The Rebels of Oldham

Britain: South Asian youth fight racists and police

Revolutionary Worker #1106, June 10, 2001, posted at

"We are retaliating, trying to put a stop to it. No more, I mean, you've got to defend your own doorstep, your own house. When you've got people knocking on your door and dragging your family out and beating them up, you've got to put a stop to it and this is it."

Asian man in Oldham

May 26, Saturday night. It began just after 8 p.m. in the town of Oldham, 190 miles northwest of London. Tensions had been building for weeks in the Glodwick neighborhood, home to many immigrant families from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

For more than a month, members of the racist National Front and the rightwing British National Party had been coming into town, passing out pamphlets, campaigning for the June elections, and harassing Asian people. This Saturday night they rampaged through Glodwick, breaking windows and starting fights.

One neighbor said, "All the kids were just playing in the street. Suddenly these white lads arrived--there was no warning or anything. They were chasing the kids and throwing stones."

Police arrived on the scene, made four arrests and tried to calm things down. But news of the racist attacks quickly spread and groups of Asian youth started pouring into the street.

For more than seven hours, hundreds of Asian youth fought in the streets, throwing bricks, garbage cans, and firebombs at the police, attacking pubs and torching cars. At the height of the fighting, 500 youth faced off against hundreds of police who arrived in riot gear, carrying full-length shields.

The youth fought through the night, until it began to rain and the sun came up. By morning, when the police had finally cleared the streets, five pubs had been firebombed, 15 cops were injured and at least 17 people had been arrested.

The next night, Sunday, the youth took to the streets again, throwing bricks and stones at the police, targeting another pub for attack and smashing windows in the town center. They threw more firebombs at the police and then erected burning barricades of tires and furniture. Newspapers reported the police were confronted by youth armed with bats. The headquarters of the local newspaper, the Oldham Evening Chronicle, was firebombed. Police sealed off the main roads in the area while a police helicopter monitored the situation from overhead. Police were also brought in. Riot police moved in to try and disperse the crowd and gain control of the streets. But as the night changed into dawn, sporadic fighting continued.

On Monday night, hundreds of police in riot gear patrolled the streets, but crowds of youth took to the streets again for a third night of fighting.

Roots of the Rebellion

"When you go for a job and you say you are from Glodwick, they say 'On your bike'."

Unemployed Asian youth in Oldham

Oldham's predominantly working class population of 219,000 live in very segregated neighborhoods. Between 15% and 20% of the town's people are immigrants or children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Many arrived in the 1960s or 1970s to work in the busy cotton mills. Skilled workers, recruited from textile factories in the Sylhet area of Bangladesh, parts of Pakistan, and Gujarat in India, moved into the cheapest parts of town, near people who spoke the same language. In the Glodwick neighborhood, they joined thousands of other immigrants who had come from the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica.

By the late 1970s, the cotton business began to suffer and Asian workers were the first to get laid off. The economic situation for many proletarians, including white workers, was extremely hard during these years. And the racist National Front came into town, blaming these hardships on immigrants, fomenting distrust and animosity between different nationalities.

Today, the Asian communities in Oldham are still among the poorest places in all of Britain. There is a severe shortage of housing here. Unemployment in the Pakistani areas is 16%. In the Bangladeshi neighborhoods, it's 25%. Among the youth in Oldham, unemployment is 40% to 50%. In 1992 a Commission for Racial Equality report found that the Oldham council had "discriminated against Asians on racial grounds by segregating them from other applicants" in its policies of housing allocation.

Immigrants in Oldham also face widespread police brutality and racism. Asian and black youth are subjected to random stops, searches, beatings and arrests. Many complain that the police don't come to their aid when they are in trouble--especially when racists come into the town and attack immigrants. Added to this, the police and the media have recently been using crime statistics to stir up the notion that the main problem in Oldham is that white people are being attacked by Asians.

One writer in the Guardian responded to this with this description of Oldham: "It is a place where Asian shopkeepers endure regular hails of bricks thrown by white youths, Pakistani taxi drivers are attacked if they wander into the wrong estate and Bangladeshi children are afraid to play in local parks for fear of being attacked by racists with dogs. Yet local police say the ethnic minorities are not so much the victims of racially motivated attacks as the perpetrators."

The Guardian newspaper quoted one Asian youth who recalled a 1987 march through Oldham by the racist National Front: "Our parents stayed at home and kept us in all day. They were really afraid. But now young people have developed confidence. Some Asian lads can be quite rough when provoked by racist groups.'' Another Asian youth interviewed on the radio talked about how many kids remember their older brothers and parents getting attacked by racists--how this sticks in their minds and how now, they are determined to fight back.

One youth from Oldham told a reporter, "Sometimes drunken white gangs come into Glodwick and make trouble. They shout abuse and throw bricks at people. The police don't do anything. It is up to Asian groups to protect their community. After these white gangs have been kicked out of the area the police say to them, 'Who beat you up?' " Usually, these incidents are then written up as "racist attacks"--adding to the racist propaganda that the real "problem" is how white people are being victimized by Asians.

In April, 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain was mugged and badly beaten by what he said was a gang of "Asians.'' The police immediately issued a statement saying the attack was "racially motivated"--even though Chamberlain's own family denied this. The incident made headlines the next day and the police and media provoked racist groups with the claim that Asian youth had declared "no-go areas" for whites. Soon after this, the National Front started coming into Oldham every week, passing out racist literature, attacking local Asian shops, and harassing immigrants.

"We don't mind if white people come to Glodwick," one Asian teenager told a reporter, "We're not stopping whites from coming to this area--but we're not going to tolerate racism any more. I've always worked with and got on with white people--I don't believe in racism. In the past our parents got beaten up by racists, but us youngsters know our rights. We won't accept it. If an idiot comes into Glodwick looking for violence we've got to defend ourselves."

When the National Front announced they would march through the town center on May 5, anti-racist forces, including the Anti-Nazi League, organized to protest and confront them. City authorities announced a three-month ban on any protests. On May 5, more than 500 police were deployed into Oldham to prevent any clashes. Only 30 to 50 National Front racists showed up--and ended up being penned into an area--basically protected--by the police from hundreds of anti-racist protesters. That night Asian and black youth and others continued to rebel, throwing firebombs, smashing windows, and building burning barricades.

In the following weeks, members of the National Front and the rightwing British National Party continued to come into Oldham on the weekends, campaigning for the upcoming June elections. As part of their program they launched a "boycott Asian businesses" campaign. One BNP internal bulletin stated: "Winning council seats and building a powerful pro-white political party is the way forward. We must do all we can over the days and weeks of communal unrest ahead to encourage white people to organize politically, and to see that the only way to put an end to the failed multi-racial experiment is through the ballot box." Meanwhile, BNP leaflets passed out in Oldham called for an end to the building of mosques and "five-bedroom houses" for Asian families and decrying what the party called "ethnic cleansing of white people in Oldham." Nick Griffin, the BNP's candidate for Parliament in Oldham, puts forward that the "solution" to Oldham's problems is for Asian people to move out of predominantly white areas and for white people to move out of Asian neighborhoods, with walls erected between the two communities to keep the peace. He also advocates an end to non-white immigration to Britain and voluntary repatriation of racial minorities. All this is feeding into and bolstering the mainstream Tory party which promotes a blatant anti-immigrant program.

For three nights, hundreds of Asian youth gave their answer to this rising tide of racist activity in Oldham. They resisted all the moves by city authorities and police to crack down on those determined to protest and fight the racists. And they rebelled against the poverty, discrimination and police brutality their communities face every day.

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