A long post: we make no apologies for that…
Southall and the death of Blair Peach
In April 1979, the events of the general election were overshadowed by fighting between the police and the largely-Asian population of Southall near Heathrow in West London. The background to the events lay with the decision of the far-right National Front to hold an election meeting in Southall.
Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the New Commonwealth. The National Front’s candidate, John Fairhurst, had stood in nearby Hayes and Harlington in the two 1974 elections. He wasn’t standing in Southall in the hope of securing a high vote, but because the NF thought putting up a candidate there would get them publicity. On 23 April, 2875 police officers were deployed (including 94 on horseback) to protect the NF’s right of assembly, 700 protesters were arrested, 345 of whom would be charged, 97 police officers and 64 members of the public were reported to have been injured, and one demonstrator, Blair Peach, was killed.
Three years earlier a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. Prominent local anti-racist activist Balwindar Rana remembers reading about the NF meeting in the Ealing Gazette, ‘The news spread like wildfire. People felt very angry and insulted.’
On 18 April, residents met with the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to ask him to ban the Front’s meeting. Rees declined. Instead, the Metropolitan police was instructed to keep the NF meeting open. On Sunday April 22, the day before the planned NF meeting, five thousand people marched to Ealing Town Hall to protest against the Front, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 residents. Local workplaces also agreed to strike in protest against the Front, including Ford Langley, SunBlest bakery, Walls pie factory and Quaker Oats.
Monday April 23 was St. George’s Day. Local shops, factories and transport closed at 1pm, as the demonstrators had requested and several local factories with mixed or majority white workforces voted to strike. Anti-fascist demonstrators aimed to hold a sit-down protest on the roads around the town hall and there were rumours that the police aimed to get round it by smuggling National Front members into the building long before their 7.30 meeting, even before the sit-down began at 5 p.m. According to one young Asian interviewed by the BBC, ‘We had to do something, the young people – we don’t want a situation like the East End where our brothers and sisters are being attacked every day.’
By one or two o’clock, ‘There were young people milling around. A bus went past, with skinheads on, making v-signs. Some of the young Asians started to fight the skinheads, and the police responded by fighting the Asians. Soon they were charging down the streets.’
By 3.30 in the afternoon, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, meaning that it was free of anti-racists. Heavy rain began to fall. Large numbers of people found themselves on the wrong side of police barricades. The tension rose, reaching its peak at around 6pm.
‘The police used horses, they drove vans into the crowd, fast to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with bricks, or whatever they could pick up.’ The whole area was now in chaos. The links between the protesters had broken down: individuals ran into the park to hide from the cops, or took shelter in local homes.
The police decided to close down the ‘Peoples Unite’ building, which anti-racist demonstrators were using as their headquarters. Those inside were given ten minutes to leave. Police officers, formed up along the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the building, bleeding from his head. Clarence Baker, the pacifist manger of reggae band Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma. The building itself was so badly damaged by the police action, it had to be pulled down. Officers with batons smashed medical equipment, a sound system, printing and other items.
At least three protesters suffered fractured skulls. Others were beaten until they lost consciousness. Caroline, then an active member of the Anti-Nazi League in Ealing, spent the night driving between Southall and Heathrow: ‘Many of the Asian kids that the police arrested, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of London. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motorways, nowhere near telephones or anything. These young kids were confused, crying. The police just wanted to humiliate them.’
Perminder Dhillon describes her memories of the day. ‘Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a restaurant where Rock Against Racism and Indian music had been blaring out all evening, drowning out the National Front speakers inside the town hall. Their heads still bleeding, people saw the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, and other “experts” on the black community condemning the people of Southall for their unprovoked attack on the police! As usual, only pictures of injured policemen were shown – nothing of the pregnant women being attacked and the countless other police assaults.’
Blair Peach, a 33-year-old teacher, was somewhere in this crowd on the Broadway. After the bus had passed, the police made concentrated efforts to clear the area, bringing in more officers, including Special Patrol Group officers in vans. Some protesters tried to escape by heading down side streets. Most of these led the demonstrators away from trouble, but Beachcroft Avenue, a narrow residential road, just led onto another road, Orchard Avenue, which returned to the main road near the town hall and the heaviest concentration of police numbers. At about 7.45 Peach and the four friends who’d gone with him to the demonstration decided to leave the Broadway and turned into Beachcroft Avenue, which was not blocked by the police. Peach and Amanda Leon, who had agreed to stick together, were behind the others. Leon told the inquest that she heard police sirens and saw a row of police officers with shields and truncheons. She then saw a police officer hit Peach on the head from behind with a truncheon. She too was hit on the head but by a different officer. The papers released with the Cass Report show that, according to the police, six demonstrators received head injuries on 23 April, three of them (Peach, Leon and an unnamed Asian man) on Beachcroft or Orchard Avenue.
