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Double podcast episode about anti-racist Asian youth movements in Bradford, England in the 1970s and 80s. We speak to Tariq Mehmood about the Asian Youth Movement, the United Black Youth League, and his seminal trial as one of the so-called Bradford 12.

These will be the first in an occasional series of episodes looking at different aspects of Asian youth movements in Britain at different cities at that time.

  • Part 1: exploring what life was like at the time for young Asians in Britain, how organising began and introducing political “Blackness”
  • Part 2: looking at what happened to the organisations which were set up in the city, and Bradford 12 trial
  • Bonus episode: with more information about an unknown connection between a recent trial and the Bradford 12, as well as Tariq writing his first book in prison – available exclusively for our patreon supporters

You too can support this podcast, and get exclusive benefits like early access to episodes, bonus episodes and more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

More information

Media
Click the images for captions

Sources
Other sources used in the episode not listed above are:

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Gail Edwards for permission to use her rendition of Close the Coalhouse Door, from Gail’s YouTube channel
These episodes were edited by Daniel Woldorff
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here. Or stream it here.

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Transcript

Part 1

WCH:

In the 1970s and ’80s, Asian young people in Britain, up and down the country, organised themselves to oppose racism. They fought discrimination in factories and mills, campaigned for migrant families and fought against racists, fascists and the police who defended them in the streets. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

WCH:

Hi and welcome back to WCH  podcast. We’re going to be making a series of podcasts about Britain’s Asian youth movements. While they all had things in common, they had different features as well, so we’re going to be looking at different movements in different geographical areas. We’re starting off with the experiences of young people in Bradford. Firstly, a few words about terminology. Some people may wonder why this episode is tagged ‘Black history’ when it’s about Asian people. Indeed, that question nearly always comes up when we post content on our social media accounts about this topic. So maybe the first thing to bear in mind is that while race has a very real social existence, it doesn’t describe any real and distinct biological categories. Who is considered white or Black and what that means is all determined by society at a given point. In Britain, at that time, Black was basically used by white racist society to mean everyone not of white, European descent. Many Black and Asian people took this situation and forged the idea of political blackness as an anti-racist identity to unite all people of colour. The existence today in many U.K. trade unions of self-organised groups for Black workers, incorporating all workers of colour, is one of the legacies of this. In the U.S., generally, when people refer to Asian people, they normally mean people from East or Southeast Asia, so places like China, Japan, Korea or the Philippines, but in the U.K., the term Asian generally refers to people of South Asian origin, so mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In most official diversity monitoring forms, for example, Asian or British Asian will be one category and Chinese or other will be another. With those initial words out of the way, we can get started. We’re very pleased to be joined by author and activist Tariq Mehmood, a former founding member of both the Bradford Asian Youth Movement (AYM) and the United Black Youth League (UBYL). Tariq was later a defendant in the trial of the so-called Bradford 12, which was a seminal criminal case in British history, in essentially affirming the right of communities to militant self-defence. We’re going to go into all that later but to begin with, we asked Tariq to introduce himself and say a bit about where he’s from. As with pretty much any discussion about racism in Britain, its roots lie in its history of empire and colonialism.

Tariq:

My name is Tariq Mehmood. I was born in Pakistan and my family migrated from Kashmir around about 1890 or perhaps it’s better to say they went into exile around about 1890 because as the British Empire was expanding northwards from the south, they captured Punjab and as a consequence, they captured also Kashmir which they then sold for £300,000. That meant the land, the livestock and the people of the area. This was done in the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846 and as a consequence of that, the repression that was let loose on the Kashmiri population, or some sections of it for sure and particularly the Muslims of that era, saw that many of us migrated out to what was then British India or rather that part of the British Indian Empire and later on, which was to become Pakistan. I was born there and in the late ’60s, in 1967, I was taken to Bradford in Britain, a small, Northern, English town which was very much a mill town. I was taken there by my grandfather which was very much against my decision, as I was too young at the time, or that of my mother. I grew up then for the very younger part of my life, maybe 7-10 or something in that region, in Pakistan but the remainder of that, I then grew up in Bradford. That was where I went to school and I was part of that generation of people which the administrative powers that be of cities like Bradford, and other places in England, thought it unwise to have too many non-white children in the local schools. Hence, we were bussed out under a policy called ‘bussing’ where they distributed us across different schools. I didn’t really understand this until two or three years ago that almost all my education at school was not at a local school. Now that I have children, I understand how crucial it is for people to go to local schools and to walk to schools, not have to get up in the morning, thrown onto a bus and driven miles away. That was my early part of schooling and growing up in Bradford.

WCH:

This forced bussing has clear parallels with a discussion which has reignited today in the U.S. over Joe Biden’s campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. Some people supported bussing in the U.S. to desegregate schools which were very divided on racial grounds which meant that many Black children went to substandard schools but in the U.K., there was no such progressive justification. Bradford was the first place where bussing in Britain began in 1963 after white parents complained about there being ‘too many immigrants’ in their schools. So Edward Boyle, the Education Minister, who was in the liberal wing of the Conservative Party, decided that no school should have more than 30% Black children in it.

He told Parliament, ‘I must regretfully tell the House that one school must now be regarded as irretrievably an immigrant school. The important thing is to prevent this happening elsewhere.’

This was despite the fact that the 1944 Education Act provided that parents would be able to choose which school their child attended. In any case, most places didn’t follow his instructions but 11 cities did introduce bussing, including Blackburn, Bradford, Leicester, Southall in London and Bristol. Amongst the problems it caused was that children of colour were often singled out by arriving late and having to leave early and also the long distances meant that often there was almost no contact between the school and parents. Racism was widespread in the general population and this was reflected and even amplified by the state in policy.

Tariq:

The schooling itself was quite a difficult period really. My images and memories of both my primary and secondary schools are those filled with violence on the playground and of before getting to school, certainly by secondary school. In primary school, the violence was different. I’m a little cross-eyed or I used to be and it was much more pronounced when I came to England and I felt a lot of bullying which was partly to do with the way I looked, or rather my eye looked, but then I realised that it wasn’t all to do with my eyes but a lot to do with my colour. It’s wasn’t to do with religion as this phenomenon comes much later on. White kids, who’d never seen one of us before, would rub their fingers on your skin to see if the dirt came out or would run round and round in the playground singing nursery rhymes. I still remember this one and it must have been so deeply ingrained in my memory.

‘God made little Black children

He made them in the night

He made them in a hurry

And forgot to paint them white’

