The Bradford riots: responses to a rebellion

Issue: 136

Amy Leather

A review of Janet Bujra and Jenny Pearce, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The 2001 Bradford Riots and Beyond (Vertical Editions, 2011), £13.99

Visiting Bradford in 1986, the novelist Hanif Kureishi observed that “Bradford seems to be a microcosm of a larger British society”. George Galloway’s landslide victory in the Bradford West by-election thrust the city back into the national limelight. The significance of a defeat on this scale in a seat held by Labour since 1974 has not been lost on politicians and commentators alike as they struggled to explain such a political earthquake.

Although it has a large geographical spread, at the heart of the Bradford West constituency are the wards of Manningham and Toller. It was here where, over a decade ago, a major riot took place. Although subsequent events, including Galloway’s appalling comments on rape, have changed the situation again, his election campaign was characterised by its youth and vibrancy, galvanising and exciting many young people in their twenties and thirties. Many of those in the driving seat of the campaign would have been part of a generation of young people in Bradford influenced in some way by the events of Saturday 7 July 2001.

This book aims to tell the story of the 2001 Bradford riot and its aftermath, ending with what happened when the English Defence League (EDL) came to the city in August 2010. In doing so Janet Bujra and Jenny Pearce also paint a picture of Bradford, its social, political and economic history as well as the politics and activism that have shaped the city. They set the events of 2001 and beyond in the context of the decline of a once great textile town with a history of immigration, especially from Pakistan, as workers were recruited to work in the city’s mills.1

In the summer of 2001 Nazi thugs from the BNP, the National Front (NF) and other Nazi groups such as Combat 18 had targeted a number of former mill towns in the north, including Oldham and Burnley, where the BNP were also making electoral gains. They had rampaged through Asian areas smashing up businesses in an attempt to intimidate those living there as well as provoke retaliation. Bradford was the next town on their list, with the date set for their march as 7 July.

On the day despite a ban by the home secretary on the planned Nazi march, many known Nazis were in the town congregating and drinking. Although the council had cancelled the final day of a longstanding multicultural festival, the Anti Nazi League together with the trades council held an anti-fascist rally in Centenary Square outside the Town Hall. Thousands of young, predominantly Asian men came out to defend their city and community and joined the rally in the city centre. As reports of racist attacks spread, the police attempted to “kettle” those in the town centre. Then in full riot gear, police attempted to herd those protesting against the Nazis out of the city centre towards Manningham. People fought back as they responded to both the Nazis and the police’s attempts to protect them.

Afterwards the full weight of the state was used against those who had defended their community and city from racists. As Socialist Worker subsequently reported, “In the end 200 jail sentences totalling 604 years were handed down”.2 These included someone given four years for throwing three stones, while another person was sentenced for 11 months for picking up, but not throwing, two stones. As the authors note, such harsh sentences were “designed to deter them and others from repeat performances”. They make an interesting comparison with the sentences given for a similar, although less reported disturbance, which occurred two nights later on a predominantly white estate in the city. Those involved in the “Ravenscliffe riot” were charged with “violent disorder” rather than “riot”, an offence which carries a much shorter jail term, resulting in much more lenient sentences. The conclusion that many drew was that the different reaction of the courts to these two events was driven by racism.

Bujra and Pearce started the project that led to the publication of this book in 2003. By that point 144 people had already been charged with riot and 107 adults had been given custodial sentences that averaged over four years. An interesting note is that, despite the hysteria whipped up at the time about the rioters and the fact that one of the judges made it clear he was “not concerned” with the origins of the riot, the authors’ project was initially funded by a grant from West Yorkshire Police through its Neighbourhood Renewal Safer Communities Fund in order to try to understand “why the rioters rioted”. The authors themselves were motivated by a strong feeling that the “rioters’ voices needed to be heard”. Initially they set out to talk to the rioters about their motivations but the project “soon expanded to other parties-the police in all ranks, the organisers of the initial ANL rally, people who had intervened to try and halt the violence and others who had observed”. For the authors “this is a book of their stories”: “our point is that all of them represent some ‘truth’ as seen from contrasting perspectives and social positions”. A laudable aim perhaps, but the implicit postmodernist twang does not prevent the authors drawing their own, often unargued conclusions as we shall see later.

