Snapshots of a divided Britain: ROBERT HARDMAN reveals how a random incident caught on camera exposed simmering racial tensions in one of the most diverse parts of London

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Could this really be one of the landmarks in the annals of civil rights? To talk to some people here in Peckham, you would think it might be one of those periodic moments when a small protest kickstarts a mighty movement.

Think of Rosa Parks, the heroic shop worker who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955 and helped bring down racial segregation in the U.S.

Or Greta Thunberg’s global eco-crusade, which started with a solitary school boycott in Sweden; or Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930 protest against a law on gathering salt that led to Indian independence. To which are we now about to add the ‘throttling’ of the Peckham wig-snatcher? Well, sort of, according to some of those I met here on Rye Lane this week — ahead of a potentially explosive street protest this afternoon.

Others, meanwhile, fear that this is an absurdly overblown episode which has exposed the extent of simmering interracial tensions in one of the most diverse parts of Britain.

For, in this corner of South London, everyone can claim to be part of a ‘minority’, since black and Asian residents outnumber the local white population.

Sohail Sindho, 45, who appears to put his hands around the woman's throat during the scuffle

Sohail Sindho, 45, who appears to put his hands around the woman’s throat during the scuffle

Footage showed the 'fight' between the woman and the shopkeeper, who appears to put his hands around her throat after she allegedly tried to steal from his store

Footage showed the ‘fight’ between the woman and the shopkeeper, who appears to put his hands around her throat after she allegedly tried to steal from his store

The mood is certainly fractious. I hear plenty of stories — and see alarming video evidence — which explain why officialdom would prefer that this very awkward story of prima facie racism just disappeared.

For those unfamiliar with the toxic episode — which has since gone viral around the world — it all started on Monday of this week.

The circumstances are as follows. An unnamed black woman (race is central to this story) arrived at Peckham Hair & Cosmetics, a shop selling a wide range of hair and beauty products primarily aimed at the black community. From what we know, she requested a refund for some products she had bought earlier.

The shop’s owner apparently explained that the store did not do refunds but would offer an exchange. The woman then said: ‘I want to get what I’m supposed to get for my money.’ She grabbed three hairpieces, reportedly worth around £24, and began to leave.

The man tried to stop her and a fight ensued — during which, for a few seconds, he appeared to have both hands around her neck before letting go. The woman was seen to hit him several times and break a shopping basket over his head. Both could be heard calling for the police.

A 31-year-old woman has since been arrested on suspicion of assault and released on bail, while a 45-year-old man has been interviewed under caution.

What has elevated this from a mucky case of possible petty theft to a global human-rights debate is the fact that an eyewitness posted video footage of one part of the altercation — showing the shopkeeper apparently choking the woman — on social media. In next to no time, it had been seen more than one million times and would soon make international news.

Video shows the scuffle between the woman and the shop's owner

Video shows the scuffle between the woman and the shop’s owner 

The video starts with Mr Sindho standing behind the woman as they grip on to each other

The video starts with Mr Sindho standing behind the woman as they grip on to each other 

He grabs on to her neck as she tries to free herself by hitting him with the shopping basket

He grabs on to her neck as she tries to free herself by hitting him with the shopping basket 

Protesters plastered the storefront with notes criticising the shopkeeper's actions

Protesters plastered the storefront with notes criticising the shopkeeper’s actions

The following day, protest groups had turned up — some with megaphones — claiming that the incident was proof of the systemic racism and sexism endured by black women. Some linked it to the Black Lives Matter movement. It will never be forgotten that George Floyd, the black man murdered by a U.S. policeman in 2020, was choked to death.

The shop had already pulled down its grilles and has remained closed ever since. Its shutters are plastered with furious messages calling for boycotts and retribution. ‘Black People Need Justice. If Not Close Down [sic] We Will Burn It Down,’ says one. ‘This shop cannot open in the midst of a community it does not respect,’ says another.

A day later, the shopkeeper in question, Sohail Sindho, 45, released more video showing the troubling extent of the scuffle. It is safe to say there is a more nuanced side to this story. Mr Sindho admitted that he had gone too far in grabbing a would-be shoplifter by the neck, but insisted he’d merely been trying to ‘detain’ her.

‘I want them to know that I was only trying to restrain her,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to put my hands around her throat, and it was only for a few seconds.

‘I do agree that I should not have done that. But I was trying to protect myself as she was hitting me, as the video shows.’

He has since gone into hiding. Many tell me that his shop will never re-open.

Meanwhile, the online debate rages as to whether this tells us more about racist attitudes towards black women or the increasingly bleak outlook for Britain’s shop owners.

Shoplifting has now reached what the boss of John Lewis calls ‘epidemic’ proportions and, with police said to be generally unwilling to investigate shoplifting below the value of £200, this one-time ‘nation of shopkeepers’ might be due a name-change.

That, however, is just part of the story here in Peckham.

Some of the most unpleasant signs taped to the shutters of Peckham Hair & Cosmetics reveal a much darker undercurrent to this story. Take this poster scrawled by someone wholly unaware of its grotesque irony: ‘Racist Asians. Woman Beaters.’

