Youths in Burnley, Stoke, Leeds and Bradford have taken to the streets to defend their communities from racist violence. But it was in Oldham where rioting first erupted.
CARF visited the town to report on a catalogue of police failures which never made it into the mainstream media, failures which led to the Asian rebellion at the end of May, and gave the far Right the opportunity to make Oldham its best ever electoral success.
‘Fascists were waging a murderous campaign against our people. It was necessary to defend our community. It was with this in mind that we did what we did.’ Those were the words of one of the defendants in the trial of the Bradford 12 – twelve Asian youths who were charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion following the discovery of a stash of petrol bombs. The bombs had been prepared to defend black areas in Bradford from National Front violence. The twelve were eventually found not guilty by the jury. That was in 1981. In the same year, Asian youths in Southall burned down the Hambrough Tavern, a known meeting-place for fascists. In both cases, youths were criminalised for attempting to defend communities from racism, in the absence of police protection. Twenty years on black communities are still facing the same failures by the police and youths are still turning to violence.
The police in Oldham have long shown an indifference to racially motivated street violence against Asians in the town. In the summer of 1989, Tahir Akram, a 14-year-old schoolboy, was walking to his home through the predominantly Pakistani area of Glodwick when he was shot with an air rifle pellet by a group of whites, who had been taking random shots at people in the neighbourhood. The pellet entered his eye and killed him. The police claimed that the attack was not racist. A protest planned by the Asian community was called off in the face of mass hostility from the town’s authorities and the local press.
By 1999, Asian victims of racial violence were planning to meet violence with violence. For four years, Gulfraz Nazir’s family had been subjected to racial harassment by gangs of up to thirty racist youths armed with crowbars and hammers, who tried to attack their shop in the predominantly white area of Limeside. Whenever the police were called they failed to turn up in time to make a difference. Finally Gulfraz organised with friends to defend his family from the gangs. The result was a running battle on the streets between armed white youths and Asians. With the continuing failure of the police and authorities to tackle the racists, violent confrontations between groups of whites and Asians became more common. Inevitably when the police did arrive to break up a mêlée, it was the Asians who bore the brunt of police heavy-handedness.
“When our parents came over, they accepted being second-class citizens. Now youngsters who are educated here see themselves as on the same level as others. We are standing up for our rights. And this is what the police don’t like.” – Akil Miah, Oldham cab-driver
Soon the police and the local newspapers began to portray Asians as the perpetrators, rather than the victims. This strategy intensified as demands on the police for change grew nationally, in the wake of the Macpherson inquiry. Police would now have to record racial incidents more fully, follow new procedures for investigating these incidents, and be accountable to the victims of racist crime: for Asian victims of racism in Oldham, the genuine implementation of these practices would have been nothing short of a revolution. But what, under Oldham’s chief superintendent, Eric Hewitt, actually transpired?
In 1999, Hewitt released figures which stated that out of 250 racially motivated incidents in one year, the majority involved violence on whites by Asians. He then used these figures to argue that the real problem was not racial attacks against Asians, but crimes committed by Asian gangs. The local press lapped it up; the Lancashire Evening Chronicle ran a front page story with the headline ‘violent racial crime rockets: three out of four victims are white’, while the Oldham Evening Chronicle had ‘fears growing over plague of racist attacks by Asian gangs’. In the article itself, Hewitt offered his own interpretation of the figures: ‘There is evidence that they [Asians] are trying to create exclusive areas for themselves. Anyone seems to be a target if they are white.’ The image conveyed was one of territory wars between rival race gangs, with Asians the worst perpetrators.
As CARF warned at the time, the figures on which these pronouncements were based were highly suspect. Asian victims of racism had long since given up reporting incidents to the police, as years of police inactivity had taught them to expect little. One group who were particularly vulnerable to racism were Asian minicab drivers. A typical scenario would involve a cab being called to a white estate, where its windows would be smashed, racist abuse would be shouted and the driver would have a couple of punches thrown at him. For a minicab driver to report the incident would mean that he would have to wait for two to three hours while the police responded – lost time when he could be taking fares. Then there was the issue of how police recorded incidents. An unprovoked attack on an Asian’s car by whites would get recorded as damage to a vehicle. An Asian youth robbing a white man for his wallet would get recorded as racially motivated assault. Only the latter would show up in the figures for racial incidents. More than likely, too, only the latter would get reported in the Oldham Evening Chronicle.
