Oldham: unasked questions

As the police, politicians and media talk about the 'shame of Oldham', the truth is that they are responsible for it. Brendan O'Neill reports from Greater Manchester.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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First Oldham, then Burnley, now Bradford.

Throughout May, June and July, racial tensions in northern towns have erupted, with pitched battles between young Asians and the police, petrol bombs lobbed at local pubs and shops, and Home Office bans on political marches. The BBC has described it as ‘a long, hot summer of racial violence’ (1).

So what is behind the disturbances, described by some as the worst race riots in Britain since the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981? I went to Oldham on 5 July, where the first of the ‘summer riots’ took place, to find out.

Walking through the mainly Asian Glodwick estate – scene of some of those expertly aimed petrol bombs in May – there is currently little evidence of the riots of six weeks ago. The graffiti (which, according to 20-year-old ‘part-time rioter’ Chirag, said ‘”Fuck the police”, “Whites out”, “No more racist attacks”, you know, angry stuff’) has been white-spirited away in a post-riot clean-up operation.

Yet according to reports, this is the ‘most racially tense town in Britain’. ‘The summer months are going to be difficult’, says Oldham’s deputy mayor Riaz Ahmad (2). Home Office minister Barbara Roche says there will be a ‘long process’ to peace (3), while the Observer describes Oldham as Britain’s ‘capital of racial tension’ (4). ‘We have a very big problem of racist crime here’, a local councillor told me. ‘And when it goes over the top, you get riots.’

So how big is Oldham’s ‘very big problem of racist crime’? The Greater Manchester Police’s Racist Incident Monitoring Report certainly makes for depressing reading. In 1999/2000, Manchester police recorded 2341 racist incidents, 452 of which took place in Oldham – even though Oldham has a smaller population (216,531) than other Greater Manchester regions. Bolton has a population of 258,584 and had 207 racial incidents in 1999/2000, while South Manchester has a population of 271,377 and had 388 racist incidents – and both regions have higher levels of ethnic minorities than Oldham.

Reported racist crime in Oldham has risen throughout the 1990s. In 1994 there were 246 racist incidents; in 1995, another year of riots, there were 386; in 1996 there were 256, in 1997 238, rising to 290 in 1998, and then jumping to 452 in 1999/2000 – a 56 percent increase.

Some blame the rise in racist crime on the British National Party (BNP), which has increased its activities in Oldham – while others point the finger at hot-headed young Asians who attack white residents. But these simplistic explanations downplay another factor that, in exacerbating existing tensions within Oldham, has fuelled recent events. Oldham police – perhaps more than any other police force in the country – actively go out looking for racially motivated crimes. Everywhere and anywhere they can find them.

‘We were one of the first divisions that went out into the community to encourage reporting’, says Janet Garner, community and race relations officer at Oldham Police Station. ‘We recognised from day one that there was a massive problem of under-reporting among black and Asian communities, so we went into those communities with racial crime books to ask about and record racist incidents. We went to schools, community centres, advice centres, everywhere – because some people often aren’t competent enough to report directly to the police, so we use places that feel familiar to them.’

Oldham police have embraced the open-ended definition of a racist incident laid down by the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ ‘We always remind officers of this new definition, before they go out’, says Garner: ‘That it’s anybody who perceives that it is racist.’ Anybody? ‘Anybody.’ Not even necessarily the perpetrator or the victim? ‘No, anybody’, says Garner.

When a racially motivated crime can be anything judged as such by anybody, and when Oldham police have a policy of ‘proactively’ finding racist crimes and encouraging people to report them, it is no big shock that Oldham has a ‘rising tide of racial crime’. According to Garner, this rise reflects the real extent of racist crime – under-reported by black and Asian communities in the past and only now being discovered by the police. But surely it is the open-ended definition of racist crime and Oldham’s proactive hunt that has led to more racist crimes being ‘discovered’.

Take racist incidents in schools and colleges. In February 2001, Oldham residents were shocked when the police revealed that out of 67 racist incidents in schools and colleges throughout the 10 regions of Manchester in 1999/2000, a third were in Oldham. There were 22 such incidents in Oldham – compared to four in Trafford, seven in South Manchester, one in Wigan.

