When the circus came to town…

Greater Manchester Police
CIRCUS: Greater Manchester Police working to disperse the protest from Oldham town centre

IT WAS a glorious day in Oldham town centre last Saturday.

The sun was shining and the high street was packed with shoppers and families enjoying an all-too-rare glimpse of some great British summer weather.

Sadly, however, there were also dark clouds in the offing.

During last week we’d become aware of several protests being organised in a number of towns in response to the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

With emotions running high we learned that several groups across our region – including the EDL, the National Front and the North West Infidels – appeared to be looking to use the incident as an opportunity to provoke unrest.

It’s my firm belief that most people in all communities are fair-minded and were appalled by that prospect.

When I say “fair-minded”, I don’t mean that in a political sense at all.

By “fair-minded”, I mean people from across all communities, backgrounds and, indeed, opposite ends of the political spectrum.

By “fair-minded” I mean someone who would never seek to defend acts of terrorism, and who has respect for others and a sense of community.

I mean people who oppose extremists in all shapes or forms.

I think any fair-minded person reacted to the killing of Lee Rigby with utter shock and horror. They would have also been outraged by so-called ‘hate preachers’ on television declaring the lost soldier would ‘burn in hell’.

And equally, any fair-minded person who sees a group using the death of an innocent man as a platform to attack a whole community, would also see that as an insult.

Our sunny Saturday was going well until a small group of people – many from the National Front, some from other groups – turned up to ‘protest’.

They then decided to march, although that is not to suggest it was either organised or uniform, up our high street and into main shopping areas.

If you’re a decent law-abiding member of society who also happens to be Muslim you may well have taken offence to seeing banners demanding ‘No More Mosques’ on Oldham’s streets.

You have every right to feel that way in my view, but I don’t suppose those doing it really cared – it was probably what they actually wanted.

But I’m also pretty certain that most other people in Oldham just want to be left to live in peace – and that they judge people by their individual actions, and not simply the colour of their skin or religion.

I would’ve hoped those protestors might have also paid attention to the grieving family of Lee Rigby who – ahead of last weekend – had issued a statement calling for calm.

They said Lee “had many friends from different walks of life – some with different religious beliefs and cultures. But this made no difference to Lee – he always treated others with the greatest of respect.”

They added: “We would like to emphasise that Lee would not want people to use his name as an excuse to carry out attacks against others.”

“We would not wish any other families to go through this harrowing experience and appeal to everyone to keep calm and show their respect in a peaceful manner.”

Almost everybody in Oldham heeded this advice and stayed calm: refusing to rise to any bait, and continued about their business as normal. Long may that continue.

But some that marched in our high street ignored that plea. That wasn’t just disrespectful, it showed me that some weren’t protesting in grief at all: it was just a convenient new hook to hang their hate on.

There’s also conflict between what some groups say they are fighting for, and their actions.

They claim to be patriotic, for example, yet seem happy to deface the Union Jack with offensive comments and to mount them on the railings of cenotaphs across the country.

It’s painfully ironic that cenotaphs – erected to remember those who died fighting against extremism – should be used as a symbol of division by others, but I also find it offensive.

I also don’t like to see large groups gathering and sometimes even clambering onto cenotaphs as if they’re getting over-excited on a football terrace.

The truth is that community cohesion and race relations, or however you like to define it, isn’t a neat and perfect thing.

In a world where some 214 million people are international migrants who live in a different country from the one in which they were born, there are problems in every society.

Oldham has never claimed to be a shining example or model that others should follow. It wouldn’t be realistic for us to say that: there are issues, and we know it.

We have come some distance since 2001, however, and we don’t need a travelling circus of any guise swooping into town to try and divide us.

The Government says it now sees extremism as something that needs a new approach and I agree with that. I just hope that there is a fair and balanced approach that deals with everyone who trades in hatred, regardless of their race or religion.

Here in Oldham we are showing what real respect is for our war dead.

We’re now into the second year of a renovation programme whereby every war memorial in the Borough will be fit for heroes by 2014 as we reflect on the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

As part of that programme we’re currently renovating the town centre cenotaph at a cost of £130,000, in addition to £100,000 spent across the Borough last year.

Creating cenotaphs of quiet reflection and unity is respectful – and I think that’s a lesson others could learn from.

When pondering Saturday’s events in our town centre I recalled a very simple but poignant inscription on my local cenotaph in Failsworth.

It reads: “They died in many lands so we may live here in peace”.

To our recent unwelcome visitors, I say now – please – leave us alone to live here in peace too.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Social Media: The dangers behind false rumours

Social Media
SOCIAL MEDIA: The immediacy and viral power of Social Media can be a force for good – but it also has potential to cause great harm when it is used to deliberately spread false information and rumours.

