Today in London anti-fascist history 1978: Blockade against National Front march on Brick Lane.

BRICK LANE, a long East End street which runs from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green, was one of the earliest parts of the East End to be built up. Being just outside the walls of the old city or London, many who came to live here over the centuries were migrants, from other parts of Britain and Ireland, and later from further afield. Successive waves of migrants built communities here – from the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, through French protestants expelled from France, Jews fleeing persecution and murderous pogroms in Russian ruled eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

All of these communities faced distrust, discrimination and violence as the grew and out down roots… And when Asians began to congregate in the Brick Lane are in the 196s and 70s, things were no different… Bengali migration into the area began on a large scale in the 1950s. The men came first, arriving in the fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance as those before them, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

As Asians arrived in Brick Lane after the Second World War, the majority of the old Jewish community had moved out – though often continuing to run ragtrade businesses there. There was no dramatic increase in immigration from Pakistan (or later Bangladesh) until the mid-60s; though Brick Lane was already being described as an Asian ghetto. The highest ratios of Asian-born people were around parts of Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane); Princelet Street, which is still the most densely populated; and Old Montague Street.

In 1963 the Graces’ Alley Compulsory Purchase Order had initiated the gradual demolition of the old seameds and brothel district in Cable Street, a mile south of Brick Lane. For more than 20 years it had been a centre for seamen from north, east and west Africa, and then for immigrants from India and Pakistan. Much of the Cable Street community moved northwards – to Brick Lane.

Politics in the Indian sub-continent also played an important part. With the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1974 and its subsequent crises, Brick Lane became the centre of a new community.

From the 1960s, racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

In early 1970: “Paki-bashing” was first recorded, on when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26, 1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

Brick Lane had a long history of anti-immigrant, fascist and far right groups organising. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green, and in the 1940s, Mosley’s Union Movement used to meet in Kerbela St, off Cheshire Street.

The Cheshire Street/Brick Lane corner was later a meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed E London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This group later merged into original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was one of the three groups that merged in 1967 to become the national Front, which was to exploit racism and anti-migrant feeling like no group before it, and rise in strength and influence in the 1970s. The NF originated in hardline nazi groups, but adopted a veneer or patriotism and British iconography; amidst widespread migration from both Asia and the West Indies, increased racism across the UK provided a fertile recruiting ground for such filth. Through the 1970s the Front achieved wider influence, and won large numbers of votes in local elections. NF marches, meetings and actions were opposed in strength, leading to mass confrontations like the Lewisham 1977 events…

The smaller, more explicitly neo-nazi British Movement was also active in the East End, especially Bethnal Green and Hoxton.

The National Front and the British Movement both organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims, as well as exploiting the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change among mainly working class populations,  and encouraging blame for poverty and lack of opportunity in ‘foreigners’. They undoubtedly took advantage of a vacuum left by the collapse of once powerful local socialist movements, the cynicism bred of the lack of principle of local politicians…

It was during 1976 also that the increase in National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased. attempts of the National Front to gain a base in East London, and provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (1978) had HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

But as old as the tradition of racism and fascism, was the pattern of migrant communities getting together to fight back, and organising for themselves when the authorities ignored or abandoned them. In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets.: Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to the government.

Police in the area responded to complaints about racist attacks with apathy or blatant collusion with racists. Cops tended to arrest anyone defending themselves against racist attack, or anyone opposing racists, and would escort racists around on demos etc. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months after being painted on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station. The organisation of self-defence groups among the Bengali community around brick Lane did had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

1977, though, saw more attacks, carried out by gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates.

In 1978, events stepped up further: began with murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London. 7000 marched in protest from Whitechapel to Downing Street.

On June 11th, a day which followed considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”, 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars. A week later, June 18, an anti-racist march was held, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups had been actively involved in occupying the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur. The first mass blockade of this site took place on July 16th 1978.

On September 24, 1978, while 100,000 people took part in an Anti-Nazi league-organised Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton carnival, miles away from Brick Lane.

The Anti-Nazi League, formed by the Socialist Workers party and others, had certainly helped build a cultural anti-racism which contributed to a nexus in opposition to NF violence… But it was seen by some militant anti-fascsists as posturing and bottling the direct  physical confrontations needed to beat the NF and other rightists off the street. Organising a carnival the other side of London while the NF threatened to march in the Brick Lane area did not help this perception.

The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, while it did not explicitly attack the ANL, insisted that the defence of Brick Lane was the “top priority”. In their bulletin, issued before the demonstration, the Committee noted:

‘Far fewer racist attacks have taken place in Brick Lane over the last few months which the local people attribute not to the increased police pressure but to the active defence which is being carried out by black people and anti-racists.”