Or this one: ‘They don’t employ us. They don’t put money into our community. STOP SHOPPING IN ASIAN SHOPS.’

A large crowd gathered outside the shop in Rye Lane, Peckham on September 12, blocking the road

A large crowd gathered outside the shop in Rye Lane, Peckham on September 12, blocking the road

Nor is it hard to find people happy to voice these thoughts openly. ‘Most of these shops are Muslim and they target you as soon as you walk in,’ says Mark, 50, a (black) voluntary worker who is admiring the banners when I arrived one evening this week.

‘I’m not saying that all victims are squeaky-clean and that lady probably did wrong. But you’ve got to have shopkeepers who know how to treat people properly. These people do not,’ he adds.

He says that each night the local shopkeepers tear all the signs down in the dead of night in solidarity, and black activists put them all up again the next morning.

Mr Sindho has firmly denied any racist motives in his actions towards the unnamed customer.

‘People have said that it might have been racial because I am Pakistani and she is a black lady,’ he told MailOnline. ‘That is absolutely not the truth. I want you to know that 99 per cent of my customers are people of colour. They are like my family.

‘I don’t know what being racist means. I live and work in a multicultural place.’

A random trawl of social media yesterday showed that many members of the black community were appalled by the treatment of a shopkeeper trying to protect his own property.

‘Is it equality we want or privilege?’ tweets one young woman. ‘We really need to start holding our own people accountable. This is not a race issue. This is a criminal issue.’

However, others are keen to single this out as a ‘Rubicon’ moment, a line in the proverbial sand. ‘We need our own ecosystem,’ shouts one activist, firing up the crowd through a megaphone outside the shop this week.

Lending gravitas to this argument is the Runnymede Trust, the charity which campaigns on matters of racial justice and equality. ‘We’re absolutely horrified by the recent incident at Peckham Hair & Cosmetics,’ it said. ‘We must work to root out the violence against black women, which is so normalised in our society.’

Certainly, among many black men and women who actually live in this community, this view is widely held. Indeed, the majority of those I meet broadly concur with the overall thrust of these protest signs.

‘I can see both sides and this woman did wrong but you don’t let a big man put his hand round the neck of a small woman over a few bits of hair,’ says Stella, a nurse.

‘I hope this man doesn’t come back because if he does, he’ll have a lot of problems,’ says Justine Rukwira, 53, who came to Britain as a child when her father, a former senior Ugandan politician, had to flee for his life.

‘It’s just another example of the way black people are treated in these Asian shops where they make up 99 per cent of the customers,’ she says.

There is, of course, another side to this story. ‘If what that shopkeeper did was wrong, then leave it to the police to deal with it. We get on well with all our customers, black, white, everyone — and we just want all this to calm down,’ says Muhammad Khan, who runs a store selling phones and vapes just over the road from the shuttered hair shop. He points to the fact that shops put up with increasing violence and the police seem to do little about it. Mr Khan shows me a video of what happened immediately after the peaceful protest in the street on Tuesday.

A group of black teenagers come into his shop and start asking for vapes. When he says that he cannot sell to them because they are underage, they start pushing him around while one grabs handfuls of vapes and legs it. There is a scuffle by the door and his assailants all escape — but he doesn’t throttle anyone. ‘I called the police but nothing has happened,’ he says. Without an ounce of contrition, the same gang then returned the very next night (when Mr Khan managed to lock them out).

What really saddens him is that he is constantly being warned by officialdom about the punishment for retailers who sell vapes to underage children. Yet no one intervenes when he is robbed. The police have been round, however, to say that they cannot guarantee the security of his shop during today’s protest. It’s up to him if he opens. ‘You won’t see us organising protests. But I have plenty more videos like this one — and they are much worse,’ he says.

Next door to the seemingly doomed hair shop, I meet Asad Masood, 49, who sells gifts and perfumes.

He knows Mr Sindho and says that he does not expect him ever to return. ‘He’s been badly shaken by this — and injured, too,’ says Mr Masood. ‘Since this happened, you get all these crazy people turning up and swearing and filming everything.’

One thing everyone can agree on, however, is that the lack of leadership has been lamentable. Aside from tweeting that he is urgently seeking information on the matter, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has been invisible. Ditto the local MP, Harriet Harman, who has simply asked for an ‘urgent report’ from police.

However, I do see some saving graces. ‘At least we’re not in America, or there would have been a shooting by now,’ says nurse Stella.

‘This is Britain, the best country in the world. I want to say I am very proud to live here,’ adds Ms Rukwira, the one-time child refugee, ‘because we treat all people equally.’

It must be said that there remain plenty of signs that all is not lost, and that Peckham can return to being a cohesive community. But it’s going to take time.

The area also needs outside activists to stop using it as a proxy Alabama and, above all, it requires leadership from the top among those who are usually so keen to cry ‘racism’ and espouse the joys of a multicultural society.




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