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‘Self-Defence is No Offence!’: Remembering the Bradford 12

Taj Ali

40 years ago, the Bradford 12 were arrested by a racist police force for trying to defend their community from fascists. Speaking to Tribune, they recall the solidarity that helped secure their freedom, and the ongoing urgency of resistance.

The Bradford 12 celebrate with their supporters after winning a legal battle on their right to self-defence. (Tandana Archive)

Masood Malik was thirteen years old when he first saw a fascist. It was in 1975, and the National Front (NF)—formed only a decade earlier—was putting serious effort into stirring up racial hatred in towns and cities that had become prominent destinations for recent immigrants from the former British Empire. In Manningham—a heavily South Asian district of Bradford, the city Masood called home—the NF chose to organise a meeting at a school. ‘This,’ Masood recalled, ‘was really stoking the flames.’ At the meeting, NF members spat at locals from out of the windows, barraging them with racist abuse. ‘That was when it really got to me,’ he tells Tribune. ‘I thought—I’m just not going to have this.’

This environment only became more vicious as the 1970s continued. In 1976, an NF-influenced gang in Southall, West London, killed Gurdip Singh Chaggar; after the killing, the leading fascist Kingsley Read was quoted as saying: ‘One down, a million to go.’ Two years later, the Bangladeshi textile worker Altab Ali was killed in East London by a racist gang. In the face of racist violence, fascist provocation, and state persecution, many young people from recent immigrant families began to organise.

From there, the Asian Youth Movements (AYM) began to form. In areas with large South Asian populations across the country, AYM groups sprang up. Though the specifics of their leftist politics differed from area to area, their unity was in their emphasis on community self-defence and a stated belief in political blackness. To Tariq Mehmood, an AYM member who was born in Pakistan but was raised in Bradford, there was no real difference between South Asian, African, and Caribbean people: they were all the same to those who wanted to harm them. ‘We were called “black bastards” on the streets,’ he says.

We were commonly united with our African and Afro-Caribbean friends. They didn’t know they were black until they came here—I didn’t know I was a ‘Paki’ until I came to Bradford. We were united on those common issues of our oppression.

And if they were united on common oppression, they were equally as committed to common liberation, being keenly internationalist and anti-imperialist in their outlook. ‘We were not some politically illiterate youth,’ Tariq strongly emphasises. ‘We were well aware of our anti-colonial resistance and of the horrors of colonialism.’ They saw the link between racially targeted people in Britain and the threads of oppression everywhere from Southall to Soweto and from Gaza to Derry: ‘This period was the time of the hunger strikes in Ireland,’ says Tariq. ‘We were all very much supportive, and part and parcel of the networks to support those movements.’

Fight Them Back

The AYM grew across the country, playing a vital role in various community campaigns against fascism, racism, and deportation campaigns. Their role only grew more serious in society after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, when she removed the NF from the mainstream by taking much of their politics and rhetoric. By 1981, the country was in a state of severe unrest. In January, the police’s apathy in investigating the possible firebombing and murder of thirteen young black people in New Cross fuelled fury; uprisings against racist attacks and police harassment swept across dozens of cities a few months later.

Summer 1981 brought real fears in Bradford. On 1 July, a firebomb attack killed a South Asian mother and her four children in Walthamstow; two days later, fascists in Southall gave out leaflets at a white power gig calling for a ‘White Nationalist Crusade’, prompting local youth to burn down the pub holding the gig. Then, rumours began that fascists were planning to march through Manningham on 11 July. The police confirmed this, telling Asian people to avoid going outside that day. Given the police’s track record of harassing young Asian people and ignoring racist attacks, few were willing to heed their call. According to Tariq, young people ‘didn’t believe that they [the police] would, or that they could’, do anything. ‘We didn’t think they had the willingness, for they themselves were full of racists, in their own ranks—and we had a long history of that struggle against them.’

Tariq and the United Black Youth League (UBYL) members had a deeply organised, well-developed self-defence operation against racist groups.

In Bradford, we were already patrolling the streets for many weeks against gangs of Paki bashers in Manningham. Where I lived, we had embryonic telephone trees. If somebody reported an attack by a gang or somebody else, they would phone the next person and run to get there. We would drop what we were doing and very quickly have fifteen, twenty people over there.

Having understood the potential scale of violence their community faced, UBYL members prepared petrol bombs. They were never used and were made with the understanding that they might be needed to defend people from incredibly violent attacks. For Tariq, the rationale was simple. ‘We were the sons and daughters of that community,’ he said. The move wasn’t about machismo, it was about ‘politically organised and conscious action’ to defend their friends and families. ‘When the police said stay at home, we said, “Come out on the streets.” When they said they would look after it, they would patrol the streets, we did.’

