How rumours and racists sparked Britain's worst inner-city rioting for two decades

Ian Herbert,North
Monday 09 July 2001 00:00 BST

The rioting was a copybook National Front sting and it left the more reflective among Bradford's teenage Asians wondering how on earth they had fallen for it.

Just as in Oldham ­ one of the four former mill towns to have burnt on sultry Saturday nights these six weeks past ­ the National Front (NF) stoked the fire days ago by announcing plans for a march. They knew full well it would be banned by the Home Secretary but would serve the purpose of bringing out the white liberal Anti Fascist League in force, with Asians and national television crews in tow.

In identical circumstances in Oldham on 26 May, tensions were sufficiently high to turn a street-corner row between adolescent boys into a riot. In Burnley on 22 June, it was a row over a noisy party; in Bradford itself on 14 April, a clash at a Hindu wedding.

On Saturday, all it took was the rumour that half a dozen tattooed whites had emerged from Yates' Wine Lodge mouthing racist obscenities for the worst inner-city riots since the 1980s to be set off.

The violence was ratcheted up when two whites ­ one with "England" tattooed on his back ­ were subsequently stabbed by Asians. Five people were arrested and many of the 300 congregating Asians were pushed away from central Centenary Square, up the hill into Manningham, by police.

By 8pm, the fires were well alight there and could be seen blazing on the skyline from the city centre as young Asians began hurling missiles at West Yorkshire officers.

They complained bitterly of police leniency with the shadowy white presence even though the afternoon had seen more arrests of white people than of Asians. But as far as the cameras were concerned, this had nothing to do with white supremacists ­ come the evening, they had all disappeared. Instead, it was the brutality of the young teenagers on Manningham's White Abbey road, between 9pm and 2am, which marked out these riots from all others in northern England this summer.

In place of the Oldham petrol bombs were the Bradford fireworks ­ "air bombs" as they had christened them ­ a terrifying and disorientating missile for the phalanx of 180 riot shielded officers, in rows of 30, to face.

The deafening noise which preceded each landing sounded like gunfire in the melee but gave no clue of where the next missile might land.

The air bombs were thrown when the bricks, fire extinguishers, beer kegs and paving stones had also temporarily run out. At intermittent intervals, police charged and the 40 principal agitators fled, preceded by 100 young Asians who had stood behind them, but before midnight all such advances were short-lived: police were eventually forced back on their heels so far that their attackers stumbled on missiles they had already thrown and relaunched them.

There were at least two "air bomb" casualties among 120 police officers injured in the night's clashes. One officer, who lurched forward in agony as a steel bar landed on his foot, was the only one to be detained in hospital.

Two police horses were also injured, one of them stabbed. Members of the Manningham Ward Labour Club, a blackened wreck yesterday, were trapped inside when the rioters set the building on fire and placed burning cars against the fire doors. Firefighters cleared a route for them to escape. A total of 36 people were arrested ­ 13 white people, including a woman, and 23 Asians.

Yet to the white journalists, graciously granted permission to step through the gardens of Asians whose 1920s brick homes line White Abbey, Manningham, held none of the forbidding threats of Oldham's Glodwick Road, where Pakistanis and Bangladeshis nurse suspicions born of acute cultural and economic segregation and notebooks are always best hidden.

Many of Manningham's Asians have been here for 50 years; they gather in the urban centre (in the way Toxteth Afro-Caribbeans and most Glodwick Asians never have done); their businesses are successful. A BMW garage of the kind on Oak Lane, where the remains of 20 torched BMWs and a burnt-out Mini still stank of acrid petrol on the blustery wind yesterday, will simply not be found in Glodwick.

The relative racial harmony of the area was written into the battlelines: at least three white, bandana-wearing faces were to be seen among the Asians on White Abbey; a group of concerned, middle-aged Asians stood in defence before the premises of Richard Walker, one of Oak Lane's few white businessmen, as the fires threatened to burn there on Saturday.

"There's no racial tension in this area," said Mr Walker, whose wife is Sri Lankan, yesterday. Ayub Ansari, an Oak Lane resident, said: "The majority of English are very tolerant. This is not [about being] Muslim. We tried to stop the youth but they are wild."

Young Asians also demonstrate a minimal sense of racial injustice. At least six of those who cheered direct missile hits on police said the riot was simply about "telling the National Front that this is what they get if they come here". The 1996 Manningham riots were not inspired by racial injustice either, but were a protest against police treatment of local people. So was the night of violent anger directed against officers in Harehills, Leeds, last month.

Although it seems clear that Asians from outside the area ­ possibly from Halifax, Oldham and Birmingham ­ were agitators, local youths clearly capitalised on the opportunity.

There was also evidence of how hopeless the task of containing the disaffected, younger forces is proving.

At least six community leaders, seen discussing how best to contain the violence, became furiously animated and seemed to have failed to agree.

On Thursday, a long-awaited report into race relations in Bradford, compiled by the former Commission for Racial Equality chairman Sir Herman Ouseley, will ask uncomfortable questions of Bradford's Race Equality Council's (REC) attempts at building trust between racial groups. It follows the closure of the REC after serious accusations of mismanagement.

Notably, it has been left to the white, Anglican Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Rev David Smith, to voice the perceived Asian grievances most forcibly. There was a feeling that police had over-zealously removed Asians from the city and not responded strongly enough to white racist taunts, he said.

West Yorkshire Police dismissed such claims but the force's inquisition began with an admission by Assistant Chief Constable Greg Wilkinson that the force had been swamped by the sheer size of the force it faced, even though trouble had been anticipated for days.

"We don't always get it right," said Mr Wilkinson, who had extra officers on patrol last night. "It's bizarre to suggest we allowed [the violence to escalate]. When faced with rioting you can't just click your fingers and stop it. Our strategy was to stop crime, disorder and to disperse those involved but the strategy was not successful. "We do have an excellent track record in follow-up arrests and those people involved had better be looking behind them. We will be looking for people for quite a number of weeks to come."

An uncompromising David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, defended the force, dismissed suggestions that outside Asian groups may be to blame and hinted that a stronger deterrent may ultimately be needed to quell northern England's riotous contagion. Police may be impeded by the "caution" which characterises their tactics, he said. "We don't use water cannon and I'm not keen myself on upping the ante [but] in some parts of the world ... the short and sharp treatment is applied." For police, a more natural form of water torture would be even more welcome, removing the balmy conditions which, in the words of one Bradfordian on Saturday, made "a good night for a riot."

The occupants of a fleet of 10 Greater Manchester Police vans which cruised up the M60 past Oldham at about 9pm to join South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, Merseyside, Humberside, Cleveland and Northumbrian reinforcements, were probably heartened by a steady stream of drizzle. It dried up as they crossed the county boundary into West Yorkshire. Both meteorologically and logistically, it seems, Bradford was doomed.

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