The Bradford Riots 20 Years On: Reflections on Community, Cohesion and Problematisation
7 July 2021 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Bradford riots. Some of the worst rioting in British history, not since the 1981 riots in Brixton, Handsworth and Toxteth had the country seen anything akin to what unfolded over two days and two nights. Within weeks, I was in Bradford to undertake research commissioned by the now defunct, Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR). Investigating the local impact of the response from the then New Labour government, West Yorkshire Police and criminal justice system more widely, the culmination was a 2002 report titled, “Fair Justice: the Bradford Disturbances, the Sentencing and the Impact” (available to download for free). Twenty years on, I reflect on the riots, responses and report.
Contextualising the Riots
The start-point of the riots can be traced back to the afternoon of Saturday 7 July 2001. Despite a proposed march by the far-right National Front (NF) having been banned, it did not deter its supporters from gathering in the city centre. Confronted by anti-fascist protesters and groups of young men — primarily of South Asian (Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian) and Muslim heritage — a number of skirmishes ensued that required police intervention. Following the stabbing of one of those young men however, the situation quickly deteriorated as anger at the police for failing to protect local people soon turned violent.
Spilling out from the city centre to the suburbs, depending upon the source anything between 400 and 1,000 people — again, primarily young men of South Asian and Muslim heritage — fought pitched battles with hundreds of riot police. While rocks, bricks, paving stones and petrol bombs were hurled at police, some local businesses were variously vandalised, looted and set fire. According to the University of Bradford, more than 300 police officers were injured and in excess of 450 crimes recorded. The cost to the city was recently suggested as being near £27 million.
Understanding the Riots
Unsurprisingly, the riots placed Bradford and its South Asian Muslim heritage population under intense public and political scrutiny. At times centring on what might have been causal if not necessarily the cause of the riots, my research pointed towards a number of socio-economic factors. Mirrored in both the city’s ethnic minorities and White working class, these included generational and youth unemployment, low educational attainment, poor housing, numerous health inequalities and high levels of poverty.
None of these were new however, all having been identified by the Bradford Commission investigating the 1995 disturbances in the Manningham area of the city. Despite noting how these and the need to compete for local resources had exacerbated inter-community tensions, little changed in the intervening years. So too did the Commission point to the ongoing impact of the local authority historically allocating housing along segregated lines: confining different ethnic groups to different housing estates to keep them apart. As Lord Ouseley put it, this resulted in a ‘virtual apartheid’ being evident across the city.
From my own research, people also spoke the growing threat they felt from the far-right. With the NF and British National Party known to have been active in deprived, largely White areas of the city for some time, their gathering in the city centre and subsequent stabbing was not only seen as a direct provocation but so too the threat they felt coming to fruition. As some went on, the response was one of ‘community defence’.
Responding the Riots
In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett set the tone for the government’s response: “whatever the provocation from outside the area, it is overwhelmingly local people who have damaged their own community and its future”. Apportioning ‘blame’ to the city’s South Asian-Muslim heritage population irrespective of any outside agitation or socio-economic factor, Tony Blair — Prime Minister at the time — agreed. As a spokesperson for him was quoted, “this is simply thuggery and local people intent on having a go at the police and, in the process of doing that, destroying their own community”.
By the time I had completed my research, around 270 arrests had been made many of whom were first-time offenders and who had self-volunteered themselves to the police. In excess of 90% of those arrested were of South Asian-Muslim heritage. To the surprise of local people, West Yorkshire Police applied for a riot charge which many in the area believed was politically driven. Of the 200 or so that had been sentenced at the time my report was published, almost all had received sentences that were much higher than might have been expected, some receiving five years imprisonment for what amounted to stone throwing.
For some, this was a ‘community punishment’ being handed out in the form of ‘community sentencing’. As those convicted of involvement were seen to have a ‘common purpose’ and ‘common identity’, the thinking goes that so it was therefore justified to commonly sentence them irrespective of individual crimes. For local people, this had little to do with fair justice. Acordingly, the Fair Justice for All Campaign emerged with the intention of challenging the sentencing, seeking a judicial review and establishing a public inquiry. Despite the Campaign and its supporters being wholly peaceful, Blunkett still chose to describe them as “bleeding heart liberals”.
Reviewing the Riots
Maybe the most worrying aspect of all this was the response to the riots by the Community Cohesion Review Team. Commissioned by the Home Office and chaired by Ted Cantle, its findings were published in a report titled “Community Cohesion: a report of the independent review team” (sometimes referred to as the ‘Cantle Report’). Like its commissioners, the Review Team unequivocally dismissed the role of the far-right and any socio-economic factors in preference of positing the blame for the riots solely upon what it referred to as ‘Asian’ communities. Demarcating ‘Asian’ from ‘White’, the Review Team claimed that this was because the former had become ‘polarised’ resulting in them choosing to live ‘parallel lives’, rarely interacting with anyone from other communities or backgrounds.
