Support youth uprisings against racism and poverty

The explosions on the streets of Oldham, Burnley, Leeds, Stoke, Accrington and Bradford were not just Asian youth defending themselves and their communities against fascists and police violence. They were revolts against racism, unemployment and poverty. The catalyst for the uprisings was the action of organised fascists in the National Front (NF) and British National Party (BNP) aided and abetted by the police. In all these towns, attacks on Asian communities by fascists and sections of white working class youth were met with resistance and ended in mass confrontations and street battles with the police.

The events in Oldham began in February with the boss of Oldham police, Chief Superintendent Eric Hewitt, issuing statistics to the media that purported to show that the majority of recorded ‘racist’ incidents in the town were Asian on white. The myth was supported by the local press with lurid stories of ‘no-go’ areas and violent attacks by Asian gangs on lone whites. This was the green light for a series of planned or rumoured fascist marches and rallies in the town. In March the BNP held a picket outside Oldham police station calling for action to defend whites from attacks by Asians. Following the street robbery of 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain, in April, the police and media branded the attack as racist and declared that there were no-go areas for whites in Oldham.

Mr Chamberlain’s family though were clear; they declared that the attack was a cowardly robbery not a racist attack.

At a meeting after the attack, Superintendent Dick Crawshaw of Oldham police responded to a comment that local Asians denied there were any no-go areas for whites in the town by stating that: ‘You must have spoken to the only 12 people in the area that can read or write.’

Two days after the attack on Mr Chamberlain, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP declared that he would be standing in Oldham in the General Election. In the run-up to the election there was continued provocation from racists and fascists against the Asian community with the NF declaring that it was going to march or rally in the town every Saturday in May. Straw announced a ban on NF marches in Oldham but this had no real effect on their activity. On 29 April, before and after the Oldham Athletic versus Stoke City football match, racist gangs attacked the local Asian community. On 21 May a gang of white youths, throwing missiles and shouting racist abuse, attacked young Asians outside Breeze Hill School in Glodwick, Oldham.

The uprising of Asian youth over the weekend of 26/27 May was sparked off by attacks from white youth on Asian homes on the Saturday. Bricks were thrown through the windows of the house of Mr and Mrs Azam narrowly missing her pregnant daughter Fareeda. One witness said: ‘The gang of white youths who did this were going round knocking on all the front doors of the street. If it was answered by an Asian, then you got abuse or assaulted.’

After another confrontation with a racist gang outside the local chip shop the police arrested four Asian men! Young Asians quickly gathered to defend their community from this racist attack and to demand the release of those arrested. The response of the police was to don riot gear and move into predominantly Asian areas to confront the youth. This led to two nights of fighting with the police, with at least one police van torched by the youth. As Affy, a young Asian put it:

‘The police have failed to stop the NF coming into parts of Oldham and picking on Asian people. Because of that we had a situation that was created by the police, as they had let the extremist groups into town. That is why anger was directed against the police.’

On the charge that a lot of the destruction caused by the youth was ‘mindless’, Affy responds, ‘If you look at the trouble a lot of it was not mindless, it was aimed at pubs which people believe supported the NF’.
Just over a week after the uprising, the BNP received 13,260 votes in the General Election in the three constituencies that cover Oldham. At the same time they received 4,151 votes in Burnley and 1,976 in the neighbouring constituency of Pendle.

The events in Burnley began with an attack on an Asian taxi driver in the early morning of Saturday 23 June; his cheekbone was broken with a hammer in the assault. On Sunday evening a large gang of racists attempted to invade the Stoneyholme district of the town to attack a mosque. With rumours of the NF and BNP marching in the town, Asian youth came out to defend their area and were confronted and attacked by riot clad police. Again a pub where fascists had held meetings in Burnley was a target for the youth and was fire bombed. The true nature of the police and their racist contempt for the Asian youth was on full display on the Monday evening when they overstepped the mark in attacking a prominent member of the Asian middle class political establishment. Shahid Malik, the only black member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, also a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and son of the Deputy Mayor of Burnley, was attacked and knocked unconscious by police as he was attempting to get youth off the streets. As he put it: ‘I was playing what I thought was an important role by telling Asian youths, the police are not the target here; within three minutes of saying that I was unconscious on the floor.’

