Anti-Fascist Battles in Oldham Anti-Fascist Battles in Oldham
Background and Conclusions for Socialists
On Saturday 26 May, the racial tension that has been steadily growing in Oldham erupted into street battles the like of which have not been seen since the early 80s at Brixton, Toxteth and Broadwater Farm. The build-up to the fighting saw an increase in racially motivated attacks in Oldham’s most deprived areas: attacks that the police did nothing either to prevent or to respond to.
An Asian student, quoted in the
of 28 May 2001, spoke about the free reign given to National Front organisers in Oldham: “They have been here every weekend, harassing kids and women. I want to know why it took the police half-an-hour to get to an area where Asians were being kicked by whites.” Meanwhile, fascists at Stoke City FC organised visiting fans to walk through ethnic areas abusing and threatening the locals.
Hafi, a solicitor in Oldham, told the
: “A pregnant woman was kicked in the stomach by white youths and when she called the police nobody came. She hid inside her house while they smashed in the windows and tried to break down the door. For four days young kids at Breeze Hill School were being spat on and abused by white youths but the police didn’t stop it.”
The police’s response has been to deny that attacks are taking place. “We cannot win in a situation like this,” said a police official. “There is no evidence to back up people’s claims, but if there is a perception that we are not doing enough, then we have to look at it.” (Quoted in
, 28 May 2001)
It seems the police do not consider broken windows to be evidence if they only have the word of an Asian woman as to how those windows were broken.
While the police refuse to protect Asian communities, the battles that took place over the weekend of 26 May show that they are not about to allow those communities to take action and protect themselves. As in Southall in 1979, the police have given actual and tacit protection to fascists agitating in Oldham and inciting white workers against Asian communities. They admit that BNP activity “has been building for some time” and declare piously that they “tried to persuade the National Front to stay away”. (Chief Supt Hewitt quoted in
, 29 May 2001). Their ‘persuasion’ obviously stopped short of any kind of actual deterrent, although we are told in the liberal bourgeois organs that the current Labour administration wants to crack down on racism. The Steven Lawrence Enquiry is often cited as proof of this, and we have even seen a high profile ‘sting’ operation, in which 80 people were arrested for ‘hate crimes’.
All this is mere tokenism, however, as can be seen by the contempt displayed by police in Oldham. The fact is that Oldham is a town with particularly high levels of deprivation and alienation on both sides of the racial divide. Fascism offers a ‘solution’ that keeps the working class divided and impotent, while the whole media machine enforces this message and helps it to spread amongst the disaffected white working class: immigration is the problem, they are told, not capitalism. A racist police force is a vital part of the bourgeois armoury of divide and rule, for not only do they enforce the ideology of superiority/inferiority by their preferential treatment of whites, they also help nurture fascist organisations by lending them physical protection.
Racism of the police
of 31 May quotes from an article in
of 29 May in which Lee Jasper gives a vivid description of growing up black in Oldham:
“Goldwick, where the current battles took place, is in the centre of town. It was a Caribbean enclave from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. Parents of his generation mostly did shift work at the cotton mills, until Thatcher destroyed most of the manufacturing base. ‘Oldham was hard – and extremely hard if you were black,’ writes Jasper. You soon learned the ‘cultural nuances’. ‘Don’t go out with white women in town; stay out of areas such as Filton Hall, Limeside, Sholver and Abbeyhills; have nothing whatsoever to do with the police.’
“Police racism, says comrade Jasper, was cruel, violent and unremitting. Random stops and searches were frequent. You expected to be beaten up and if you were not it was grounds for suspicion that you had given them information. Education, employment and policing policies were imbued with a crude racism: ‘The experience of my friends who still live in Oldham provides proof. Mental illness is rife. Friends who left school with me in 1976 have never worked. Over half will have become career criminals and those left will be strung out on crack or heroin. A community was devastated by racism, destroyed by lack of opportunity and left to rot in the twilight zone of the urban underclass.’”
This Ghettoisation has been accelerated since the destruction of the textile industry, helping to add to the ignorance and prejudice of white workers. Even the opportunist Labour Councillors, who are more interested in their careers in the Labour Party than the troubles of their constituents, while calling for an end to the violence (not the police violence, naturally), admit that the real problem stems from poverty and segregation. In the
of 29 May, Councillor and Deputy Mayor Riaz Ahmed is quoted as follows:
“The problem we have is that Asians are in particular areas of the inner city and there is a lack of integration.” Districts with high Asian populations such as Glodwick, Westwood and Coldhurst are amongst the most deprived in Britain, with unemployment running as high as 40 per cent. “The areas where Asian populations are living are in the bottom 20 of the league of deprivation. At the same time we have very affluent areas, such as Saddleworth, that are not far away but where there is a big difference in the way people live. There is also lack of resources for young people, overcrowded housing and a lack of training and education opportunities.”