The call went out for a demonstration on 11 July to resist the fascists. ‘Our thinking at the time,’ Masood recalls, was that ‘we’re going to have to do things for ourselves, and not be downtrodden.’ In the end, thousands of young people turned out to oppose the fascists, who didn’t dare show their faces, leading to great cheer from anti-fascists; it was a day of mass action—in every part of London, South Asian communities organised against fascist demonstrations, while that weekend saw riots by working-class youth erupt across the country.

Black Community on Trial

Several weeks later, twelve young people were arrested and taken in by the police, with extravagant headlines talking of ‘bomb factories’ being discovered in Bradford and ‘Black Gangs’ being ‘stung’, their ‘plots to bomb police’ uncovered. Tariq and Masood were two of the young people arrested. ‘The police made a mountain out of a molehill,’ Tariq remembers, ‘claiming that we were going to attack police stations. On the contrary, we did not believe in individual acts of terrorism—we still don’t—we saw ourselves as victims of terror.’

When the police turned up at Masood’s house, they told his father that they just wanted to question him.

But as soon as they got me in the car, they said, ‘You better speak. What do you know about petrol bombs?’ I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said, ‘You lying bastard, you were there, you made them,’ telling me when we got to the police station, ‘You better speak or I’m going kick your arse all around this police station floor.’ I was 18 years old, thinking whoa!

While the under-21s were in remand centres and the rest were in jail, it was a difficult situation for all. Masood remembers being given a tough time, with prison officers making racist comments at them from behind the prison cell bars. Finally, after months of this treatment, what became known as the ‘Bradford 12 Trial’ began on 26 April 1982.

Walking from the cells to the court was ‘daunting’ says Masood. He explains:

The charges didn’t sink in, ‘conspiracy to cause explosions’. I didn’t really realise the extent of how serious it was until they had a Saturday Court, which is a special court, and there were five stipendiary magistrates sitting there. That’s when I thought, this is very serious.

But many people recognised the seriousness of the situation and stood by the twelve. Outside on that first day were over 500 local people, chanting songs in defence of them for hours. They were joined by many people from across the country who had established support groups for the twelve. One of these people was Balwinder Rana, who had helped establish the Kent Asian Youth Movement and was later involved in the Southall Youth Movement. After having taken a seat in the upstairs gallery, he shouted ‘Self-defence is no offence!’ to the defendants as they were brought through, causing the judge to warn that if there were to be any more interruptions, the court would be cleared.

Even the structure of the trial itself was subject to intense political division. Initially, the jury was to be an all-white one. After defendants like Tariq heard of the decision, he remembers that ‘I was seriously considering not recognising the court and accepting that I was going to go to jail for life.’ The defendants called for a jury of their local peers, which wasn’t accepted. But significant local and national pressure led to the appointment of five non-white members of the jury, with two Asian and three Caribbean people joining the trial. The defendants also insisted that the white people be working class; to this day, Tariq believes these moves saved them, and that had they not gone hard for a balanced jury, the sentences would have been heavy.

During the cross-examination by the defence counsel, it became clear quickly how much the story had been built up as a media story for the police to look assertive and authoritative, and how sizeable chunks of the police narrative had been clearly fabricated. ‘The age-old tactics were used,’ Tariq remembers. ‘Fit up the verbals, write up your notes afterwards, lie, cheat, deceive.’ The defence repeatedly picked holes in the police arguments, as they offered ‘lie after lie,’ Masood recalls. ‘They got ripped to shreds. We found it quite funny, watching the police really getting caught out.’

One such example of fabrication (which was later highlighted in Race Today’s pamphlet The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain) was that of Helena Kennedy’s cross-examination of one particular officer, who claimed that he had extensively questioned defendant Sabir Hussain, without taking any notes. He claimed he had asked Hussain some 200 questions and received 196 answers, which he had then recorded. After Kennedy asked if he had compiled Hussain’s answers from memory, he replied that he had. ‘What was the first question I asked you today?’ Kennedy then asked. The officer admitted he couldn’t remember.

Throughout the trial, the defence would highlight racist violence against immigrant communities and the deadly consequences this had. Masood remembers Michael Mansfield’s opening gambit, which talked about the New Cross Fire. ‘It was a really powerful opening, it really got you—even as a young kid of about 18, I thought—wow.’ As the trial continued, the police were repeatedly shown to be dishonest in discussing race relations and racist attacks. In the cross-examination of a Bradford Criminal Investigation Department (CID) deputy head, he was not only quoted as having told Pakistani community leaders that there was no such thing as ‘racial violence’, but a statement was also read out by him saying that:

Police officers must be prejudiced and discriminatory to do their job. Prejudice is a state of mind drawn from experience. Searching long haired youths in bedraggled clothing produces drug seizures, and searching West Indian youth wearing tea cosy hats and loitering in city centres could detect mugging offences.