What would have been a run of the mill racist assault on a working class Asian youth became front-page news because of Malik’s position, but even after experiencing the reality of British policing Malik still called for support for the police!

The events in Bradford followed a similar pattern with reports of a planned NF march in the city centre on the Saturday, 7 July. After an Anti Nazi League (ANL) counter-rally, drunken racists began hurling bottles at Asian youth. As they fought back, the police moved in with full riot gear to push the Asian youth out of the city centre. Fighting with the police carried on for up to nine hours as the police tried to push the youth into Manningham, the Asian area of Bradford.

The response of the Labour government and the new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, in the fall-out of Bradford has been predictably draconian. Blunkett is now considering the use of water cannon in ‘riot’ situations. ‘I am keen to examine any suggestions that are put forward in circumstances where people believe they can go on the streets, threaten others including the police and believe they can get away with it’ he said.

Marsha Singh, the Labour MP for Bradford West, and former leader of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s called for the banning of ANL rallies saying, ‘the price is too high’.

What is common to Oldham, Burnley and Bradford and to other towns in the north of England with substantial working class Asian communities is the decline in the traditional textile industry. In the 1960s and early 1970s workers were recruited from the Asian sub-continent to work in the mills of the area. They came to do the jobs the white working class was rejecting, shift work and long unsociable hours for low pay. As the industry went into decline, large numbers of Asian workers were made redundant. The areas where Asian workers live are now amongst the most deprived in Britain. Government statistics for spring 2000 showed that while the unemployment rate for white males was 6.9% the rate for ethnic minorities was nearly double at 13%. For Bangladeshi men the rate was a staggering 20.4%. For women the situation was even worse with unemployment rates for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women at 23.9%!

Oldham is designated the thirty third most deprived area in England, with the wards where the majority of Asian people live amongst the bottom 10% of deprived areas in the country. A report produced by Oldham MBC in 1994 showed that unemployment rates in areas with a high Asian community were twice the average rate for the town. In one area of Glodwick unemployment was running at 55%. In 1998 the unemployment rates for Pakistani and Bangladeshi men stood at 38%, nearly five times greater than for white workers. The 1991 census showed that over 60% of the Asian population lived in the most deprived areas of town with some of the worst housing conditions, a situation that has increased over the past ten years. The death rate in Oldham is nearly one third higher than the national average, a situation clearly connected to the levels of deprivation in the town.

The latest figures on youth unemployment show that Werneth, a predominantly Asian area of Oldham, has a youth unemployment rate of 24.7%, the worst in Greater Manchester, with other Asian districts of Oldham having levels over twice the average of 8.8%.

In Burnley unemployment in the predominantly Asian district of Danehouse is nearly twice the average for the town, it is also one of the worst areas of Britain for levels of child poverty.

These figures show the lie that Labour, the police and ‘community leaders’ have peddled that the uprisings have been ‘riots’, organised either by ‘criminals’, ‘yobs’ or ‘outsiders’. The uprisings have been against racism, police violence and poverty and need the support of all anti-racists and socialists. The response of the Labour government will be to further attack civil liberties and the right to demonstrate with the use of water cannon or plastic bullets.

The police have begun the arrests and the trawling of their own video coverage for faces to identify. They have already gone to court to try to get hold of all TV video coverage of the uprisings, whether actually shown on the TV or not. The state wants to take its vengeance out on the youth. A campaign to defend all those arrested in the uprisings should be a priority.

Self-defence is no offence!
Drop all the charges now!

FRFI 162 August / September 2001


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