THE MURDER of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich has sent shockwaves across all communities in recent days.

The vast majority of people share a sense of horror: not only for an attack on one of our armed forces officers, but also the calculated attack on our way of life.

Having spent my high school days in Middleton, and now living just up the road, I know that the pain and loss felt by that community is stark and something we’re all feeling as we try to come to terms with such a senseless act.

Less than six years ago the so-called 7/7 London bombings on public transport brought home to us how vulnerable we actually are to attacks from extremists. This latest chilling incident will do nothing to reduce those fears or to reassure people that we live in a truly cohesive community,

Soon after news broke of the Woolwich attack other extremists also quickly jumped on the hatred bandwagon. This time it was the EDL and other groups who, perhaps without realising it, were simply adding fuel to an already volatile and heated situation.

We have to accept that in a fair and free society some people will at times abuse that freedom.

All too often we see situations where that fairness is seen as a sign of weakness that those with extremist and hate-filled agendas can exploit to mount an attack – and that can come in many guises.

The killing of an innocent man walking down the streets of Woolwich was, clearly, the worst of the worst. Only his family can truly understand the irreplaceable loss.

But what concerns me more than when any tiny minority uses religion, faith, culture, events and a sense of unfairness or injustice as a reason for hate, is when normal everyday people stand on the sidelines and say nothing – or even worse join in without considering the serious implications of what they are doing.

I saw this first hand on Social Media at the end of last week when some people were spreading total lies about there being “a riot in Oldham” and claiming that Muslims here had taken to our streets to celebrate the killing of drummer Lee Rigby.

None of this was true.

It was bad enough that some spineless individuals were using the cover that Social Media offers to lie and incite others, but what made it worse was how many people allowed themselves to be duped into believing it and, seemingly without thinking about the potential consequences, simply pressed ‘retweet’.

Twitter is only a modern means of communication and arguably those people were no more or less irresponsible than someone who repeats the rumour to the next person they see.

But the immediacy and power of Twitter and Facebook – as shown in the so-called ‘Blackberry’ riots in the UK in 2011 – has the potential to cause great harm to our towns, cities and communities. A whisper on there can acquire a frightening momentum in just minutes, regardless of whether it is true or not, and there’s little in place other than our own self-restraint to stop the potential spread of ‘viral violence’.

Oldham was spared any trouble in 2011, but we did face our own riots back in 2001 and – surely – none of us EVER want to return to those dark days?

We do not want our town being lazily slated in the national press with the end result that investors and jobs are scared off. And be in no doubt, in this economic climate, that our much-needed and long-awaited regeneration could be the ultimate price we all pay if something goes wrong.

I believe there is a responsibility for each and every one of us – regardless of our background or individual sense of belonging – to see beyond race, religion and cultural ties and recognise that we are Oldhamers.

It doesn’t matter if you’re white, Asian, black or anything else for me.

If we live here we all have a responsibility to stand up for what is right for the wider community, not just our own little part of it.

Simplistic talk of “them and us” won’t help – nor will trying to justify one extremist action because of another. Remember, extremists in any guise rely on the majority being indifferent or even passively sympathetic for them to be able to grow the seeds of hate.

I am asking people to please just pause and think before repeating and retweeting something you cannot verify to be true. Please refer to official sources of information first, like ourselves and Greater Manchester Police, before passing something on as ‘the truth’.

To end on a more positive note I wanted to highlight that the last few days have seen some local events and activities that everyone in our Borough can rightly be proud of.

Last weekend in particular was a great time to be here with our world famous Saddleworth and Lees band contests undeterred by the weather on Whit Friday, and Festival Oldham drawing families onto the streets of Oldham Town Centre.

Both events give visitors a very positive impression of our Borough and they bring in people who may never have considered coming here at all.

We are currently compiling a huge list of events running throughout the year in every part of our Borough and are going to be working with partners to actively promote these to a much wider audience. Not only will this be a great boost to the event organisers, but it will also help us to challenge many preconceived ideas about Oldham.

I cannot close this week without passing comment on the accession of Councillor John Hudson to become the new Mayor of Oldham.

The honour, bestowed at our Annual Council meeting, was cheered by many well-wishers and we heard some very entertaining speeches about the role John has played in local politics over several decades.

Two things are guaranteed in the next 12 months from our new Mayor.

Firstly, I believe he will be a good ambassador who will work across party political boundaries to promote all that we are doing to regenerate our Borough and create jobs.

Secondly, John’s trademark quick wit and unique style could see our viewing figures for Full Council meetings increase twofold on the Internet. I just hope we’ve got the IT capacity to cope!

Thanks for listening,

Jim