The Burnley Disturbances 2001: A time to reflect on the dark days of 20 years ago and hope for the future

This week marks 20 years since the lowest and darkest moment in Burnley's history - the 2001 disturbances - but also an opportunity to reflect on how far race relations in the town have progressed in the years since.

On a weekend of shame in June, 2001, the town was thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons as disorder erupted on the streets of Duke Bar.

Cars were petrol bombed, individuals attacked and the Duke of York pub set alight as gangs of white and Asian residents fought each other and police.

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The underlying narrative was one of racial tensions reaching boiling point, which no doubt was an element, but differences between rival drug gangs, as well as huge resentment among both communities over poor housing and employment opportunities also stoked tensions.

The former Duke of York pub which was set alight during the disturbances of 2001

But from dark moments come great opportunities, not least the chance, indeed need, to build new and more trusting relationships between the white and Asian communities in the town.

So emerged the much-respected Building Bridges in Burnley group, as well as significant government investment.

The fabric of Burnley's social and economic life aren't perfect now, two decades later, but they are light years ahead of 2001.

The Burnley Express asked prominent members of the town to reflect on their memories of the disturbances and the work that has been done in the years since.

Former councillor Mozaquir Ali is the trustee and founder member of Building Bridges for Burnley.

He said: "Although it’s been 20 years since the disturbances, the horrific scenes are vividly remembered by many. It was very horrific shocking to see the town I adopted as home turning against itself. Crowds of white English and Asian youths fighting each other, throwing petrol bombs setting properties on fire. Never would I have thought I would see those days.

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“However, I now believe relationships between communities have improved tremendously since and the town is more in harmony with it self. Building Bridges In Burnley with our partners, voluntary and faith organisations have worked tirelessly to improve understanding between communities and few years ago we were voted as the happiest town in the United Kingdom.”

Former Mayor of Burnley and new peer, Wajid Khan, Lord Khan of Burnley, also reflected on the disturbances which took place when he was a young man.

"Today, 20 years on, I recall the events of 2001 as a time of great discomfort for myself. At the time, I was working as a part time taxi driver on Plumbe Street. I recall the taxi base being smashed to pieces as well as other businesses in the vicinity.

"I saw a chilling change of mood between individuals towards other people and communities across the borough. Fear and mistrust was prevalent amongst communities. The underlying issues of neglect, stereotypes, poor civic leadership at the time as well as misconceptions added fuel to a situation which spiralled out of control.

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"Now, 20 years on the town has come a huge distance in rebuilding relationships across the sphere. More importantly our image as a town has vastly improved. We are a Premier League and a university town, which is punching above our weight and reaching new heights.

"Recently as the Mayor of Burnley, whilst presenting Mayor's medals across the borough, I further realised the heroes we have in the town and how people in Burnley and Padiham came together in the crisis of the pandemic.

"Whilst 2001 was a challenging time for Burnley, many individuals and organisations locally have invested considerable time to work on pushing each communities to go further in aspiration and appreciation of the borough.

"Although there are still frailties and challenges, we must appreciate there is no quick fix and it is a generational approach to develop our community trust and maintain our reputation as a progressive and modern town which respects its great overall history but also has an ambition to achieve an even greater potential.

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"For me personally, where as lots of my friends left the town after graduation to pursue opportunities, I was fortunate to work as an academic at UCLan in Preston, resulting I could travel from Burnley and hence stay here with my family. I love the town and so does my family.

"I had the great pleasure of being part of developing the university campus in Burnley and launched academic courses in community leadership, which have only strengthened over time.

"Burnley is the best place in the world to live and I have no intentions of going anywhere!

"It was with immense pride that I added my hometown 'Burnley' in my title when I was introduced as a peer in the House of Lords."

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The chairman of Building Bridges in Burnley, Coun. Afrasiab Anwar, said: "As we mark 20 years since the disturbances it is important to reflect on the role Building Bridges in Burnley and the founding members played in uniting our communities in the years that followed.

"There is a sense of achievement but at the same time we can't dwell too much on the past. As someone who works with young people I recognise that the disturbances don't mean anything to whole generations as they weren't born at the time.

"Those of us that were around need to ensure we too look to the future and take with us the lessons from the past so nothing like that happens again.

"There are still challenges with different labels but the only difference is we now have relationships and friendships which mean we are able to deal with any issues that arise. The borough is unrecognisable to what it was 20 years ago, we are a premier university town with great people and a premier club and we should be proud of how far we have come.

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"The one positive to come out of the pandemic is the way our communities have united and the community, voluntary and faith sector has led from the front."

Relations between the police, whose officers suffered injuries during the disturbances, have also improved in the last two decades, while the force also remains committed to nipping any potential future disorder in the bud, not least through partnership working and close community policing.

Supt Abid Khan, East Division Operations Manager, said: "In the last 20 years significant work has gone into developing a policing model that best reflects the communities we serve to ensure the resources are in the right place to keep people safe and bring those who commit crime to justice.

"We have neighbourhood policing teams embedded in our communities which give us a really good insight into what is happening and allows us to respond early and effectively to concerns.

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"We also have strong partnerships across statutory and voluntary sectors that have been built over a significant period of time meaning we are better able to meet the competing demands of our communities."

Coun. Bea Foster, trustee of Building Bridges in Burnley, said: "It has been 20 years since the disturbances in Burnley shocked the town.

"Building Bridges in Burnley, an interfaith organisation was formed, which has been working tirelessly since in bringing people together through all sorts of activities, such as work in schools, fun days in the parks, feasts in churches and mosques and events promoting dialogue.

"All these events have broken down prejudice and challenged stereotypes leading to the building of strong relationships with people of all backgrounds and cultures where all are valued , respected, and treated with dignity. I believe this work has helped Burnley to become a more tolerant and welcoming town 20 years on after the disturbances.”