Bradford 12’s win for self-defence principle
Courtroom battle set to be depicted in documentary
Courtroom battle set to be depicted in documentary
It was a period of great racial tension. Yet when Bradford youths sought to defend their community from a potential racist incursion, 12 found themselves arrested, locked up and facing life imprisonment.
Their courtroom success established the right to organise self-defence. Over 40 years on a documentary about the experiences of the Bradford 12 is set for release later this year.
In the 1950s and 1960s Britain persuaded thousands of South Asians to come and work in the mills and factories of the North, with more than 20,000 Pakistanis, many from Mirpur, making their homes in Bradford by 1970. The children of these migrants had witnessed their parents struggle to make ends meet and hoped to do better, only to be blocked by racism in education and at work.
As Britain’s economy declined in the 1970s and unemployment rose this led to increased racist street violence, including the deaths of Gurdip Singh Chagger in Southall and Altab Ali in East London. Sixty-year-old Mohan Dev Gautam was dragged from her Leamington Spa home and murdered.
The Asian Youth Movement (AYM) was established to defend communities against racist attacks. It adopted ideas from the American Black Power movement and anti-colonial struggles, including principles of self-defence.
“This was the era of Paki-bashing, when drunken white youths would leave pubs and actually go and hunt us down,” said Tariq Mehmood, one of the Bradford 12, who during his school years recalls being surrounded in the playground by white children chanting racist nursery rhymes.
“In 1981 we believed fascists were coming to Bradford. There was no way we intended letting National Front fascist skinheads march through where we lived.
“We had previously mounted organised defence of our communities. People were being murdered nationally. Parveen Khan and her three children died in East London from petrol poured through their letter box.
“When confronted with a situation where the police are unwilling or incapable or even in cahoots with the attackers you have no option. You have a right to live. If that means organising and defending yourself against the perceived attack then it is your human and civil right, perhaps even your duty, to do something.”
Members of the United Black Youth League, a AYM splinter group, manufactured petrol bombs but did not use them as the racists failed to show. Despite this, 12 UBYL members were charged with “conspiracy to cause explosions and endanger lives”. If found guilty the 12 faced being jailed for life.
“In our situation, do you have a right to organise self-defence? We said yes and the police said no. The jury concurred with us. It was the first time that a group that had organised armed self-defence was accepted in British law and it’s a principle that still stands,” said Mehmood, who then worked at Ackroyd’s textile mill and today teaches at the American University in Beirut.
He believes all 12 would have gone to prison if not for the thousands of people and organisations nationally and internationally supporting them.
“It was not just an issue of colour – this was an issue of racism and class,” he said. “We were very conscious that the allies we had included many within the trade union and labour movement – people like Pat Wall from the Bradford Trades Council who spoke about it at public meetings, as did many people from amongst many communities.”
Another supporter was Mohammad Taj, who had earlier been denied membership of the textile dyers union because of his colour but went on to become TUC president in 2013-14. He worked at the bus garage and organised a campaign collection.
Mehmood is a member of Migrant Media, a collective of film makers whose work includes Injustice (2001), Ultraviolence (2020) and Exposed (2022), about racism endured by NHS workers.
Migrant Media film director Ken Fero, who is working on the Bradford 12 documentary, said: “We wanted to go into depth about the political situation. You’ve got Thatcherism, uprisings across the country, the National Front running riot across cities, plus the relevance today about unity, including preventing religious divisions that are being promoted by fascist groups imported from India.
“The United Black Youth League may have been black-led but anyone could join it so members included progressive whites plus Asians and Afro-Caribbean – not like today where it is all individual politics.”
The story of the Bradford 12 is part of a history of racists attacks and anti-racist struggle during that time. In 1979 Blair Peach was killed by a Metropolitan Police officer when he was hit over the head in Southall at a rally against the National Front. It took place during a general election campaign when Margaret Thatcher expressed sympathy with those who felt their culture was being “swamped” by waves of immigration.
In March 1981 a fire at a birthday party for an African-Caribbean youth in New Cross, London led to 13 deaths. It was believed the house had been firebombed. The Queen and Thatcher failed to send their condolences.
Twenty-five people, including some of the 12, have been interviewed for the documentary, to be released later this year.
Migrant Media is asking anyone with any visual records of this shared history to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Instagram at @migrantmedia.
People can also join a two-day open workshop in July when participants will learn how to use silhouette animation techniques to make images representing 40 years ago, some of which will be used in the feature-length documentary.
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