The events in Oldham have hit the national headlines. Similar explosions of racial conflict have taken place in other towns in Britain. This has brought the BNP and the danger from far-right groups back into the spotlight. Bryan Beckingham, Secretary of Oldham National Union of Teachers, and Alan Creear in Oldham describe the background to these developments.
Oldham mobilises against the fascists
by Bryan Beckingham
Many alliances have been established to combat the fascist presence in Oldham. The National Union of Teachers has a proud record of being one of the organisations active against racism in Oldham over many years.
A few years ago when one school was covered in racist graffiti we organised a protest meeting, which attracted wide support involving trade unions, Labour Parties and ethnic minorities.
Oldham has many problems between the ethnic groups. It has the highest incidence of reported racist attacks in greater Manchester. It has a police leadership, which consistently blames the problems on Asians, stating that a majority of reported attacks is Asian on white.
For many years the Asian population has suffered abuse and attacks and the police have ignored their complaints. The Asian population as a whole suffer from institutional racism and discrimination in jobs, housing, education, policing, and the criminal justice system.
Racist attacks have been ignored or shrugged off by the police. Only recently under pressure have the police been making some "politically correct" moves. However, as the events on March 31st and subsequently, have shown us, they still remain institutionally racist.
There are some groups of Asian youth who are racist and attack whites because they are white, and also Bangladeshi and Pakistani youths fight each other. Some of this is related to territorial gangs and some is drug related crime.
The police and council had called for a ban from the Home Secretary Jack Straw and that was in place for a 6-month period. Along with others we issued a call for a counter march and rally for March 31st against any proposed NF presence, as they had proclaimed they were turning up.
Oldham United against Racism (including representatives of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afro Caribbean community as well as anti-racist groups and trade union activists) organised a counter event. 20,000 leaflets were provided by the T&GWU and mass meetings were held in the main ethnic minority communities.
Behind the scenes the powers that be used every possible pressure to get the anti-racist movement to call the protest off. The council (now under Liberal control) tried all sorts of pressure on us. They sent notices out to schools saying that on police advice they urged teachers and other staff not to support the rally. The police refused permission for the march to go through the centre of Oldham. The police, aided by the council leadership, made scare stories about trouble from outsiders! Special meetings were called with the leadership of the anti-racists and the NUT to try to pressurise them to call the event off because the NF had not asked permission to march so there was no need to cause this fuss! These arguments are one of the reasons why we do have a problem of racism in Oldham. The argument that if you ignore racists and fascists they will go away has never worked.
On March 31st over 1,000 rallied against the fascists. The Council met the day before and issued a strong anti-racist statement saying they opposed the NF or BNP having a march in Oldham.
On the day of the mass rally every ethnic group was represented. Labour MP, Phil Woolas, and Glyn Ford MEP, were among the speakers. For the NUT, President Jason Travis, made an excellent fighting speech.
The police provided "support". Massive support in fact! About 40 transit vans full of police. Most of the Greater Manchester mounted police were present as was the inevitable helicopter! There must have been about 400 police present. They bullied people by such a massive presence and in various ways their actions were openly racist.
On the day we had a great peaceful rally against racism. We had said all along we were placing great emphasis on the peaceful nature of our event. The NF did not turn up on that day. The anti-racist alliances have been strengthened by our activity and this is necessary for the future to build upon.
Since that first event the NF have tried to come into the town every weekend. The BNP have stepped up their activity and stood candidates in all three Oldham seats.
The attack on Walter Chamberlain, an elderly white man, was given massive coverage in the media. The man himself and his family said it was not racist, but criminal. In the area the attack occurred (waste ground, not residential), this is more likely. The police always say to white victims "this was a racist attack wasn’t it?" They tend to do the reverse, if it is Asians
The number of attacks on Asian people equally vicious and horrendous is given little publicity and is going on all the time and, in fact, in the recent period has massively intensified.
Almost every weekend since Easter has seen massive police presence and the NF attempting to march. The BNP have had activities in parts of the town, leafleting and abusing people. They are attempting to be very "respectable" and "nationalist", not racist or fascist, leaving the hooligans and the NF to the violence. This is of course purely a tactic and a façade.
As the election result showed this was successful. Many of the voters who supported the BNP are not fascist or even racist but want answers to the problems they face.
In the week of May 21st at Breeze Hill school, (a school with 75% Asian pupils) white youth from a local estate whipped up by the BNP/NF attacked Asian pupils (the thugs included youth previously expelled from the school for racist activity).
The Head teacher had asked the police for help for three days and apparently had no response. They came on the fourth day and arrested some of the Asian pupils who were fighting back. Once again the police arrested the victims not the perpetrators of the attacks.
In the week of the 26th May to 2nd June the town erupted. The media painted the picture of Asians attacking the police. However evidence clearly showed that fascist and racists attacking Asian people provoked the events. The fascists were canvassing Asian areas and attacking, verbally and physically, Asian people. When the police arrived they arrested Asian youth and the thugs were allowed to run off. The Asian youth decided they had had enough and fought back and the police ended up attacking them!