The deeply racist reality of the police force was demonstrated with a senior policeman saying that being left-wing meant ‘anyone against the police and the general running of the country’, while being right-wing meant ‘anyone who conducts himself within the general running of the country’. The barrister Sibghat Kadri declared that he was ‘charging the police with criminal negligence’ for their inability to protect South Asian communities.

But despite such clarifying moments, the trial was an uphill struggle. ‘There were days where we thought we’d done very well,’ Masood recalls, ‘and the odd day when we thought it’s not gone well.’

I feared the worst. We were told—and we were led to believe—the police would hammer us and wanted to make an example out of us. At the time, there were demonstrations up and down the country, in Toxteth, Tottenham, Chapeltown. I thought we were going to get found guilty and would go away for a very long time. We would have got over ten years if we were found guilty.

Fortunately, the multi-racial jury were very much sympathetic to their case. Masood remembers the jury foreman being Wesley Baker, a Caribbean foreman. ‘I remember one of the barristers saying that if we got him as foreman, that’s a big plus—and he turned out to be.’ After the trial, he walked up to the defendants and told them: ‘I would never have been the foreman to find you guilty.’ One of the jurors who many defendants were worried could be against them was a young white worker, who had been arrested as a match-going Leeds United fan; this juror told them that ‘the police lie out of their teeth.’

But as important as intelligent court games was the national campaign to ‘Free the 12’. While Masood found the sound of demonstrators outside to be morale boosting, Tariq believes that without the campaign, ‘We would not have won.’ Fahim Qureshi, then a leader of Luton Youth Movement, remembers being picked up by his comrade Suresh Grover at Junction 11 of the M1 at 6 a.m. to get to Bradford for the 10.30 a.m. pickets. The band UB40 had pledged to do a benefit gig, and the defendants were particularly touched by international support from Sinn Fein, feminist movements in America, and members of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Remembering the protests, Balwinder Rana tells Tribune how ‘We knew that any day, we could face a similar situation in Southall, and may need to use the same tactics to defend our community as they did in Bradford.’

Shoulder High on a Sea of People

The months of anxiety and tension came to an end on 16 June 1982, when after a lengthy trial which lasted for thirty-one days, all twelve of the defendants were acquitted. On the day of the verdict, Fahim remembered standing on the steps of the court, chanting and singing with 1,000 other people, before suddenly hearing of the first ‘not guilty’ verdict. ‘Immediately, a massive cheer went up,’ he said, ‘then complete silence, as we were asked to be silent so the other verdicts could be communicated. After the final defendant’s verdict was announced, another continuous, massive roar went up.’

Following this, Fahim remembers, the twelve defendants were ‘carried out of the Crown Court, shoulder high on a sea of people’. The mood in Bradford was electric, and tears of joy were everywhere. The demonstration in support of the twelve only grew, turning into a gigantic party across the city, with a large contingent of Sikhs from the local gurdwara giving out curry and puris in celebration.

The acquittal marked a pivotal moment in British legal history, and a rare victory for anti-racist politics. ‘Self-defence is no offence’ was the slogan of many of the Asian Youth Movements, and it was the legal basis of how the defendants won. As Gareth Peirce wrote in the Guardian after the judgement, the court verdict accepted ‘the proposition that a society should afford protection to all its citizens and that if it did not, as the evidence they heard showed clearly that it does not, then those unprotected can arm themselves’.

Looking back on the trial four decades later, Masood Malik has no regrets about his actions. ‘I’m proud, I’ve got no shame about what we did to defend ourselves and our communities. If we didn’t stand up for ourselves, I think we’d be an even more oppressed community than we already are.’ Despite his pride, he also expresses fear that the South Asian community has become somewhat complacent over the racist threat as the years have gone by. ‘On reflection, a part of me is sad—the momentum we gained should have catapulted our community struggles. I’m proud we made a stand, but there’s nowhere near the progress I thought we could have had; nowhere near.’

Tariq Mehmood, too, is proud that out of the pain and repression of the period came the proof that ‘resistance bears fruit and hope is never lost.’ Summarising his beliefs that spurred him on as a young man to confront fascists and defend a community under siege, he says that all human beings deserve the right to live life in a dignified way. When that dignity is attacked, people must know how to resist.

If somebody is attacking you by passing racist immigration laws, you can’t pick up a gun. If somebody comes to slap you in the face, you can’t knock their hand off with a sword. By the same logic, if somebody comes to attack you with a sword, you cannot defend yourself with a feather.