Bulls in Brixton's china shop

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Brixton does not need people like Rudy Narayan. It is a sensitive place where much time, effort and money has gone into healing the wounds of past disturbances and injustice. There are still a few people, as Wednesday night's riot demonstrated, who are easily encouraged to lay waste a neighbourhood that already has enough problems.

In this situation, Mr Narayan and his ilk are a menace. Obsessed with an ideological-driven, two-dimensional view of the world that ranges black against white, authority against citizen, they seem unconcerned about the consequences of arousing hatred.

"The Brixton police are killers," Mr Narayan announced to the crowd on Wednesday. Here was a qualified lawyer, a champion of civil rights, acting as judge and jury on a case about which the facts have yet to be established fully. He also took it upon himself to deliver the sentence. The police, he said, "will not understand what they have done until one of them has been killed".

This type of language is all the excuse that a tiny minority needed to justify looting and rampaging through Brixton. The attack on PC John Tisshaw, knocked off his motorcycle by a gang, might easily have led to his death.

This violence has served to obscure the genuine and justified unease about the case of Wayne Douglas, a black man who died last week in police custody in Brixton. His death requires an independent investigation. Local people are rightly suspicious of a police station in which many of them have little confidence. And their frustration is understandable: the death of Mr Douglas did not occupy many column inches until the riot propelled it into the national consciousness.

So where does this leave us? Are we back to the days of April 1981, when there were several nights of rioting involving hundreds of people and Lord Scarman was despatched to investigate?

"No" is the short answer. Brixton has changed considerably. The Scarman report, written after the riots of the Eighties, criticised poor relations between the police and Brixton's black community. The police tried to mend fences. The Police Complaints Authority was set up along with police consultative committees for inner-city areas.

That said, relations are far from perfect. Many law-abiding black people felt branded as criminals when, earlier this year, Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, claimed that most muggings in London were committed by young black men. In Brixton, black people are five times as likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites.

But these continuing tensions neither explain nor condone what happened on Wednesday night. For a clue to what happened in Brixton, we should look beyond the race relations of south London to the streets of Bradford, Luton and Leeds. All these towns have in the past six months been the scene of serious disturbance. The one element common to all is a surfeit of largely unemployed, bored young men. Aggressive and alienated, they range from Bradford's Asians to working-class whites in Leeds.

This hard core of discontented, aimless, unskilled men is a worrying side to Nineties Britain, where employers increasingly need highly skilled workers. As Brixton reminded us this week, we ignore them at our peril.