The petrol bombing of the deputy mayor (Riaz Ahmed) forced the media and the police into at last seeing the main issue of right wing parties causing much of the violence. Members of OUAR spent the week explaining the issues at press conferences and at interviews and the message began to get across.
In Oldham the people of all communities are frightened. The town centre has been deserted on Saturdays when the NF has threatened to come to town. Police escort these thugs from one pub to another. Why have they been allowed into the town?
The election result has sent shock waves round the country. I have been warning for years that the level of deprivation and racism in Oldham is a major problem. The issue will not go away
The NF threatened another march and demo on 10th of June and the ANL mobilised. The rally of the ANL was excellent with about 500 present and a strong trade union presence. The NUT, FBU, UNISON, NUJ, CWU had a good turnout. I opened the rally from the Oldham NUT, and others followed from FBU, UNISON, as well as Labour Councillor Mohammed Azam and others.
These results are a warning to the trade unions and Labour movement. The Labour Government in power for the last 4 years has failed to solve the problems people face. The Council has much to answer for over the years in allowing the segregation of the town in housing and education. The attitude and action of the police needs to be the subject of a public inquiry and the local press the Evening Chronicle needs challenging in its reporting. Michael Meacher has called for an inquiry. This is correct we want a full, open and public inquiry. We also want the Labour MPs to lead from the front and take the issues up.
The fascists grew in a previous period of Labour government in the 70’s during the Wilson government. The political conclusion has to be drawn that because Labour is not solving the problems and poverty that leads people to vote for some ‘alternative’.
The trade unions must now take a lead and Oldham NUT calls for the TUC regionally to organise a trade union march against racism and fascism in Oldham, in co-operation with the OUAR and ANL as early as possible in the Autumn.
In the town the Labour Party and its elected leaders must take a lead in a campaign of political education and action. A mass drive has to be made by all sections of the trade unions and Labour movement to explain the real nature of fascism, the BNP and NF. We must have no more ignoring the problems. Resources need putting into all areas in housing, education and employment. The Labour Government needs to deliver especially on its promises of increasing massively the resources for Health and education in all our towns and cities but particularly into Oldham. The BNP can be sent packing, but not easily, and only when we take the issues up and tackle the social issues that cause racism.
Socialist policies needed to fight racism
by Alan Creear
The recent disturbances in Oldham are the culmination of a long period of tension in the town. The riot of the evening of Saturday May 26th, when 500 Asian youths battled with police, was sparked off by an earlier incident where white youths attacked Asian businesses and homes in the mainly Pakistani Glodwick area. The police, who many felt had not done enough to protect the Asian community in the area, bore the full brunt of the anger.
Tensions have been building since the publication of media claims of ‘no-go areas for whites’ (a position denied by most people in Oldham) alongside the lurid reporting of an attack on a 76 year old war veteran, Walter Chamberlain, although his family said that they did not believe there was a racial motive behind this incident. It has also been noted that a series of attacks on Asian taxi drivers had not received anything like the same media attention.
The deliberate decision of the BNP to stand candidates in the 2 Oldham constituencies at the general election-and to accordingly push all their national resources into this area during the campaign, with armies of thugs travelling up from all over the country-also clearly inflamed the situation. The National Front had also been threatening to march in the town and NF activists were sighted drinking in local pubs on the day of the May 26th riot, fuelling speculation of their involvement. The previous day’s edition of the Manchester Evening News had reported in detail on the harassment of Asian pupils at the nearby Breeze Hill School.
Undoubtedly social conditions are at the root of the problems here. The area has a concentration of some of the worst housing in the North West. Asians make up just 11% of the population of Oldham yet unemployment levels amongst Pakistanis run at 16%. The unemployment level for Bangladeshis is even higher at 25%. They are largely concentrated in the Westwood area of town where the second night of rioting occurred and where there had been earlier incidents of trouble involving racist elements who had attached themselves to football supporters going to a game at the local league ground. Youth unemployment in the Asian community is currently running at between 30 and 40%-one Asian youth summed the situation up well when he told the Guardian paper that " when you go for a job and you say you are from Glodwick, they say ‘On Your Bike!’ "
Now we have seen the worryingly high vote that the BNP got at the election in Oldham. The fact that a layer of white residents have been temporarily taken in by the rubbish spouted by the BNP and their friends is a warning. That they have been allowed to get this foothold is mainly down to the perceived failures of New Labour at both a national and local level, as seen by the heavy loss of council seats for Labour in the area last year. Urgent action needs to be taken by the Labour movement to reassure all sections of the community and show where their interests really lie. It is insufficient and counterproductive merely to divert the current inadequate resources to supposed "white" areas as the government now proposes. A class approach based on socialist policies for jobs and housing could unite the area, undermine the fascists and set about solving the real and deep seated problems which have beset places such as Oldham.