Other groups were less kind to the ANL. One group accused them of “an organised betrayal of the fight against fascism”. It was a confusing but critical day. An ANL spokesman commented that “the NFs feeble attempt to disrupt the carnival and invade Brick Lane was completely defeated”. On the other hand, the purpose of the NF march was to announce the establishment of their new national headquarters in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane. The headquarters was later to become the subject of a government inquiry after Hackney Council had refused planning permission.

The National Front and other hard-right ‘fringe parties’ lost much of the support they had built up in the 1970, after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979, going on to nicked their racist thunder and institutionalise racism and anti-migrant sentiment on state action. Around Brick lane and other parts of he East End, a lot of work done over 10 years to prevent both racist attacks and defuse self-organised self-defence, had physically frustrated street-based fascism, but it was never completely driven off. Through the 1980s the remnant of the NF and its offshoot, a revived British National Party, were constantly being faced down by anti-fascists; in the early 1990s, a renewed struggle saw stand-offs and pitched battles with BNL papersellers in Brick Lane, usually with Anti-Fascist Action and other grassroots anti-racist groups at it heart. The tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence also continued, in the form of groups like Youth Connection,  the Tower Hamlets 9 Defence Committee and more…

But if local racial aggro calmed down, nazi propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane; in April 1999, 7 people were slightly hurt in a bombing by nazi nutter David Copeland, who had already planted a bomb in Brixton and would kill 3 people with a third bomb in a gay pub in Soho a week later.

Brick Lane is a very different place these days – the Bengali community remains, less threatened by racist violence. Gentrification and the hipsterisation of Spitalfields and neighbouring areas has altered the rundown and working class nature of the Lane; many residents, white and Bengali, may yet end up being replaced by white trendies, as the shops and cafes have increasingly been…

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An entry in the
2016 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1963: Oswald Mosley’s Victoria HQ captured by 62 Group supporters.

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his much vaunted comeback but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

Most of their activities were centred in London, and it was here that saw the most effective anti-fascist. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group).

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

In 1962, 62 Group member and supporters had already infiltrated Oswald Mosley’s organisation, and had inside knowledge of its membership and plans for action. In May, a decision was taken to invade the fascist HQ, to disrupt and demoralise Mosley’s set-up. The raid took place on May 12th, 1962.

Gerry Gable, later editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, takes up the story:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy. I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multiracial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out. A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation, although it fought alongside the left and one of its greatest allies was the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in “special operations”. When Mosley announced a march starting from the forecourt of Charing Cross station, it was decided to head him off by seizing his HQ in Victoria. The plan was to gain entry to the building by means of two attack groups. The first consisted of a couple of our toughest infiltrators in the Union Movement. They were blonde, blue eyed and had documentation and party badges that got them inside. Then, while one of them engaged the security guards, the other opened the front door and let in another six or seven tough guys, who locked the door behind them. The timing was perfect and we knew the back door had a rotten frame. I was leading the second group with Tony Hall [Trade unionist, anti-racist and radical cartoonist] and an ex-boxer called Billy Collins. One kick with my work boots and the door caved in, and our section of about seven people rushed through. Bad luck: Mosley was not present. But most of his senior officers were, such as Bob Rowe, a big lump of an ex-copper from Yorkshire, and Keith Gibson, a vicious animal, plus half a dozen or more of their security squad. The idea was not to steal anything, as via our infiltrators we already had copies of their membership files and other important documents: the task was to destroy everything that made their HQ work. It was very bloody. Rowe, who had a reputation as a hard man, leapt down the stairs feet first into one of our guys, but two more overwhelmed him. One of our guys went down to the basement where they kept their banners and drums and destroyed the lot. Then Gibson picked up a long sharp sliver of broken glass and came at Billy, thrusting it towards him. Billy had been a great young contender for a future championship, but during the Suez Crisis had been shot in the gut by a trigger-happy British soldier and his boxing days were over. He saw red – he had a Jewish wife and child – and he just disregarded the broken glass and battered Gibson, screaming: “you would kill my family”. Before three of us pulled Billy off, Gibson had suffered a broken nose and cheek bone, several broken ribs and very sore testicles. After the battle, we tied the fascists up and dumped them in a small room near the back door. Then one of our guys got overenthusiastic and threw a typewriter through the front window into a street crowded with people. Some of our men went out the way they had come in, into the main road, and the rest headed for the back door. One had a fire extinguisher of the type that London buses used to carry, and as Rowe tried to stop our team escaping, it was triggered and the door was shut on them. At the back of the building was a long narrow mews. I ran one way with about three people and Tony Hall and Billy ran the other way. When they spotted a police car passing the top of the road, they started pushing on doors. After a couple of attempts, one opened and Tony and Billy walked in to be greeted by a vicar who asked them whether they were the musical entertainment for their garden party. Tony sat himself down at the piano with Billy turning his music and played for the guests for the next four hours. The police looked in, saw the vicar and heard the music, and left. A handful of our team were caught on the street and were sent to stand trial at the Old Bailey. The trial took place in July 1963 at the same time as that of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath in the Profumo Affair, who was charged with living off immoral earnings. As our lads were being led to the court they encountered Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, there to give evidence in the Ward trial. The women asked the lads what they were up for, and when they heard it was for attacking Mosley’s HQ, they each received a kiss and wishes of good luck. Thousands of pounds had been raised for their defence and it was clear that the judge was no Mosley admirer. One of the police officers told the court he had entered the building and found Gibson and the other Mosleyites coughing and spluttering, with one of them saying “we have been gassed”. The judge asked the officer what he had said in response. Referring to his notebook, he replied: “I said it was just like Auschwitz”. Although they were found guilty, nobody was jailed. The big lad who had got the front door opened received a very small fine after the court heard that both his parents had been murdered in Budapest by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murder squads towards the end of the war.”

