A ground-breaking civil rights conference, planned by and for young people in Yorkshire, went ahead despite claims that the local council placed difficulties in its path.
On Tuesday 17 November, 450 young people packed into an international conference centre in Leeds to discuss the issues of most concern to them growing up in twenty-first century Britain. These ranged from young people’s misrepresentation in the media to their alienation from the democratic process, from what they feel is the disproportionate use of stop and search to the criminalisation and surveillance of young people and, finally, concerns about the lack of safe spaces for young people.
IRR News attended the event and spoke to those involved in organising the conference. What it found was a fascinating story of how a group of young people, who come from an ethnically diverse, mutually suspicious and even hostile, working-class background, came together driven by a collective sense of injustice and refused, in the face of local council objections, to see this conference about their rights cancelled.
‘Defending youth rights’ conference
Organised under the auspices of civil liberties group JUST West Yorkshire, the conference, judging by the numbers attending and the young participants’ active engagement, turned out to be a resounding success. Local schools, colleges, universities and youth clubs across the region were represented by around 450 young people (ranging from 16 to 25 years old).
Ex-Guantánamo detainee and spokesperson for Cageprisoners Moazzam Begg and radical human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC gave keynote speeches on the contemporary threats to civil and political rights and the ways in which young people can became active in defence of these rights. The speeches were followed by a workshop on the key conference issues. A lively panel discussion took place after lunch and included the keynote speakers, local youth activists Lutel James, a former ‘bad boy’ turned professional footballer and now chairman of Chapletown Football Youth Development Centre, and Richard Bennet, an ex-offender and now youth mentor and role model. Assistant Chief Constable Jawaid Akhtar, with responsibility for Serious and Organised Crime, represented West Yorkshire police on the panel.
With more questions than there was time to answer, the panellists managed to respond to a wide variety of topics raised by the young people, which included Muslim stereotyping by the police, the point of CCTV cameras, the police and media response to gun and knife crime and the government’s controversial ‘Prevent’ programme on violent extremism.
When asked for his reflections on the conference, keynote speaker Moazzam Begg said: ‘If I compare this conference to the one that happened last year in Bradford [a 2008 JUST West Yorkshire conference], there was an absence of young people there, whereas here there is nothing but young people. Nobody’s being forced to come here, the young people have come here of their own accord, and not only have they come of their own accord, they’ve set the damn thing up! They’ve organised it!’
The conference ended with an official launch of a Declaration of Youth Rights, signed by over half of the young delegates. Nineteen-year-old Shakeel ‘Shak’ Khan, one of the conference organisers and a compère on the day, said that the declaration will act as the first step towards developing a bigger youth network throughout West Yorkshire. He said: ‘We want as many people to sign it. We think it’s time young people stood up for their rights.’
Black and White youth groups come together
Darren Coyne, the youth rights worker for JUST West Yorkshire’s Myth Busters project and one of the key organisers, explained how the seeds of the conference were sown in February this year: ‘It all began in the West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees, where there are four communities, two predominantly White working-class and two Asian with a long history of mutual suspicion and hostility. And there is a third factor – the refugee and asylum community in Ravensthorpe [one of the areas in Kirklees] which faced harassment from both the resident indigenous White and Asian communities.’
These White and Asian communities are physically divided – whether it be by a line of bollards or a specific alleyway – and are deeply hostile to one another. For example, young people from White working-class communities, suffering from redundancy and prolonged unemployment, blamed the asylum seekers they saw in their area for these problems. It wasn’t until the Myth Busters project began to encourage young people from the different communities to meet one another that they began to see that what divided them was far less significant than that which united them.
According to Darren, ‘they developed a commonality around access to services and barriers to access. They realised that they both have the same problems – the lack of safe spaces, the fact that their estates were particularly picked on by the police and media, a feeling of complete alienation when it came to the democratic process.’ So much so in fact that they united together to form a football team, the Ravensthorpe All Stars.
Darren continued: ‘The whole point of Myth Busters is to bridge this divide. To provide a safe space that young people can come together in and have some ownership over. With the All Stars, we have created a safe space within which we have been able to successfully begin a dialogue on civil liberties, racial justice and youth rights. It was from this initial grouping of 140 young people in Kirklees that the idea of the conference came.’