It was just one of those things and I was constantly being beaten up. I also came to Britain at a time when we believed that the white man, or white people, were omniscient and untouchable. I felt they felt no pain. I felt they were so powerful that I couldn’t do anything and I was constantly being attacked on the playground. I think it was in my primary school and I’ve written about this. One day, I raised my hand against the bully who was attacking me. He was a big lad but I don’t remember much more than that now. I must have hit him on the nose but I didn’t mean to and he bled. It was only then that I really realised that white blood was red just like mine and the boy didn’t like the pain just like I didn’t like the pain. I probably became far more violent than I should have done if I’d had some thought and for that, I was pulled in front of that school. I continued like that into my secondary school and wherever I went, somehow, violence followed me. My early schooling was one in which, at the primary end, was an ordeal to go there and come back. When we came back, we had to explain to our guardians that we weren’t the ones causing violence. My uncles, my grandfather and the friends and family of all those around were themselves enduring a different kind of violence which was also embroidered with racism. It was very different in so far as they were working in these mills and factories. If you like, we were people from the countryside who woke up with the sun and who went to bed with the setting of the sun. All of a sudden, we were working to the clock, to the second and to the minute. They were not all peasants and we would have been, from the societies from which we came, the lower middle class as we, at least, had the money or the wherewithal to get air tickets. In a sense, they suddenly found themselves not only at the bottom of the heap but at the bottom of a heap where exploitation of a worker was mixed with the racist exploitation of a worker, if you like. They would work during the nights in mills and in some cases, factories and shifts where the machinery was very old and instead of one shift, the employers managed to get three shifts. We would work at night. My uncles and their friends and families, or immigrants like us, would do shift work. We’d sleep in shifts in different beds. They too were getting brutalised but in a different sort of way. Just like me, in a sense, they couldn’t understand why the society around them was so nasty but also a lot of our elders were indebted at the time. They just wanted to keep their heads down and take the nonsense and the shit that came their way. So there was this general brutalisation coming along in society but we were all male which was a very important feature of the time. Men came first and brought with them young boys who they couldn’t wait to grow up and so very often, our ages were increased to ensure that we started work earlier, as mine was. We lived in this sort of society but on the material side of society, what at first looked really good to us, like paving stones, running water, roads, electricity, radio, television, a variety of food and riches unbeknown to us, we slowly began to realise that compared to our white friends, it was dreadful. We really lived in the areas where white people no longer wished to live and we went to schools later on where they wouldn’t go or they didn’t want us to go. In mills and factories, our elders worked where they didn’t want to work. In a sense, this wasn’t a realisation all of a sudden, it was a gradual reflection back on that age. At that time, going to secondary school became an ordeal and as I was saying earlier, when we came back home, our elders often were dismissive of us and blaming me and people like me for being the instigators of trouble at school. Why couldn’t we just be super good, learn and become doctors, or pilots, or engineers? We couldn’t explain to them that our playground was the place where we probably learned best and the learning was how to survive. In the classroom, the teachers really didn’t want to teach us in many cases. In some cases, we said, ‘We don’t care about learning.’ That’s not to say it was all the teachers. My junior school was a place called Ley Top Primary School and my secondary school was a town comprehensive school. We had some quite nasty, racist teachers but we had some fantastic ones as well. Certainly, I learned from the teachers that racism wasn’t skin deep and it really wasn’t about colour. I began to understand my white friends who didn’t agree with what was happening to us at school. For example, I would be forced to sit in an immigrant class learning English when our English was excellent. In some cases, because it was a second language, we were grammatically even better than some of our native speakers. Though I probably wasn’t one of those, but my language was very good by this time, in some cases, we would have to bring relatives to school to explain to the teachers that we actually spoke English. We would then interpret for them so that they could understand. However, they had a policy to put all the immigrants in these particular streams and that was for years. We would sit together, they would teach us and we were bored. Our schooling was violent and in my case, on one occasion, probably a thousand white children were on one side and a few hundred of us on the other side. We had full pitched battles where we would have to be released half an hour before the white kids, otherwise, we would be attacked on our way to the buses. Because the schools were so far away, none of our families could really reach us at that time. If we got on the buses, very often, we would get ambushed because their friends may have been on because they lived in the neighbourhood. That was my early schooling but what it did teach me was that there wasn’t a choice but to fight back. There was no other choice but to get together. They called us gangs but we weren’t gangs. We were already embryonic organisations because we would send boys from our school to other schools, depending on where the troubles were. As I said very clearly boys because I think we had one girl or maybe two and god help them. They must have had a miserable time with the shower that we were.

WCH:

From these fights in the playgrounds, Tariq and his friends were basically forming unofficial collective organisations.

Tariq:

One of the things I learned was that you can’t fight alone. You can fight one person to one person, perhaps, but you can’t fight a thousand people on your own. You can’t even fight a thousand with all of you united. The odds were against us, so we needed a social organisation. In the process of these very embryonic organisations, like in the playgrounds, we would meet and we would discuss. We wanted our white friends to come and join us and help us. It was a desperate cry at the time but they couldn’t and some of them would come crying to me that they were being so heavily bullied to join the white side. Also, this was a period when we would learn very, very quickly that there was no such thing as white and yet there was. These were transformations. It’s very important for me to explain that this wasn’t all white people. I still remember one of the lads crying his eyes out because he was so angry with what was happening, including teachers and in rare cases, some of the policemen. They put us into these areas where we had no choice. It wasn’t the case that our upbringing was full of violence and horror because there was a wonderful side to it as well because in the midst of the Northern English racism, there was also a Northern English love and a Northern English humour which really came through many times in the most absurd situations.

WCH:

After completing his schooling, Tariq continued to have a difficult time.

Tariq:

In years after school, I would become homeless due to complicated reasons. It wasn’t due to drugs, alcoholism or anything like that but for social reasons, as I didn’t really have parents here. When I grew up, I had uncles who I was living with but it’s another story perhaps and too complicated for this. The warmest place used to be in Bradford Central Library and the women who worked in the canteen knew I was homeless. If I was to go and get a tiny bit of soup, I would get enough food with the soup to survive pretty much most of the day. They never, for one moment, ever begrudged me anything. Most of the time, I would sit in the library and read. One of the first people who provided a roof over my head, who I don’t want to name them because, perhaps, they may not like it, invited me to their house and the father was abusively racist but the kids weren’t and the mother wasn’t but I was gutted listening to how the family was tearing itself apart.

WCH:

While lots of children of colour were bullied in school, their parents and all their relatives were exploited in mills and factories. Black and Asian workers were often given the worst shifts, paid less than white workers and denied promotions and up until the late 1970s, the unions, prioritising their white members, defended this situation largely and opposing and even scabbing on strikes by Black and Asian workers for equal treatment. This situation began to change at the time of the Grunwick Strike by East African Asian women workers in 1976 which we cover in our first episode.

Tariq:

In the mills, particularly in the North of England, the trade union was called the Dyers’ and Bleachers’ Union. Effectively, it wouldn’t let non-white workers join it for a while and it was a struggle to join it. The unsociable shifts went to us. The pay differential was quite substantial as well. Of course, eventually, the Dyers’ and Bleachers’ Union would give in but this was following a struggle by our workers. It’s also important to understand that we were the product of the colonial empire. When we came to the metropolis that colonised us, our struggles were not simply economic, though our existence very much was. If a white worker was working, they were looking after themselves and their families. If we were working, we were looking after ourselves, our families here in the U.K. but also back home and getting exploited and getting less money than our counterparts. Eventually, we all realised that there was nowhere for white workers to get anywhere without having unity with us. In that sense, the force of circumstances did cause us to unite and what our families and many of us brought was the politics to the economic struggles. We were anti-colonial and we had no choice. Once I learned how much Britain stole from us and why I became poor… and also my family, my father and grandfather, were in the British Army and when I was at school, the white kids whose parents were in the British military were getting all sorts of benefits. Their mothers were living here but my mother couldn’t come to visit me and it made me resentful. Why should you have that treatment for one and not for the other? I became very angry at the Empire and how it had really forced the poverty of my family which had forced my migration to England.

WCH:

Other aspects of the political situation in Britain at the time shaped the environment in which Asian anti-racist movements developed.

Tariq:

I think I was probably unemployed or doing odd jobs at the time when the Asian youth movements came into being. I think, perhaps, we should look at what the economic, social and political conditions were that gave rise to the birth of the youth movements of the late 1970s. I was one of the founding members of Bradford Asian Youth Movement. I was also involved, as were many of my colleagues, in assisting the formation of other organisations up and down the country. In a sense, it was a movement as opposed to simply a one-off thing in a one-off city and there were those before it, after it and at the same time, sort of linked. If we do a summary, a big block of migrants came in around about the mid-’60s onwards and they came for a very simple reason and that was because there was an enormous labour shortage from the late ’50s onwards. By the time we arrive, and certainly when I arrive in the ’60s, there’s another wave emerging. There was a nasty, racist politician here called Enoch Powell and in 1968, he gives his Rivers of Blood famous speech. It’s very anti-immigrant and very much a racist whipping up of the process.

WCH:

This was a really important speech and while it is well-known in Britain, it won’t be to any of our listeners, especially young people and people outside the U.K. and so I think it’s important to explain it a bit. Enoch Powell was a prominent, right-wing Tory MP who was a minister in the previous government and in 1968, he was Shadow Defence Minister. He made a speech to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on 20th April – Hitler’s birthday, coincidentally or not – primarily about immigration from the Commonwealth. It included choice lines like:

‘It’s like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. In this country, in 15 or 20 years’ time, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man. As I look ahead, I’m filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’

While he was it, he also praised the ‘insight and courage’ of a racist Labour government minister who was, at that time, bravely standing up for working people by attacking Sikhs who wanted the right to wear turbans at work. Powell’s speech got him kicked out of the Shadow Cabinet but opinion polls at the time showed that a big majority of British people pretty much agreed with him, 70%, as around to only about 15% disagreeing. When he was sacked, a few thousand workers, mostly London dockers with some meat porters and workers in small factories around the country, went on strike in support of him and waving placards saying things like ‘Back Britain Not Black Britain’. The whole thing was especially ironic given that when Powell was Health Secretary, he actually launched recruitment campaigns for doctors and nurses to come to Britain from Asia and the Caribbean to work for the National Health Service. Interestingly, I think, Powell defended his comments in much the same way as the contemporary alt-right, saying that he wasn’t a ‘racialist’; meaning that he didn’t believe in the inferiority of any race. Although, again like some alt-righters, he said that he thought that Asians were superior to whites in some respects, for example, intellectually. Although, of course, like the contemporary alt-right, he just didn’t want any people who weren’t white in the same country as him.

