Brexit, Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the issues of 20 years ago largely unaddressed have raised a question of when not if race riots will explode again in the country.
On a warm evening in July 2001, Manawar Jan-Khan, a resident of the northern English city of Bradford received several calls and messages from friends asking him to come to the city centre. Members of a racist far-right organisation, the National Front (NF), had turned up despite their planned march being banned by the government.
Khan never got a chance to confront the racists who threatened the South Asians in the city consisting of first and second-generation migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. He and hundreds of others who’d gathered on the streets to protect their families and properties were instead targeted by those they sought protection from.
“I saw lines of police officers in riot gear as if they were at war”.
Khan says he simply wanted to peacefully demonstrate against the NF. Growing up in the eighties he’s seen how they’d marched through the largely Asian areas of Bradford frightening mostly passive residents. This time his community wanted to show the younger generation was not afraid. Things didn’t turn out as planned.
An hour before Khan left his house an Asian man was stabbed by NF supporters.
“The police didn’t arrest them. They stood and watched it happen. The NF then wanted to march into the Asian area and the police allowed them. We said, ‘no- we are not going to let that happen’. A lot of people became organised and started to gather and demonstrate. Then the police started arresting young Asian men rather than stopping the NF”.
A mounting sense of powerlessness quickly overtook many of the youths. “We stood there for one minute. The next minute we were running from police on horses with their batons charging towards us like Roman warriors. They came hitting whatever was in their way: entirely young Asian men”, describes Khan.
The situation rapidly descended into a riot as some young Asians set up burning barricades to protect their community, throwing stones and petrol bombs at what Khan says were overly aggressive, violent and racist officers. Over three nights $9 million (£7 million) worth of damage was done to property and 300 arrests were made.
Over the previous two months, similar riots had taken place nearby in Leeds Oldham and Burnley.
What led to the powerlessness, frustration and desperation that eventually found its outlet in violent resistance?
Official government reports cited a lack of racial integration as a significant cause of the riots.
In the 1960s large numbers of south Asian migrants came to work in the declining textile mills and factories of these towns and cities. “The whites saw there was no future working in the textile industry so mill owners, supported by the government, imported Asian workers”, says Roger Frost, a local historian and former mayor of Burnley.
They worked night shifts and could only afford poor-quality housing to live in. As more moved across and settled into the same housing estates, ‘white flight’ took place.
Racial divisions in England are often blamed on Asians and other ethnic minorities failing to integrate with wider society. However, racism, both institutional and personal, has played a major part in this.
In the early 1990s, the government-appointed Commission for Racial Equality revealed Oldham council was deliberately implementing a segregationist housing policy. “I knew councillors in Oldham. One of them admitted the council was racist towards Asians when it came to housing. I do know the same applies to Burnley”, says Frost. “Some councillors insisted on deciding who should be awarded council houses because they didn’t want Asians in their wards”.
Khan shares his experience. “I grew up in a diverse area: Ukrainians, Italians, Asians but not many white English; they moved out to richer areas. The Asians lived together because of solidarity. We were afraid of racism. But also it is very hard to integrate when you live in poverty. The same applies to white working-class people in housing estates, on welfare”.
A month before the riots, national media reported on “no-go areas” for whites created by Asians. This was disputed by locals. “In Burnley, I’ve never been afraid to go into Asian areas. This was a creation of the press. I heard this was a problem in Manchester and Oldham or at least some white people felt no–go areas existed”, says Frost.
Economic Decline & Ineffective Leadership
Frost believes the tensions of twenty years ago, which still exist today, are economic ones that end up being manipulated and expressed racially. Whether brown or white he says “poor people are left to fight each other for an equal slice of the national pie. The central government created the problems which in turn led to the riots. Burnley has never had the funding to resolve the problems created by various governments particularly that of [former Prime Minister of the UK Margaret] Thatcher. That is where the problems all begin. Thatcher was not in favour of the manufacturing industry and it collapsed in Burnley whilst she was in power”.
Parental Void and Control
Ishtiaq Ahmed is the manager of Sharing Voices, a mental health charity working primarily with ethnic minorities in Bradford. He feels more light needs to be shed on some contributing factors which led to Asian youths in 2001 turning to violence and which are still present today.
“When the first generation arrived in the fifties they didn’t spend much time with their children. They were working when children were sleeping and sleeping when children came home from school.
“Though they worked hard as breadwinners they hadn’t built a meaningful relationship with their children. The kids reached a certain age where they developed some independence and they went in a direction different from what the parents wanted. They’d grown up resenting and rebelling against their fathers in many ways because there was a culture of control which took precedence over love. Often there was a failure to express any love at all”.
That style of parenting has carried on into the current generation. “I’ve seen how massive an impact this has on the mental health of young people- but there is a stigma in the Asian community about this.” When mixed with poverty and institutional racism this creates social tinder which can easily be ignited.
With the racist far-right growing in influence twenty years on thanks in part to social media, Brexit and Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the issues of 20 years ago largely unaddressed, it is a question of when not if race riots will explode again in northern England.