For the Review Team, the ‘solution’ was to engender in those living ‘parallel lives’ “a clear primary loyalty to this Nation…[where] a clearer statement of allegiance…should be considered”. To do so, a more meaningful concept of citizenship needed to be established, one that focused on improving social unification and promoting a greater identification with being British. Published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there is little doubt that the response of the Review Team took on wider connotations.
What ensued was ‘community cohesion’. Rejecting the concept of a ‘community of communities’ previously put forward by the Commission on Multi-Ethnic Britain, the Review Team instead focused on ‘belonging’. As they put it, if individuals and communities felt a greater sense of ‘belonging’ then not only would they become more inclusive but so too would they be more supportive and tolerant of difference. A community where people get on well together, was — the line of argument continued — an essential step towards improving people’s quality of life and empowering them to contribute to a vibrant, thriving society. In other words, a greater sense of belonging would bring about the improvement of various socio-economic factors.
Reflecting the Riots
Twenty years on, three issues emerge from my reflections.
The first relates to notions and meanings of ‘community’. While the term is widely and on the whole unproblematically used — including by myself — it is also a term that is both ambiguous and subjective. Because of this, it can be manipulatively and disingenuously used and deployed.
In this respect, Arshad Isakjee makes some interesting points. As he puts it, in the contemporary political spaces ‘community’ is not only a term that is typically reserved for ethnic minorities but so too is it used in ways that seek to homogenise those same ethnic minorities. This was readily apparent twenty years ago. Whether in Blunkett blaming the rioters for damaging their ‘own community’ or in the Review Team’s stark demarcation between ‘Asian’ and ‘White’ communities, both were deployed politically, subjectively and pejoratively. Deployed to blame and subsequently problematise — South Asian-Muslims and White working classes alike — it is right to note that just a few years after the riots, the same New Labour government that so readily focused on ‘communities’ published a report that not only spoke of the ‘myth of community’ but so too the weakness of centring policies on similar notions.
My second reflection is on (community) cohesion. Unlike the government’s response to the 1981 riots, soon after the Bradford riots the government roundly dismissed the likelihood of any socio-economic factor being in any way causal. In doing so, the government denied the lived experience of many in the city. For the government, instead of ‘whining’ those ‘communities’ experiencing the greatest levels of exclusion and deprivation were told they needed to do something to bring about change: they needed to be the agents of their own change.
As I have written elsewhere, community cohesion was an early foray into a more ideologically driven, neoliberal model of governance that has transformed how government engages with minority communities. For Britain’s Muslims, this has been largely premised on their ‘problematisation’: a socio-political mechanism that shapes and influences how government understands and duly responds to a plethora of disparate issues attributed to Muslims. From Islamophobia to terrorism, female genital mutilation to educational underachievement, all are perceived to be part of the ‘problem’. For me, this a direct legacy of the government’s response to the Bradford riots where not only were (South Asian) Muslim seen to be the ‘problem’ but so too were they tasked with finding the ‘solution’.
My final reflection centres on the homogenisation and problematisation of Muslims. Whether subjectively deployed in terms of a single ‘Muslim community’ or via the blanket attribution of blame to all Muslims irrespective, the consequence of homogenisation and problematisation is that all Muslims without differentiation are increasingly seen to be one and the same. In the same way that all Muslims were perceived to need to be ‘more British’ after the Bradford riots so too are all Muslims perceived to pose a threat to ‘us’, ‘our’ values, culture and way of life. As well as having a strong resonance with contemporary Islamophobia, so too does this increasingly unquestioned discursive trope have a strong resonance with the very same messages about Muslims and Islam that far-right groups first began to use little more than twenty years ago and have successfully deployed since. In hindsight, maybe the reason the far-right was unequivocally dismissed by government at the time was because what they were saying resonated with their own thoughts and understandings.
As my first piece of commissioned research, it has been interesting to revisit the report I wrote two decades ago. Despite not having given it much thought in the intervening years, what struck me was how many of the themes I touched upon then have since been explored in much greater as part of my ongoing research. Without me realising, that report was a start point of a very clear narrative arc that has shaped and informed my research ever since.
Maybe the same can be applied to the socio-political spaces also. In this respect, maybe the Bradford riots and the government response to them can be seen as a start point of a very clear narrative arc that has shaped and influenced political and public attitudes towards Muslims and their communities ever since. Irrespective of the fact the twentieth anniversary of the riots is likely to receive scant attention, its legacy may be much greater than we might choose to think.