Tonight saw 50 people turn out for a public meeting to discuss John Burnett's report, The New Geographies of Racism: Stoke-on-Trent. Though a year old, some of its arguments have been thrown into sharp relief after it was reported race and other hate-related crimes have recently increased across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire. The meeting was therefore concerned with the roots of racism, its relationship to the far right, and what can be done to fight it. The meeting was called by the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF).
First to speak was Cllr Olwen Hamer who prefaced the discussion with the Labour-controlled City Council's efforts at tackling racism in the city. Since the BNP were routed from the Chamber last year, the local authority has undertaken a series of measures aiming to snuff out racism and promote more integration through sponsorship of community projects such as the 'Game On' initiative, and 'Democracy Week' for local schools that see students come into the Council to learn about politics and how it can make a difference. In addition to all this, the Council have embarked on an ambitious programme of economic regeneration to attract businesses and jobs, which, as a consequence, would cut at the persistent material roots of the far right in the city.
Our second speaker was John Burnett himself. To begin with, he felt it necessary to issue an apology of sorts. His aim was not to demonise or denigrate Stoke: its problems are by no means unique. As I'd read the report a while back, this was welcome. I felt the pudding was over-egged to the extent I didn't recognise my city, but I digress. What John had tried to do was convey a sense of how racism had changed. For example, while all of the mainstream press hailed the Steven Lawrence verdict and eventual prosecution of his killers as some kind of anti-racist national victory, simultaneously most of that media was stirring up prejudice against asylum seekers and Muslims. The main parties have also clambered on the bandwagon, with a dog whistle here, and a "sincere expression" of doubts about multiculturalism there. In Stoke, the BNP were able to feed off this noxious soup, which contributed toward local election success. But also, locally, it prepared the ground for the EDL's visit to Stoke and the attempt to blow up Shelton Mosque. John also noted how there are greater "opportunities" for racist attacks: like most cities, the night time economy of taxis, takeaways, late shops and service stations find disproportionate numbers of minority workers not only taking up these jobs, but often in conditions of personal isolation: small wonder taxi drivers bear the brunt of racism and violence. Lastly, he suggested the far right cannot be combated by ceding political ground to them and that the mainstream parties have to realise a political culture that allows racism can engender a racist popular culture.
Next to speak was Jason Hill in his capacity as President of North Staffs TUC and NorSCARF secretary. He spoke about how the group was formed in the 70s to combat local electoral interventions by the National Front. However, after the NF were put to flight NorSCARF recognised the persistence of racism and the need to root it out. Therefore, one of its key achievements of the time was a victorious campaign for the founding of the Community Relations Council, which later became the Racial Equality Council, until it closed its doors in 2009.
Winding forward to the turn of the century, the BNP's ditching of bovver boots and punch ups in favour of door knocking, leafleting and "community work" began paying dividends. Under the public face of Steve Batkin, the BNP came within a whisker of winning the 2003 Mayoral election, and later went on to win nine councillors over the course of subsequent campaigns. NorSCARF re-formed shortly before the mayoral campaigns got under way and worked tirelessly to undermine and whittle them down. While all their councillors have gone, the rise in racist incidents and hate crimes against LGBT and disabled people demonstrates that much still needs to be done. Jason therefore called on the Council to back the creation of a new Equality Council under the terms of its Mandate for Change programme.
Jude Haws of Challenge North Staffs spoke about her work with the hate crime reporting network. She began on how key events have changed the complexion of hate crime. Before the Stephen Lawrence case gained prominence, if anything it was seriously underreported. The publicity around the case changed that. But the September 11th attacks changed the face of racism. The number of incidents, increased, steeply so in the case of Muslims. These then peaked and plateaued over 2003-4, and then declined. In this context the recent hate crime increase is not large, historically speaking. Part of it could reflect rising frustrations finding a racist expression, but, Jude also noted, Challenge had been engaging in outreach work with what she describes as 'hard to reach' communities. Victims may have felt more encouraged to come forward and make complaints.
In conclusion, reflecting on the picture of Stoke portrayed in the report Jude reported the results of a survey Challenge undertook of 97 asylum seekers. Asked 'Why Stoke?' they replied the cheap prices and it being a good place to find work as reasons to recommend it, but most surprising of all, they regarded it as "small, quiet, and safe".