A local resident, Balwant Atwal, told the inquest that at about 7.30-8 p.m. she saw blue vans coming down Beachcroft Avenue: ‘They were coming very fast − as they came round Beachcroft Avenue, they stopped. I saw policemen with shields come out − people started running and the police tried to disperse them. I saw police hitting. I saw a white man standing there … The police were hitting everybody. People started running, some in the alley, some in my house … I saw Peach, I then saw the policeman with the shield attack Peach.’
In her account, which was accepted by Cass, Peach was just turning the corner from Beachcroft to Orchard Avenue when a police officer with a shield in his left hand and a truncheon in his right hit him. She then saw Peach sit down, and a police constable, later identified as James Scottow, go over to him. Peach was leaning against a wall and Scottow, who said he thought Peach was hiding from the police charge, shouted at him to move on. (A police internal investigation found that, given the ‘confusion and general tension’, Scottow had not neglected his duty towards Peach.) Peach was taken into 71 Orchard Avenue by the Atwal family, who let him lie on their sofa and gave him water. An ambulance was called at 8.12 p.m. Peach was admitted to intensive care with a fractured skull, and, despite surgery, died just after midnight.
Anna’s daughter Miriam was attacked on the same road:
‘They were going home. The streets were covered in glass. Then they heard a siren. Someone shouted “run”. They ran into a side alley, then into this garden. They’d already seen what the SPG was up to. Six officers with truncheons got Miriam in a corner and hit her. She’d never known anything like that. When they stopped, they said, “We’ll be back for you later.” She had blood everywhere. One local Asian family took her in, and offered her sugary tea. Later she went to the St. John’s Ambulance. She still gets pains from where they hit her.’
In the aftermath of Southall, the papers swung overwhelmingly behind the police. The Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The headlines included, ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Election Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arrested’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’, and ‘300 ARRESTED AT POLL RIOT’. One edition of the Daily Mail went furthest in deliberately confusing the racists and the anti-racists, proclaiming, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’. The press depicted a mix race group of young anti-racists as violent, aggressive thugs – as much a threat to society as the real criminals of the National Front.
But for the vast majority of Southall residents, and thousands in communities increasingly under attack from the police and racists, the murder of Blair Peach became a symbol of the unjustified use of police violence. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday, in honour of Blair Peach, with Ken Gill speaking, from the TUC. Workers at SunBlest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s widow.
For the next week, protesters were everywhere, flyposting, speaking, organising, discussing the lessons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large numbers, but they did not dare to stop people from organising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enormity of what they had done.
Rock Against Racism brought out a special leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent, ‘Southall is special. There have been police killings before … But on April 23rd the police behaved like never before … The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture … What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?’
For eight weeks, Peach’s body was left unburied, while people paid their respects. Queues formed outside the Dominion Theatre, where his body remained. According to one source, Peach’s death had ‘particular reverence for the predominantly Sikh Punjabi community, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the country, and as an enemy of tyrannous oppressors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in popular bazaar calendar art.’ 10,000 people attended his funeral.
The inquest into Peach’s death was a masterpiece of whitewashing even for the relatively authoritarian approach of the era. The coroner, John Burton, was determined to close off lines of inquiry that would be implicitly critical of the police. He regularly interrupted lawyers acting for Peach’s family, sowing confusion everywhere and acting as if his primary business was to divert attention from the only credible explanation for Peach’s killing: that he had been hit on the head, whether accidentally or deliberately, by a member of the Special Patrol Group, the only police officers on Orchard Avenue at the time. He refused the request of Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury (though this was reversed by the Court of Appeal)
Burton also refused to let the jury or Peach’s family see the Cass Report into the events, which had already been completed. At the same time as seeking a jury, the family sought a judicial review of the coroner’s refusal to disclose all the statements and interview notes that underpinned the Cass Report. This application failed, on the grounds that the statements were the property of the police, and natural justice could not help Peach’s family to obtain them since he was accused of nothing, and justice could only succeed in protecting him from allegations, not in helping to identify how he had died.
Burton also tried to muddy the waters by suggesting that there were two alternate theories of Peach’s death – that a left-wing ‘fanatic’ had struck Peach on the head in order to create a ‘martyr’ (a regular practice of us lefties everywhere, you’ll find); or that he had been killed by the police. Burton failed to mention that this was the central finding of the investigation into Peach’s killing carried out by the police themselves.
No-one else had suggested that anyone else had killed Peach. Ten people had seen police hit him over the head. One distinguished pathologist Professor Mant, commented on the damage done to Blair Peach’s skull, with an instrument that had not pierced his skin. He concluded that the murder weapon was probably not a truncheon, but more likely a cosh, or possibly a police radio.There was also a considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, including a raid in June 1979 on the lockers of the SPG officers who had been at Southall which found a number of offensive weapons, including a leather-covered stick, two knives, a very large truncheon, a crowbar, a metal cosh and a whip. Since the medical evidence seemed to suggest that Peach had been struck by a weapon other than a baton the raid was relevant – it was relied on by Peach’s family in their application for a jury.