Tariq:

As that goes down the decade, it gives inspiration and justification to what we had seen as the big, spontaneous fighting that takes place in our playgrounds and schools and the day-to-day bullying, racism and the insidious incidents that would take place. That creates a climate in which political organisations, like the fascist National Front or other permutations, would come later on. There was the British National Party, or the various extreme organisations, or those, incidentally, linked to your parts of the world within the extreme right in America. As this process is going on, there is a corresponding economic decline that is taking place. The mills are closing down. The old, rich, British, ruling, imperial power is in a rapidly declining process and in this declining process then, my generation of people who are growing up in this country begin to understand. We were no longer living in awe of white skins and we had learned that some of them were as oppressed as us and others needed to fight. We’d also learned that there was a thing and there wasn’t a thing called Black and white. I’ve been called a Black bastard more times than I can remember and yet, at first, I didn’t understand what Black meant. I began to understand that Black was a political term and born out of a racist ideology. That which brought us together was our commonalities. Hindus, Sikhs, Africans, Caribbeans, Muslims and different gradations from across the world and whether we were Chinese or Arabs, we were Black in this society. We were only Black in this society. I wasn’t an Asian in Pakistan and my African friends were certainly not an African in Africa. We became what we became in Britain and the American Black movement affected us greatly. In particular, the speeches of Malcolm X certainly affected me. I must have read or seen pretty much everything he said. So in one sense, all that was going on but I became a socialist and all my close friends became socialists because it wasn’t so much that the world in which we were living was wrong. What was the world we wanted to live in? Also, we were confronted by the very serious question of why we became poor and the world we were in became rich. Was it god’s gift to the white man that you should live in luxury and we should transfer across the globe and look for a job here and there? We began to understand that we were poor. The other question was what on earth were we doing here? Why was away from my mother living on the streets of Bradford, homeless and hiding from house to house and tree to tree? That’s literally how I lived for a little while. I don’t know how long it was now but maybe a year or so. Why were we here? We began to realise that we were here, and some of the theoreticians put it very well, because they were there. I’m here because you’re there. You were there. You came to me on the back of gunboats and bayonets. I came here on an aeroplane. You occupied us and we came to work in the mills. We began to understand that economics and politics were intricately linked and the colonial history of my present could not be separated from your past. Sometimes, they wanted us to forget the past. Well, we can’t. My past is my present. Your past may not be, in your opinion. These were the arguments we used to get into with people and I began to realise that there had to be an understanding of the world in which we lived. What racism did to me was unlock a door. The door it unlocked was a door I had no choice but to unlock because it came knocking. I walked through it and realised that there was not only a colonial empire but there was an imperial empire and it was still in existence then. In that sense, by the time we got down to the organisation of the youth movements, I’d been involved in left-wing politics. Some of this started in school with wonderful teachers; one I forget and one was a guy called Mr. Cook. Accidently, I met him on a train 20 years later. They played us songs from the Welsh mines.

[Close the Coalhouse Door by Alex Glasgow]

‘Close the coalhouse door, lad

There’s blood inside

Blood from broken hands and feet’

I forget the rest of it. You can probably find it and play it alongside the interview. This was how Welsh children were dying in coal mines and it began to explain to us that we had to find allies because the world we wanted to build had to be fought for. It wasn’t going to come to us. We really believed we were going to create this world because we had no choice but to have that. At the time when our youth movement in Bradford, in particular, was going to be formed, we’d had the National Front marching and we had a policy of absolutely no platform. Me and my friends were not going to let the fascists march through our areas. It was a simple no-no. We didn’t trust the police and not because we were anti-police at the time but just because of what they were doing to us. We didn’t believe they would defend us and besides, it was our duty to protect our areas. The very first time there were riots in Bradford, I was involved. I was young. We would not let the fascists march in our areas. The police were protecting them and allowing them to march and have a meeting in our area. That would lay the basis of thinking in our heads that somewhere along the line, we needed our own organisations. It wasn’t enough to simply be in different, what we used to call, ‘white left’ organisations. I was in the International Socialists. Someone else was in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. One was in the Militant group in the Labour Party. The core group of us, one day, buried our differences. Our house was a mess.

WCH:

I’ll just take a quick moment to explain some of the groups and concepts which have been mentioned for people who aren’t as big leftie or far-right trainspotters as me. The National Front (NF) were the most prominent fascist group in the U.K. at the time. The leadership, people like John Tyndall, were mostly hardcore neo-Nazis and goose-stepping, SS-uniformed cosplay types but they were early proponents of the now common tactic of trying to appear reasonable by appealing to white fears of immigration and trying to pull people from those views to the point where they bring up the ‘Jewish question’ and go into full-blown support for a violently racist and antisemitic ideology. Their strategy was based around demonstrating power in the streets through big marches and running in elections where they could, with limited success. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Tariq mentions three different Trotskyist groups, socialist groups following the general ideology of Leon Trotsky; the International Socialists, who were the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), although back then, they had a more open structure; the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) were a big group at the time and extremely influential on the left with a bunch of celebrity members, like Vanessa Redgrave, but after several scandals, they pretty much collapsed into a small rump which remains today; and the Militant Tendency which got expelled from the Labour Party and then became the Socialist Party. The policy of ‘no platform’ that Tariq mentioned is the basic principle of radical anti-fascism. It’s based on acknowledging that when fascist organisations are allowed to spread their message, they grow. This growth fuels violence, beginning with street violence, racist attacks and ending with genocide. So ‘no platform’ means taking action to deny fascists any means to spread their message. If they try to march or hold public meetings or rallies, we need to turn out and stop them. One example of this policy being put into practice was on 17th April 1976.

Tariq:

If my memory serves me right, the National Front wanted a meeting in a school in Manningham. I lived just off Manningham at the time and we said, ‘No! The fascists will not march in our area,’ and so did our community. Here, I’m talking of thousands of people. The respectable types marched into the city centre to hold a peaceful demonstration. We said, ‘What’s the point of having a peaceful demonstration in town. We should be having a demonstration in the streets where the fascists are.’ We broke away from the main body of the demonstration and the police tried to stop us going back to our own streets and that’s where we went. We went onto the streets. There was fighting but I wouldn’t say a full-scale riot or anything like that. There were police cars overturned from which we had to rescue some of our friends who’d been arrested. Who did all this? My memory doesn’t serve me well. That’s what happened at the time in 1976. When we get to 1977, ’78 and ’79, there are social and political organisations already in existence of Africans, Caribbeans and some organisations emerge as Black, Asian, Indian and Pakistani organisations later on. These are workers’ organisations. As Bangladesh becomes independent, we begin to have organisations of Bangladeshis. As Kashmiri nationalism begins to understand itself, they all split but we’re not splintered. We’re still part of a broad, anti-colonial, anti-imperial movement which is global but also, we’re very much united on an anti-racist front. In this time, around us, other things are beginning to happen which leads to not only the formation but the activation of these organisations. Margaret Thatcher comes to power as well and that’s around about 1979. If we go down from ’76, ’77, ’78 and ’79, historically speaking, it’s not even a drop in the ocean of history and it’s a very rapid movement of time but other things are at play which would then impact today. This is the time when the Soviet Union occupies Afghanistan and this is also the time when we are very active now as the Asian Youth Movement around about then, give or take a year up or down. Why that is important is that the intelligence agencies are beginning to also recruit Muslim youth to go and fight in Afghanistan. I know them. Some are dead and some of them have come back from that era. This was British intelligence and paid for by Saudis, Germans, Americans and all sorts of people. We were in conflict with these movements because we believed that our fight was now in Britain. We also had the same thing with our Jewish friends. The anti-Zionist Jews, and the ones who were beginning to lean more and more to Zionism, felt they had to fight antisemitism in Israel which we fundamentally disagreed with. We said that antisemitism must be fought where it existed and that anti-Zionism must be our platform. We had posters which we made and which our anti-Zionist Jewish friends, incidentally, helped us make and proudly displayed. We used to say ‘Death to Zionism’.

WCH:

Just to clarify here because a lot of people often conflate being Jewish or being Israeli with being a Zionist and some neo-Nazis and other antisemites use ‘Zionist’ as a coded dog-whistle word referring to Jewish people which is completely abhorrent. On the flip side of this, many supporters of the State of Israel actually lend credence to this idea by claiming that opposing Zionism is inherently antisemitic, thus implying that all Jewish people are Zionist. In reality, Zionism is a very specific ideology of support for a Jewish ethnostate in the Middle East which many Jewish people are completely opposed to, like the Israelis we speak to in our podcast episode 17 and 18 where we cover this topic in a lot more detail.

