This article by Mark Metcalf was published in the Big Issue in November 2003.
PROBLEM? WHAT PROBLEM?
Abuse, attacks and murder - why has racism in Sunderland become so severe, when only a tiny proportion of the city’s residents from black and ethnic minority backgrounds?
It is now just over six months since the British National Party (BNP) stood a record number of candidates at city council elections in Sunderland. The 25 who stood for that far right party gained 13,500 votes, equivalent to nearly 14% of the total votes and in one ward, Town End Farm, BNP support almost reached 30%.
The City of Sunderland and the surrounding areas have always had a tiny black and ethnic minority community. Today, less than 1% of 279,000 residents of Sunderland are drawn from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, of which 857 are refugees, according to latest Home Office figures.
A number of Labour Party and trade union activists have detailed frustration in getting their respective organisations to take racism seriously, and claim the flourishing of the B&P instrument can't be blamed on the lack of concerted anti-racism action in the past. The activists I spoke to claim they commonly were told “there isn't a problem here” in reference to County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland. This was usually followed by “there aren't any black people here.” One ex-ward Labour party secretary who didn’t want to be named recalls that “racist ideas, views and jokes went largely unchallenged” at both party meetings and informal social events.
The government’s decision at the end of 2000 to start settling asylum seekers in places such as Sunderland, with no increase in resources, has brought underlying social tensions to the fore in the city. Some parts of the established local community felt they were losing out to newcomers. It is this situation that the far right and, specifically, the BNP exploited to win votes in this year's elections.
Meanwhile, residents complain of frequent racist attacks. One local Asian shop owner, who asked not to be named, said he'd had his window smashed “over 20 times.” The police response? “Useless.” Local politicians? “Racist and corrupt.” In June last year, Baldish Singh was subject to a brutal attack by 39-year-old Andrew Thorpe, who sports a National Front tattoo. The attack left Singh unable to speak. Thorpe got just six years in prison while Singh is likely to need constant care for the rest of his life. His solicitor is now pursuing a criminal injuries claim on his behalf.
A few months later, in a brutal attack, Iranian refugee Payman Bahmani was stabbed to death. His housemate Mohammad said at the time "we've had our windows broken over 25 times, we know the attackers, they abuse us and tell us to go home." He claimed that the police had open “failed to listen” to the complaints, an accusation denied by the police, who later secured a life sentence for Stephen Roberts, aged 18, for the murder.
Following Bahmani’s death, the police established a community panel that included members of the dead man's family, and also involved all the agencies such as the North of England Refugee Service. "This group was heavily involved in the investigation, been briefed on a regular basis, and the feedback was positive," a place spokesperson said. "This work continues today with the Special Investigations Unit (which tackles racist crime and incidents in Sunderland) and with community beat managers in the area.”
The three Sunderland police area commands (Sunderland City, Sunderland West and Washington) all now have dedicated place asylum-seeker liaison officers. Marianne Goodfellow from the Refugee Network says: "The police regularly visit the two outreach sessions we organise. They make the asylum-asylum-seekers aware that they are there to help them. Their attitude is more positive than before.”
When members of Sunderland Fans against Racism visited the local youth clubs to ask what is said at school on the subject of racism, however, the usual answer they received was “nothing."
I spokeswoman for Sunderland City Council disputes this. ”The City Council sends regular newsletters to schools, including items such as information on religious festivals, advice on responding to racist incidents, myth-busting information on asylum seekers and examples of good race equality practice.”
A group of refugees who formed a local football team, the International Cultural Centre (ICC) FC, claim to have experienced racial abuse and even, on occasions, physical attacks. One game, in March this year, against pub team Sandhill, from the Grindon area, was halted for a number of minutes after a fight broke out involving players and supporters from both sides. The ICC secretary at the time wrote to Durham FA. "Sandhill supporters started to shout at our players with racial comments and there was at least one incident where a supporter put his finger to his right ear then moved it across his throat to the other ear as if to say ‘you die’."
Sandhill were fined £100 by Durham Football Association (FA) for "bringing the league into disrepute and a further £50 by the Tyne and Wear League. John Topping, company secretary of Durham FA, said: “We are very much against racist behaviour in football and any cases are and will be dealt with severely.”
He added: “in that case… Some of which did involve racial abuse, the club was severely warned about its future conduct, and had to provide a written undertaking that no such behaviour or comments would happen again and which it has done.”
But Russell Thompson, manager of Sandhill, claimed the refugee team had "started it" after “one of our players had two of his teeth knocked out… and was called ‘white trash’.”
In August, members of the cast of South African musical Umoja reported that they had been spat out in the street and insulted while distributing leaflets for their show at the Sunderland Empire. Director Todd Twala said: “We have been all over the world, to Japan, Australia, Denmark, France Finland and London, and no one has treated us like this."
As a result, Sunderland City Council subsequently launched a hotline for members of black and ethnic minority communities to report racist attacks.
Chris Mullin, one of two local MPs, admitted that racism in the city is a big problem, which he attributes to “Sunderland (having) until recently an overwhelmingly white population with little experience of contact with other cultures. Whilst there may have been some complacency in the past about the degree of racial prejudice in Sunderland, that is certainly not the case now. Nor has it been for some time.”
The city council spokesperson added: Whilst Sunderland has recently been the subject of unwarranted negative media coverage, presenting us a racist city this is both inaccurate and insulting to this of us who live or work here.”
However, only this month, five people attending Sunderland’s home game against Coventry at the Stadium of Light were arrested by the police for racist behaviour. It was reported that all to 200 supporters had been involved in chanting racist abuse at the visiting supporters. Raymond Holmes aged 32 from Pennywell was subsequently fined £200 with £50 costs and banned from attending matches for three years. A juvenile, who can't be named for legal reasons, was fined £100 with £45 costs and also banned from attending matches for three years. The BNP will be hoping to exploit racist tensions at the June 2004 local elections, when all 75 seats will be up for grabs. Whether it increases its share of the vote or not it is clear that the task of tackling racism in the city will continue for a long time to come.