How racists forced storeholder to shut up shop

A storekeeper who has suffered up to 4,000 race attacks in 13 years has finally had enough. Ian Herbert visits the Ryelands esate in Lancaster to investigate the story of Mal Hussain
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The Independent Online

The Mini Market shop at the heart of the Ryelands housing estate in Lancaster is a symbol of the uncompromising nature of life in the neighbourhood.

The business looks more like an RUC station in Belfast in the worst days of the Troubles, wrapped in razor wire, and barricaded by grilles and steel shutters. On the shop counter, a collection box invites contributions for the four-year-old son of Clare Sabear Benson, who was missing for three weeks and was found strangled in a flat near her home on the estate 17 days ago.

Leaning against the counter are two boys, both under seven and bursting with a story of the latest police raid on their home. One jabs an index finger into the crook of his arm, indicating it was a drug squad raid.

Hours earlier, Mal Hussain, the shop owner says, a man in his 40s had walked in, made a purchase, racially abused him and walked out into the large, predominantly white estate.

It is the kind of everyday occurrence Mr Hussain, 48, says he has become used to since he and his partner, Linda Livingstone, 54, pooled their savings and moved to the historic city from Northampton in 1991 to be near her parents. In that time, they say, they have survived 4,000 attacks, including two shootings by unknown gunmen, stonings, death threats and six firebombings of their property while they were inside. Mr Hussain says: "There are cases still pending of people accused of crimes against our property."

During the 1990s, Craig Wareing, a notorious local racist, was jailed for five years for terrorising Mr Hussain. Now the couple's ordeal is drawing to an end. Mr Hussain, who followed his father to Britain from Pakistan in 1966, is planning to leave. No one will discuss the terms of their departure but some people in Lancaster suggest a deal is being made, with Lancashire police and Lancaster City Council, so they can afford to leave the city.

The council is believed to have made an offer for the shop years ago, but negotiations failed. "We might have been able to sell it if it weren't for all the security," Mr Hussain says.

His 12-year torment began with his first customer in 1991. He says a man walked in and said: "Get out of your chair, you fucking black monkey, and give me 20 cigarettes." The same week, two people, one claiming to be "King of Ryelands", demanded extortion money. A now infamous catalogue of abuse, which has made Mr Hussain a cause célèbre with the racial equality movement, included a Bonfire Night (or Mischief Night, as people round here call it) when a petrol-soaked mattress blocked the shop door.

At a court action in March 1996, the defence solicitor for an individual who is alleged to have been harassing Mr Hussain, said: "If one is abused occasionally, one can take offence, but if one is abused for four to five years, one becomes immune to it; it is like water off a duck's back."

The abuse led a group of local anti-racists, the Churches' Commission for Racial Justice and the National Assembly Against Racism to establish the Friends of Mal Hussain, with the aim to campaign for a better life for the couple.

Linda Livingstone believes this vicious brand of intolerance belongs to northern England. "I'm white, Mal's brown, and that mixture here, on our estate, has spelt hate," she says. "We are a rarity, and it is not liked."

In Luton and Rugby, where Mr Hussain grew up, life was different. "Those are places with a great ethnic mix, where a white woman on an immigrant's arm is not a remarkable sight."

Pat and Tony Pearson, another mixed-race couple in the area, had similar experiences. One bedroom window in Mrs Pearson's home, her daughter's, was smashed so often the glass has been replaced by shatterproof plastic.

Attitudes vary when people get talking on Ryelands, a sprawl of 500 grey semis above the river Lune, built in the 1930s on land once owned by a wealthy industrialist. Opposite the Mini Market, Frank Emsley stands near a front door draped with a Union flag. "I've nothing against foreigners but they have to play by our rules," he says.

Even a local councillor, Jean Horner, does not seem too ethnically enlightened. "It's a case of least said, soonest mended with Mal. Other coloureds seem to have managed to make a success of shops in this area without any of these problems."

Though the city has never embraced far-right politics, last year the extreme England First party won 12 per cent of the vote at a by-election in nearby Heysham.

Some in the area believe Mr Hussain has an "attitude problem", and his complaints are part of a plot to persuade the council to buy his shop. One woman, in her forties, says: "I've always said other black people didn't seem to have the same trouble. They just got on with things."

Another woman, 23, said: "It's brought a lot of shame on this neighbourhood. Some people seem unable to live with anything or anyone that doesn't seem familiar. Good luck to him, I say. If he can get out then he deserves it. I've seen many people give him abuse over the years."

There is also a view that Mr Hussain tends to disagree eventually with many of the groups or individuals he has met, even those who support his cause and suggest most complaints to police about racial abuse in the area come from him.

"You have to be ever so careful what you say or he'll be accusing you of something," says one observer who has been at the heart of Lancaster life for years.

Lancaster remains a formidably mono-cultural place, with a Gujarati-speaking Muslim group making up 2.2 per cent of the 134,000 population. When Mr Hussain arrived he experienced "racial intolerance and harassment of a particularly nasty degree," concedes Ian Barker, the city council leader.

