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Weekend Riot Leaves Britons Laying Blame

Unrest: Blair points to 'thuggery,' others to rightists. Violence was fourth such incident in less than two months.

July 10, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Politicians, police and community leaders sifted through the wreckage of weekend rioting in the northern English city of Bradford on Monday and searched for the causes of the racial violence that has shaken four cities in the region since late May.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said the pitched street battles in Bradford, in which 164 police were injured and more than 50 people arrested, were the result of "thuggery." He warned that police might use tougher means to restore law and order, including water cannons, if such clashes continue.

But many Bradford leaders said extreme-right agents provocateurs were as much to blame for the violence as the enraged Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who threw bricks and firebombs at police, burned cars and looted and destroyed businesses.

"There is no excuse for violence. We cannot take the law into our own hands," said Bradford businessman Arshad Javed. "But in the hierarchy of blame, the right-wing elements have to take the first portion."

Hundreds of police officers remained on the streets of the Yorkshire city Monday as the country debated whether it is in for a long, hot summer of violence and, if so, why.

Early today, 10 people were arrested after about 60 white youths pelted officers with bricks and bottles, police said. No one was reported injured.

The Bradford riot followed similar disturbances in Oldham at the end of May and in Leeds and Burnley in June. All four are old industrial cities with large minority populations.

Blair said the Bradford riot, like the previous clashes, was a law and order issue.

"There may initially have been an element of provocation from the far right at some point during Saturday, but first evidence suggests that this is simply thuggery and local people intent on having a go at the police and, in the process of doing that, destroying their own community," Blair said in a statement.

Over the weekend, Home Secretary David Blunkett raised the possibility of introducing water cannons as a means of riot control.

"We are not keen to up the ante, but [Blunkett] is communicating that he's prepared to listen to anything that the police might suggest to him," Blair's spokesman said.

The Times of London newspaper argued in an editorial Monday that "the desire to riot is becoming the cause of the riot. . . . An unhealthy copycat criminality is at work here."

Bradford Telegraph & Argus Editor Perry Austin-Clarke concurred.

"There was a hard-core criminal element of 150 to 200 youths who were just set on violence and thuggery, and racism is just an excuse. . . . They wanted to do it bigger and better in Bradford," Austin-Clarke said.

Other community leaders, however, argued that right-wing extremists are taking advantage of built-up frustration among uneducated and unemployed Asians--the term commonly used here for Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths in Bradford have not shared in Britain's economic boom or the upward mobility that Indians are enjoying, and they see no prospects in a slowing economy.

"They feel very threatened by groups like the National Front that don't think there should be any Asian people in Britain," said Mark Fielding, co-director of the Bradford Festival, which drew 130,000 people to its multicultural fair last week.

The rightists "say they are going to rally or go in and start trouble. The police react, and the far right disappears into thin air. The anger of the young people is then directed at the police. And the government is not trying to mediate. They just say, 'Let's get a water cannon.' Well, you're going to end up with an inner-city war," Fielding said.

Bradford residents said tension had been building in the city over meetings held by the British National Party, which champions the rights of white Britons, and reports that the neo-Nazi National Front planned to hold a march.

The 19-year-old British National Party has adopted a new grass-roots strategy to run candidates in local elections on an anti-immigration platform. It put up 33 candidates in last month's parliamentary elections, winning 4.6% of the vote in the Bradford North district, 11.4% in Burnley and an all-time high of 16.4% in Oldham West.

BNP Chairman Nick Griffin met with about 100 supporters in Bradford on Friday night but denied any connection with either the National Front members who had sought to march there Saturday or the explosion of violence.

"The problems are structural problems of a multiracial society. The whole multiracial experiment is stupid, and this was always going to happen," Griffin said.

About 15% of Bradford's 482,000 residents are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, which is a large minority population by British standards, and disaffected youths have clashed with police there before.

Police banned a National Front march, but groups of supporters gathered at pubs Saturday as the Anti-Nazi League held a rally near City Hall.

Fighting broke out when a group of white men reportedly shouted racial epithets at Asians attending the rally. Police tried to disperse the crowd but wound up fueling the rampage.

Gas bombs were thrown, buildings and cars were set on fire, and windows were smashed. Along with the injured police, 19 civilians were treated in hospitals for injuries, including stab wounds.

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