A fascist march planned for later on in the day of the seizure if the headquarters had to be abandoned.

There’s a couple of press reports on the trial of those anti-fascist raiders who were caught here and here

And there’s much more on the 62 Group here.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London anti-fascist history: nazis attack anti-apartheid rally, Trafalgar Square, 1960.

During the early 1950s anti-fascism ceased to be the major activity for the left as it had been throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Mainly this was because the fascists were so small that it was not worth fighting them, but also the left was prioritising other struggles.

It was now engaged in supporting the huge anti-imperialist movements in Africa and Asia, their activities led by the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF). Newer groups from different political traditions, such as the Socialist Labour League and anarchists, were beginning to emerge too and by the end of the 1950s they were gaining some influence.

However the traditional left was still the dominant force leading the anti-imperialist movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, though support for colonial freedom attracted people outside the left as well and had support from liberals and even some conservatives. They supported the great freedom struggles of the peoples of such places as the Congo, Ghana and Kenya. Led by Fenner Brockway, a veteran Labour MP, one of the main campaigns of the MCF was against the new system of apartheid that had been introduced in South Africa.

Extreme rightwing groups had begun to gather support in Britain in the late 1950s, after a decade of relative obscurity, targeting communities of migrants from the West Indies and elsewhere, (as well as still ranting on about Jews running the world secretly and all the old shite). Tapping into the widespread racism and pro-imperial delusions of many working class brits, (though always dominated by upper class and middle class swivel-eyed loons) and chiming even with some trade unionists who identified foreigners as the cause of wage reductions instead of the bosses… tensions in areas like Notting Hill had burst into vicious white riots against caribbean migrants (and resulted in community self-defence): fascist groups had all moved in to whip up agro, and were recruiting from among some of the white teddyboy gangs then prevalent on London’s streets.

The fascists supported imperialism of both the British and the foreign varieties, as well as having link with South African rightists, and held provocations and counter-demonstrations against the left’s activities. In 1960 Mosley’s Union Movement, joined by the newly formed British National Party (which later helped for the National Front in 1967), turned up at a rally in Trafalgar Square protesting against the Sharpsville Massacre. Stewards from the MCF and the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement saw off the fascists.

“Nine people were arrested and several policemen injured yesterday during the ugliest political clashes seen in London since the war. They began when Mosleyites tried to intervene at a Trafalgar Square demonstration where 10,000 pledged themselves to boycott South African goods as a protest against apartheid. A mile-long running battle, involving thousands of people, surged from Charing Cross, along the Strand, down Whitehall, and into Victoria Street. Union Movement men headed by Sir Oswald Mosley had gathered in the forecourt of Charing Cross station and they and boycott supporters began shouting at each other. Then members of the Young Communist League, who were selling their official journals, moved in to the attack. Within a few moments about 50 people were exchanging blows. I saw a dozen police officers and four men sprawled on the ground. Two other men were knocked down and kicked by the crowd.” (News Chronicle, 29/2/60)

The growth of fascist groups in the late 1950s and early 60s sparked a revival in organised anti-fascism, largely dormant since the 43 Group effectively disbanded after seeing off the Mosleyites in the late 1940s. In 1962, a new 62 Group emerged to challenge fascism physically on the streets…

Check out a PDF of a Searchlight supplement on the 62 Group.