"This is the most deprived estate in Lancaster by a long chalk, and the agencies were slow to get to grip with the trouble," Mr Barker adds. "There is a consciousness in the city of the bad publicity the [Hussain] case has brought. That has helped in a way. I don't think we are a particularly intolerant place now."

For his own part, Mr Hussain says that suggesting harassment is a by-product of the kind of families on the estate is just an easy away of denying racism exists. Judging by the sales particulars for the Mini Market, it might well sell. There are weekly takings of between £4,000 and £6,800, with an average 25 per cent mark-up on wholesale. "All in all, this is a very sound business," the agent says.

But the proprietor's troubles may continue to the end of his tenure. The local Lancaster Guardian reports a police warning that people in Ryelands should be on alert for Craig Wareing, the convicted racist and the only adult jailed for attacks on Mr Hussain. He finished his five-year term and has just been freed from a 30-day sentence for breaching an order banning him from entering Lancaster. Police believe he may do so again.

The extortion, the shootings, the arson and the death threats

By Emily Mackay

June 1991

Mal Hussein and his partner buy the mini-market on the Ryelands estate, Lancaster. One man greets him with: "Get out of your chair, you fucking black monkey, and give me 20 cigarettes." Later, two people demand protection money of £100 a week. Mr Hussein refuses.

October

Mr Hussein smells burning and finds a scorched petrol can next to his garage door.

4 November

A petrol-soaked mattress is pushed through his door. He is kept awake by chants of, "Burn the Paki cunt".

5 November

The men who demanded protection money confront Mr Hussein with knives. He defends himself but is arrested on four counts of grievous bodily harm.

September 1992

People outside the shop chant: "If you want the Paki out, clap your hands", and, "If you want to kill a Paki, stamp your feet".

20 November

Mr Hussein is acquitted of all charges in court. The same day, a van stops outside his shop, men shout: "Fucking Pakis, burn them all."

26 November

Nine men chant, "You black bastard" outside his shop.

June 1993

Mr Hussein is attacked by a gang. He has to wear a sling and collar and cannot work.

July

Mr Hussein is attacked by a mob while walking his dog.

November

Mr Hussein is shot at. Police fail to conduct forensic tests and no arrests are made.

2 November 1994: Fireworks thrown into shop.

4 November

Mr Hussein suffers stone-throwing, racist abuse, death threats, and attempted arson.

July 1995

Lancaster City Council gets Whitehall permission to buy the shop. They offer only the "bricks and mortar" value, less than the couple paid.

4 November

A BBC camera crew inside the shop films a petrol bomb attack. No one is prosecuted.

December

Mr Hussein complains about a police officer who failed to investigate a claim of racial abuse. He also issues a writ against Lancaster City Council for failing to protect him and his partner.

January 1996

Lancaster City Council installs two video cameras at the shop, but they have no sound facility.

May

The cameras record an attack on the shop.

September

Jack Straw, as shadow Home Secretary, gets a letter about Mr Hussein's case. Mr Straw replies: "Such problems are being taken seriously by Labour."

October

Lancaster City Council fits two cameras with sound.

5 November

Eight people are sentenced to a total of 34 years for abusing and harassing Mr Hussein.

10 November

A man is jailed for five years for harassing Mr Hussein.

April 1997

Mr Hussein is confronted by 15 youths shouting racial abuse and hurling bricks. Despite video evidence, police tell Mr Hussein there is insufficient evidence.

April

Mr Hussein is racially abused and stoned. No arrests.

July

Mr Hussein's legal action against Lancaster City Council alleging negligence and nuisance is heard at the High Court in London. The case is dismissed.

July

Nine people are convicted of crimes related to the petrol-bombing of the shop.

October

Judge Wolton QC, in the High Court, decides Mr Hussein's civil action against Lancaster City Council should go ahead.

September-October

Mr Hussein addresses a fringe meeting organised by the National Assembly Against Racism at the Labour Party conference.

24 March 1998

The High Court upholds the Lancaster City Council appeal. Mr Hussein goes to the Court of Appeal.

14 May

The Court of Appeal rejects Mr Hussein's action. He is refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

December

Lancashire police promise an operational review.

1 March 1999

Lancashire police chief orders an internal inquiry into police action between 1991 and 1999. Mr Hussein gets an apology for "serious shortcomings" in the way his case was handled.

24 March

A man tries to stab Mr Hussein. Police make an immediate arrest.

November

The 1990 Trust, an anti-racist organisation, launches a campaign to buy the shop and enable the couple to move out.

4 August 2000

The Lancaster Guardian prints an article, 'Put a sock in it Mal', which Mr Hussein claims increases attacks.

31 August - 7 September 2001

Mr Hussein addresses the World Conference against Racism in Durban.

13 November 2002

The National Assembly Against Racism calls for a public inquiry into Mr Hussein's case.

February 2003

BBC News reports that Mr Hussein has begun civil proceedings against Lancashire Constabulary.