BY ALISON DELLIT
Since April, the north of England has been racked by street violence as Asian youths confront racist gangs in a desperate attempt to defend the safety of their communities. The riots have centered on the north-western towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, all areas targeted by the far-right British National Party in the general elections.
While most of the local, and international, media have been quick to focus on "Asian violence", little coverage has been given to the events that precipitated the violence, or the entrenched racial apartheid that characterises many of Britain's northern towns.
Towns like Bradford, Burnley and Oldham brought large numbers of Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants in during the 1960s as cheap labour for the spinning mills, in particular for the unpopular night shifts. But as the companies "restructured" during the 1970s, mass layoffs throughout England's north generated tremendously high unemployment.
The resulting poverty crippled white, Asian and black communities. It also exacerbated the racial divide: 50% of young Asians in Bradford are unemployed.
Blacks and Asians were seperated from white communites by discriminatory housing policies. In Bradford, just 2% of council housing is allocated to Asian families. In Oldham, a Commission for Racial Equality investigation in the early 1990s found the council guilty of operating a segregationist housing policy.
The situation is so extreme that, following the May 27 violence in Oldham, the local council erected a 7-metre-high metal fence in Hathersham between the white community of Fitton Hill and a nearby Asian-dominated street, effectively barricading the white and Asian communities off from each other.
Along with separate housing comes separate schooling. A report commissioned by Bradford Vision and published by Lord Herman Ouseley on July 12 found many schools were nearly 100% composed of students from the same ethnic background.
The government's strategy of promoting cultural education as the "answer" to anti-racism has done little to help.
In "The Violence of the Violated", a research paper for the Institute of Race Relations, Arun Kundani argued, "Since white working-class children were perceived as having no culture, their parents soon started to complain of favouritism to Asians in the classroom ... Genuine education about other people, their histories and their struggles, was replaced with the grim essentialism of identity politics. A generation grew up who were not given the tools to understand how their own towns and cities had become increasingly divided by race."
Ouseley's report argued that "virtual apartheid in schools" contributed to a situation where Bradford was "a city gripped in fear".
And most of that fear is coming from the Asian community.
Britain's north has an appalling record of racial violence. In 1999, the McPherson report found that the police force was influenced by racism, which prevented it from responding effectively to racist violence. Since the release of the report, the number of reported race crimes has increased, resulting in at least 19 deaths in England.
"The real crime problems faced by Asian communities — not only racist incursions but the growing epidemic of heroin use — [have been] ignored", according to Kundani. "Among young Asians, there grew a hatred of a police force that left them vulnerable to racism, on the one hand, and, on the other, criminalised them for defending themselves."
Kundani argues that at the same time as persecuting black youth, the state created and co-opted a black middle class. He says, "a new class of 'ethnic representatives' entered the town halls from the mid-1980s onwards, who would be the surrogate voice for their own ethnically defined fiefdoms. They entered into a pact with authorities; they were to cover up and gloss over black community resistance in return for free rein in preserving their own patriarchy."
The marginalisation and isolation of black and Asian communities created the conditions which the neo-fascist groups like Combat 18, along with their more respectable front, the British National Party, have begun to exploit, resulting directly in the violence of the last few months.
Role of BNP
The BNP decided in April to run its chairperson, Nick Griffen, for the seat of Oldham West and Royton in the July general election. This was designed to raise Griffen's profile, in preparation for the council elections in 2002, which the BNP hopes to do well in. The areas the BNP decided as secondary priorities were Bradford North, Burnley, and Oldham East and Saddleworth.
The BNP has an official policy of "encouraging" non-white immigrants to move back to their "country of origin", and says that in government it would organise a formal repatriation program. Under Griffen's leadership, the party has aimed specifically at gaining the ear of the disaffected, largely unemployed, poor white working class in the north-west — exactly the areas most racked by poverty and racial segregation.
