The Rotherham 12 are vindicated in their fight against charges of violent disorder on an anti-Nazi demo in 2015. Campaigners Phil Turner, Abrar Javid and Matt Foot draw out the lessons.
The acquittal last month of the last two defendants in the group of Asian men known as the Rotherham 12 is probably the most important victory in the fight against racism and fascism in Britain for decades. The impact of such a decisive triumph for anti-racists has not been felt since Southall in the late 1970s or the Bradford 12 in the early 1980s. It is a victory for the whole of the working class.
There are similarities with the Bradford 12, a group of young Asians accused of conspiracy to make petrol bombs while preparing for a fascist attack in 1981. As in Rotherham over the past few years, fear gripped many black areas at that time. Bradford came after a series of racist attacks where black families had been petrol bombed and murdered in Southall and other black areas.
The Bradford 12 argued that oppressed people had the right to physically defend themselves from racist attacks. They argued that the police could not be trusted to do so because they were institutionally racist. After a nine-week trial the jury acquitted the 12 and established the vital legal precedent that self-defence is no offence.
This precedent would later be needed by campaigns in east London for the Newham Eight in 1983 and the Newham Seven in 1985.
What started out as an issue of self-defence became a political campaign which saw the birth of a new movement involving many young Asians. It helped build the Anti Nazi League into a mass movement after demonstrators halted the rise of the Nazi National Front in the battle of Lewisham in 1977. The year before, in 1976, anti-racists stopped the NF marching through the Asian area of Eastwood in Rotherham.
The Rotherham 12 can now become an inspiration for thousands of others in combatting racism. They had attended a magnificent 400-strong, peaceful Unite Against Fascism demonstration against a march by the Nazi Britain First in Rotherham on 5 September 2015.
Boosted by a big turnout from Asian people, it was a breakthrough in the battle against racism in the town. It came two weeks after 81 year old Mushin Ahmed’s racist murder in the South Yorkshire town, and mobilised against the 14th Nazi demonstration in the town in as many months.
Rotherham UAF organised protests against Nazi groups on more than 20 occasions in less than three years. The Nazis were trying to whip up racism and division following the child sexual exploitation scandal in the town. UAF gave a lead and made a stand when many, understandably including the majority in the Asian community, said it should not do so because of the aftermath of the scandal. But the UAF slogan “Justice for the victims — don’t let the racists divide us” won support from trade unions, held firm and the tide finally turned.
The men should never have been put on trial. They were innocent — self-defence is no offence. But the men became victims themselves. One of defendants, NHS worker Abrar Javid, said he believed that the men were victims of “political policing”. He said the police had failed over the child sexual exploitation scandal and “were trying to make examples of Asian people”.
South Yorkshire Police is already under scrutiny following its cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster and its conduct during the Battle of Orgreave. There police attacked striking miners and went on to frame several for riot. Recent reports have also exposed police failings and possible corruption relating to child sexual exploitation.
The trial clearly acknowledged that Nazi groups were intent on causing community divisions, fear, intimidation and terror through perpetual acts of violence and murder. Instead of protecting the Asian Muslim community, the police led them into an ambush and protected the Nazis at their expense.
Defence barrister Zaiban Alam, from Rotherham, symbolically likened the fascist incursions to the Ku Klux Klan in the US who burned crosses in black areas creating fear and terror. The trial judge also said it was like the Jews in Germany facing up to Nazi brownshirts.
There were also similarities with Orgreave during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Pickets at Orgreave described how cops herded them into an area before launching an attack. On 5 September 2015 police forced anti-fascist demonstrators past the William Fry pub, where they were attacked by drunken racists.
Importantly, the Rotherham 12 campaign was backed by both the Orgreave and Hillsborough justice campaigns, trade unions and campaigning groups. Rotherham, as Michael Mansfield QC put it during the trial, was a place where the “air was filled with fear”. The town was “besieged and plagued” by “toxic” fascist groups. “The fear was not a fantasy — it was a reality,” Mansfield told the court.
“But there comes a point when people have to say to themselves, are we going to be humiliated to the extent that we won’t leave our homes, and is it time to show our respect and solidarity for this elderly man who was stamped to death? To say we are not afraid and, by the community, make a public statement that we’re not going to be overwhelmed by fear and ultimately stand up for one of our number? To say we’ve had enough of being tarred by a particular brush and we’re going to stand up and going on the streets, making our legitimate voice heard by standing together as a community?”
Mansfield also attacked police failings and mocked police commander Chief Inspector Richard Butterworth for claiming he did not know that the Fry pub was a gathering for racists and fascists. Butterworth, he said, was like Manuel from TV’s Fawlty Towers whose catchphrase was “I know nothing.”
After this great victory, Rotherham will now be known as a town that stood up to fascism and did not let the racists divide it. That sense of victory, that “we are taller; they are smaller” was intensified when four of the Nazis were jailed at Christmas in 2016 for a total of eight years eight months after being convicted of violent disorder at Sheffield Crown Court.
Abrar Javid: Rotherham 12
“As a defendant it has been a difficult and emotional time for myself and my family. This whole episode has left us upset, confused and traumatised. My parents have suffered immensely as the reality of the threat of a prison sentence for these types of offences became clear.
“What has troubled me the most, late at night struggling to sleep, is how the police can arrest and charge local men who stood up and defended their families against fascists.
“This incident was two weeks after the death of Mushin Ahmed, killed in a brutal racist murder. Our community was in mourning. A community traumatised, in fear and psychologically scarred over the past two years of constant Nazi marches besieging our town — in that context how could the police charge us with violent disorder?