Tariq:

We saw all these complex, interconnected things very much together. Just one more thing to add to this pie was Ireland which was very important because we lived in areas where the Irish must have moved out of. We were still connected to these processes and there are a lot of personal stories which would play out. In terms of organising, the youth movements are formed and for us, there is no contradiction between a Muslim, Sikh or Christian. You could be all those or you could be one or none. You could be an Indian, Pakistani, South Asian or wherever you were from. It really didn’t matter. We were Black. We were Asians. We had our religious denominations and we didn’t have our religious denominations or sexual orientations. We had no issue in that sense. We would just as vociferously defend a temple as we would a mosque. We were secular but secularism wasn’t an issue for us or its opposing side. We believed that only the state could be secular and that individuals could support that position but it wasn’t an individual thing. We’d matured as anti-imperialist fighters. At that time, our involvement in all these forces would lay the bedrock for why, after I’m arrested with my colleagues, we would even end up being freed. For us, our support to the hunger strikers was imperative, like Bobby Sands or Patsy O’Hara. It didn’t matter to us which wing of the Irish National Liberation Movement they came from.

WCH:

Here, Tariq is referring to the hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners in 1980 and ’81 who were demanding reinstatement of their status as political prisoners and concomitant rights like the right to wear their own clothes and be exempted from prison labour. The 1981 hunger strike was by both members of the Irish Republic Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein and the Irish National Liberation Army and its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party. One of the hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament and eventually, after ten hunger strikers died, including Sands, they won most of their demands. The event radicalised the republican movement and helped Sinn Fein become a major political party.

Tariq:

Whether it was from the INLA or whether it was from the IRA, ours wasn’t a military struggle. Ours was a political gesture of solidarity with the Irish people. Theirs was the military struggle and not ours but we would support the right of the people of Ireland, as an occupied country, to defend themselves and fight for their liberation in whatever means they took. Sometimes, we paid a price for that. We would go on demonstrations and be bricked and physically attacked. I, for one, have been over the years and injured and bruised for supporting the struggle of Ireland. Our youth movements were beginning to evolve but they were evolving both for an international type of a position and an internal one. This is the era also at which the fascists are not simply marching in the North of England but right across the country. In a way, ours was an organisation that primarily saw itself as an anti-racist one in Britain in order to support anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles overseas. Also, we did a lot of day-to-day work as well. In the early days when we had just formed, I don’t know whether we were sitting on the grass or in the library cafe, everything we did was based on our own resources. We put our own money in and we squatted for office space. Every single thing we did, in the early days of the formation of the youth movement, was based on its own resources and help from other communities. As a social movement, it grew and didn’t remain static. We fought to unite families. We fought to defend our streets from gangs of ‘Paki bashers’. I don’t know how much of it also was applicable in the South but it certainly existed in the Midlands but there was a phenomenon in Northern England where, in the evening, groups of white kids would get drunk and go and look for a ‘Paki’ (meaning any Asian and, at times, African as well or anybody who wasn’t white). They would pick on you, beat you to pulp and then escape. That was their little game they played after the pubs closed where they got drunk. We would defend our streets and we would have patrols or simply hang around in groups of ten and 20 or five and ten, depending on our stuff. We would try to have social activities. We would run educationals. We would try to educate ourselves and we had an organisational structure. People couldn’t just join. They had to be nominated and the Executive Committee had to approve each membership. There were aims and objectives which have been published and I don’t need to repeat them. We would support other campaigns of other people in similar cases. In some cases, we sent solidarity messages, like to Nicaragua. Before 1979 under the Shah of Iran, the Iranian students were heavily infiltrated by the then secret police. I think it was called SAVAK. They couldn’t even put posters up without fear of what might happen and we would do it. We said, ‘We will help you put posters up in the streets against the Shah.’ We would provide fraternal security to organisations, in some cases, where divisions came and we didn’t believe they should be fighting. We believed we should resolve things ourselves in the spirit of comradeship. There were many things of that nature but most importantly, we were very, very much an entrenched organisation that was born out of particular communities and existed within them. We were not external implants.

WCH:

Rather than doing anything about racist attacks, instead, the police used any excuse to harass Asians.

Tariq:

Perhaps you remember or perhaps you don’t know but this was actually an era of a nasty character called the Yorkshire Ripper. He was going around murdering women in the area. There were police patrol cars, very close to where I lived, trying to hunt the Yorkshire Ripper down. These policemen would harass us, knowing full well that the Yorkshire Ripper was white. It wasn’t once and it wasn’t twice. It was countless occasions and unnecessary. We were constantly harassed.

WCH:

There was another political aspect to the Yorkshire Ripper case. The Yorkshire Ripper murdered 13 women and attempted to kill seven others, many of them sex workers, in Northern England, mostly in the mid to late 1970s. The official police response was to tell women not to go out after dark which was not particularly helpful advice, especially for women working night shifts or sex workers. So revolutionary feminists in Leeds began organising a ‘Reclaim the Night’ women’s protest which ended up taking place in several cities in 1977.

Tariq:

Also, we were in conflict with the police on many different levels and sometimes, they would charge people. We took on discrimination cases against the police and we won them. I don’t think we ever lost a case any time we fought a campaign. The relationships were fraught but we began also to understand that the police force, whilst consisting of individuals, wasn’t run on the basis of the whims of individuals. It was a force of oppression. It was a force at the service of particular classes or particular groups in society, so we did have this attitude. However, this is not to say that every policeman on the beat in the Ripper inquiry was a monster. On the contrary, but there were those who were utter bastards. There’s no way to describe them. They really were completely out and out nasty pieces of work who knew we had nothing to do with it. We would have probably been overjoyed to catch hold of him and to help because our people were frightened where we lived. They never knew. Our relationships with the police were never good. They were never good because, in those days, they would protect the fascists. Two people marching down the street with a thousand policemen to protect them was ludicrous. We certainly didn’t support the idea of freedom of speech applying to everyone. We didn’t believe that you had the freedom of speech to get up in a crowded cinema and shout ‘Fire’ and start a stampede and end up killing people. We didn’t believe fascists had a right to freedom of speech and, in that sense, we were very determined to stop them having their voices heard in those days.

WCH:

Here, there’s an important distinction to be made about free speech. While AYM didn’t believe in giving fascists the right to organise, they didn’t believe in or call for any state bans. Like radical anti-fascists today, they thought that fascists should be legally free to do what they wanted but, at the same time, anti-racists had the right to oppose and try to stop them.

Tariq:

We didn’t support the state putting a ban on them. The reason we didn’t was that the state would ban us as well and more than likely, turn the very ban against us. We believed that the only way to defeat fascism was by an organised movement that attacked the ideology which gave it oxygen and that was racism. We believed that you could not have something simple like the Anti-Nazi League, which would come out later and which we were very critical. We believed that the primary struggle was the struggle against racism. Without defeating that, you weren’t going to defeat the fascists and we believed that we had a duty, not just a duty but a right, to fight them and defeat them. Only through a social organisation consisting of the broadest possible of forces could this movement be stopped. I think history has proven that that position was correct, given where fascist forces are in the West now.

WCH:

The Anti-Nazi League was a group formed in 1977 by the Socialist Workers’ Party. It was a pretty broad, popular front organisation which included liberals and Labour Party types and advocated voting for parties which weren’t fascist. While parties like Labour or the Conservatives may not have been fascist, they were still racist and enacting racist policies. For example, the Labour Government sent in hoards of riot police to beat up the striking Asian workers and their supporters at Grunwick and their policies also created the conditions in which fascism flourished. Still, AYM clashed directly with fascist groups on a regular basis.

Tariq:

I lost track on the number of times we had physical confrontations. Some events were so violent that even now, I’d rather not talk about them. There were really serious injuries and levels of violence in Leicester. On the motorways, we had a physical punch up. I remember Martin Webster, who was the leader of the National Front at the time. I mean physical, good on punches at the time. In Brick Lane, with ‘Rock Against Racism’, thousands of people got together at the SWP organised event and on that very day, East London Brick Lane was attacked by the fascists. We had people on Scratchwood Services, which was the last service station on the M1, who were telling us when the coaches were coming. We had people all the way around East London where kids were patrolling. They were having physical stick fights with gangs that would come down. These were not just in small numbers but the battles were often very, very large on a personal level as well as a socially organised one. Very often, you don’t need to fight once you’re politically organised. We didn’t take the macho approach like some of the youth movements where you had to build up your bodies and become big bodybuilders. We felt that self-defence was a social concept. Even if five of you stand on a street corner, three people are not going to pick on one person going by and the ‘Paki-bashing’ would stop. Of course, we would be armed with sticks and things and hit them here and there. We were in our own streets and so we were able to call up a lot more people. Very often, when you’re organised, that’s all it takes. They’re not going to attack you if you’re organised. They’re certainly going to think twice if you’re armed and almost certainly, if they think you’re going to give them what they’re coming to give you, then it hardly ever gets that far. More often than not, the patrol was enough. We weren’t vigilantes. We weren’t militias. We were literally saying, ‘They’re our streets.’ That’s it.