But, more importantly, at a time when there was, for once, a move at the national level to tackle police racism, the image of gang warfare and ‘no-go areas’ provided a useful alternative story, one in which the real problem was racialised gang violence. The police would then seem to be caught between two rival gangs rather than, as in the Lawrence case, themselves part of the problem. Hewitt’s approach, and its faithful reporting by the local press, set the template that would be used repeatedly over the following two years to interpret what was happening in Oldham.
The publication of Hewitt’s figures also alerted the extreme Right to a potential opportunity for expansion. The British National Party (BNP) newspaper, British Nationalist, put Oldham on its front page with the headline ‘Ethnic cleansing in Britain’, suggesting that Asians were involved in a concerted campaign to create no-go areas. A leafleting campaign was organised in the area and, by the summer of 2000, the BNP had established a small branch in the town.
Myths of preference
In fact, there are parts of Oldham which are no-go areas. If a group of Asian boys walk through the shopping centre in town, a security guard or police officer is likely to tell them to disperse. In the white areas of town you will see the words ‘Pakis Out’ painted on road signs. Abdul Malik-Ahad, a Westwood community worker, believes that if an Asian were to go onto those estates, within ten minutes they would be chased out. ‘It is something we just live with’, he says. ‘We live with racism day in and day out. We face it in employment, when we go for jobs, when we are on the buses. When people use this phrase “reverse racism”, they don’t understand what racism really means.’ On the other hand, Westwood and Glodwick, the areas where whites are supposedly excluded, are actually places where white people live alongside Asians. Ashid Ali, who lives in Westwood, believes that his white neighbours have made the effort to understand his way of life and he has likewise got to know them. Many whites in other parts of town take the view that ‘Asians keep themselves to themselves’ or ‘they don’t want to mix’. Partly this is based on ignorance – a refusal to go for a drink after work is taken as a personal rejection, rather than a part of one’s religion. Yet there are also wider prejudices and fears about Islam: that it is an inherently separatist and dangerous religion. These sentiments have been further fuelled by the BNP which, in Oldham, has recently started to argue that it only has a problem with Muslims, not with African-Caribbeans or Hindus and Sikhs. But the real issue is not religion but the scapegoating of the worst-off groups – Muslim Bangladeshis and Pakistanis suffer greater poverty than any other group. When you add the (false) perception that Asians are creating no-go areas to the (false) perception that they are also getting preferential treatment in council grants, what develops is a sense of victimhood among a white working class that has been all but abandoned by the Labour Party, its historic defender.
Fifty-two per cent of Pakistanis, 61 per cent of Bangladeshis and 7 per cent of whites live in the worst 10 per cent of deprived areas, according to the deprivation index used by Oldham Council. Yet over the last six years, the majority of regeneration grants have gone into white areas. Westwood and Glodwick received £16 million in 1995/96, whereas Hathershaw and Fitton Hill – predominantly white areas – have received £53 million. And none of these grants more than scratched the surface of the deprivation that afflicts all these communities. Yet the perception remains, among many whites, that Westwood and Glodwick have been given special privileges. With the poor and the still poorer fighting over the scraps of the government’s regeneration strategy, the possibility of repairing Oldham’s divisions was further diminished.
On a national stage
The strategy of targeting ‘Asian gangs’ continued into 2001. In January, the police published figures claiming that the number of attacks on whites was increasing. Of 572 racial incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to violence, 60 per cent were against whites. Again the interpretation was the same: Asians were creating ‘no-go areas’. With Asians still feeling unable to rely on police protection, Asian and white youths became further locked into a spiral of tit-for-tat violence.
Towards the end of March, Barnie Choudhury, a BBC Radio journalist, came to Oldham looking for a story. Finding a couple of Asian youths on a street corner, Choudhury egged them on into a flight of bravado. They were keeping whites out of some areas, they claimed, through a campaign of intimidation. The ‘special report’ went out on national radio, claiming that streets in Oldham were being adorned with the words ‘whites keep out’. No such graffiti existed, as even the police later admitted.
Then in April, Walter Chamberlain, a 76-year-old white war veteran, was set upon by a group of Asian youths as he walked through an industrial estate. The vicious attack on Chamberlain seemed to confirm all of Hewitt’s warnings about ‘no-go areas’. At last the local press had the white martyr they had been waiting for. His battered face appeared on the front of the Manchester Evening News, and the story then spread to all the national newspapers. In the Mail on Sunday, his story was told under the headline ‘Whites beware’. In the Mirror, his face appeared under the headline ‘Beaten for being white: OAP, 76, attacked in Asian no-go area’. Media pundits began to speculate on the apparent transformation of young Asian males – from the stereotype of hard-working boys, who respected their parents, to the new stereotype of angry, violent thugs.
