Saturday, 5 May 2007

Lessons from the Past - The Asian Youth Movement

This election saw the biggest ever attempt by the fascists to gain a foothold in Wales. Fortunately, they failed to get a single candidate elected. We reproduce, to start a debate on how we fight racism and fascism in Wales, this thoughtful article by Tariq Mehmood, written when the media and politicians united to condemn all those involved in the disturbances in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, Tariq Mehmood asks us to learn from 1980s experiences of fighting racism and fascism -- and for black and white to defend their communities together.

Twenty years ago, on 11 July 1981, many British cities were ablaze with youthful rebellion. Then, as now, the fascists were out holding marches and meetings and creating mayhem in black areas. Unlike their present showing in general elections, then they were trounced.

The media -- joined by an assortment of odds and sods presented as "community leaders" -- then as now in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, condemned the Asian youth of the 1980s as the perpetrators of criminal activity and "mindless thugs", bent on wanton destruction. Some of the middle-aged "community leaders" today, including MPs such as Marsha Singh, were themselves youths at that time, and were engaged in activities not dissimilar to those they are condemning today. I went on many a demonstration with Marsha Singh, chanting "Labour-Tory both the same -- both play the racist game!"

Bradford city has always had a proud history of resistance to racist and fascist provocation. There are uncanny similarities between the present situation in northern England and the conditions 20 years ago, which led to myself and 11 other Asian youths being arrested and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and possession of explosive substances. In the mid-1970s, the fascists threatened to march through Manningham. Thousands of people in Bradford demonstrated peacefully and ended up in a rally in the city centre. Unlike now, the police then tried to keep the youths in the city centre, so that the fascists could have their rally in the heart of Manningham. The youths broke through the police lines and rushed up Lumb Lane to defend Manningham from fascism. There then ensued terrible violence in which the police fought pitched battles against the youths.

The youth of that time was forced to learn there was no other course than self-organisation. But in order to organise, we had to learn about the nature of the enemy we were organising against. We were forced to try to understand what racism was.

We knew of its devastating effects in our own lives. Our parents worked in dirty run-down mills, we lived in ghettos and had few prospects in front of us. White gangs were attacking us, but why? At school we were embroiled in battles against racist youth and racism within the educational system. But what was racism and from where did it spring?

We came to understand racism was an ideology used in various ways to portray us -- that is, black people -- as sub-human. Sometimes it was used to divide us as workers in the factories and mills, sometimes racism meant we became a political football, kicked about by both Labour and the Tories. There were many expressions of racism in our day-to-day existence. We began to understand that it had a base in history and did not arise simply because we were now here in this country.

We began to ask why had we come into this country in the first place? This led us to our own histories. We learnt that contrary to what the history books had taught us, the British came to India and Africa not primarily on humanitarian missions, but to rob and pillage. This was the major cause of the poverty of our countries of origin. It is here we learnt of capitalism as a system, and racism as an ideology that had developed, changing with the changing times to the present era in which we came of youthful age in Bradford. And it was now being used by neo-fascist organisations.

Following the riots of 1976, Bradford's Asian youth formed themselves into the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). The AYM then spent many years in not only helping young people organise, but also building unity among wider sections of the population. It united with all manner of oppressed layers of British society. One of the alarming developments of the present situation in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham is that there has been a dearth of organised progressive voices.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a broad abhorrence of fascism in the British populace.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-fascists always met just a handful of fascists whenever they showed themselves. I was in my mid-twenties and had learnt through bitter street experience that the major problem was not the fascist gangs, but racism, the oxygen that fascism needed to feed on. I grew up in Bradford, and was quickly forced to learn, even at school -- especially in view of the terrible racist violence of the playground and the journeys to and from school -- that black minorities in this country had no choice but to organise to defend themselves, and then seek alliances with progressive white people.

We saw black and white as political colours. While trying to forge unity among Afro-Asian youth, at the same time we actively encouraged white youth to work with us, as we believed the necessity of uniting all people against common enemies. Racism, we believed, was a common enemy not only of black people, but of all people. But we also believed that our primary task was to organise ourselves, as we were the direct targets of racist and fascist gangs.

