A mob of football hooligans and neo-Nazis who terrorised the Asian community of Glodwick, Oldham, in May 2001, were cheered as ‘heroes’ by their supporters in the gallery of a Manchester court this week, as they heard that they had been sentenced to just nine months imprisonment.
Following the sentencing of the so-called ‘Oldham 12’ on 13 June, the criminal justice system faced accusations of gross inequality as nine white men and one woman received sentences of nine months each for affray. A 16-year-old boy was given a 12 month supervision order, also for affray, and a 17-year-old girl was given a conditional discharge after being convicted of common assault. So far, 22 Asians have been jailed for, on average, three-and-a-half years for their part in the civil unrest in Oldham during May 2001.
As the sentences were announced at Minshull Street Crown Court, Manchester, there were claps and cheers from supporters in the gallery for those in the dock and several shouted ‘you are heroes’ as the defendants were sent down. Well-known members of the British National Party (BNP) were also present.
All twelve of the defendants had originally been charged with riot, violent disorder and racially aggravated criminal damage. But Judge Jonathan Geake, believing there to be insufficient evidence to convict any of them of riot, ordered the jury to return not guilty verdicts on the riot charge after legal argument during the trial. Half way through the trial, eleven pleaded guilty to lesser charges of affray and a 17-year-old girl admitted common assault.
The May events
During the afternoon of 26 May 2001, a mob, which included hardened fascists and football hooligans, had been drinking at various pubs in the centre of Oldham. They were part of a larger group of organised racists who had met up in Oldham that weekend. According to evidence collected by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, many fascists in the town that day anticipated that, by provoking local Asians, they could start the fabled ‘race war’ of neo-Nazi ideology.
CCTV evidence and witnesses showed the group singing racist songs such as ‘Keep me English’, ‘No surrender to the IRA’ and ‘If you all hate Pakis clap your hands’. They had also met up with members of the neo-Nazi group Combat 18, who had come up from London, and with a number of other football hooligans from the ‘Fine Young Casuals’ firm.
Meanwhile, in Glodwick, a part of Oldham with a significant British Pakistani population, two Asian teenagers were walking past a shop when a 16-year-old white youth hit one of the Asian boys on the leg with a brick. A fight started with the white boy shouting racial abuse at the Asians.
The confrontation escalated when a nearby resident, Sharon Hoy, began shouting racial abuse. Witnesses said that they thought she was staggering around drunk, deliberately trying to start a fight with Asians by shouting at them and pushing them. She then called her brother, Darren, who was with the group of drunken racists in the city centre, on his mobile. She told him that ‘a Paki had kicked the door in’.
What followed was described by the judge as ‘a very nasty, unhappy and ugly’ incident. The men, given the nod from one of the group who was nicknamed ‘The General’, rushed to Glodwick in three taxis where they emerged, armed with sticks, to rampage through surrounding streets threatening Asian families.
An Asian woman, who was 34 weeks pregnant, was besieged when bricks were thrown at her home. She was taken to hospital suffering from shock. A shopkeeper was forced to escape from the backdoor of his shop after his front window was smashed. One man was assaulted with an iron bar and another was chased as he tried to get his two-and-a-half year-old daughter to safety.
Prosecuting, Mukhtar Hussain QC, said the mob terrorised the area ‘in an uncompromising and brutal fashion, attacking anyone who was Asian. In other words, this was a racist attack’.
As Asian residents attempted to defend themselves, the mob became outnumbered and the police arrived to save the gang by arresting some and removing others from the area for their own protection.
But, with the police present, the violence escalated and two nights of rioting followed, the worst in Britain for 15 years. ‘It only required a spark to ignite the fires that ensued’, said Judge Geake. There was, he said, ‘simmering unrest particularly among the Asian community’.
Over the preceding months, the police had on numerous occasions escorted racist gangs or National Front demonstrators through parts of Oldham with large numbers of Asian residents. And when National Front members had illegally assembled in the town centre, the police responded by confining Asians and anti-fascists to certain areas, rather than preventing the assembly. There was a widespread perception among Asians in Oldham that the police were not doing enough to protect them from racist violence.
In the 2001 general election, held on 7 June, just a couple of weeks after the riots, the BNP polled 16 per cent of the vote (6,552 votes) in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, where party leader Nick Griffin stood. It was the largest vote ever for an extreme-Right party in a parliamentary election and helped propel the BNP further into the mainstream of British politics.