However, the facts of the case had to be distorted to fit this mould. Although the police and the media were treating this as a racial attack, Chamberlain’s family themselves did not believe that the attack had been racially motivated. Rather it was a wanton act of thuggery against an old man unable to defend himself. In addition, the widely reported notion that he had been set upon for straying into a ‘no-go area’ made no sense, since the attack took place in a wasteland outside Westwood, unclaimed by any of the teenage gangs. Hoping to ease the tension, local Asian businessmen offered a reward for the capture of the attackers and, soon enough, the teenagers responsible were arrested. The police then thanked the local Bangladeshi community for their help.
But the damage had already been done. For racist whites, Chamberlain had become a national symbol for all that was wrong with British multiculturalism. For many Asians in Oldham, the noisy way in which his case had been promoted by the press stood in stark contrast to the silence which surrounded Asian victims of racism. On the same day as the Chamberlain attack, an Asian taxi driver was stabbed in Oldham. It was never reported.
Foothold for the far Right
On 28 April, a second division football match between Stoke City and Oldham Athletic was scheduled to take place in the town. Stoke City fans had a reputation for racist hooliganism and police were expecting trouble. In the run-up to the Saturday fixture, Asian shops had received threatening phone calls.
Before the game, pubs in town filled up with football supporters, many of whom were chanting racist abuse and intimidating non-white passers-by. At about 2pm, they were escorted by the police through Chadderton Way, a predominantly Bangladeshi business and residential street in Westwood. Abdul Malik-Ahad was in his front room when he heard noise from outside, chanting and racial epithets. He looked outside to see groups of whites chasing after people, smashing windows and doors. His brother ran in and slammed the front door shut behind him. About seven racists were outside attempting to kick in the door, shouting ‘fucking Paki, I’m going to kill you, black bastard’. Realising the door would not last the battering, they retreated behind a second door and barricaded it with furniture. Luckily, the second door held off the attackers. ‘God knows what they would have done if they smashed through the second door,’ Abdul told CARF later. ‘If things got worse, we would have been hurt. And they would have been hurt as well.’ Outside Abdul’s house, eight police vans were parked, their occupants apparently unwilling to intervene to halt the rampage.
By the time large numbers of young Asians came out on to the streets, the racists were being escorted away and there was a stand-off between the police and local residents. It was widely felt that the National Front (NF) and racist gangs had used the pretext of the football match to march through an Asian area. The normal attendance at an Oldham Athletic match is about 4000. The gate on this day was 9500. Had the match been hijacked by racists wanting to get revenge after hearing reports of Asian ‘no-go areas’? A month earlier, on 31 March, the NF had tried to organise a demonstration through Oldham. But the march had been banned by the Home Office (after some wavering by Hewitt) and an anti-fascist rally had taken place instead, with a thousand people in attendance. Had the NF now achieved its aim of marching through Oldham by hiding themselves among Stoke City supporters? What most angered the Westwood community was that these people had managed to get de facto police protection.
Once the football match was underway, the community tried to persuade the police to route the away supporters through a different part of town on their way back after the game. Meanwhile inside the stadium, the chant of ‘if you hate Pakis, stand up’ met with enthusiastic support from the majority in attendance. When the match was over, the advice from Westwood community leaders was ignored and the police escorted the away fans back along the same route. Again, racist abuse was chanted as the Stoke City ‘supporters’ marched through Asian areas. A line of riot police divided them from large numbers of young Asians now out on the streets, shouting back. Stones and, possibly, a petrol bomb were thrown from the Asian side. Once the ‘football supporters’ had left the area, the police turned their attention to controlling the angry crowd of Asian youths. The usual armoury of batons and dogs was deployed. A riot van was driven into the crowd in a bid to disperse the gathering. About seven people were injured by police truncheons or dog bites. Among young Asians, hatred of the police reached a new pitch.
The following Saturday, 5 May, around fifty extreme-Right supporters came to Oldham from the Midlands and London. This time, the police did organise a large-scale operation to prevent the outsiders from entering Asian areas. Nevertheless the Bank Holiday weekend was marred by a string of attacks: a number of Asian homes and shops were smashed up; an Asian restaurant worker suffered head injuries after being beaten unconscious as he walked home; a dart was thrown at an Asian boy from a passing car; a white man was attacked in Hathershaw; two Asians walking through Hathershaw were beaten up by a group of ten to fifteen whites.