Bill Dixon of Keele's Criminology and Sociology Department made a three-fold contribution by way of replying directly to John's report. His first point was methodological: by his own admission, John drew on reports of publicised cases, which in turn tend to be violent and spectacular to meet the sensational expectations of media managers. As such, the public prism can distort how racism truly manifests itself. The second methods issue is how do you interpret statistics. For example, is an 11.4% increase in reports a good thing in the sense these are getting reported?
Bill's second point wanted to tackle the political explanation for racism John put forward. While accepting the dog-whistling of mainstream parties can contribute to far right success, it overlooks the strategy of the far right themselves. Griffin went out of his way to clean up the BNP's image and rebrand them as a constitutional, peaceful outfit. The fact it wasn't any of these didn't matter - the electoral turn worked, for a while. The second point was the attitude of voters themselves: many weren't turning to the BNP because of their racist rhetoric, rather they portrayed themselves as the anti-establishment outsiders. They were the nuclear option of protest voters and where it was pressed repeatedly, politics generally and the labour movement in particular were forced to respond. Finally, core support for the BNP could not be read off from social structures, but found certain core features of am activist's biography was the key factor in getting them on board.
Lastly, Bill reiterated the point about a different Stoke. To underline it, he raised the Cobridge Riots of 2001, which was (as per the Graun piece) passed through the media's race riot filter. In fact, he claims it was nothing of the sort. Black, Asian, and White youths all came out to face down a rumoured BNP/NF march that never materialised. The violence that did ensue was primarily one of young people vs the police rather than resembling a page out of The Turner Diaries. Similarly, Bill wondered whether in-your-face 'Don't vote Nazi'-style campaigns are particularly effective, especially when it came to splitting softer elements from the more hardcore fascists.
And with that came a number of points and contributions from the floor. Participants reported their own experiences of reporting racist incidents, the positive effects of the Love Music Hate Racism festival of three years ago, need for continued resistance, the internationalist heritage of Stoke exemplified by its role in the Lidice Shall Live campaign, and the dodgy electoral pact between the BNP and UKIP that, up until recently, carved Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme respectively into spheres of exclusive influence.
Of the points that stood out, Gavin Bailey observed that presentation of the facts is a good proportion of the story. For example, Norfolk has a greater number of racist incidents per head than Stoke, but we never hear about what an awful pit of bigotry it is. There is also the hard-to-avoid tendency of talking racism up when, as crimes go, it remains comparatively rare. The media and anti-fascist activist therefore have a difficult tight rope to walk: we have to be publicly intolerant of racism, but we must also talk about its rarity. Blowing it up can damage relations between different communities. Our starting point has to be protecting the existing position of trust.
Tony Walley paid tribute to the role played by Joy Garner in bringing local BNP fuehrer Michael Coleman to book over a number of inflammatory racist remarks made on his blog. Tony doubted the Tory PCC candidate for Staffordshire would stand up to the fascists in the same way Joy had done. He also observed that the BNP were able to make headway locally because the left and the labour movement had taken their eyes off the ball. His dad, who hasn't a racist bone in his body, was attracted to the 'old labour'-sounding elements of the BNP's platform. The recent success of the SNP in Scotland demonstrates the significant pull social democratic politics can have.
Joy spoke about the 'soft-soaping' approach Griffin promoted, and said that Coleman was particularly effective at the friendly-neighbourhood fascist routine. While she argued that if the BNP really cared for its voters it would work to ensure local public services are delivered and remain accountable, the councillor as a hard-working community representative is something everyone should emulate. Joy also expressed disappointment at The Sentinel's defence of Coleman on free speech grounds. Taken out of context, Coleman's comments could be taken as the ravings of a political lunatic. But these comments were made in the immediate aftermath of last year's summer riots - his opinions on "rioting darkies" and the like were obviously attempts to stir up and incite trouble.
I am not able to convey the full range of the evening's discussion, but to openly thrash out differences between anti-fascists made the debate extremely welcome and useful.
Photo credit: Socialist Worker