Bradford 2001 riots 20th anniversary - how the West Yorkshire city worked to heal its lasting wounds

It has been 20 years since the Bradford riots, a traumatic weekend of unrest. Community leaders tell John Blow how residents responded to the challenge of moving on.

Everybody seems to have an opinion about Bradford

Whether they are actually based on experience of a lengthy stay in the city is another matter.

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Perhaps this is hardly a surprise, given that the riots of 20 years ago this week had been branded some of the worst violence seen in mainland Britain for decades.

The Lister Park branch of BMW left in ruins after the 2001 riots in Bradford. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA.
The Lister Park branch of BMW left in ruins after the 2001 riots in Bradford. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA.

But much work has since gone into repairing relationships and easing tensions in the city since July 7 to 9, 2001, when police clashed with rioters around Manningham as parts were firebombed, looted – causing damage of variously reported estimates, all of them at numerous millions of pounds – and left with a long, painful period of self-reflection.

While acknowledging that the riots remain a source of negative perceptions of Bradford, those at the helm of fostering good relations in the city since then say that they are much-improved.

Zulfi Karim, Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire and president of Bradford Council for Mosques, says: “I actually think that Bradford is now far more confident in its own skin. And if we actually really paid attention to what everybody else is saying or thinking about us, we will never move forward. And I think we’ve always known that. We’ve known that for a long time and there has been a realisation that, you know, Bradford, no matter what it does, it will still never be able to please those that want to knock it down. So we’ve got to basically just be strong in our own convictions, and basically make sure that we are all working and striving for the same thing.”

Following tensions in Oldham and Burnley in the summer of 2001, then Home Secretary David Blunkett granted the police powers to ban marches in Bradford amid word of plans by far-right organisation National Front (NF) to rally in the city.

Zulfi Karim, Deputy Lieutenant for West Yorkshire. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Despite this, 500 or so Anti-Nazi League supporters gathered in Centenary Square in the city centre on the Saturday, believing a racist march could still take place.

“I was actually in the city centre shopping that Saturday morning and there was these rumours going around that there was a coach-load of right-wing men, mainly, who were coming over into Bradford and doing what had been happening in other areas,” says Adeeba Malik CBE, deputy chief executive of QED Foundation, which supports people from ethnic minorities to find jobs.

“You could feel the tension in the air. I remember that and I remember feeling uncomfortable about it all and I remember cutting my shopping trip to go back and then, you know, we see events unfolding on television. And what really took me was that, you know, I’m only a few miles away from where all this is happening, this is happening in my city, and it was really hard to watch because you could see the gravity of the events that were taking place. They were the largest riots we’d had up to that point.”

That afternoon, rumours spread that NF sympathisers were in a city centre pub. A fight ensued, reportedly between a group of far-right troublemakers and Asian men, leading to two stabbings. Later, NF supporters out of the picture, chaos shifted to Manningham, where reportedly around 1,000 youths wreaked havoc over several days and as many police, clad in protective gear, responded. Rioters destroyed businesses, including a BMW garage and Manningham Labour Club was firebombed while 23 people were inside.

Delroy Dacres, director of Manningham Mills Sports and Community Association. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

More than 300 police were injured and officers arrested almost as many.

It took until 2007 for the last person, the 200th, to be jailed for their part in the violence. At the time, then Detective Chief Superintendent Max McLean, who led the investigation for West Yorkshire Police, said the number was “unprecedented in English legal history” as the nearest figure for people convicted together for rioting was five, in London.

“The devastation we saw in and around Manningham, it was just awful,” says Delroy Dacres, director of Manningham Mills Sports and Community Association, who afterwards helped to organise a football tournament as part of efforts to repair relationships.It was also a bitter irony that the riots had occurred just as a long-awaited report by Lord Herman Ouseley – completed before the violence – which intended to inspire change also laid bare “racial self-segregation and cultural divisiveness” in a city it said was suffering in a “grip of fear”.

Karim says “there was an identity crisis at the time” in Bradford.

Adeeba Malik CBE, deputy chief executive of QED-UK (Quest for Economic Development) in Bradford. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Malik also stresses that the riot itself happened after people from outside the area sought to cause trouble but says there was a “real desire” from residents to stop such violence from happening again as the city’s reputation was hugely affected by the riots, which in turn has impacted the business community’s prospects.

“I have meetings in London, and there are still people who bring up the riots and I have to turn around and say, you know, we’ve moved on,” says Malik.

She adds: “We’re not talking about two years, we’re talking about a 20-year period. So that’s a significant amount of time which allows people and policymakers to really reflect on what has changed and what is changing.”

Karim and Malik both highlight the roles of grassroots and faith-based projects, and a greater diversity in workplaces,in contributing to a more racially harmonious city.

Police have also become less confrontational and officers are better known to locals, believes Karim.

Malik says: “For a number of years we saw this push of actually looking at how we could address some of the issues around community cohesion and community integration in the sense of people mixing, talking, understanding, appreciating all the kind of make-up of the people that we’ve got in the district. And I think there was a lot of good work that was done around that, and a lot of that was voluntarily.”

One example offered by Karim is the Jewish and Muslim communities working together to save the city’s last synagogue from closing in 2013.

Dacres, when interviewed by The Yorkshire Post in 2018, said he did not think social integration had improved in the area but he believed austerity policies had stymied this, and the latter point is one he makes now too. And he hopes this will not be exacerbated by the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Malik, though, says that it is positive that no other riots have happened since 2001 – it was the second in six years after disturbances in 1995 – and Bradford avoided tensions in 2011 when other parts of England flared up. A rally by the far-right English Defence League had also passed without any long-lasting incidents in the year before.

After 2001, Malik says: “The people of Bradford put a torch on themselves and said...‘What do you want to do with this? How do we move on?’”

'Inspired by progress'

The people of Bradford should be “inspired by the progress we have made since that long-ago summer of 2001,” says its district council leader Susan Hinchcliffe.

Her column in The Yorkshire Post yesterday gave examples of how the area had come a long way since the riots, a “traumatic episode which scarred the city and its reputation”.

She noted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s compliments about the city during their January 2020 visit, and that The Sunday Times a month later named it as one of the best places in Britain to run a business.

Coun Hinchcliffe quoted Dame Helen Mirren, who when filming in there last year paid tribute to “the one and only Bradford and its own magic” – an asset hoped to help it become the UK City of Culture 2025.