For the rest of the month, the extreme Right continued to meet in pubs around Oldham. On Saturdays, Asians would stay away from the town centre, as NF members gathered there to hand out racist leaflets and shout abuse. On Monday 21 May, at a majority-Asian school in Breeze Hill, groups of ex-pupils who were NF supporters (including one who had already been excluded for racist violence) came into the school to racially abuse and throw stones at Asian students as they left exams. The incursions were repeated each day till Thursday, when the police arrived. They arrested four Asians for retaliating.
The final fuse was lit on Saturday 26 May. Football hooligans, BNP supporters, Combat 18 thugs and other racists gathered in the Britannia pub, Limeside. According to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, Nick Griffin, the BNP leader and parliamentary candidate for Oldham West, was there too. Later in the day, members of this group made their way to Glodwick. Their plan, as before, was to launch random attacks in an Asian area, hoping to provoke a large number of youths to come out onto the streets. The racists would be long gone by the time the police arrived to face an angry Asian crowd.
Later on the Saturday night, a group of ten white men went on a spree of violence through Glodwick. Shop and house windows were smashed and bricks thrown. Farida Azan, who was seven months pregnant, was showered with glass as a group chanting racist abuse smashed her front window. Another Asian woman sat in her car clutching her baby while yobs jumped on the bonnet and glass smashed around her.
When the police came to the scene, they arrested an Asian youth.
As word of what had happened spread through Glodwick, local residents began to assemble around the square on Waterloo Street, the focal point of the neighbourhood. The police, now in full riot gear, attempted to disperse the crowd but were repelled with stones. Instead of withdrawing and negotiating a calming of the situation, they sought to ‘regain control of the square’, mounting a military-style operation. As more violence was meted out against local residents, the anger against the police escalated. As Ashid Ali put it: ‘We had had enough. We were getting beaten up in our own areas. Women were getting beaten up. And then the police were there with their dogs and batons to beat us up.’
Petrol bombs were thrown, as hundreds of youths and riot police chased each other through the streets of Glodwick. The offices of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, a target of much resentment for its unbalanced reporting, were attacked. A number of pubs suspected of being launch pads for racist attacks were also targeted. Police took six hours to clear the streets and the nation woke to news of ‘the worst race riots in fifteen years’.
Fighting continued through the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend, spreading to Westwood on Sunday night. According to local residents, the police were running into people’s homes, kicking doors, saying ‘come out you fucking Pakis, I’m going to smash your face in’. Eye-witnesses claimed that everyone on the streets was being shouted at, photographed and searched, in what the police termed a ‘zero tolerance’ operation. Even the older generation were now saying that the police frightened them more than the NF. Akil Miah, who was in Glodwick on the Sunday night, saw a man in his forties attacked by the police: ‘In front of his home, the police attacked him with their dogs. He was down on the floor with a dog biting him. His little girl was screaming, saying “get off my dad, he’s done nothing wrong”.’
The general election
Two weeks after the riots, the BNP took 12000 votes across Oldham in the general election. In the Oldham West and Royton constituency, 16 per cent voted for Nick Griffin, giving the BNP leader the largest ever vote for a fascist party in a British parliamentary election. As cab-driver Akil Miah told CARF, ‘with that many people in this town voting for racism and fascism, every day in my job I could be picking up a passenger who looks at me in that way.’ Many felt that the three main parties had not done enough to challenge the BNP, which appeared to be the only party actively campaigning in the area. The council failed to refute false BNP claims that Asian areas were getting more grants. The failure of the authorities to take a firm stand against BNP propaganda continued after the election, when the decision was taken to end the allocation of grants to particular areas, based on need, and instead to spread the money across the whole borough, an implicit concession to BNP allegations of preferential treatment for Asians. The election result catapulted Griffin into the political mainstream, as he appeared on a host of television and radio current affairs programmes, presenting himself as a ‘common-sense’ opponent of multiculturalism.
Meanwhile the violence continued. Riaz Ahmad, Oldham’s deputy mayor, had his home petrol bombed on 1 June. Then two weeks later, the Qureshi family shop in Hathershaw received the same treatment.
There is now the real threat of BNP councillors in Oldham unless anti-racists can organise to defeat the far Right before next May’s council elections.