But one question went unasked. Was this a result of Oldham’s colleges being racist hell-holes where students and teachers are under attack – or a result of Oldham being the only region where it is police policy to go into colleges and encourage people to report crimes they think might be racist?

Oldham police’s obsession with finding racially motivated crimes is like a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more they look for racist incidents, the more they find. To the extent that they have even started treating as racially motivated crimes not seen as such by the victim’s family and friends.

In April, 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain was beaten up by Asian youths in Oldham, a crime held up by the media as a sign of Oldham’s deep racial divide – and treated by the police as racially motivated. But Chamberlain’s family saw it differently. ‘It was a violent assault on an elderly man’, said Chamberlain’s son Steven. ‘As a family we don’t think it was a race issue at all.’ (5)

So how can Oldham police justify flagging this as a major racial incident? ‘The family are entitled to their view’, responds Janet Garner. ‘But within the remit of the definition of racist incidents it was, from our point of view, a racist crime. It would have been professionally irresponsible not to have seen it in that context.’ So adhering to the new professionalism on racist crimes and notching up another racist incident on the chalkboard is more important than listening to Chamberlain and his family? ‘No’, says Garner, ‘but I don’t think there was ever any doubt in the minds of police and community activists that this was clearly a racist incident’.

Garner points out that the Chamberlain family were under ‘tremendous pressure’ and were ‘traumatised’ by the fact that the BNP had picked up on the attack and were using it ‘in a highly politicised way’, marching through Oldham with placards showing Chamberlain’s bruised and bloody face. But maybe one reason why the BNP could pull such a cheap stunt is because the police, and the media, continued to treat the Chamberlain attack as a case of racist violence – even when his family said otherwise.

The Oldham police and authorities’ approach to combating racism since the mid-1990s has had the opposite effect. With the police definition of racism now so broad, and the ‘proactive’ search for racially motivated crimes so keen, the authorities have blown the problem of racism in Oldham out of proportion. And by bombarding people with questions about racist incidents and ‘problems’ with ‘other’ communities, the police have ensured that, far from overcoming racial divisions, such divisions and potential problems are foremost in people’s minds.

It has got so bad that even the police themselves are worried about how the race crime figures are being interpreted. According to Garner, ‘Sometimes the more sensationalist press just pick up the figures and say, yet again, that Oldham has the highest number of reported incidents – which makes it look like we’ve been on the verge of race war for years’. So she is slating the media for…reporting police figures.

It is coming to something when even the cops think their racist incident figures are so high that if the media report them people might get the wrong impression. But it’s a bit rich – their racist crime figures do give the wrong impression, without any help from the media.

The endless search for racist incidents has had a palpable impact on the ground. When every encounter between communities is viewed with suspicion, as potentially racist, community relations can only suffer and divisions intensify – as I found around Oldham.

‘The police are supposed to be fighting racist crime’, said Vimal, a 19-year-old resident on the Glodwick estate. ‘And what do they do? They say that most violent racist crimes are being committed by us, by Asians.’ Prian, 18, agreed: ‘It’s bloody typical, right, trying to pin the blame for racism, of all things, on Asians. After everything we and our parents have been through.’

Vimal and Prian are referring to the infamous figure that says 60 percent of all violent racist attacks in Oldham are carried out by Asians on whites. Not long after this was reported in the Oldham Evening Chronicle in May – alongside some white people’s stories about being attacked by Asians – the newspaper’s offices were firebombed by angry rioters, who lambasted it for not giving fair coverage to Asian victims of racial violence.

But the 60 percent figure is correct – according to the police and their definition of a racist incident. Vimal might insist that ‘when Asians hit out at whites it’s not racism, it’s anger, it’s giving them a taste of their own medicine’ – but when a racist incident is one perceived as racist by anybody, and when all encounters between communities are seen as potentially racist, then these all become racist incidents – whether white-on-black, white-on-Asian, Asian-on-white, Asian-on-black – or even Asian-on-Asian. As Janet Garner explained: ‘Communities in Britain are changing and we have to rethink what racism means – for example, there is tremendous racism between Asian communities themselves.’

‘At last’, said Paul, a local in the Live and Let Live pub that was attacked by young Asians in May, ‘people are looking at how whites suffer from racism as well. I know some people who were round here when the pub was attacked by those Asian kids, and they said it was vicious, that there was so much hate. The police used to just look at racism on Asians, but now they’re looking at all racism, which is a good development’.

