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In Ravaged English City, Racial Mix Was Volatile


OLDHAM, England, May 30 -- The one thing that everyone in this shell-shocked community seems to agree on is that it all began quietly, with a run-of-the-mill argument between two teenage boys -- one white, one a Briton of Pakistani origin -- outside a fish-and-chip shop.

But the underlying reasons for what are being called the worst race riots in Britain in 15 years are another matter entirely.

Some blame pervasive racism among whites, who make up 89 percent of the population in this depressed former mill town. Others blame increasing lawlessness among youths of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, who have reportedly declared whole swaths of Oldham off limits to whites.

And many point to the inflammatory presence of British nationalist and white supremacist groups, who have been distributing pro-white leaflets and spreading anti-immigrant messages here since April when an elderly war veteran was beaten up by several nonwhite youths. Two candidates from the British National Party are running for Parliament in Oldham; the National Front has massed in the town center, threatening to march, every weekend for the last month.

"The worst part is the National Front," said Arshad Parvaez, a taxi driver who was getting his hair trimmed this afternoon at Ali's barber shop, behind a broken and boarded-up window near the scene of some of the worst rioting. "On this street, we've always coexisted with whites, with no problems. But since they've come in, people stare at you as you walk out of your house, as you get in your car. They don't want to know you."

Whatever is going on here, events last Saturday night clearly provided the spark. One minute, two youths were arguing outside the Good Taste fish-and-chip shop on Roundthorne Road; the next minute, the mother of the white youth -- some residents said she was drunk and volatile -- was seen to pull out a cell phone and begin making calls.

Soon afterward, a group of perhaps two dozen whites arrived in taxis, clearly itching for a fight. They jumped on cars, threw rocks through store windows, and smashed the windows of houses owned by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

The police began arriving, but soon nonwhite youths were gathering, too. At the bottom of the street, dozens swarmed onto the parking lot of the Live and Let Live pub, attacking customers, throwing a firebomb through the window, and smashing half a dozen cars parked outside. Later, they firebombed the offices of The Oldham Evening Chronicle, a newspaper that people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent say exaggerates antiwhite violence while ignoring violence against nonwhites.

By the end of the night, as many as 500 nonwhite youths were battling with police officers in riot gear, and 15 policemen and 10 civilians were injured. With a huge police presence called in to keep the peace, sporadic violence continued on Sunday and Monday nights, with more damage to stores and cars, groups of whites yelling racist epithets, and 49 people charged with assorted offenses.

"It was a minor thing that started this, but it was the Asians that were responsible," Paul Barrow, owner of the Live and Let Live pub, said of the nonwhites, using the general British term for people whose families come from the Indian subcontinent. "I don't think the Asian community is doing enough for itself. Ten or 15 years ago, young people used to listen to their elders, but now they don't."

It's not really as simple as that. Until the late 60's, Oldham -- to the northeast of Manchester -- was almost totally white. Then Bangladeshis and Pakistanis began to arrive by the thousand, lured by the chance to take jobs that no one else wanted, as night-shift workers at the cotton mills that powered the local economy.

But then the mills closed. And while some of the 23,000 Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Oldham have opened grocery stores, restaurants or curry shops, or become taxi drivers, many are unemployed. As many as half the young men of Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent have no work, officials say.

Some parts of Oldham, especially nonwhite housing projects, have become known for violence and petty crime. Of the 572 incidents of racially motivated violence recorded by the police last year, about 60 percent were directed against whites.

So when 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain was attacked by three young nonwhites who may or may not have told him to "get out of our area" -- he is not sure, his family said -- the incident was seized on by the British National Party as an example of the failure of the multiracial society.

White supremacists are not the only ones who feel that way. "They want their own little communities, with mosques and things," complained Keith Greenhouse, boarding a bus in a white area of Oldham. "I wouldn't go to America and force them to live my way. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do."

All this just adds to a sense among nonwhites that Britain, and Oldham, are racist places. Leaving aside obviously provocative language, many nonwhites say that low-grade racism is an underlying fact of life here. In Oldham, as in many places in Britain, Pakistanis are often referred to, simply, as "Pakis."

"From my point of view, they treat us like second-class citizens," Mr. Parvez, the taxi driver, said. "When they get into your taxi, they abuse you sometimes. They threaten you or kick your door or don't pay you. But when we go to the police, they don't do anything."

Nisar Ahmed, another taxi driver down the street, pointed to the dents in his taxi and described what happened to him the other night when a bunch of whites surrounded his car and began calling him derogatory names.

"I tried to run away, and they smashed my car," he said. "They hurt my arm. I called the police six times, but they didn't come."

At the Good Taste fish-and-chip shop, which, interestingly enough, is run by a family of Hong Kong Chinese and offers a vast array of Chinese dishes and various types of Indian curry along with deep-fried cod and French fries, the woman behind the counter said that she heard racist epithets every day.

"Basically, you get a lot of immature kids calling you 'Chink,' " said the woman, 25, who did not want to give her name. "But it doesn't bother me. I just tell them you should be proud of what you are."

It is hard for many of the young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to maintain that sort of equanimity, said Tanvir Hussain, the secretary of a mosque on nearby Pitt Street.

"The older generation has always put up with it, but young people who have been born and bred here just won't take this kind of rubbish," he said. "They feel that this is their country and that they can take the law into their own hands."

Still, Mr. Hussain tends to attribute most of the blame to the National Front and the British National Party, which he says have given voice to the residents' worst fears and hatreds.

"People come from outside of Oldham and incite the violence," he said. "And then they leave and we're left to pick up the debris."

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