“We believe it’s a politically motivated charge due to the background of Child Sex Exploitation failings and the narrative that Pakistani Muslim men are all complicit in child sex abuse.
“We believe South Yorkshire Police have been unjust and, instead of mending community relations, they have deliberately targeted a community to perpetuate the narrative of the far-right. We feel the police are trying to make up for their landmark failings — Hillsborough, Orgreave and the Rotherham CSE scandal.
“Rather than seeing the Nazi thugs as criminals, they’ve done what the far-right does by scapegoating the whole Asian community.
“I believe these were wrongful arrests of people who came out on a peaceful demonstration for Mushin Ahmed. We’ve been treated like criminals and it’s nothing more than a politically motivated charge. We’ve seen a murder and more racist attacks, and for the police not to take that into context on the day [of the UAF demonstration] is a scandal.
“We’re ecstatic with the result of the trial. People need to remember that the jury members were predominantly white. It restores our faith in humanity for a mainly white working class jury to find us not guilty. This will be a catalyst to bring communities together again in Rotherham.
“Through our campaigning and our vindication at the trial, justice has been served. The trial exposed the police’s failure to protect our community, as well as to heed the intelligence they had prior to the demonstration regarding a potential attack on Muslim communities.
“This is a landmark victory, but the community requires answers from South Yorkshire Police. To move forward we need drastic change in a dysfunctional police force that has little or no empathy with the Muslim community in Rotherham.”
‘They had no choice but to defend their community against a threat’
The Rotherham 12 had their lives turned upside down during their campaign for justice. Matt Foot tells the story of one of them.
Asif Zaman went on the demonstration against Britain First in September 2015, alongside over 400 of Rotherham’s Asian community, socialists, trade unionists and anti-fascist activists, as a mark of respect for Mushin Ahmed, who had very recently been murdered in a vile racist attack. Asif intended to attend the demo early, show his respects and return home. He suffers from diabetes, injured feet, and has a bed-bound mother at home to look after.
However, in All Saints’ Square the whole protest was kettled for hours by the 800-strong police presence. At 4pm, when he was finally allowed to leave, he was ushered by the police down a street that led to Welgate, and left to wander the short walk home.
He was nearing his home when he was shaken by a volley of violent racist abuse such as, “Come on you fucking Paki, fucking groomers.” Sensing danger he quickened his pace. He could see young Asians were the target, among them his 14 year old son. He bravely made his way to the front of the young Asian children where he could see a drunken group of men outside the William Fry pub. He tried to reason with them — “What’s your problem? These are kids.” This gang weren’t interested in a discussion; they were gesturing for a fight and continued their aggressive abuse.
Asif had to think quickly. He both had to confront the group to show they were not going to be an easy target, while edging back the young Asians around him who were naive to the very serious danger they faced. The fascists then started throwing bottles. One smashed above his head on a nearby canopy. Asif threw a remnant back to keep them at bay. Then the fascists charged, Asif moved back and the young Asians scattered into an adjacent road. The fascists regrouped outside the pub. The police were nowhere to be seen.
Asif now couldn’t locate his sons. He had no choice but to go back, to see if they were still in danger. He got one of his son’s practice martial arts wooden knives from his car and carefully moved towards the fascists to make sure his sons were not being attacked. He brandished the sticks at one of the fascist ring leaders in his way to get him to run away.
He could now see his sons were not in the car park. He ran and put the sticks back in his car. Other brave men from the community confronted the fascists to get them back in the pub. Finally the police arrived and separated the groups. Thankfully, due to the bravery of these Asian men, no one had been very seriously hurt by the thugs.
A month later at 6am police raided Asif’s home. He was carted off to the police station. He told them in interview he was protecting his children: “If they [the police] were there this scenario wouldn’t have happened, that area was well exposed, they were there waiting, that group of people were waiting for any Asians to go by. That’s how it felt, they were ready and waiting.”
The police weren’t listening. He was charged with violent disorder, the go-to charge for any protester, carrying up to five years imprisonment. The police arrested 11 others in similar early morning raids.
They got organised. British Muslim Youth activists, with support from Rotherham Unite Against Fascism, formed a local campaign. They sorted out decent legal representation and enlisted Suresh Grover and Jawed Siddiqui of the Monitoring Group. They obtained the support of campaigns and unions locally and nationally. Most importantly they came together as a group, looking out for each other.
The trial at Sheffield Crown Court started with the defence obtaining a site visit for the jury to see Rotherham town centre. This made clear one very important point — that the racists had come to start a fight in the very heart of the Asian community. It confirmed from the outset that these defendants had no choice but to do what every community would have done in their situation, to fight an invading threat.
In the six week trial Asif and his neighbour Arshad were represented by Michael Mansfield. He managed to get the jury laughing about the nonsense at the heart of the prosecution case. The prosecutor described the incident as a Mexican stand-off, and Mansfield at one stage gave him a Mexican wave as he left the court to the jury’s laughter. The most powerful speech was from Zaiban Alam, a local Muslim barrister, who spoke of the good Rotherham she knew and was proud of before the fascists had descended.
Asif has told me that as a child he took cans of food to school for the miners during the strike, how the community identified with their fight. That example really moved me. It shows the capacity for people to unite against the common enemy. The same solidarity has been shown in Rotherham by the fact that every time the fascists have invaded the town local black and white people have supported UAF protests to oppose them.
This wonderful victory of the Rotherham 12 helps to turn the tide in Rotherham. They were right to protest. They were right to unite in solidarity with trade unions and campaigners. They were right to launch a political defence campaign. If you fight you can win. An injustice to one is an injustice to all.