Somers Town: where lessons go unlearnt

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The Independent Online
'BLACK AND White Unite and Fight' read the posters newly pasted up along Drummond Street. An Asian youth eyes them with a mixture of suspicion and venom. 'Unite to fight against the Asians, probably,' he says. It's a telling insight into the fear felt by the Asian community in this part of north London.

Drummond Street is about a quarter of a mile from the spot near St Pancras Station where the white teenager Richard Everitt was stabbed to death last Saturday night by a group of Asian youths. Yesterday police revealed that the same gang had attacked another white youth with a knife minutes earlier. He ran off, with one of the gang trying to stab him in the back as he fled.

The tensions aroused by the two attacks is apparent in Drummond Street, the heart of the local Bangladeshi community. Gangs of white youths, sometimes 20-strong, have been roaming nearby neighbourhoods since the killing last week. Usually Asian shopkeepers stand in their doorways and youngsters hang around street corners in the evenings. This past week, however, the only people left by nightfall are the police and groups of white youths. According to Mukith Miah, a youth worker, 'the situation is very tense'.

Since 15-year-old Everitt was killed, a halal butcher's shop has been fire-bombed, an Asian family has been attacked by a white gang and there have been reports of white people making threats at knifepoint. Everitt's parents have, with the police and community leaders, appealed for calm.

Although the attacks of the past few days might be seen as 'tit-for-tat' retaliation for Everitt's killing, similar incidents have been happening for years. A local solicitor, Abdul Kepadia, says that 'the press has seized on an isolated incident in Everitt's murder and blown it out of all proportion, ignoring the real story of the area'.

The area where Everitt was killed is Somers Town, a decaying slice of inner city close to Euston Station. It has the second largest Bangladeshi community in London.

Yet it would be wrong to think of it as a ghetto. Bangladeshis comprise less than 3 per cent of the borough's population. Far from feeling that they dominate the area, most Bangladeshis feel isolated and trapped.

Many come from poor backgrounds, and unemployment among Bangladeshi men is 36 per cent - more than three times the national average. They have large families and suffer three times the level of overcrowding of other minority groups.

In Somers Town, as elsewhere in London, Bangladeshis live in the oldest and most rundown housing. Many white families were moved out to newer estates. Those white residents who remained, trapped by poverty and unemployment, have turned their anger towards their black neighbours. 'This area was lovely until the Pakis started coming in,' one white woman commented last week.

Polarisation of the community is particularly noticeable among its youth. At one end of Robert Street stands the Sumra community centre, which is exclusively used by Asians. A few yards away stands the Samuel Lithgow centre, which is white. Local schools such as Quinton Kynaston, and South Camden Community School at which Everitt was a pupil, have become battlegrounds, as Asian pupils are spat at, abused and often assaulted.

Inevitably, this violence has spilled over on to the streets and the estates. Last October a 25-strong gang of white youths rampaged through the Regent's Park Estate assaulting Bengalis. A petrol bomb was thrown into the flat of a Bangladeshi family. A crate of eight petrol bombs was later discovered behind the library in Robert Street.

Young Bangladeshis refuse to accept such assaults in the way their parents may have done. 'My parents had to put up with being called Paki and being treated like dirt,' says Abdul Rehman. 'But why should I? I belong here just like the white kids and I will fight just like them.'

Many Asians feel that the police show little concern about racist attacks but come down hard against Bengalis acting in self-defence.

These tensions between police and the Asian community rose dramatically to the surface during the case of the Drummond Street Four in April 1992, when five white youths armed with knuckledusters and hammers rampaged through the Drummond Street area assaulting Asian residents. Despite calls to the police, no officers turned up for 40 minutes. Eventually the white men were cornered by a dozen Asian youths armed with knives, iron bars and sticks. One white man, Robert Faulds, was beaten, stabbed, kicked and punched.

Charges against the white gang were dropped. Four Asians, however, were charged with violent disorder and causing an affray. They were finally cleared after a jury accepted their plea of self-defence.

The Bangladeshi community had been incensed by the case of the Drummond Street Four. As Abdul Kapadia, who defended the Four, observes, the case seemed to show how the police 'are determined to criminalise the black community'.

Such incidents have polarised relations between young Asians and the police. Asian youths conclude that it is up to them to protect their own community.

What many now fear is that the real lessons of Richard Everitt's tragic death will be ignored. The murder was not simply the product of aimless gang warfare. It was the product of a polarised and deprived community. If they are not learnt, then Richard Everitt's killing may not be the last.

(Photograph omitted)