On 17 August, numerous national newspapers and news websites, published a story about “racist graffiti” directed towards white people in Saltley, a majority Pakistani area of inner-city Birmingham. The piece, originally published by the local Birmingham press, goes on to claim that this corroborates a broad trend of “white working class Brummies” fearing parts of the city had become “no-go areas” for them.
I asked residents of Saltley what they thought of the piece and the general sense of resignation was striking. That the national press picked up and ran with what locals felt was ultimately a trivial story just added further weight to the understanding that there is a global campaign against Muslims; one older resident speaking in her native Mirpuri reminded me to “look at what they’re doing in Syria”.
Residents feel that the far-right are just as likely to be responsible for the graffiti as a local, and with good reason: in 2002, a white supremacist, whom authorities believed wanted to launch a race war, was convicted for several firearm offences and racially aggravated graffiti containing “anti-white” slogans, in Oxford. A young man told me of a recent incident where a group of white men in a van racially abused him while he walked down Alum Rock Road, the main and very busy high street in the area. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “it just happens here sometimes”.
As recently as July, in the neighbouring ward of Aston, footage of three plainclothes police officers (dressed like they wouldn’t look out of place on a far-right demonstration) pepper spraying and physically assaulting a young Pakistani man with a baton emerged on social media. Little has been heard since the IPCC launched an investigation seven weeks ago.
In April, the police, armed with machine-guns, supported by police dogs and a helicopter, held several children at gunpoint on a road bordering Saltley. The children, some as young as 11, “were still in their night clothes and some didn’t have any shoes or slippers on”, as one eyewitness told the local press.
One week later, prominent members of fascist organisation Britain First and former leader of the EDL invaded a bookshop on Alum Rock Road, a five-minute walk from the site of graffiti, angrily confronting residents, and warning that “this is Great Britain”. The fascists claimed to be responding to another article warning the public of Saltley, in another national newspaper.
In March, armed plainclothes police conducted a major ‘pre-planned’ operation on Alum Rock Road, this time even closer to the site of graffiti. Of importance is the timing of the operation; launched while children were coming home from school and workers were coming home from their jobs – the police decided to shut down the major artery of the area. Police spectacles like these are designed to scare a community into submission.
These are just four examples from this year but given the scale and frequency of prominent incidences of far-right and state violence in 2017 alone, perhaps the racially-charged atmosphere in which someone might graffiti ‘no whites allowed after 8pm’ becomes clearer. The sentiment being, 'what else could they be doing here other than to cause trouble?'
Of course, the intention behind the graffiti is of little importance. What is important is why both the national and local media mine ethnic areas, in particular Saltley, for stories perpetuating the myth of ‘no-go’ Muslim neighbourhoods. Contrast this with graffiti containing a swastika and the phrase 'No Pakis' in Birmingham's predominantly white area of Kingstanding just a few days afterwards. There is no attempt to link the graffiti to a broader narrative of far-right activity and 'no-go' areas for Asians. In fact, there's no attempt to report it at all: none of the national and international press which reported the 'no whites' graffiti thought the more recent anti-Asian graffiti was newsworthy. After all, such a report would contradict the central premise underlying the 'Asian no-go area' moral panic: namely, one where a white world is under the threat of complete annihilation.
The first time I came across a mainstream publication referring to Saltley explicitly as a ‘no-go’ area was in former BBC journalist Rod Liddle’s weekly column for The Spectator as far back as 2008, conflating as he often does English by-laws with religious zealotry. The most famous example, however, came in 2015, when popular right-wing US television channel Fox News went even further and brandished the entire “Muslim city” of Birmingham as a “no-go zone”. Upon hearing the news then British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed to have choked on his porridge but it was too late - the damage was already done. The 'analysis' reached who it was supposed to reach, namely a very angry and rudderless white population looking for answers. No amount of ridicule or choking could change this.
Popular debates on the anger of white men often miss the point entirely. At one end, a claim that the resurgence of the far right is fuelled by the vulgar identity politics of neoliberalism. At the other end exists a discussion of white privilege with very little examination of the state and capital. Neither approach is sufficient in that they offer very limited useful guidance on what to do about it.
There is little doubt that the international focus on areas like Saltley serve as a broader dismissal of working-class gains during the post-war era, in particular the 1960s and 70s. However, it should be made clear that the assault against these gains took root as they were being made and, furthermore, was made official policy and expanded via the global adoption of neoliberalism. The predecessors of today’s far-right movement - railing against migrants, black people, feminism, Muslims etc - have their roots not at the advent of social media but in that period of great turbulence in the 1970s (if not earlier). The resurgence of the far-right and more importantly its orthodoxy is not a reaction to neoliberalism; it is exactly what successive neoliberal Conservative and Labour governments had set out to do, namely to reverse these gains completely.