WCH:

That’s it for Part 1. In our next concluding part, Tariq explains how the state attempted to deal with the movement through a combination of repression and cooption. He also talks about the sensational trial of the Bradford 12 and the legacy of the movements today. Our Patreon supporters can listen to this now. For everyone else, it will be out in the next couple of weeks. This podcast is brought to you by our Patreon supporters and we are so grateful for the generous support we receive. You can support us as well at patreon.com/workingclasshistory and in return, get early access to episodes, bonus episodes and other exclusive content. You can also support our work by shopping in our online store where we’ve got a variety of radical history books, posters and merchandise. Check it out at shop.workingclasshistory.com. We’ve got lots more information, photos and the like related to today’s episode on our website workingclasshistory.com linked to in the show notes. We also have more information about Tariq’s books, including his latest novel, You’re Not Here, about a teenager whose brother goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Do you like books? If so, check out our new sister project, Working Class Literature, taking a radical look at literature and fiction. Give them a follow on Twitter @workingclasslit. This episode was edited by Daniel Woldorff. Thanks to my occasional co-host Matt for doing the voices of generic posh racists. Catch you next time.

[Outro music]

Part 2

[Intro music]

WCH:

Welcome back to the Working Class History podcast and the concluding part of our double episode on Asian youth movements in Bradford in conversation with Tariq Mehmood. If you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, I’d go back and listen to that first. While based on the self-organisation of young Asian people, the Asian Youth Movement (AYM), also tried to build solidarity with the white working class. The aims and objectives of the Bradford group said that: ‘The only real force in British society capable of fighting racialism and the growth of organised racism and fascism is the unity of the workers’ movement, Black and white. They encouraged Asian young people to join workers’ organisations, like trade unions, and oppose racist elements within them.

Tariq:

Working-class whites and trade union organisations were intricately involved in working with us. In fact, I think we could even have white people as members. I don’t think that was an issue. Remember, we would have been in the mining communities and in the trades’ councils. Our friends and colleagues would be involved on the buses. We were involved in trade union disputes. In a way, we saw that our natural allies were progressive white people, particularly within working-class communities, without whom our struggle was doomed.

WCH:

In its early days, AYM was a democratic, grassroots’ organisation and funded entirely by its members but as it grew, they sought out other methods of funding. What happened, as a result, we think, is a really important lesson for those of us involved in social movements today.

Tariq:

I used to be the only full-time worker for the Bradford Asian Youth Movement. The members used to put 25p, which is one-quarter of a pound, into a pot out of which a contribution was given to me and make my weekly income equivalent to an industrial average wage of the area. I was bound to give a list of what I did and a report on a weekly basis but it wasn’t a bureautic report. We were all connected through financial donations and the justification for it. It was my job also to raise funding and the very first time that I raised funding, with the help of other colleagues and comrades in the organisation, I think we raised £3,000 or so from the CRE, which is the Commission for Racial Equality. All of a sudden, the organisation which I’d helped to build changed dramatically. Firstly, my wage shot up and was no longer from a 25p contribution per person. We had a telephone in this building which we used as an office but not a single phone call, prior to that, could be made which wasn’t essential and which we didn’t log. Nothing could be spent on anything which wasn’t logged and all of a sudden, the Executive Committee could use the phone but the ordinary members couldn’t use the phone. If all 200 of us used the phone, we couldn’t afford to pay the bill. We suddenly had money in the account. Before, if we wanted to fill a coach to go on a demonstration, not only did we have to mobilise people… very often, we went to demonstrations in London and on one occasion, I think we helped to fill 11 coaches. We would have to pay for the coaches and pay for the food to feed people and it was really not difficult. Everyone shared and it wasn’t a burden. We were the poorest section of society but everyone was incredibly generous. All of a sudden, when you’ve got thousands in your bank account, which was a lot of money in those days, why on earth would somebody pay 25p towards my salary? I saw corruption set in. Our organisation had daily contact with its membership based on the fact that we were all contributing and making a payment. I felt that I had helped to begin to create a process which wasn’t achieving anything positive. In a sense, I had a big, reflective crisis within myself and I started to discuss with other people. We came to the conclusion that if we spent the money, which we’d been given as a grant, we were going to be audited by the organisation that gave us money. In fact, we were legally liable to be audited by the state structures as well, should they choose. All of a sudden, an anti-imperialist and anti-racist organisation, which was only responsible to its members and its people, became responsible and held to account by the very forces that it set out to fight against which was something which I felt was like a gun against its head. The very forces that it was fighting against were dividing our communities by beginning to fund it in order to be more effective. This contradiction couldn’t end happily and so we concluded that a people’s organisation can only be responsible to the people. Yes, it must be audited and if there is money going through, we must be responsible to those who are funding us. The question is who should be those who are funding us? Never in the history of my organisational time then, or post-AYM, were we ever not able to do something because of lack of money. We certainly were divided because of its existence, so we took a decision. In fact, the Asian Youth Movement took a vote and I know some of the people have denied it since then. We very narrowly won by only one or two votes, if I remember when we split, that we couldn’t remain in an organisation that accepted money from the state. It’s very important to understand that if you had a job in a community centre, it didn’t mean you couldn’t be a youth worker. What we said was that youth didn’t need youth workers, they needed work. We always had a slightly different conjecture. I suppose the summary of our position on funding was that it was okay to sell your labour, even in the wrong place. After all, I worked in a mill, or factory, where we were making plastic bits which were meant for some airforce or other, you understand? But you knew the order was from there, so you were forced to work on making bits of plastic or whatever else we made. Wherever you worked, it fed into the processes of the state but it didn’t mean you had to sell your soul and that’s where our contradiction lay. We departed and then formed the United Black Youth League which consisted of African, Caribbean and Asian youth at the time.

WCH:

Due to the predominantly male demographics of the local community, AYM was overwhelmingly male but later, this did begin to change slightly.

Tariq:

In Bradford, in the early phase, I think there was only one woman and she was very active. When we split away from the youth movement and formed the United Black Youth League, we had a little bit more involvement of women but our organisation was very short-lived. More women were involved in places like Manchester, or in Haringey and in other cities. The North and South had a very clear cut divide as well. The North was much poorer and, in fact, it still is. The most deprived communities in the North are ours. The North was poorer, the migration was primarily male and it didn’t help the macho culture that we created as well. As I said, in my school, there was only one girl and god knows what she was doing with 300 boys. It must have been a dreadful time for her. That was the case but interaction at social events was a little bit different. Things have changed now and that is no longer the case. One of the greatest involvements in social and political movements, from Stop The War to other things, was the involvement of young women at the time and the young women of today.

WCH:

Shahnaz Ali, a member of the United Black Youth League (UBYL), also described difficulties in getting involved in the group because of family attitudes. Her father would ask, ‘What are people going to say?’ She’d have to make up excuses to go on demonstrations and was pretty much excluded from social activities because she wasn’t able to stay out late. We’re going to talk about issues related to women’s involvement in Asian youth movements in much more detail in a future episode. By the time the UBYL was set up in 1981, other events had helped shape the national political landscape.

Tariq:

Again, I have to go back a little while. 1981 was quite an important year for many, many things. I think the New Cross massacre takes place in 1981 where 13 Black youth were burned in a fire in New Cross, South London. I think it was the July time when we also witnessed the fighting in Southall where the fascists, or skinheads, tried to hold a meeting in a pub. The pub was burned down by the youth of Southall. We were also beginning to see discontent in many different places up and down the country in working-class areas. This was an era of Margaret Thatcher’s realm as she came to power in a new Reaganite/Thatcherite alliance. In that period, there were rumours in Bradford but 10 or 11 days before July 11th, in that whole month, there was strife and struggle in many different working-class areas where youth were beginning to rebel against the local conditions, whatever they were. We weren’t connected to them organically but, as youth, we were people suffering our own thing.