The authors did nearly 50 interviews about the 2001 riots, including with 21 men charged with riot and imprisoned at the time, and over 50 around the time of the 2010 EDL demo. This research was also “accompanied by hundreds of conversations and more importantly by living in and/or participating in the life of the city and engaging in its many struggles”.

It is very clear from the interviews of those charged with riot that they were defending themselves and their communities from the Nazis of the NF. They believed that the NF would attack people and property in Asian areas, as had happened in Oldham and Burnley. Known Nazis were in the town centre and had attacked and provoked violence and the police were complicit in this. As one man explains, “They were protecting them and they should have been protecting us.” Therefore, as another says, “it turned into a riot against the police”. More than one rioter spoke of the police using racist language. As the authors highlight, there was a younger generation who were not prepared to accept the racism that their parents had experienced.

The rioters were very critical of the police’s tactics-not only the way they acted to protect the Nazis, but how they provoked anti-racists and the perception that the police were just trying to protect the town centre and push them back into “Asian areas”.

What make for an interesting and surprising read are the accounts from the police officers on duty that night, nearly all of whom “commented negatively on the tactics they were told to employ”. It becomes clear that communication had broken down and tactical decisions were being made on the basis of rumour and speculation. The police found themselves at a strategic disadvantage after pushing the rioters out of the town centre: they were at the bottom of a hill, without food, water or breaks. As the authors conclude, “many officers lost confidence in their commanders whilst they continued to hold the line”. Given the recent prevalence of kettling in recent years, the comments of one officer are particularly relevant. He makes it clear that they should not have cordoned off the crowd in the square to begin with. “Encircling a crowd does nothing apart from create confrontation,” he insists. “There’s no safety valve for people to go and when there’s no safety valve you get a build of pressure, don’t you?”

However, while the officers on duty may have been critical of their superiors they had no sympathy whatsoever for the rioters. As perhaps we would expect, the police reject the rioters’ rationale that they were defending Bradford and their communities from the NF since “they (the far right) didn’t come”. Most of the police reject the idea that known Nazis were in the town centre, claiming those drinking in the streets “were just football supporters, not racists”. Indeed one of the turning points on the day was when a young Asian man, Kasel Altaf, was attacked in the town centre. Astonishingly, the police interviewed imply that he was implicated in his own beating up and was “not an innocent bystander”.3 One police commander takes the view that Altaf was “not lily white…to my mind he started all that”.

Instead to the police, since there was no legitimate cause for the riot, those involved were simply “attracted by violence”. Police also blamed the ANL for fomenting trouble and “whipping up hysteria”. One police officer defends the ANL, blaming instead violent extremists-when asked for examples he cites not only the Socialist Workers Party but also the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament!

There is much valuable detail in Bujra and Pearce’s book, from the events of the riot to how it was reported as well as the accounts of those involved. Indeed in piecing together the events of the day from different media reports together with interviews of those involved on all sides, this book provides a unique account of how the day unfolded, unavailable elsewhere. As such it is to be welcomed. Their evidence demonstrates that, even without police racism and the Nazis, there was plenty to riot about if you were young in Bradford in 2001. Some of those interviewed mentioned the lack of facilities and education. Over 35 percent of Bradford’s adult population lacked any qualifications in 2001, while youth unemployment had reached 21.6 percent according to a city council report in October 1993. A survey in 1996 revealed that half of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households contained no one in full-time employment. Unemployment among young Asian men reached 45 percent in the early 1990s.4

But although the interviews offer interesting insights, and the statistical information about Bradford is useful, there are some problems with the book. The authors’ use of language is particularly irritating. For example, the term “lads” is constantly used to describe those involved in the riot. Perhaps the authors think this is the correct Yorkshire term for young men. However, given the average age of those involved was 24 and thus many were older, in some cases married and with children, this is not an accurate term to describe grown men. Instead it becomes patronising.

