Muhammed Rafique Khan was knifed through the heart on 6 January outside his menswear shop in Plumstead High Street, south-east London.
It was 10 minutes till closing when a 30-year-old white man ran into the shop. What happened inside is not exactly known. But witnesses at a nearby bus stop heard an altercation and saw the two struggling before Khan died. While the initial motive for Khan’s murder is still unclear, racism is likely to have played some part.
Already the investigation into Khan’s death has come under the spotlight. Police arrested a 16-year-old local youth shortly after the murder even though the one witness who said she could identify the murderer said that the assailant was at least 30. So sure were the police that they had arrested the murderer, that the investigation wound down. Complacency took over. The youth is now on police bail after not being picked out in an identity parade. Standard procedures expected in a murder investigation were not followed; there were no dog and/or helicopter patrols after the murder, nor any cordoning off of the area (which would have identified someone trying to escape). A hasty arrest resulted in vital time, and possibly clues, being lost and the chances of catching the murderer significantly reduced.
Racism in Plumstead
Since Khan’s murder, some shopkeepers on Plumstead High Street have come forward to tell of the racial harassment they have suffered from local white youths. Others, however, have been downplaying the issue, as have the family, who are still in a state of shock.
The borough of Greenwich has one of the highest levels of racial violence in the country, and its special racial incidents police unit is regarded as a model for others in Britain. But the unit has done little to abate the racial violence and crime in the area. Of 440 reported racial incidents last year, just 24 resulted in charges being brought.
While campaigners have always called for tough action to be taken against the perpetrators of racist crimes, the ‘unique approach’ of the racial incidents unit prefers to rely on mediation (a slap on the wrist and a bit of a talking to). It hasn’t worked. Gangs of white youths feel confident enough to congregate on the High Street taunting black shoppers and shopkeepers, despite the strong black presence in the area. Gurpreet Singh Gill, the owner of a newsagents’ two doors from Mr Khan’s shop, has described the taunts he faces daily from local whites. ‘They call me “jungle man” and I’ve seen them watching from outside the shop. The murder was a very big shock. Now we make sure there are always two people in this shop all the time.’ Surinder Cheema of the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racial Attacks describes the frustration of Asian shopkeepers and other members of the black community: ‘It is a long-standing problem and there havebeen numerous complaints they could prosecute under new measures which were designed to prevent intentional harassment but the police refuse to take action.’
Robbery or racism?
As in similar cases of shop burglary or street robbery where black people have died, the police seem, from talks to CARF, overly keen to classify the case as one of robbery, even while they acknowledge that robberies are extremely rare on Plumstead High Street. Publicly they have said they are keeping an open mind as to a possible racial element. Some anti-racist campaigners view the killing as a racist murder, others aren’t quite sure.
The problem is that, in cases like this, it is rare to find an assailant declare, as did the killer of Akhtar Ali Baig, ‘Look, I’vegutted a Paki.’ The racial motive will not be writ large like that. And there is an obvious motive of personal gain where robberies are concerned. What we have to realise is that robbery itself is not colour blind. Asian shopkeepers are particularly vulnerable to attack. In a downtrodden area where no one has much, they symbolise the capitalists. They are hated because they are doing slightly better and they are Asian. And the stereotype still persists of Asians as soft targets the docile ones who won’t fight back. Other racist stereotypes come into play in a shop situation: Asians are underhand and cunning so they will overcharge. A row over a price can easily escalate into violence.
A 1993 survey by the Newsagents’ Federation found that the majority of Asian newsagents had been the targets of crime and believed much of it to be racially motivated.
This seems to be increasingly recognised even by the judiciary. Sentencing a 27-year-old to four years for unlawfully wounding two Asian shopkeepers in Stratford, east London a year ago, Judge Mitchell said, ‘All shopkeepers need a weapon, particularly Asians in this area.’ The accused had used a golf club to hit one shopkeeper while others shouted racial abuse and then attacked another shopkeeper with an iron bar.
We may never know if Khan’s assailant used racial epithets during his attack (to establish for the criminal justice system his racial motivation). But we are clear that Asians are picked out as robbery targets and that massive brutality is used against them by white thugs. The line between robbery and racial hatred blurs, the motives entwine.