WCH:

The UBYL engaged in similar activities to AYM, including some joint campaigns supporting migrants and they helped defend demonstrations from fascist attack.

Tariq:

The United Black Youth League went to show solidarity with some event in Coventry. There were people in military uniform which I think was the Paratroop Regiment’s uniform and they were on the other side of the demonstration. On the way out, we were attacked by fascists underneath the subways. We literally had a punch-up. The women that were with us were the ones who never withdrew.

WCH:

As an example, one of their campaigns was a defence of Gary Pemberton, an Afro-Caribbean security guard who worked at Bradford College and was convicted of assaulting a police officer in a bar. Members of the United Black Youth League at the college knew Gary and liked him a lot. They knew that the police officer must have been lying about him, so they set up the Gary Pemberton Defence Campaign. They mobilised public support and publicly named and shamed the officer who attacked him as Colin Malcolm Mackenzie. The campaign was successful and it became clear that it was the police who first attacked Gary and his conviction was overturned at appeal. This was something which very much antagonised the local police and this defence campaign was one which the AYM, at that time pursuing greater respectability, didn’t support. At the beginning of 1981, AYM started getting closer to the Labour Party. Previously, their view was articulated in the slogan ‘Labour Tory Both the Same, Both Play the Racist Game’, given that both parties enacted racist and anti-worker policies; a good example being Labour’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968. When facing a potential influx of Kenyan Asian refugees fleeing persecution, the government reduced the rights of British subjects in Commonwealth countries to stop non-white immigration. Previously, citizens of the Commonwealth had the right to enter the U.K. but Labour changed it so that only citizens with one parent or grandparent born in the U.K. could enter, effectively meaning only white people. The AYM had also barred dual membership to prevent left parties infiltrating it or taking it over but it turned out that its chairperson, Marsha Singh, had secretly been a member of the Labour Party and gradually tried to recruit more. Going back to the United Black Youth League, one summer’s day in 1981, a rumour began circulating and given that gangs of fascists and racist skinheads had been going around attacking people in Black and Asian areas, sometimes firebombing homes and businesses, it wasn’t an unbelievable rumour either.

Tariq:

On July 11th 1981, there were rumours that fascists, or coach loads of skinheads, were going to come to Bradford and the police told us to remain indoors. We took the complete opposite position not dissimilar to 1976. The similarity this time was that we were organised, we could meet, we could hold committee meetings, we could plan streets, we could plan defence, we could call out people and we were armed. We had a right to bear arms for what we thought was necessary at that time. There were riots on that day right up and down the length and breadth of the country and similarly, in Bradford. They weren’t race riots, contrary to all the nonsense that was pumped out at the time. We called people to protect the city centre and the largest group that turned up were white kids and not Asians or Afro-Caribbeans. Perhaps we were the only ones amongst those groups of people who were organised. We’d already taken a decision that certain people would go into different areas and different sections of the city centre’s different zones. We would congregate at a certain time and communicate with each other through phone calls to different people’s houses. We met in town and no skinheads came and nothing actually happened until the police arrested me and a few of my friends for being ringleaders. We were ringleaders of nothing because there was no trouble at all. They picked us up, threw us into the cells and charged us but I can’t remember what the charges were on that day. They made us plead guilty as well which we later appealed and won against those charges but that would have been after my second arrest a few weeks later when we were arrested on charges of terrorism to destroy buildings and cause injury to people.

WCH:

What Tariq said a few seconds ago was a bit hard to hear because of a Skype glitch. The missing bit was that some people had home-made petrol bombs. I did ask Tariq what he meant when he said ‘we were armed’ and if he meant anything other than Molotov cocktails.

Tariq:

There were aspects of us which had more during the course of the day but none of these weapons were, in any way, intended to be used against the police. They were really there because we were worried they were going to burn our streets down. We were worried there could be a serious loss of life, given the whole momentum of the five or six months and, in particular, the last 11 to 12 days. I called for the making of petrol bombs, as I was one of the leaders of the organisation. It’s not something I denied in court, incidentally, either. That was, in a sense, our process of arming ourselves but most importantly, it was a political decision and not a spur of the moment decision. We were weighing up certain things. We met, we discussed and we planned. Once you have an embryonic organisational structure, it’s quite amazing to watch how far you can actually go if you’ve got the support of people.

WCH:

The incident hit headlines around the country with the press using sensationalist language like ‘Black Gang in Plot to Bomb Police’ and talking about police finding ‘bomb factories and seizing at least 100 bombs’ and the like. It fed nicely into the narrative they were already pushing about fear of Black rampaging mobs spreading ‘terror to police and good citizens alike’ which is something which, unfortunately, crops up again and again in different years and different contexts; from the talk about super predators from the Clintons in the ’90s to the so-called ‘no-go areas’ on Fox News today.

Tariq:

After we were arrested, it was painted as a sensational police operation capturing a load of potential terrorists and stuff like that. We were also charged with terrorism offences in the initial stages. I think there were three charges. The media reflected that sort of sensationalism and that following the riot, police were able to thwart some sort of terrorist attack. It was widely covered and the trial was widely covered as well but that was much later on. In a way, what was more significant than the media coverage was the people’s coverage and people’s reactions, if you like. Of course, we were inside but from what I heard, I think there around about 600-700 people attended the very first meeting that was organised in Bradford following our arrest. It’s important to understand that we weren’t outsiders who’d flown into a community to give leaflets out. We lived there and 12 people have a lot of relatives as well. It wasn’t just 12 people that were arrested; 12 were charged. Many others were arrested but it was mostly the United Black Youth League cadre that was arrested but also people from the Asian Youth Movement were arrested as well from which, as I mentioned earlier, we’d split into two factions of the youth organisation in Bradford but they weren’t charged. On top of this, many of our members were also charged, particularly African members were arrested but they weren’t charged with terrorism offences. There was quite a lot of hullabaloo around it and that big meeting would begin the process which would result in a campaign to have us released. Also, the fact that we had been working with many different oppressed groups, both nationally and internationally, would then be reflected in support from people such as the Irish and other people engaged in struggle. There was a list of 140 organisations in different countries. I can’t remember now but there was a very substantial number of organisations that did support us. Strangely enough, not the Bradford Asian Youth Movement, which I founded. They took a decision not to support the Bradford 12 formally but, of course, individually, their members did from the top to the bottom because we were all so closely connected. I think the reason they did that was so that their image wouldn’t get tarnished in the coming months and years where some of them had political ambitions and others had to raise funds and it wouldn’t go down well to be associated with people charged on terrorist offences and to also be raising funds. That’s not to say that we didn’t appreciate the huge support that individuals gave. They formally took that decision as an organisation, so you won’t see the name of the Asian Youth Movement which is sad, in a way, as history has developed. Once we were arrested, we were taken into Bradford Police Station and I forget now how long we were held there for but probably a week or ten days before we were transferred formally into Armley Gaol. Some of us were younger and so some went into the young offenders’ prison. We went into the adult prison in Leeds where, of course, we would then meet and be supported by African and particularly Irish prisoners, especially the republican ones. When we were arrested, it was quite shocking at the time. When you’re first arrested, you don’t really believe it and I never believed it was really that serious until I saw the charges. I then knew I wasn’t coming out. We met our absolutely fabulous solicitors who were working with us, incidentally, way before our arrests, especially a wonderful woman called Ruth Bundy from Leeds. We were held in Armley Gaol, which was an old, creaking jail. We had a rough time and because we were political prisoners, we were Category A prisoners in there. It wasn’t nice being a Category A prisoner because there were quite a lot of restrictions until the Category A status was eventually lifted after appeals. We were treated very differently to criminal prisoners, both by the establishment and by prisoners themselves. What kept us going and certainly, what kept our morale high was the fact that thousands and thousands of people in Britain and internationally, of all races, colours, creeds, religions and none, kept sending us solidarity messages. We also knew of our innocence. I never doubted, for a moment, that any of us were guilty because we hadn’t planned to attack shops. The police had said we were going to attack shops with petrol bombs and we were going to attack the police station but this was complete nonsense. They had just made a mountain out of a molehill. What we’d said for sure was that if the fascists and the skinheads came through our areas and if we felt the need to use petrol bombs to defend ourselves, we would.

WCH:

In a parallel situation, a decade earlier, John Barker and seven others were put on trial for one and the same alleged crimes, conspiracy to cause explosions, related to the Angry Brigade, and had substantial outside support from social movements. The key difference was that John was guilty. We speak to John about this in our podcast episodes 2 and 3. Although Tariq was unaware of that case, like John, Tariq decided to defend himself.

