'Don't get me wrong,' says Gloria Sullivan, leaning forward in her chair. 'I'm not a racialist, but why is it that we seem to get all the problem Asians in Stepney? People in these small villages, with their nice Asian newsagent's next door, don't understand why we're against them, because they don't know what it's like round here. We get the nasty, dirty types, the ones who take in lodgers and overcrowd the place, or use their sewing machines till three in the morning. Who decided they should all come to Stepney-that's what I'd like to know-because, whoever it was, they don't live round here.'
And then, almost without pausing for retrospection: 'Oh God. Don't quote that. It sounds terrible, doesn't it?'
'You tell him. Gloria,' says the nervy, elderly man sitting next to her. 'Don't be afraid. It's what we all think.'
The scene is Gloria and Jim Sullivan's smartly-furnished flat on the Exmouth estate in east London a few days after the Commission for Racial Equality announced that they were to take legal action against the Sullivans and 67 other tenants for signing a petition urging the Greater London Council not to move an Asian family into a vacant flat at 84 Clark Street. A dozen or so residents from the estate have gathered to explain their point of view and discuss what to do next.
The Sullivans live immediately above 84 Clark Street, and they say that the first they knew of an Asian family moving in was when they awoke to the sound of breaking glass early one morning last summer. The flat had been vandalised, pigs' trotters inscribed with the initials 'NF' (National Front) had been nailed to the door, and the walls and windows were daubed with racist slogans.
'People were frightened,' says Jim Sullivan, who is secretary of the local tenants' association, and an articulate and intelligent man. 'The tenants didn't want innocent people to be affected by this sort of aggravation and violence overspilling onto them. Some people had already had bricks thrown at their windows and that sort of thing.' He decided to organise a 'Petition Against Moving Asian Families Onto Clark Street'. With the help of his wife and Nick Griffiths, another tenant, he collected 69 signatures from about 48 flats-a small, if significant, minority of people on the 1,000-flat estate.
Meanwhile, Toahid Ali, the latest of several Asian tenants to be offered 84 Clark Street, had turned down the offer. When he had gone to look at the flat, he had been met by a man who told him, 'Fuck off-we don't want Pakis here.' Since he was being rehoused from his previous home because of racial harassment, he decided not to run the risk of further trouble at his new one.
A week later the flat was accepted by a Vietnamese family-'Lovely people, you couldn't say a word against them,' according to Jim Sullivan-and the matter might have rested there had it not been for the GLC passing the petition on to the Commission for Racial Equality. Faced with an appalling incidence of racial harassment and violence-a report at the end of last year detailed over 250 cases in Tower Hamlets-as well as the existence of virtual 'no-go' estates in the East End where there were no Asian tenants, the GLC felt it had to do something. It asked the commission to investigate.
Last October, four months after the petition had been circulated, commission officials began visiting the signatories. Two and a half months after that, the tenants were told-by a TV reporter-that the commission had decided to take legal action against them under section 31(1) of the Race Relations Act 1976, for 'attempting to induce the GLC to discriminate on racial grounds against Mr Ali by refusing his application for the tenancy of the property'.
Jim Sullivan immediately called a public meeting, attended by 150 tenants from the estate, who agreed unanimously to fight the case and pass the petition round again as an act of defiance. It now has several hundred signatures, including those of some black tenants, who have added their names because, as one of them put it, 'If they lose this case, it affects the right of any of us to sign a petition about anything.'
Bill Smith, a white tenant who claims to have fought Mosley's blackshirts in the 1930s, said that he signed it 'not because I agree with it-I don't-but because they're trying to take away a basic right. I don't think people should be dictated to over signing a petition, even if they're wrong.' This is a view which is largely shared-to the horror of many of its supporters-by the National Council for Civil Liberties, whose general secretary, Larry Gostin, has described the prosecutions as 'a violation of freedom of speech. If there is no specific threat-if it is simply the act of making a petition-I cannot see that it is right to take legal action.'
The preliminary hearing of the case was at Westminster County Court yesterday. As the case develops, it seems certain that the 'free speech' issue will eclipse the question of racial prejudice, harassment and violence, and the importance of developing a firm and effective policy against it. Already, battle lines are being drawn up on the basis of whether one is for or against 'free speech for racists', an artificial divide which fails to get to grips with how to tackle the actual roots of racism rather than just its verbal expression.
The Commission for Racial Equality recognise the dilemma. 'The prosecutions won't eradicate racism,' their spokesman told me. 'But they are important, not just because of this case, but because of what is happening all over London, where a minority of white racists are preventing mainly Asian families from living on some estates. It is essential that we take this action in order to deter others.'
The problem for the commission is that the Exmouth Estate tenants present particular difficulties for an exemplary, deterrent action of this kind. They are not active or organised racists. The National Front and similar groups had no presence on the estate until after the media publicity surrounding the prosecutions, when they leafleted every flat in the area. Any racist violence and vandalism which had occurred was almost certainly the work of outsiders who didn't know the estate, because the flats of white tenants were often attacked by mistake. And the small number of black and Asian families on the estate appear to agree that there was very little racial hostility towards them. According to the Asian proprietor of one of the local shops in Brayford Square, 'The only trouble I ever had here was from young boys who come from a different part of London.'
