'Copycat' disorders with different causes: As rioters clashed with police on the streets of Burnley, Blackburn and Bristol, 30 years of social breakdown found expression in violence

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST Burnley 'rioter' arrested last week told magistrates he threw bricks at the police 'because that's what everybody else was doing'.

As inquiries begin into six violent nights in Burnley and Blackburn, which led to nearly 200 arrests, a general version of this 16-year-old's account has become the widely-held, if simplistic, view of the disorders. They were, it is said, 'copycat' disturbances - as if the upheavals in both east Lancashire towns were somehow less serious for being imitative.

Early yesterday, around the perimeter of the Brookhouse district of Blackburn, a newsagent's shop was set on fire and police dispersed small groups of white youths attempting to join a confrontation between the town's ethnic minorities.

A glance at the baseball-cap fashion affected by young men and women involved in the violence confirms the power of imitation. Examine the backgrounds of these young people, hanging around at dusk in loose-limbed ennui, and their lack of education, their latent violence and alienation could also be described as 'copycat'. In most cases, they are following patterns set by parents or older siblings. Money has been invested in housing estates such as The Stoops in Burnley, but a thread of violent insolence runs through the community.

Most residents deplored the events of last week, and the images of their despair were all the starker in the police searchlights on darkened streets: a gentle Indian woman confronted by a cordon of riot police, a mother evacuating her children in their pyjamas, a quiet couple whose house with its collection of toby jugs was invaded by policemen who smashed down the door.

But police forces other than Lancashire's might have made more enemies with more boisterous tactics. 'They did a good job in a very bad situation,' said Rafique Malik, director of Blackburn Racial Equality Council.

The Blackburn disturbances are quite different from those in Burnley. Young Indians burned Khan's Cafe on Wednesday in exasperation at three years of alleged theft, intimidation and corruption organised by Pakistanis who used the cafe as their base.

The Pakistanis fought back. Khan's Cafe gave them a commanding position geographically, if not socially or economically.

The Indian men who poured down the steep terraced streets had little in common with the Burnley petrol-bombers: they were well-educated, ambitious, and in many cases, relatively affluent. They like their neighbourhood; which was why, they said, they decided to take their own measures.

There are deep prejudices between Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muslims in Blackburn. For every immigrant father anxious to play down contempt rooted in the sub-continent, there is a Lancashire-born son rewriting historic enmity in cotton-town idioms. 'They are the scum of the earth,' a young Indian said of Pakistanis. 'They are arrogant and bent,' a Pakistani said.

An older Pakistani man claimed that the trouble would never have happened if police had dealt with burglaries, harassment of women and illegal gambling. Over at The Stoops estate in Burnley, a young woman shrieked at the police: 'Where were you when my car was vandalised?'

At the height of the Burnley disturbances, a pre-arranged meeting of the police and community forum heard familiar complaints - an absentee police force, slow response times, attacks on officers, prisoners in cells, and limited funds.

'A mindless criminal minority,' a chief inspector said later of those who petrol-bombed his officers. But the youths found authority's condemnation hilarious, a virtual vindication of their attempts to be ungovernable.

'If we're so stupid, how come they can't catch us?' one boy asked amid the crackle of glass, fire, and flashing blue light.

(Photograph omitted)