Tariq:

Of course, in the trial, I defended myself and I didn’t have a barrister. I took the decision to defend myself with the support of my friends. That was primarily for the reason that I thought, ‘If we go to jail and we end up doing three life sentences, by the time we come out, we will be old men,’ and I didn’t want somebody else to make statements on my behalf because for us, the case was very, very simple. We were not guilty as charged. You could argue, and they did, is it right to arm yourself to defend yourself? These were the core questions of the time and we said yes. We didn’t hide our view and we didn’t say we were sorry. The argument they offered was, ‘What sort of a society are you going to live in if you release these men for what they’ve alleged and accepted that they’ve done? They made petrol bombs, armed themselves and said they would use them. What sort of world do you want to live in?’ I certainly said, ‘If you release us, we will do exactly the same again if confronted by the same situation because the right of self-defence is a human right. It’s not a legal thing that you give us. We haven’t broken a law.’ That is what we argued. Of course, if you do it as an individual, it’s different. We did it as a political organisation whilst maintaining that the police were neither capable nor interested in defending us and that they were an oppressive arm of the state and all this would come out in our trial. We wouldn’t have been freed and we would have lost the case if we had relied solely on the law. We did not win legally. We won politically first and because we had a campaign outside and every day, there were demonstrations outside the courtroom and there were publicity campaigns which kept us in the public eye. We had to fight to have a multicultural and multiracial jury, otherwise, they were going to give us an all-white jury. Almost certainly, we would have refused to stand trial had they insisted on an all-white jury and we would probably then have been convicted. We were pretty determined that we weren’t going to stand and they wouldn’t understand what we were talking about because there was a historical basis for that. I can’t remember if I mentioned it before or not but some of the campaigns that we did in the Asian Youth Movement would be campaigns such as uniting families. There was one, in particular, that we were very actively involved with was a case of a woman called Anwar Ditta, a remarkable woman, who wanted her children to come to England. She was born in England but they wouldn’t let her and they said they weren’t her children. We had no legal way of winning but we did win in the end because we had faith in mobilising people. Bobby Sands wrote her a poem from prison after he’d become an MP, pre-hunger strike or before that, I can’t remember. Due to that act of solidarity that we gave the Irish hunger strikers, their words were coming back to us in poems that we published as well. That poem is available on the Tandana website. That would then be reflected in Irish youth in Belfast and other places who were supporting the Bradford 12. After we were acquitted, we were invited by the leadership of Sinn Fein to go to Ireland which we did. We met them and we also met our friends in both wings of the republican movement at the time. In fact, when the volleys used to be fired in the martyrs’ graveyard with the helicopters flying above, some of us stood there as a gesture of solidarity right next to the volunteers firing into the air. These were not simply little solidarity gestures that didn’t mean anything. These were very concrete steps that the movement assisted us with and without the very broad-based support from across the world, including Turks, Pakistanis, Indians and all sorts of nationalities, I don’t think we would have been acquitted. I think we would have lost. We also had a fantastic legal team as well. Some of them are still going very strong and still fighting and we are still in contact with each other, like solicitors and barristers. Many of the radical barristers of today were born out of the struggle of yesterday, especially the Bradford 12 case.

WCH:

Bradford 12 support groups were formed in several cities. They picketed every court appearance of the 12, organised demonstrations in Bradford, Leeds and even Los Angeles. Trade unions, socialist groups, religious groups, disabled activists, LGBT groups, like the Gay Liberation Front and radical lesbians all joined the campaign. There was a Women’s Day of Action held in support as well. Trotskyist groups, like the Socialist Workers’ Party, saw the Bradford 12 as Black separatists which, of course, they weren’t and so didn’t prioritise the campaign, even expelling two of their own members over it. Initially, the jury was all-white but pressure from the 12, their legal team and the campaign eventually forced the court to expand the jury pool to include Black and Asian people as well as white, working-class people. Juries are one of the only places in British society where ordinary people can still wield a significant amount of power and as in the Angry Brigade trial in the ’70s and many other political trials around that time, the makeup of the jury, especially in terms of class, played a crucial role.

Tariq:

There were Africans on the jury. There were Asians on the jury. There were working-class, white people and middle classes. We were very keen on the class dynamic as well as it was absolutely essential for us. I think the old, African man on the jury had been involved in anti-colonial struggles in Africa. One of the white jurors, after we were acquitted, came into the bar we were celebrating in and she had a flower in her hair. I’ve not forgotten this. The police were there all around and some of their representatives on different sides. Somebody had put out empty milk bottles as mock Molotov cocktails. She took the flower out of her hair and put it in the bottle and then she took her upper shirt off and underneath, she was wearing a ‘Free the Bradford 12’ t-shirt. What had happened was the police’s heavyhandedness had solidly convinced most of the jurors, but not all, quite early on that what they were doing was wrong. They had overreacted. In the Bradford 12 case, I don’t think they should have charged us with what they did. I didn’t know five or six of the defendants who were charged with me and I’d never met them before. I met them in the prison. Had they done smaller charges of some form and not blown it up to try to get some glory out of us and get the dirty name sorted after the Ripper had been arrested… but I do remember when the bombers took off whilst we were in court because they were off to bomb the Argentinians in the Malvinas Islands. This was all around the same time. We heard the planes flying over and I remember thinking, ‘Nothing ever happens on its own. It’s connected in a thousand different strands and not always necessarily active but all the connections are always there.’

WCH:

Defending yourself is something which has happened in a couple of political trials around the U.K. which has had some successes and it does give you, as a defendant, a bit of extra leeway to make points in court which you, or your lawyer, may not otherwise be able to do when confined by the strict roles of defence and counsel but it’s an extremely high-risk strategy. I doubt if, personally, I’d be brave enough to risk it myself if I found myself in a similar situation. With the Bradford 12 case, Tariq taking it on was agreed by a collective decision.

Tariq:

The barrister, who was appointed to act on my behalf, was called Ian Macdonald of the famous Macdonald Chambers. I sat with him and discussed the idea. I was aware of political activists, in the past, defending themselves and it was a very nerve-racking and terrifying ordeal at the time to defend yourself. One thing I was aware of was, for me, the trial became a political act of resistance as well and my co-defendants were more important than anything else. I said to them, ‘Look, if we go down, I don’t want to go down crawling. We should go down fighting and not apologetic and I can’t think of a better way. I think we should all do it but if you don’t, I want to do it. What do you say?’ They all supported me. Had they not supported me, I would not have gone against the wishes of my own members.

WCH:

The main thrust of their collective defence was that self-defence was no offence. Although, with certain individuals, their specific defence differed slightly. For example, one of those arrested had nothing to do with the Molotov cocktails and was just at home watching cricket at the time. The defendants also commissioned a report systemically cataloguing racist attacks in the Bradford area and the subsequent police inaction, at best, or at worst, complicity in those attacks. They used the police’s own testimony to prove their case, for example, by getting the Detective Superintendent to say that he thought Enoch Powell wasn’t a racist. They also proved to the jury that the police had fabricated numerous reports, like claiming that Tariq had spoken about ‘coloured people’ being ‘less intelligent than police officers’ which anyone, who has heard Tariq speak for more than five minutes, would know is not something that he would ever say. Eventually, the 12 were acquitted on all counts as the jury accepted the basic principle of the defence and that communities had the right to defend themselves if the police would not do so. The need to free the Bradford 12 became, by necessity, the priority for members and supporters of the United Black Youth League and it eventually ended up exhausting the organisation. Essentially, it was ground down by police repression. On the other hand, the Asian Youth Movement, which took on state funding, went down a different route.

Tariq:

I think that, firstly, we should understand that movements of our time have a limited life span. We’re not young forever and we didn’t have a parent body in which it could have dissolved. It wasn’t like that. The movement would have ended in one way, shape or form anyway because it was born out of certain material conditions which had changed. One of the people from the Asian Youth Movement became an MP for Bradford which I was very, very upset about. He was a good friend of mine and unfortunately, he’s passed away now. Many of the people within the AYM, not just Bradford but across the country in Southall, Birmingham, Leicester, Watford, Haringey in East London, got jobs. They became quite a comfortable middle class, if you like. When they were organising, that gave them the tools and so the movement would have become a little bit more respectful. Some of us still meet here and there. The fundamental economic decline is what would have led to that decline in any case. By the mid-’80s, it had already finished in its heyday, if not earlier and possibly even shortly after our arrest. They still did some good work which we no longer did because we were shattered and smashed. The movements ended partly due to the actions of the state. The state was very clear and set out to buy off and co-opt the emerging leadership within these movements. This is not an accident of history. This is a strategy of the state that they flood them with money, bring them into the fold and bring them into a coopted situation. That happened right across the country. This has happened everywhere, like in America and here. The cooption of movements is not something new. What was new was that it was for us. The British state has been doing it for centuries in different forms and different shapes.