The white tenants themselves are at pains to deny racism, and the majority of the original signatories claim that the petition itself was not racist. 'It wasn't racial,' says one tenant. 'There's never been any trouble on this estate until all the publicity over this. We've got coloured families living here, and three of the shops are run by Asians, and they never had any trouble. All nationalities have signed that petition, so how can they say it was racial?'
'We're not barristers or solicitors,' says another man, who is genuinely afraid that he might be evicted for having signed. 'So we never thought we'd get into bother over the wording. To tell the truth, I never even read it properly. I just signed it because I was worried about the violence and everything.'
Many of the signatories are now clinging to the principle of 'free speech' as if it were a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. Unable to justify the anti-Asian nature of the petition, they have claimed a defence in the right to have their say. Some will undoubtedly take up the offer of Sir Ashley Bramall, chairman of Tower Hamlets housing management committee, who has suggested that the action will be dropped against tenants who sign an undertaking not to oppose the allocation of flats of Asians. He would do well, however, to make the offer direct to each individual signatory, since the spokesmen for the tenants are determined to fight on: 'They have put our backs up now, so we'll go all the way to prison if we have to.'
The dozen or so tenants in the forefront are no more than mouthpieces for the fears and frustrations of countless white working class people, not only on the Exmouth Estate, but in many other areas of cities. Their prejudices have not been, and are not being challenged. Anti-racist initiatives have failed even to consider how this could be done.
'You can't even ask for black coffee these days,' says one elderly tenant at the meeting in Gloria Sullivan's living room, to murmurs of approval. A decent, and otherwise tolerant man (he later told me that a violent and intolerably anti-social neighbour needed help, not eviction), he put into words a widespread feeling that whites were now the victims of prejudice as much as blacks. 'There's a block of flats in Hackney,' he goes on, 'where the blacks have been given £150 compensation because of the bad conditions, but the whites haven't had anything.'
Then, in quick succession, the stories, myths and half-truths come flooding out. The dam had burst. I am told about the fight between Indians in Beaumont Square, when a white family had called the police and then been arrested themselves for a breach of the peace. I hear about the woman who was surrounded by Asian families, who all had sewing machines going 24 hours a day. When she called the council, they asked her what nationality she was, and when she said 'English' they hung up. There was the case of the white child who choked to death after being refused treatment by an Asian doctor. There was the woman who was persecuted by Asians because she was married to a black man. And there was the council house being used as a mosque, from which the council had rehoused 'half a dozen different families'.
Then there was the tale about how every Asian family had to be given houses with two toilets and bathrooms 'because Muslims can't use the same facilities', and the one about the estate where all the blacks were getting central heating 'because they come from hot countries', but not the whites. 'What about all the old people who've lived here all their lives, and who're dying of hypothermia? Why can't they have central heating?' demands one woman.
I ask for addresses, for names, dates and details, but when pressed on the points they raise, without exception they admit they heard it from someone or read it somewhere. How could they be sure it was true? 'Well the council have never denied it, have they?' is the most popular response.
It would be easy to caricature the Exmouth estate tenants as ignorant bigots-'the media always make out that East Enders are stupid and illiterate, says Nick Griffiths-but that would be too trite and simple an image. That they are bigoted and in some ways ignorant is undeniable, but no more so than that they are friendly, generous, considerate, helpful and warm-hearted in other ways. It is this apparent paradox which makes working class racism so disturbing and difficult to deal with, and which also renders the ill-considered anti-racist response so ineffective.
That response-summed up by the simple slogan that racism should be 'smashed'-sees society in stereotypes. It makes no distinction between the evil of racism in its belligerent and organised forms, and the confused and widely varied bigotries of individuals. In attempting to suppress every expression of prejudice, rather than tackling it head on, either by discussion and argument, or by doing something about the conditions in which it breeds, anti-racists are actually reinforcing racism in a very real sense. The only people who are fighting the battle of ideas on the Exmouth Estate are the racist organisations who have moved into the area in force to try to win recruits. The left thinks you can fight racism by fighting racists, so they are losing the actual argument by default.
The courts will decide whether the Commission for Racial Equality interpreted the law correctly in taking action against the petition. But legal action cannot change minds or alter ideas, so unless anti-racists are willing to impose anti-racism by a massive use of the police and courts (perhaps using some of the methods employed during the miner's strike?), it is necessary to consider the tiresome business of persuasion. Neither the commission, nor the GLC, not anti-racist groups or socialist organisations, not Labour Party members, councillors or MPs, not church leaders, Liberals or tolerant Tories, have been down to the Exmouth Estate to canvass opinion or put their views.
'No one cares about us,' says one man. 'They never have, and they never will. They want our money, or they want our votes, but they don't really want us. It makes you very bitter.'
Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.