The youth of today need to look to their immediate histories, as we did in our time, and learn from the experiences of those who had organised before us. In the late 1970's, Asian youth formed organisations in almost all the cities in which they lived. I was involved in the formation and activities of a number of these organisations, in places such as the East End, Southall, Birmingham and Bradford. The objective of the youth then was not in fighting against white people, but against racism. The fight was born out of poverty and degradation, of being effectively imprisoned in the inner-city ghetto, with no apparent hope of escape. We too were faced with similar situations, and had no choice but to come together and organise. When we organised we became stronger. By uniting ourselves, we were gaining a public voice. We developed systems in which we could quickly mobilise to defend people under physical attack, while at the same time challenging publications in the media that tried to denigrate our communities or organisations.

When people begin to organise, the state agencies do not just sit by as idle observers. It is not in their interest to allow the independent development of militant organisations.

Following the rebellion of 1981, the state moved quickly to buy off the leadership of the emerging youth movements. We were offered youth workers. We argued that we did not want youth workers but work. The most active and effective time of these youth organisations was when we funded our activities from the money we raised ourselves. As soon as we applied for funding and received it, our organisations began to decay and eventually die. By getting money from state institutions, we became answerable to them. As soon as they controlled our purse strings they controlled us. The lesson from that time is that people's organisations must be responsible only to the people.

Even though the gangs that attacked us in the mid-1980s were coming from run-down white working-class neighbourhoods, we believed that without white workers and progressive white people coming out against racism, we stood no chance. Unlike now, 20 years earlier, especially in towns like Burnley, there were many popular organisations all fighting for their particular demands, such as trade unions, left organisations, tenants associations, women's organisations and even Labour Party members, who took part in anti-racist activities. Those who fight for their own rights learn the meaning of the suffering of others and can see the logic in forging unity.

Situations like this create the conditions for the building of effective anti-racist unity. Following racist violence, our areas became flooded with well-meaning white comrades from different white left organisations. They wanted to organise against racism and pick up a few members along the way. We pleaded with them to go and organise in white areas where the racists live and people are in need of education and organisation.

Progressive and anti-racist white people should look for the rise in racism not in black but white ghettos. It is in the deprived white areas where the far-right is gaining strength.

On 11 July 1981, police fought pitched battles with youth in numerous British cities. For nearly two weeks before this day, there were sporadic flare-ups with racist and fascist gangs and/or police officers raiding black communities. People of Bradford, especially young people, decided not to place their faith in the hands of the police and organise the defence of their different localities. We were confronted with the questions: what is defence? What is legitimate in one's self-defence?

In those days, just like today, racist and fascist gangs were attacking us with all manner of weapons, including petrol bombs. We decided that it was our right to defend our communities, and ourselves by arming ourselves with petrol bombs. We built some and kept them hidden for safekeeping.

However, the main focal point of our activities was in the mobilisation and organisation of the broadest possible numbers of people. We divided into groups, often of hundreds of people, and spent the day patrolling our streets. Echoing their actions of 7 July 2001, two decades earlier the police had advised people to stay indoors as well. In view of our history of the mid-1970s, and the actions of the police towards our communities, we did not trust them to defend us. We made a call for people to come out. And they did come out in their hundreds. Wherever we went, people came out and offered us drinks and sweetmeats. A few fascists did show up in the town centre but these were seen off by mostly white youth.

The evening came. We went to the city centre. There was no fascist invasion. A few bored police officers got involved in a skirmish with some white youths. I was arrested in the confusion that followed this. The petrol bombs were not used.

A few weeks later we were charged on terrorist charges and imprisoned. Our arrest was met by a massive sense of outrage by Bradford's community. The Bradford 12 Defence Campaign brought thousands of people, from right across the country, out on to the streets to defend the right to self-defence.

The police and the courts argued that petrol bombs could not be used as weapons of self-defence. We maintained that it was our right to arm ourselves as we were faced with attackers who were similarly armed. After a nine-week trial, we were all acquitted. The lesson from that trial is that people under attack have the right in law to defend themselves appropriately. The most important components of defence are community-based organisations, clear in their aims and objectives. These must be responsible to the people they are defending. And without organisations, we are defenceless.

The present situation in Bradford and other northern towns is not born out of something unique in these cities. The fundamental causes of violence are not the questions of the colour of skin, but poverty and a feeling of helplessness. Hope can only be found in organising and in uniting with principled anti-racist and anti-imperialist forces.

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