Even more grating is, for want of a better word, the authors’ “accenting” of those they interview: that is, they quote them not only as they speak, which by definition can be grammatically incorrect, but they also change the spelling of words to show the speaker’s accent, for example “yer” for “you”, “outa” for “out of”. It might be argued that there are good reasons to do this, for example, to allow those interviewed “to speak in their own voice”. I initially speculated that the authors had done this to show just how integrated British-born young Asian men are in that they had Bradford accents, but what would happen if they had to quote someone with poor, perhaps broken, English?

When they do, this method becomes even more patronising and takes away from what is being said. The question of who is “accented” also arises. Everyone has some sort of accent. Although there is a slight “accenting” of the police quotes it is much starker for the rioters. It is also true that spoken language is very different from written language, in terms of sentence structure etc. To quote some people in accents, and also to quote directly so that the written sentence structure is poor, not only distracts the reader but can serve to make the person quoted look less articulate than those who are not accented and contrasts harshly with the written text in which the quote is contained.

There is also a problem with the book’s lack of academic rigour. Early on the authors state that “as the audience for the book is non-academic we have avoided jargon and extensive referencing”. Yet when a book is based on research of some kind, being able to check the references is crucial. Although many of the interviews were anonymous and there would be some problems identifying who is being quoted, it is very frustrating not knowing where certain “facts” and indeed opinions come from.

And this definitely does not excuse unsubstantiated assertions that appear throughout the book. For example, in a discussion about why Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, lost the 2005 parliamentary election in Keighley, the authors simply assert that “mothers from the local Sure Start, who had all voted BNP at the last election, turned the tide. Griffin lost”.5 No figures are given and there are no references to check this. Unfortunately such assertions make the reader less inclined to trust other “facts”.

Indeed these other unsubstantiated “facts” often seem to reflect the authors’ own political stance, despite their claim to simply be telling everyone’s stories. Of course, nothing takes place in a vacuum without a standpoint but it would be far better to be honest about this from the start and not pretend otherwise.

So, for example, Manningham is described as a “bohemian quarter” in the 1970s and there is a discussion about the left and the divisions within it. The authors assert, with no preamble, “The International Socialists, later the Socialist Workers Party, expelled various members for wanting to open up gay and other sections.” There are no references for this and no source is given. So where has such a damaging accusation come from? What it has to do with race relations in Bradford? If the authors wanted to have a discussion about socialists and the issue of gay liberation during the 1970s then that might be interesting and would no doubt involve some conflicting views and accounts from the time. However, this sort of writing is simply lazy and falls back on personalised, stereotypical accounts of the left.

Similarly, on the history of anti-fascist organisations we again encounter lazy research. It becomes clear that the authors’ sympathies lie with strategies advanced by Hope Not Hate (who in a departure from the norm actually have their website referenced in the book) but for obvious reasons, they can’t avoid mentioning the Anti Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism. The authors claim that the Anti Nazi League (which organised the 2001 rally) “was not active in the 1990s”.

Clearly the authors were not involved in the 1993 Unity demo of over 60,000 which marched to shut down the BNP’s “bookshop HQ” in south east London shortly after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and which the ANL was at the heart of organising. Nor were they present at the 100,000-plus strong ANL festival in 1994 in Brockwell Park, south London. They can’t have participated in the myriad “Don’t vote Nazi” campaigns initiated by the ANL which leafleted and knocked on doors across the country after the Nazi Derek Beackon was elected in the Isle of Dogs and which succeeded in stopping the election of other BNP candidates at the time and eventually got rid of Beackon himself.

