Darcus Howe notes a conspicuous police absence

Why did police and councillors fail to attend a debate on a club threatened with closure?

On 16 September, I fulfilled a long-standing appointment in Reading. It is a town with a buzz which has accommodated the IT industry with ease, extended its artistic and leisure activities, and expanded the economic horizon for its multiracial community.

I have been involved with Reading for more than two years, as a patron of Blue Sky Arts, taking part in voluntary social activities. This year, I was invited to chair a debate on garage music. This hugely expanding musical phenomenon features two major black groups: So Solid Crew and Heartless Crew, which have both been big in Reading.

The debate aimed to put right, in so far as any debate can, a ghastly incident that occurred on 1 March. Heartless Crew were to top the bill at the Matrix club, a popular venue for garage music in Reading. More than 1,500 youths attended. The event was heavily oversubscribed. One of the frustrated guests drew a pistol and shot the bouncer at the door. The bouncer was largely unharmed, but the bullet went through his body into the head of a barman, who spent the next five months in hospital. For three hours afterwards, youths clashed with the police. The police then called for the closure of the Matrix, dragging local councillors in their wake. Reading was plunged into racialist rhetoric. The black community feared that garage music was being made a scapegoat for the social crisis among young blacks, and that it would be banned from the town.

Blue Sky Arts invited me to present a debate between Heartless Crew, local councillors, club owners, music promoters and the police. As I have reported previously in this column, there was a hiccup, with local councillors apparently nervous at the prospect of having Heartless Crew on their doorstep. But all seemed well for the event on 16 September. An audience of 250 or so local people turned up. Heartless Crew were present, as was the local MP.

Speaker after speaker raised issues that required official responses. Yet not one councillor or police officer - the people who are responsible for licensing premises for entertainment and for making recommendations - turned up. The debate, contrary to what you might expect of the popular forces of the day, was calm. The social responsibility and concern of those attending stood way above those who govern and police them.