Review: Saturday Night & Sunday Morning by Janet Bujra and Jenny Pearce (Vertical Editions, 2011)

Janet Bujra and Jenny Pearce’s important book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, on the 2001 Bradford riot – its aftermath and origins – is a account of the protests and riots that temporally paralysed the northern city at the start of the millennium. The riots forced the country to pay attention to issues of unemployment, youth discontent and the rise of the far-right; though the immediate impact was devastating for the rioters, 107 served custodian sentences of four years or more. The night and morning of the riot was intense, with parts of the city turned into what one protester described as a ‘war zone’, ending with hundreds of arrests, prison sentences and millions of pounds of damage.

The background to the book is the collapse of a textile city, with its long history of immigration, much of this from the Indian sub-continent where workers were recruited to Bradford’s factories. The growth of the Nazis in 2001 is the more immediate context, racists from the British National Party, the National Front and Combat 18 besieged these former industrial ‘mill towns’ in the north of England. The BNP had made electoral gains and hoped to make more. Supporters of the far-right had torn through predominantly Asian areas, trashing businesses and terrifying those living in the area. For these racists, Bradford was an important staging post – they planned to march on 7 July. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) challenged the rise of the BNP, and other groups in the region.

In the end the planned march on 7 May did not materialise, even though Nazis were present throughout the town. Thousands of mostly Asian protesters assembled for an anti-fascist rally in Centenary Square in the centre of Bradford, organised by the ANL and local trade unions. As the police attempted to herd the protesters out of the square, stories spread of racist attacks in the city. Demonstrators fought the police who were seen to be protecting the Nazis.

Even though the protests and riots in Bradford at the centre of the book were ‘overtaken’ by the country-wide rioting in 2011, the book is an important account based on extensive research and interviews with the police and the British Asian men involved in the riots. The scale of the rioting was significant. A policewoman quoted at the start of the book describes the night, ‘I stood there with my shield and I was falling asleep and it was the sound of the rocks hitting my shield that kept waking me up.’ There is a palpable sense of the police being stretched to breaking point. Though they were criticised by the demonstrators for ‘militarising’ their intervention too quickly, the police were unable to deal with the rage that erupted across the city on 7-8 July.

Seven years ago, protests against police violence triggered rioting across London and in other cities in the UK. In early August 2011 smoke could be seen from burning buildings and neighbourhoods in the capital, sirens echoed across the city as the police tried to respond to the riots that had broken out around the city. Police forces were powerless to curb the outbreak of ‘copycat’ rioting, and for a time – in reality, probably only a few hours – the country was not entirely under the control of the state.  

Interviewed after the riots, the writer and activist Darcus Howe responded to the absurd questions of a BBC reporter, he claimed, ‘I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It’s happening in Syria, it’s happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port of Spain in Trinidad and that’s the nature of the historical period.’ Answering an accusation that he had taken part in riots himself, he denounced the interviewer, ‘I have never taken part in a single riot, I have been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict.’ Howe’s exaggerated claims for the 2011 riots were understandable. He was goaded by the outrageous questioning of a white journalist and media reports that focused exclusively on the riots ‘criminality’, rather than the justified anger at racist policing. Yet beyond these issues, Howe raised another simple though central question for Bujra and Pearce’s work – is the ‘riot’ that this book deals with actually a ‘demonstration that ended up in a conflict’? How does this characterisation of the protest as a riot change how we understand the events?

Occasionally you get a whiff in the book of the wider significance of the riots, or the euphoria of collective action. One interviewee commented on the solidarity of mainly white bystanders, ‘you got houses on the right yeah, and they’re mostly white houses and they were just coming out and watching and stuff and they were sort of cheering it on … people don’t like the police, know what I mean?’ More often the narrative focuses on ‘marginalised communities’ and the ‘delight in the adrenaline high of battle and descent into anarchic criminality.’ However, the book is appropriately partisan siding with British Asian communities and the young men who struggle to find dignity in a world cut-off to them by their unemployment and ‘exclusion’. The authors describe the motivations of the protesters as confused, the adrenaline of confronting the police dizzying.

I would have preferred an angrier book, which saw the ‘demonstration that ended up in a conflict’ as a response to decades of continued and sustained racist exclusion. The riot was in part a confused attempt to reclaim dignity and to release deeply held frustrations, as Bujra and Pearce argue. But surely it did not reside simply in this or that ‘exclusion’, rather in a systematic inability of capitalism to realise human potential and desire. What are the wider and irresolvable contradictions that sit at the heart of these frustrations in capitalist society?

Still, these are minor quibbles in a book rich in the voices and words of those frequently silenced, providing a thorough account and analysis of the 2001 riots. The authors are open about their own perspectives – towards the end of the book commenting, ‘It is now clear that riots do not erupt spontaneously from ‘mindless mobs’. They are rooted in a deep sense of injustice, in contexts where historic inequalities render futures insecure. In Bradford in 2001 their violent expression came both from Pakistani Muslim youth and from white youth on deprived estates.’ As the book concludes, the riots were an effort to defend and protect communities from the threat of racist attack even if these ‘youth’ were marginal themselves from these communities.