Bradford's moral guardians

A peaceful campaign to clear prostitutes from the red-light district of Lumb Lane has become a war of attrition. Anna Moore reports
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The Independent Culture
On the edge of Bradford's red-light district, in a dimly lit Indian restaurant, sit two scared prostitutes. They shake, smoke and drink coffee. Sally and Fran have just been chased from their regular spot on Lumb Lane, north of the city centre, by a car of masked youths which hurtled towards them, almost knocking them from the pavement. The driver warned them to "stay away".

Fran is crying. Except for lipstick and running eye-liner, her face is dead white. "This used to be a safe place to work," she says. "We've been here years, we know the punters, which ones to avoid." Sally, calmer and slightly older than Fran, adds: "Now, for the first time, I'm frightened. It's going to end up with one of us dead. Don't we suffer enough without vigilante he-men running around?"

The drive to clear prostitutes from Lumb Lane, running through Bradford's bleakest district of derelict factories, shabby housing estates, mosques and minicab firms, was launched six weeks ago.Members of the Asian community say it's a great success.

But while the action has ostensibly been modelled on a similar campaign in Birmingham's Balsall Heath, where prostitution was beaten by peaceful picketing, the scenes here are more menacing. Punters have been stoned and prostitutes have been picked up and physically carried from the area. Some "vigilantes" have been threatened by pimps waving sawn-off shotguns.

The self-appointed guardians retaliated by hospitalising a prostitute's boyfriend who had spoken out on local TV. ("Let's just say he was a bit lippy, so a few of us did him over," grins an Asian youth.) Last week there was a firebomb attack on a cafe used by local prostitutes. Police are struggling to control all sides, but pleasing none.

Head of vice in the city, Sergeant Peter Corkindale, blames what is happening on the recent TV series Band Of Gold, a drama about Bradford prostitutes. Though Lumb Lane has long been known for its vice - bringing punters from as far as Germany as well as busloads of Japanese tourists - in the past five years its character has changed: once simply a derelict red-light zone, it is now mostly a residential area of council and housing association flats.

A recent police clampdown, "Operation Back", halved the number of kerb- crawlers, then out came Band of Gold. "It ruined our efforts," says Corkindale. "Though it was miles from reality - we've got no Cathy Tysons here - it still worked as a free advert for the area. Along came another influx of prostitutes and punters. It was the straw that broke the camel's back." It was not long before he was approached by community members who wanted to act for themselves.

Corkindale heard their complaints and sympathised. "It's got nothing to do with them being Muslim. It's about not wanting their children to find condoms in the garden and not wanting their wives to be asked for business when they walk to the shops." Together, they agreed on peaceful tactics aimed at moving prostitutes to an industrial area on nearby Thornton Road. Campaigners would line the lane carrying banners and tell punters that their registration numbers were being logged.

But the results have been far from peaceful and after a build-up of incidents, the police presence last weekend was heavier than ever. From 8pm each evening, up to 100 local vigilantes from a pool of 500 are out in force and stay into the early hours. Most noticeable are the youths. They patrol in boisterous packs, clad in baggy jeans, big trainers and bomber jackets, often wearing bandanas as masks.

Typical of these is Abdul - not his real name - a bright-eyed, highly charged A-level student. "We've had guns, baseball bats and knives put to our heads by pimps," he says. "Our mums can't sleep at night - mums have that sort of mentality, they're weaker-hearted - but someone has to do it. The vice squad won't ever stop prostitution because they'd do themselves out of a job. In six weeks we've turned Lumb Lane from the M1 into a minor road. Now we're guarding our territory. We'll stay out until everyone knows this is no red-light district any more."

This mission, Abdul admits, has replaced all previous leisure pursuits. The pool halls, JJ's and Zeros, formerly packed with local youths, now close early due to lack of interest. Another haunt, a minicab office where men once queued to play the computer game "Bob Jack" lies deserted. Bob Jack isn't even plugged in. Instead, the vigilantes' new base, a local community centre, buzzes with all the purpose of a command headquarters. The elders sit in circles, praying, drinking tea to stay awake, discussing each victory, every scuffle. The youths stay on the street.

But Lisa, a "Lumb Lane girl" for the past five years, vows she won't give in, even though she has had her skirt lifted by vigilantes, bottles thrown at her head and her punters' cars wrecked. "They are not going to win. Some of the kids may have given up, but the elder girls have been here a long time, we won't shift. I swear, I may end up with my legs blown off, but it's cash and carry, I'll still be here in my wheelchair and my regulars can lift me into their cars! Prostitutes have been part of this community for 50 years. We were here first; it's as simple as that."

Lisa believes this battle will take longer than residents expect. She could be right, since all sides claim a fierce stake in the area. The prostitutes insist that a sudden move could cost them their livelihoods. "I'm just trying to make some money to look after my kids," says Fran. "Punters come from London, Scotland, Europe - they all know where to get a jump in Bradford. Is someone going to put a sign up saying, Lumb Lane girls have moved to Thornton Road? If we co-operate, will they? Will they hell!"

An ugly undercurrent of racial tension taints the conflict. Some prostitutes have threatened to go to fascist groups for support and pimps talk of burning down mosques. Corkindale can only sit tight as the tension bubbles under and hope the street is cleared as soon as possible. Prostitutes have refused to make complaints when attacked and, not surprisingly, only one man has reported having his car windows stoned by vigilantes; he wasn't a kerb-crawler.

Corkindale has, however, requested that activists draw up a code of conduct and make ID cards. "Outsiders with no affinity to the area are joining in and they have a tendency to go that little bit further," he explains. So far, only one vigilante has been arrested for breach of the peace. "We're desperately trying not to make martyrs out of this. The last thing we need is a folk hero."

According to Corkindale, Lumb Lane could end up paving the way for other red-light communities. "If they succeed in clearing it, they want to go to the media and call on residents from other cities to come up, have a chat, look around, and who can blame them?"

But this is something Fran and Sally are determined to stop. "If we don't act soon, this will be happening everywhere," says Fran. "We've got too much to lose," Sally agrees. "We're not stupid. We may be in shock, but we're going to get ourselves together and fight it out properly."

On this occasion, though, when the two have finished their coffee and feel able to stand up, they head straight home, Fran still shaking. It may be just four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon but, for the time being at least, their business is finished.