Griffen has a particularly nasty history. In 1995, he wrote of the need to defend "rights for white" with "well-directed boots and fists". In March, he traveled to the United States gathering election campaign funding from prominent members of the Ku Klux Klan like David Duke, and racist organisations such as the National Alliance, which produced the book about race war that inspired Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Calls for a halt to all construction of mosques and five-bedroom homes for Muslims kicked off the BNP campaign. Griffen said: "Muslims are the biggest problem at present, for several reasons, because they have the highest birth rate, which means their communities need living space — that's what the ethnic cleansing is about."
The violence started in Oldham. Throughout April, residents reported an increase in activity by Combat 18, and several fights broke out between neo-Nazis and residents. When, on April 12, a local war veteran was attacked and robbed and a young Asian boy was charged, the racists used it as an opportunity to increase the level of harassment.
On April 29, five days after Griffen announced his candidacy, gangs of suspected Combat 18 members turned up to a football match chanting racist taunts and slogans. A scuffle ensued, which got widespread media attention (the racist taunts did not). The BNP announced that it was planning a rally in the centre of Oldham for May 5, and anti-racist groups announced they would counter-mobilise.
The Labour government, which has attempted to marry racist attacks on immigration with continued support for Asian and black "community leaders", was in no hurry to have the national spotlight put on race issues. Home secretary Jack Straw took the extraordinary step of banning all political marches in Oldham for the duration of the election, to "[protect] racial harmony".
Denied a key political defence mechanism, the Asian and black community were left at the mercy of the racist thugs who always accompanied the BNP's demonstrations. On May 6, 500 police were deployed in an attempt to prevent 50 BNP supporters from marching. Meanwhile, small gangs of racists ran riot throughout Oldham, smashing windows and attacking Muslim districts.
Two weeks later, the racist National Front announced it was holding a demonstration of its own and the process was repeated again.
On May 26, small gangs of racists again started to throw rocks at Muslim-owned shops and local children. When local Asian young people counter-mobilised, the police took action, and arrested not only the white aggressors, but also those who had mobilised to defend their community.
The simmering anger and frustration erupted, and police found themselves battling a 500-strong crowd. The ensuing street battle lasted for more than six hours, and finished with nearly 30 arrests and significant property damage throughout Oldham.
Particular targets were pubs frequented by whites. The Observer's economics writer, Faisal Islam, writing on July 15, explained that pubs were generally places young Asians avoided, describing "closing time fear".
"As a 15-year-old I was battered by a group of over-cidered townies", Islam recounted. "The gang-leader told the court he couldn't be a racist because he occasionally worked with an Asian electrician."
Burnley and Bradford
On June 24, a street argument in Burnley between white and Asian youth turned violent when an Asian taxi driver was hit in the face with a hammer. Although police were called, they did not arrive for more than half an hour, by which time pitched battles had broken out.
On June 25, a message appeared on one of the web's many racist sites — "if you love your country, come to Burnley". On the streets of Burnley, Asian youth were fending off attacks from 200 racists. The violence culminated in the torching of a pub.
When a local Asian councillor attempted to calm the situation, he was knocked unconscious by police, and then charged with inciting a riot. The charges were later dismissed.
On July 15, the National Front held a (banned) 50-strong rally in Bradford. The Anti-Nazi League held a 500-strong demonstration nearby. While the anti-racist demonstration continued, the National Front members moved to a local pub. At about 4.30pm, the violence began.
An onlooker described the mayhem to the July 16 Guardian, "In Allinson's bar a large group of white men were throwing bottles really hard at anybody and everybody. They'd grabbed a young Asian lad and beaten him senseless."
When the police moved in to arrest "provocateurs on both sides", Asian youth retaliated against them. The battle lasted for nine hours, and involved in excess of 1000 young Asians, two of whom were hospitalised with stab wounds.
In the general election, although the BNP reached the 5% threshold in just five seats, all were in the north-west. Griffen received a stunning 16.4% of the vote. The next highest BNP result was in Burnley with 11.3% of the vote. In Oldham East, it was 11.2% and in Bradford it was 5%.
The BNP website regards these results as a "complete vindication of what we are doing".
Asian and Black communities in the north-west and around the country, and all those who oppose racism, are gearing up to repulse the racists' next assaults.