading this it'll set them wild.'

Last week a visit to Thamesmead yielded hours of something close to serenity. But at the Eltham wreath-laying, the picture was less comforting.

'The neo-Nazis are losing their argument and resorting to racial terror,' said Stephen Forbes, an unemployed black from New Cross. 'We'll have to defend ourselves by using physical violence.' Barry Philips, a black engineer whose daughter was a classmate of Stephen Lawrence's, agreed: 'We may have to take things into our own hands.'

Mr Philips, mild and middle-

class, acknowledges that his white neighbours 'are extremely sad and angry' about Stephen Lawrence's death, as they were about a 16-year-old Asian youth knifed to death in the same road last July (though it is not certain that racism was the motive). 'Some whites don't want to say they're from Eltham; they don't want to be associated with such a cowardly act,' he said.

Mike Leader, deputy head of Stephen Lawrence's school (Blackheath Bluecoat), thought the black community perceived a genuinely serious problem. 'Aside from the murders, there have been several other unprovoked attacks which have left us all stunned,' he said.

Hours later, a senior police officer told BBC Television that if he were the parent of a black teenager in the area he, too, would worry for his safety; although the police were doing their best, they could not guarantee that young black people would go unmolested.

While Greenwich borough council backs Ben White's monitoring organisation, Bexley council is accused of being less sympathetic. The town of Welling, in Bexley borough, is the headquarters of the British National Party (BNP), whose stickers may be seen on lampposts all over south- east London. Mr White thinks Bexley's reluctance to close it down could be construed as 'sympathy for neo-fascist demagogues and rightist thugs'.

Peter Bottomley, Eltham's Tory MP, sees racial violence as a patchy development: a 'significant increase' in Plumstead, and a 'dramatic improvement' in Eltham. But he does think that the white community should recognise that the violence is carried out by whites on blacks and act accordingly. He quoted a slogan, 'Lose a knife, not a life', adding: 'I don't think schools and parents do enough.'

On the day flowers were placed at the Eltham bus stop, I saw a man brooding over the proceedings from a garden wall across the road. He looked an archetype of the BNP: shaven head, small eyes, big belly, tattoos. Was this the real face of south-east London? I crossed the road. The man said: 'It's wicked what happened to that young bloke. There's a feeling of disgust everywhere you go. But I don't think we're becoming more racist. Blacks and whites are mixing more than when I was at school 20 years ago. They grow up with each other more.'

(Photograph omitted)