Containment, not protection
Years of simmering anger at such injustice provided the fuel for the fighting in Oldham. The spark came when a fight outside a chip shop between one white and one black youth was followed by an attack by a small group of about 10 white youths on Asian people, shops and homes. The youths threw bricks through several windows, chased children and threw stones. Responding to weeks of such attacks, all of which had gone unpunished by the authorities, young Asians arrived to defend their community, only to find themselves instead confronted with a massive police force.
“Up to 500 young people fought the police for seven hours and succeeded for much of the time in driving them back. The authorities were reportedly shocked by the ferocity of the onslaught and the depths of anger it revealed.” (‘New England Fights Back’,
, 31 May 2001) Tony Blair has backed the massive use of police force against a community trying to protect itself, saying attacks on police by gangs of youths (!) were “absolutely unacceptable”. (Quoted in
, 29 May 2001)
The parallel is drawn with Northern Ireland in the 1970s, when Nationalist communities in Derry and Belfast defended themselves from the bigoted B-Specials and RUC by setting up ‘no-go’ areas and policing themselves. It is interesting to note that the police, although they explain their massive presence on the streets of Oldham in terms of ‘reassuring’ local people that they are safe from fascists, nevertheless did not turn up to arrest those fascists, but, in full riot gear, fought those trying to stand up for themselves and their communities. The message is loud and clear: you will not be protected, merely contained within your ghettos and left to rot. Is it any wonder that the Asian youth of Oldham are angry?
Media transfers the blame
The government and media have been quick to blame the Fascists for stirring up trouble and the Tories for drumming up racism during election time, but the problem is more deep rooted in the whole of society and the police than anything a few weeks of election campaigning could have achieved. The Tories, like the BNP and NF, were reinforcing a message that is already put across by media and politicians every day, through hype about ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and the ‘problems’ of immigration, through rationing of jobs and essential housing and services, and through the racist behaviour of police and other officials. Poverty is the problem and the task of racism is to keep those suffering divided and impotent to fight back.
One example of the protection given by the establishment to fascist thugs can be seen in the racist editorials of the
Oldham Evening Chronicle
, whose offices were a target for firebombing during the fighting. In a post-election editorial attacking the Anti Nazi League, the paper says:
“The political landscape in Oldham has changed and though the ANL might not like it, it has been changed through the proper democratic process by Mr Nick Griffin and his British National Party campaigning properly and legally and persuading people to vote for them.
“Mr Griffin and the BNP now has a mandate from 11,000 Oldham residents to represent their point of view and has promised to contest next May’s elections. At a stroke, the BNP has gained political legitimacy in Oldham, and while the majority of Oldhamers might not like it [pretends to side with these], protesters cannot change that by demonstrating in the streets, but by legitimate opposition at the ballot box.”
The clear message is one of total servility to bourgeois parliamentarism – the working class must on no account take any independent action to protect itself; it must rely instead on a system that does nothing to keep racists off the street, despite the existence of anti-racism legislation, and which, on the contrary, lends credence to racists and gives them respectability. ‘Mr’ Griffin has ‘a mandate’ and we
not like it (although one has the distinct impression that the editors of the
have no objection at all), but we have no choice other than to accept it, since he has gained these votes through ‘the proper democratic process’. The duplicity is particularly apparent when one looks at Griffin’s own literature, which quotes him as calling for: “A strong disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan Defend Rights For Whites with well directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate … It is more important to control the streets of a city than its council chamber.” (Quoted from the ANL’s Internet Anti-Fascist newsletter of 15 June.)