No, instead they claim that the SWP was “on another journey”, and having shut down the ANL, the SWP argued that “anti-fascism must be led by those directly threatened by fascism”. The authors don’t expand on what they mean by this but say of Unite Against Fascism that “some suspected it was a recruitment front for the SWP”, although unfortunately, there is again no reference for this quote. One can only conclude that the authors just took the opportunity to air their own views. They thus fail to seriously highlight and assess the real debates that have taken place in the anti-fascist movement about what strategy is needed to stop the Nazis.

This brings us to the biggest weakness of the book-the coverage of what happened when the EDL targeted Bradford in August 2010. The starting point for the authors, mirroring that of many of those in positions of power and authority in Bradford at the time, seems to be: “How can we prevent young Muslim men from being provoked into causing a riot like that of 2001?” rather than: “How can we prevent the growth of a far-right street fighting organisation that has known Nazis at its heart?” Although there is a brief acknowledgement of previous EDL demonstrations, the EDL mobilisation in Bradford is taken out of any national context and becomes purely a problem that Bradford had to face alone.

The implicit consequence of this is that the authors essentially accept the mainstream view that Asian people are themselves to blame if they respond to the Nazis trying to whip up race hatred. So when they depict the efforts made to keep people out of Bradford town centre on the day of the EDL protest in August 2010 they describe how “lads had been taken out of the city or enticed into snooker halls to remove them from potential trouble making” (my emphasis). We have to be clear it is the racists who are the real “trouble makers”, that they are the ones who provoke violence and those who seek to defend themselves and areas are not to blame.

However, the legacy of 2001 had been that young men, defending themselves against Nazis and police racism, were criminalised. As a result, a cloud of fear hung over Bradford in the run-up to the EDL protest in 2010, as the council, the mosques, even the youth service urged people to stay at home and not be “provoked”. The problem is that is exactly what the Nazis and thugs of the EDL want-people cowering at home while they rule the streets. It is a testimony to many in the anti-racist movement in Bradford that so many people did come out to join the counter-protest on the day.

At the time there was much debate in Bradford over how to respond to the EDL, from whether it was enough to ban the EDL from marching, though this still enabled them hold a static protest in the city, to whether it was enough to hold a counter-event, outside the city centre or even on another day. It would have been more interesting if the authors had examined these differing strategies.

Instead the conclusion seems to be that everyone, from the police to local councillors to the youth service to potential rioters, had learned from 2001 and came together to prevent a riot. The overriding message is that if a Nazi organisation comes to your town, don’t be provoked and all will be fine as long as you don’t have a riot. Thankfully, not every city has responded in that way.

Towards the end of the book the authors describe how it “has taken us on a journey”. But neither the journey for Bradford nor the fight against the EDL ended in 2010. On the one hand, the riot of 2001 can be seen perhaps as a forerunner of those in 2011 when cities across Britain erupted in response to police racism and massive inequality and lack of hope for the young. One newspaper quoted George Galloway’s success as “Bradford’s version of the riots”, and indeed much of what fuelled frustrations in 2001 still exists.

The gap between the most and the least deprived areas in Bradford was the largest in the country in 2010. Out of the 30 wards in Bradford, two are ranked in the 15 percent least deprived in the country, while Manningham and Bradford Moor fall within the 5 percent most deprived. In Manningham 35 percent of households had incomes less than £15,000, while in 2010 one in three people of working age were out of work in Bradford.6

It is also worth noting that the deputy leader of Bradford council in the summer of 2010, Imran Hussain, was the Labour candidate beaten so massively by Galloway. Hussain was part of the strategy led by the council that urged self-restraint against EDL provocation, in particular calling on young people to “trust the police”. Perhaps his message was not so popular after all.


1: Perhaps aptly, I first came across this book in Salts Mill, a former textile mill on the outskirts of Bradford that once employed over 3,000 people including my ancestors, now converted into a gallery for Hockney paintings and a space for expensive shops.

2: Socialist Worker, 14 August 2010,

3: Bujra and Pearce, 2011, p62.

4: Bujra and Pearce, 2011, p105.

5: Bujra and Pearce, 2011, p187.

6: Bujra and Pearce, 2011, p204.