Demo opposite the Saltley Gate, 1970s
Saltley has a radical tradition stretching back at least 100 years. In the 20th century, Birmingham was a city run by the Liberal Unionist Party (later merging with the Conservative Party in 1912). However, there were a few neighbourhoods like Saltley that were early supporters of a Labour Party during its formation years. Saltley, and other areas like Acocks Green, were both railway towns where trade unionism was strong and active. Much like the present far-right ridicule of Saltley stinking of curry, at the turn of the 20th century the local press too had derided the area as “smelly Saltley” because of the sulphurous odour emanating in the area.
The most significant moment in Saltley’s recent history however came during the 1972 miners' strike. Four weeks in and the strike was beginning to have real consequence for British industry. The last place with enough fuel to keep the wheels of capital turning was a coke plant in East Birmingham. Once the NUM (National Union of Miners) caught wind of this, they set up a small picket outside the fuel depot in an attempt to prevent lorries collecting fuel. Knowing this wasn’t enough NUM called on the workers of Birmingham to join them in a mass picket. Workers from the auto industry, carburettor plant (most of which were women), electric plant, gas heater plant and others came down in their thousands to join the picket at Saltley Gate. In total 15,000 workers joined a mass picket and overwhelmed the 800 or so police. The Battle of Saltley Gate was considered a pivotal moment in securing a famous victory for the miners and more broadly showed what a highly organised and militant working class could achieve. Unlikely as it may seem in the current climate, workers descended from as far as Solihull, now an affluent satellite town, all the way to ‘no-go’ Saltley.
Later that year a group of residents, frustrated at the local government neglect of Saltley, occupied and renovated the then abandoned and decrepit Norton Hall, intending to turn it into a free school. After consulting other residents, they turned it into an adventure playground for children instead. In doing so they setup the Saltley Community Association (SCA), opened the Saltley Action Centre and began a local newspaper reflecting and organising around local people’s concerns like unemployment and racism. In addition, the creation of SCARF (Saltley Community Against Racism and Fascism), the solidarity pickets at Grunwick (a - more than a - year long strike by mainly black and brown women demanding union recognition) and the general sense of community empowerment all pointed to what one participating member of SCA called “revolutionary potential”. In a 2010 interview, another participant, Anna, said: “What was happening in Saltley was part of a movement, maybe you can call it a movement ... there was optimism”. However, it didn’t end well, as Electra Soady, a founding member of SCA lamented the period where “the Action Centre was being taken over at the time by middle class, professional, white men”.
The assault against working-class self-determination and “revolutionary potential” began to take root and in total an estimated 10,000 jobs vanished due to rationalisation, relocation, and closures over a 10-year period from 1964 to 1974 in the Saltley area. A story most likely shared across working-class neighbourhoods throughout the country and the world.
Visit inner city Birmingham today and you will come across one of the most segregated parts of the country. Yes, Saltley is poor, working class and predominantly Pakistani, but Sparkbrook is also poor, working class and predominantly Somali. Aston is poor, working class and predominantly Afro-Caribbean. Shard End is poor, working class and predominantly white (it should be noted that Shard End is also often considered the only ‘no-go’ area for immigrants as evidenced by its general support for the 2016 Brexit referendum). All these areas are within a three-mile radius and know very little about the others' lives apart from through media representations. Indeed, local anger in Birmingham often plays out along ethnic lines and has even descended into violence between different ethnic groups as seen in the 2005 Lozells riots. As policy makers took the words of the influential Parekh report as gospel, designing Britain as a “community of communities”, solidarity across neighbourhood lines became even further fragmented. The media further accelerates this trend by deliberately and irresponsibly stoking racial tension. This includes not only those stories like the inspiration for this piece but also the media circus and parade of a Muslim scab force during the recently suspended bin-men strike.
However, all is not lost. Birmingham is a prime example of a city that is desperately lacking in inter-ethnic working-class solidarity rather than lacking in a congruent class interest. I would go as far as to say that the heightened intensity of policing and the increased frequency of dog-whistle ‘news’ stories are indicative of a ruling class that is desperate. A state will not resort to its most brazen mechanisms of pacification unless the more refined and subtle methods are failing.
Around 10-15 years ago, every Saturday evening, car enthusiasts would gather on the non-residential and generally deserted stretch of road outside the Birmingham Freightliner (roughly a two-minute drive from Saltley). Made up of young black, brown and white working-class men and women, they would head down to Landor Street to share, discuss and exchange the creative ways they were modifying their cars. Of course, the police along with the media eventually launched a major crackdown on this. However, it does demonstrate that working-class people have an almost innate drive and desire to mingle freely along class lines in whatever hidden pockets or corners of the city they can find - no matter how divisive the media or government policy will be.