Out of these fledgling links a core steering group of young people emerged and began to discuss the issues that most affected them and the possibility of holding a conference. Conference organiser Shakeel Khan explained how the local partnerships between key groups developed: ‘We did work all around West Yorkshire with the different [youth] centres – the Hamara Centre, Chapeltown Youth Development Centre, Mandela Centre [all in Leeds], West Bowling Youth Initiative [in Bradford] and Next Generation from Wakefield and it was all good, meeting new people.’ These young people, now calling themselves the Youth Rights Network, collectively decided on the five core themes, chose the speakers and panellists for the conference and helped to design the publicity material.
Council contacts Yorkshire schools over objections
Despite the overwhelming success of the conference, and the obvious enjoyment and engagement of its young audience and organisers on the day, developments in the run-up to the big day could have sabotaged the whole event.
In the fortnight before the event, Leeds City Council had, according to a spokesperson, become ‘concerned about the image of the police and the general thrust of the conference’ having seen the conference publicity material. As a result, the Council began a process of directly contacting schools about the event ‘to counsel against encouraging young people to take part’. In a later statement it claimed: ‘We never tried to stop anyone from attending the conference, we merely spoke to Education Leeds and our schools about the issues we and the police had.’
An internal Council email outlining these concerns, and alleging ‘very serious Police concern’, was forwarded to JUST West Yorkshire with a specific request for its response. The Council later summarised its concerns as follows: ‘Its [the leaflet’s] digitally manipulated images of the police were entirely negative and there was a predominance of references to terrorism – Guantanamo Bay, The Birmingham Six, Jean Charles de Menezes – as well as an image of graffiti saying “I am not a terrorist please don’t arrest me” [a Vivienne Westwood design for human rights group Liberty].’ The Council had also said that ‘a number of the organisations which the leaflet claims are backing the event … were not consulted in advance of the leaflet’s publication’. It accused the organisers of trying to ‘exploit’ and ‘manipulate’ the young invitees through the use of this imagery. No Leeds City Council representatives attended on the day.
Ratna Lachman, director of JUST West Yorkshire, described the interventions as ‘unprecedented’ and said that the accusations highlighted ‘the feverish climate we live in where any attempt to discuss the issue of rights is refracted through the prism of extremism and state security. It is an affront to the huge investment in time, effort and energy made by young people in organising this conference.’ The organisation also argued that all groups involved were fully consulted and that the imagery used on the publicity material represented the key themes identified by young people. It was particularly concerned about Council actions with regards to schools’ involvement, labelling it as ‘oppressive’ and saying that ‘young people should have the right to self-determine whether they wish to attend the event or not, instead of having the choice imposed on them’.
Reaction to Council manoeuvres
Despite Council allegations about police concern (which the Council has not been able to substantiate to either IRR News or JUST West Yorkshire), West Yorkshire police were represented on the day of the conference by Assistant Chief Constable Jawaid Akhtar. A West Yorkshire police spokesperson later said: ‘Regardless of third party comments that appear to imply otherwise, West Yorkshire Police always intended to engage with the JUST [West Yorkshire] event in Leeds. We were present at an event organised by JUST in 2008. We are open and seek engagement in a whole range of different events. The proposal to bring hundreds of young people to a conference in Leeds provided a great opportunity for such engagement.’
At the same time, the rights group Liberty, which originally was a conference partner alongside JUST West Yorkshire and whose director, Shami Chakrabarti, was due to be a keynote speaker, requested a postponement following contact with the Council.
The young conference organisers held a meeting to discuss Liberty’s request and council objections. Organiser Shakeel Khan said: ‘The whole youth group just decided that the conference should go ahead. They decided that even if just ten people came we’ll carry on with the conference and we’d do it and we’d make sure that we do more conferences that move around West Yorkshire and reach more people.’
A Liberty spokesperson told IRR News: ‘Organising collaborative public events is a significant administrative challenge. Liberty became concerned about the planning of an event that was apparently dividing local groups. Lacking the time and resources to resolve the problems in Leeds within a short timeframe, we suggested that they might postpone. When they understandably decided to press ahead, we no longer felt we could helpfully contribute. Nonetheless we wished them every success with their event.’
JUST West Yorkshire is still angry about the conduct of the Council and has requested a meeting in order to express their concern.
Download a copy of the conference flyer (pdf file, 1,610kb, large file)