WCH:

Bradford AYM went on to start a youth centre which further bureaucratised it and made it more dependent on local government funding. Its activities moved away from campaigning towards more things like sports and social activities. Meanwhile, activists started to get given jobs. One former member of AYM in Bradford, Gurnam Singh, described what happened to him. In the summer of 1981, rioting broke out in cities across the U.K., primarily sparked by aggressive and racist policing. Lord Scarman conducted an inquiry into the biggest of the riots in Brixton, South London, and made recommendations on how to avoid them in future which included things like forging better community relations. It was in the wake of this inquiry that Gurnam Singh said that he was picked out of 300 candidates for an unqualified social work post because of his involvement in anti-racist politics. He said that, for him, what was happening ‘was a clear illustration of the incorporation of Black politics into the state’ and describes his former comrades being given state jobs and ‘becoming suit-wearing and totally abandoning the struggle altogether or taking the struggle into the state’. Between 1981 and 1984, the local Labour council in Bradford established or recognised different official groups to divide up and provide representation to different religious groups, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. This is basically how liberal, democratic states deal with working-class movements and movements of oppressed groups. Ones that they can’t just stop outright or ignore, they’ll try to divide, recuperate and co-opt them by splitting them up and bringing them into state structures. In Britain, that’s often through the Labour Party or bodies set up by Labour politicians or local authorities. More militant wings of the movements which can’t be coopted reap the repressive force of the state, the court system, the police and the prisons. Despite this, these movements of Asian young people, alongside the struggles of Asian workers, did have a massive, concrete impact. Firstly, at a grassroots’ level amongst the working class.

Tariq:

I can tell you that even with the very people that were sometimes fighting against us, there was a change and people did change. People changed from racist to anti-racist and from Zionist to anti-Zionist. People changed.

WCH:

Secondly, these movements helped put an end to many of the worst types of discrimination and forced British capitalism and the state to adapt and adopt a more friendly, multicultural face rather than an openly oppressive, racist one.

Tariq:

First and foremost, we declared our right to live. That was the very first thing that we did. Secondly, what we were able to do was to say that the life that we must be allowed to live must be one of dignity. Dignity was not something reserved for us because we happened to have come over to the metropolis as an act of favour but as an act of history and as an economic and social act. I believe we had a huge impact. Many people became quite comfortably middle class, including me. We affected social change from the bottom to the top of this society and inspired people across the world who, in turn, inspired us. Indeed, I think that one of the tragedies is we would not have allowed two to ten fascists to march through our areas because, in those days, we were organised. Look at the situation today and there are hundreds of them. They outnumber the anti-fascists at times. This was unheard of. I think that was the legacy and achievement of the smashing of the trade unions and the loss of a unified, international left, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However much we might have despised them, and we did, I think it was one of the greatest losses in modern times which gave birth to the world that we live in. In terms of what we did, we were forever active. We were helping the miners and the miners were helping us. We affected the trade union movement and more importantly, we built our resistance on the generation that came before us. They weren’t our enemies. They were our forefathers and foremothers and that’s not simply those from Asia but all of them. There was a Black movement. It was not a Black and Asian movement. All non-white people called themselves Black because racism had defined that ideology. We had not created that definition. Saying ‘brown’ and these things are modern-day phenomena to divide that movement, partly through funding. We altered the basis of education and we affected educational curriculums. We affected the policies of housing. Unfortunately, we didn’t win every battle but we didn’t lose any and that was very important. The fact that the world has become a much darker, more sinister place is not simply because of a little place like Bradford but that is right across. This is now the era of monsters. There has always been an era of monsters in one sense but the monstrosity had a resistance to it. It’s the lack of that resistance now. Some of the problems which we identified then, we said to our white comrades, ‘Please go and organise amongst white people. Go and organise anti-racist movements within white communities and not with us. The problem does not lie here.’ I think these were fundamental failings of the left of that time. The trade unions were altered as well and we brought politics to the trade union movement. They were into economics and our Black workers, the Africans, the Asians, brought in a whole political dimension to trade union struggles. I remember the huge organisation of the Indian Workers’ Association was formed as they were affected by communist parties, social parties and socialist parties from the subcontinent. Similarly, with other places, we were also able to unify with Africans and, especially, we did a lot of work in the ’80s with the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and other organisations. These were great moments in history. I think that those moments are coming again and I think that because we live in an era of monsters. People don’t have any choice. Either you will be trampled over or you will have to resist and there’s no other way. There’s no magic solution. The only solution lies in resistance.

WCH:

Sadly, many of the problems still remain today, albeit in slightly different forms.

Tariq:

In our time, a lot of racist violence was directed against males. Today, the violence is very often predominant, in many, many cases, against women and particularly Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijabs. The resistance to it of the women resist but they’re aware that the organisations that we formed are not there. That’s the missing component but surely, the era of today must throw out a new form and new groups. There are a lot of people in mainstream political parties, whether that’s Labour, LibDems or the Tories but I’m not sure that that is the route for the future. I think these groups sap energy but I think the change has already been made and one important lesson that you learn as organisers is that you can never undo political activity. What we’ve done, we’ve done. History doesn’t stop for me and it won’t stop for you or any of the ones who listen. It’s never the straw that bends that changes the fundamental flow of the wind. It’s the one that stands firm and that’s what creates change and that’s what we tried to do.

WCH:

Four decades on, I asked Tariq what the main thing was he learned from taking part in those struggles.

Tariq:

When I look back from today, today is an infinitely worse time than it was in our time. What the struggles achieve is give us a sense of hope that when we are actively engaged in resistance, whether it be to unite a family, or to fight for basic resources in impoverished neighbours, or to take on fascists, or whatever the nature of that struggle is, you can’t struggle with a pessimistic attitude towards the world. You have to struggle with the belief that you will win because the victory always is, first and foremost, due to the fact that we resist, we fight and we say no. We stand up for what is right; what we believe is right and not what somebody else says. Most importantly, it actually makes you a humble person in that you can link with other people only if you stand up and fight for your own rights. You can’t fight and show solidarity with others if not but really it’s also the best university in the world for working people. I’ve now got qualifications but I had nothing at all. I had one or two meaningless qualifications at the time. I don’t like words like ’empowerment’ and all these catchphrases that are thrown around by funding agencies. I think that the best hope we have of any meaningful better future is if we actually organise and organising isn’t that difficult. You meet and you talk. You talk on social media and you talk in real life. You use everyday tools. To produce a leaflet was very difficult and it cost money and a lot of time but we did it to produce posters. We went out and knocked on doors. Most importantly, we had a world vision. We had a world view and we felt we were part of an international struggle. Even if we were living in the tiny little city of Bradford or wherever we were, we were connected to the world and the world belonged to us. The other thing I would say to people listening to this is that one of the things that we certainly believed in was that we didn’t want crumbs. We didn’t even want the cake. We just wanted the bakery and we believed it belonged to us.

[Outro music]

WCH:

That’s it for Part 2. Thanks for listening and we hope you enjoyed it. As always, we’ve got lots more information, photographs and the like on our website workingclasshistory.com linked in the show notes. Also in the show notes, we’ve got more information about Tariq’s books, including his latest novel You’re Not here. If you haven’t heard it yet, our first episode is about the seminal Grunwick Strike of East African Asian women workers around this same time period in London. The audio quality of it and the technical side isn’t great because we were still very much learning how this whole podcasting thing worked at the time but we think the content is still interesting, so do check that out if you are interested. We’re working on more episodes about Asian youth movements in different parts of Britain, so do subscribe on your favourite podcast apps to make sure you don’t miss it. Sources of funding was an important theme in this episode. As WCH, we’re not as important as groups like AYM but we do value our independence which is why we’re entirely funded by you, our listeners, on Patreon with no corporate sponsors. We’re taking time out from our day jobs to spend a lot more time working on the podcast and the WCH project through 2019 but this will only be sustainable beyond this point if we get more supporters on Patreon. So if you value what we do, please do consider supporting us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. In return, you get neat benefits, like exclusive early access to episodes, bonus episodes and other exclusive content. If you can’t spare the cash, that’s absolutely no problem. Please just give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or share our episodes on social media. Huge thanks to our Patreon supporters for enabling us to produce this episode. This episode was edited by Daniel Woldorff. Catch you next time.

[Outro music]

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