There was no rational basis on which to deny that Peach had been killed by a police officer. The only matter which should have been in dispute was whether the killing had been lawful; in other words, whether the officer who killed Peach had had a lawful reason for striking him – namely, self-defence or to restore order. The theory the coroner was pressing on the jury was that the violence of other demonstrators elsewhere in Southall was so outrageous that it justified any degree of retaliatory force. But not a single police witness had suggested that Peach or the people around him had done anything to justify the officers’ charge.
On 27 May the following year, the inquest jury reached a verdict in Peach’s case of death by misadventure. This was a huge blow to Blair’s family and his partner Celia Stubbs. But the jurors had not been given access to all the relevant information. Soon after Peach’s death, Commander John Cass, chief of the Metropolitan Police’s Complaints Investigation Bureau, carried out an internal inquiry into the killing. It was a substantial piece of work: Cass was assisted by thirty police officers, the inquiry took 31,000 hours of police time, and, including interview transcripts, the complete report was 2500 pages long. It found that Peach’s killer was one of six police officers, with one clear principal suspect, and that three of the six should be prosecuted for attempting to frustrate the investigation. Counsel for the police and the coroner both had access to the report but went out of their way to conceal its findings from everyone else involved in the inquest. The Cass Report was suppressed; the coroner dismissed the idea that police had killed Blair before the inquest was over, and fired off racist and right-wing attacks on any witnesses who said they had seen officers hit him. The Home Office also suppressed some of his letters with regard to the inquest on the grounds that if anyone read them, it would bring the office of corner into disrepute.
Two papers, the Sunday Times and the Leveller, published leaks naming the officers that had travelled in the van that held Peach’s killer. They were Police Constables Murray, White, Lake, Freestone, Scottow and Richardson. When the lockers of their unit were searched in June 1979, one officer Greville Bint was discovered to have in his lockers Nazi regalia, bayonets and leather covered sticks. Another constable Raymond White attempted to hide a cosh. No officer was ever prosecuted.
On 13 June 1979, Peach was buried. Ten thousand people joined the procession. Another ten thousand marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the following year. A school was named after him and further memorials have been organised since.
The Cass Report wouldn’t be published until 2010, a year after Ian Tomlinson died, having wandered into the protests against the G20 summit and been struck on the leg and pushed to the ground by a police officer. Tomlinson’s death encouraged Peach’s family to ask again for the Cass Report to be released. Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, agreed to do so. The inquest into Tomlinson’s death resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, which made possible the criminal prosecution for manslaughter of PC Simon Harwood. (He was acquitted.) The finding of death by misadventure in Peach’s case made any prosecution impossible, despite there being a strong argument for a second inquest. The High Court can order one, as it did on the Hillsborough disaster. Of that case Lord Judge, then lord chief justice, held that ‘it seems to us elementary that the emergence of fresh evidence which may reasonably lead to the conclusion that the substantial truth about how an individual met his death was not revealed at the first inquest, will normally make it both desirable and necessary in the interests of justice for a fresh inquest to be ordered.’ This statement is clearly applicable to Peach’s case.
As of December 2009, the Crown Prosecution Service was reviewing the internal report and said it would advise police as to whether further action should be taken. Here the sound of people holding their breath in West London? Me neither.
The reports into the death of Blair Peach were published on the Metropolitan Police website on 27 April 2010. The conclusion was that Blair Peach was killed by a police officer, but that the other police officers in the same unit had refused to cooperate with the inquiry by lying to investigators, making it impossible to identify the actual killer.
The Metropolitan Police report stated that an SPG policeman, identified as Officer E, was “almost certainly” the one whose assault killed Peach. Alan Murray, at the time an inspector in charge of SPG Unit One and now a lecturer in Accounting and Corporate Responsibility at Sheffield University, has admitted that he believes himself to be Officer E, but has denied killing Peach. Murray was described as “young and forceful” by the report, lied to investigators, and refused to participate in identity parades; to this day he wears the beard which it is suspected he originally grew to impede identification in case he were compelled to do so.
Thirty-five years later it might seem that things haven’t changed much. There have been many further deaths: Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a member of the Territorial Support Group, the successor to the SPG. More than 750 people died in police custody between 1994 and 2013, but there have been barely a dozen inquest verdicts of unlawful killing and just eight prosecutions, some of multiple officers – none succeeded. The rules about the use of truncheons are looser now than in 1979: then they were to be used only in ‘extreme’ cases, and were not to be aimed at the head; now the Association of Chief Police Officers says batons may be used to ‘protect officers, demonstrate that force is about to be/may be used, [or] facilitate dispersal and/or arrest … The level of force should be reasonable and proportionate’ (although some forces have published local guidance which is more prescriptive). Alfie Meadows was hit on the head with a truncheon in 2010 during demonstrations against student tuition fees and had to have emergency surgery. Police bloggers claimed, as the coroner had in Peach’s case, that Meadows had been hurt by another protester, not a police officer. Meadows was charged with public order offences and, following a first trial which ended in a hung jury and a second trial which was aborted after repeated delays, was acquitted at a third trial two and half years after the original incident.
Some of this post is stolen from an article by David Renton
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online