Talking to people around Oldham, I quickly got a sense that they are competing to see which side is the biggest victim of racism – hardly surprising when the police and the local council have made combating racism their number one priority. But recent anti-racist initiatives in Oldham have exacerbated tensions, by encouraging people to see their problems in racial terms and to present themselves to the police and the authorities as members of a distinct community who might have had problems with members of other distinct communities. Such an approach entrenches divisions – the kind of divisions that then exploded in riots in May.

The media has helped to inflame tensions, too. It might have been a bit rich for Janet Garner to complain when the media reported rising racial crime figures – but she did capture something of the media’s role. ‘There is a rise in reported incidents, which in turn leads to media interest, which in turn has played some part in the disturbances we’ve just had’, she told me. ‘We’ve had a complete madness of media attention, which has been intensely unhelpful and has blown it all up out of proportion.’

This is a view shared by some at the Oldham Evening Chronicle. In May 2001, managing editor Philip Hirst accused the BBC of ‘exacerbating racial hatred’ with its coverage of the riots – by blowing incidents out of proportion and repeating the ‘urban myth’ that Asians on some Oldham estates had set up ‘no-go areas’ for whites. ‘Being seen as the race-hate capital of the north of England doesn’t help’, said Hirst.

And it wasn’t just the BBC. Newspapers seemed to compete to see which could find the gravest terms to describe Oldham: the ‘capital of racial tension’ – the ‘race-hate capital’ – a ‘town called hate’. Not only did the media report Oldham’s racist incident figures without asking what could have caused such an increase, they then proceeded to make things sound even worse than they were. And when Oldham is painted as a hotbed of racism, where whites hate Asians and Asian hate whites, it can’t do much for community relations.

So as the police, politicians and media talk about the ‘shame of Oldham’, the truth is that they are responsible for it. The police obsession with racist crime entrenched divisions between whites and Asians, and the media’s inflamed reporting didn’t help matters.

And the Home Office has made things even worse.

Not surprisingly, the government’s response to the disturbances was to shut people up and shut things down. At the beginning of May 2001, then home secretary Jack Straw banned all public processions in Oldham for the following three months – up to 31 July. On election night, there was a sweeping attack on democracy and free speech, when the unelected chief executive of Oldham Council banned candidates from speaking from the platform, to ensure that racial tensions were not stirred up (6). The Lib Dem-controlled council then refused even to comment on the BNP vote. And now Straw’s successor David Blunkett has enforced a three-month ban on public processions in Burnley and Bradford.

According to one report, the bans ‘might affect everyone, but the aim is to keep the dangerous BNP out of the picture’. But the BNP is not the cause of the recent strife – it is just a beneficiary. That the BNP took 16.4 percent of the vote in Oldham West and Royton, and almost 11 percent of the vote in Oldham East and Saddleworth, was widely regarded as a shock. But when every issue and incident in the area is seen by politicians and commentators through the prism of race, it is hardly a shock that people start to see their problems in racial terms – and it is this that created the environment where the BNP could win some votes. Exactly what made some voters cast their vote for the BNP, however, we may never know, given the absence of debate.

Whether aimed at the BNP or not, clamping down on free speech and the right to march affects everybody. And if Oldham shows anything it is the need for more debate – to find out what is really going on and who is really responsible – not less. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to get it. When I asked Lilian Barton, assistant press officer at Oldham Council, whether the council was at all worried by the anti-free speech implications of stopping candidates from speaking on election night, she sounded perplexed:

‘Erm, I don’t know the answer to that. You’re the only journalist who has brought that up. I think the coverage we got straight afterwards didn’t have anything about that, and it hasn’t been raised with us before.’

When it comes to Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and wherever the next hot spot might be, it seems there are lots of questions that haven’t been raised. But it’s about time they were.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill

Same Oldham story?, by Brendan O’Neill

After Bradford: engineering divisions, by Josie Appleton

Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Summer of racial violence, BBC Online, 8 July 2001

(2) Riot town ‘facing disaster’, BBC Online, 4 June 2001

(3) Oldham face ‘long process’ to peace , BBC Online, 2 June 2001

(4) ‘Oldham, capital of racial tension’, Observer, 10 June 2001

(5) See Same Oldham story?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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