Wednesday 19 June 2013

Echoes: a Post for Refugee Week

Too often, lately, when I listen to the news, I hear echoes from 1981.

I was living in Coventry back then, and the year didn’t start well.  A lot of violence was being stirred up against the then relatively new Asian community - many of whom were refugees from East Africa.  That spring, a Hindu temple was firebombed.  A school girl was attacked with a machete.  And two people – a student and a young doctor – were murdered in broad daylight.

The murder of the student provoked a huge protest movement.  On the May Bank Holiday, hundreds of people marched through Coventry, along the route the young man had fled for his life. When they reached Broadgate, in the city centre, they had to walk between massed ranks of skinheads giving Nazi salutes. As the front of the march entered a square near the cathedral, the tail became embroiled in a pitched battle with the skinheads. Mounted police were used to charge the crowd and break them up.

A few weeks later, riots erupted in a string of British cities.  These were not race riots.  Then, as now, a Recession Generation was being left behind.  They had no jobs, no expectations, and their way of life was being demonised in the media and by the police.  They turned their anger on the authority figures they saw as reinforcing those messages.

God knows what might have happened if that violent overspill of emotion had reached Coventry while feelings were still running so high.  But for some reason, it never did.  Coventry remained one of the few English cities untouched by the riots. 

Some of the credit for that must go to The Specials, the Coventry band whose single, Ghost Town, became the anthem of that summer.  Already known for their message of racial harmony, The Specials organised a free music festival that palpably diffused tensions.  But much of the credit goes to the ordinary decent people of Coventry, who looked into the abyss and chose to take a step back.

I have a copy of the Coventry Evening Telegraph from the day after the battle between the skinheads and the protest marchers. It shows a group of men in suits, standing on some steps overlooking the procession.  The Telegraph identifies them as senior members of various Far Right groups. As so often, in so many places, the fears and frustrations of a disadvantaged generation were being fed and manipulated by those who had their own twisted reasons to provide them with a scapegoat. 

Some time that summer, people stopped listening to them, and they lost their power.

Scapegoats come in all shapes and sizes. But what we should fear is not race, or religion or immigration or asylum seekers.  What we should fear, what we should always fear, is fanaticism, whatever ideology it chooses to cloak itself in.

And the best antidote to fanaticism is the hand of friendship, holding out the sincere desire to understand.

In the course of this year’s Refugee Week, I attended the launch of a book by Jade Amoli-Jackson, a refugee from different generation of East African turmoil.  You can read about her book, Moving a Country, and about Jade’s extraordinary story, on the Words with Jam blog.

My novel, Ghost Town, set against the background of these events in Coventry, will be published later this year.

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