Social democracy lays the groundwork for fascism
Such double standards are all too redolent of the tactics employed by the Social Democratic government in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s who, while giving credence to Hitler’s fascists as using ‘democratic’ means, refused an alliance with the communists to fight against the Nazis and even shot down protesting workers on the streets. These tactics disregard the illegal persecution on the streets and ignore the fact that fascism preys on the worst instincts, fears, prejudices and ignorance of working people. Bourgeois society nurtures fascism and helps it to grow as a weapon, kept in reserve until such time as parliamentary forms are no longer sufficient to keep in check the rising tide of proletarian revolution. Such ideologies gain strength as working class abilities to fight back are diminished by anti-trade union laws and wage cuts, as well as by the raft of legislation on immigration, asylum and ‘terrorism’, all of which are designed to sow division in the working class by shifting the blame for the ills of capitalism onto its victims.
editorial of 29 May gives an interesting insight into the fragile balancing act that goes on between the state’s
racism and its
about anti-racist measures:
“In Oldham, high unemployment, deprivation and increasingly segregated housing played their parts. But the source of the conflagration appears to have been racially motivated attacks, the perceived failure of the police to tackle them and the presence in the area of members of the National Front and the British National Party who have helped to stir up racial antagonism. That, combined with the refusal of second- and third-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi Britons to accept the racial taunts their parents endured has produced and explosive mixture …
“There are no easy answers. Programmes for urban renewal, jobs and training – to help white and Asian youth equally – are part of the long-term answer. So is the slow process of building police forces that more closely reflect the communities they serve. The police must also further improve their response to complaints of racial assaults. In this area perceptions can be as important as performance.
“But politicians must also accept their responsibility for showing restraint. William Hague’s injudicious remarks about Britain becoming a ‘foreign land’ cannot be blamed for the events at Oldham. But the Conservative party leader’s failure to act decisively against a party member, John Townend, for talking of immigration creating a ‘mongrel race’ was more unfortunate. It gave tacit encouragement, however unintended, to those who foster the illusion that Britain is still [was it ever?]
an Anglo-Saxon society.
“Oldham is, so far, more the exception than the rule in the history of Britain’s attempts to achieve racial integration. It must remain so. Politicians’ words, as well as their policies, will help to determine whether it does.”
Shorn of its pious talk about the need for jobs and facilities (which the editors of this illustrious organ of finance capital know full well are not about to appear); shorn of the hypocritical cant about Britain’s ‘attempts’ at racial integration, politicians’ ‘unintended encouragement’ of racists and police forces ‘serving’ the community, the message to Tony Blair’s government is clear: we do not expect the police to
improve their performance, but, given that Asians born in this country don’t seem to know their place, the police must
to respond to racism on the streets. Not because we expect results; not because we want to do away with racism, but because the state has to tread a fine line between encouraging racism amongst the working class and pretending to be against racism in characteristic bourgeois fashion.
In truth, it is not just the BNP and William Hague who incite racism. There is little they preach that Labour has not put into practice, from the most draconian anti-immigration and anti-asylum legislation to persecuting and locking up ‘illegal’ immigrants and ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and the notorious voucher schemes.
History furnishes sufficient proof that Social Democracy objectively represents the moderate wing of fascism. In view of this, one cannot but be disgusted by the decision of the Manchester Steering Committee of the SA, which voted
standing a candidate to oppose the fascists in Oldham because they might (might!) get less votes than the BNP and thus damage what credibility they had.
In a letter to the
of 7 June, Tom Delargy writes: “By telling the alienated white youth of Oldham to vote New Labour, the SA lost their ear. By, in effect, admitting we have no solutions to their problems, we have given the BNP a massive head start in a race we simply can’t afford to lose – a disastrous mistake that must never be repeated.”
The above decision is, in fact, the culmination of years of class collaboration by the various so-called ‘socialist’ and ‘left’ outfits from the Troto-Revisionist camp who have given support to the imperialist Labour party for the last 50 years and more. Instead of opposing the opportunist Labour party and Trade Union leadership, these gentry have acted as a fig leaf, making excuses for their betrayals and reconciling the working class to their worst enemies.
The truth is that both Social Democracy and fascism are agents of monopoly capitalism; both fight tooth and nail against the struggle of the working class for its social emancipation. With this as their aim, both disrupt and weaken working class organisations. Their aims are identical; only their methods differ.
With this in mind, it is the task of socialists to expose both the false nature of the ‘solution’ offered by fascist demagogues and the hypocrisy of those who would reconcile the working class to bourgeois rule via reformism and Social Democracy. There is only one way out of the trap of poverty and decay for the working class and that is socialism. In the meantime, we must fight tooth and nail against every attack on the wages and living conditions of workers in this country, as well as against racist immigration and asylum laws, for everything that weakens the working class movement for its emancipation strengthens the breeding ground for fascism.