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: resistance to a fascist march in Thamesmead, 1991

The Southeast London ‘suburb’ of Thamesmead was built on land once forming about 1,000 acres of the old Royal Arsenal site that extended over Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes. Thamesmead was born in the 1960s, when the then Greater London Council developed plans for a new town to be built, to relieve London’s housing shortage and create a ‘Town of the 21st Century’. The name Thamesmead was chosen by a Bexley resident in a ‘Name Our New Town’ competition. The first residents moved to Thamesmead in 1968.

Thamesmead was designed around futuristic ideas, and indeed, looked impressive at first from a distance. Efforts were made to solve the social problems that had already started to affect earlier estates. These were believed to be the result of people being uprooted from close-knit working-class communities and sent to estates many miles away, where they knew nobody. The design of the estates meant that people would see their neighbours more rarely than they would have done in the terraced housing that had been typical in working-class areas. The solution proposed was that once the initial residents had moved in, their families would be given priority for new housing when it became available.

Another ‘radical’ idea of the GLC division architect Robert Rigg thought sounded funky was drawn from housing complexes in Sweden, where it was believed that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and other crime, mainly among the young. Rigg designed various water features, including a lake and pre-existing canal to impose a calming influence on the residents. Well done, there, worked out well…?!?

The area had been inundated in the North Sea Flood of 1953, so the original design placed living accommodation at first floor level or above, used overhead walkways and left the ground level of buildings as garage space.

The first flats were occupied in 1968, but problems developed rapidly. Early on flats suffered from rain penetration problems. Walkways stretched between its blocks of housing and later between sections in North Thamesmead. But the walkways quickly became littered and abused, and became considered safe places to walk. Pathways set out for people to walk on were laid with little regard to how people would really move about, so some were ignored in favour of more direct routes over grassed areas.

When the GLC was abolished in 1986, its housing assets and the remaining undeveloped land were vested in a non-profit organisation, Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). TTL was a private company, though its nine executive directors were local residents; they periodically submitted themselves to re-election.

Split between two boroughs, Bexley and Greenwich, Thamesmead became somewhat frozen, under-resourced and bleak: “The Town Centre, clearly marked on sign-posts, is cynically named. Actually it’s just a few acres of Safeway on the very edge of town, a skerry incapable of supporting human life, torn from the nearest flats by a main road, and more than two miles from Thamesmead’s middle. In the late Eighties a gabled clock tower was added so that, from the river, it looks like an old market town. The clock stopped at twenty past two some time ago.”

The most significant design failure was the almost complete lack of shopping facilities and banks: only a few “corner shops” were initially built at Tavy Bridge. From the start Thamesmead was cut off from Abbey Wood, the nearest town with shopping facilities, by a railway line; however a four lane road bridge was built over the railway in the early 1970s. The area was then cut in two by the A2016, a new four lane dual carriageway by-pass of the Woolwich to Erith section of the A206 (although this road only got as far as the industrial part of lower Belvedere: the extension to Erith was opened in 1999). Still, residential building continued, this time on the other side of the A2016, which cut this part of Thamesmead off from rail travel to central London. The planned underground station never arrived.

Over time more facilities developed, with a Morrisons supermarket and retail park near Gallions Reach. Bus services were improved and residents can now easily reach Abbey Wood railway station.

The conditions on the estate bred many problems… some ongoing.

London like other uk cities had a number of similar areas, sometimes out on the edges, often, as with Thamesmead, older white residents or those living in adjacent areas had been white flighters a few years earlier, leaving inner city neighbourhoods for new towns, partly because there were ‘too many foreigners moving in’.

The estate’s population was always overwhelmingly working class, initially mainly white, drawn from older areas across South London, but increasingly afro-caribbean and later African communities. Many of the industries in surrounding areas which had employed Thamesmead residents closed down, went out of business or moved in the 1970s and 80s, and unemployment rocketed. The estate became to some extent a dumping ground where families were rehoused, without resources or much chance of leaving. “Thamesmead was abandoned, half-finished. The people who live there, imprisoned by the ring-roads and the roundabouts with exits that lead nowhere, can’t easily escape. They say they live on Thamesmead, not in it, as if it’s an island, a penal colony.”

The area was riven in the 1990s by racial tension – mainly harassment of black residents by a number of their white neighbours, but complicated by a youth gang culture which to a limited extent crossed ‘race’ lines but also mingled with racists at the other end. Racism among some white Thamesmead inhabitants was supported and aggravated by the influence of organised fascists, centred on, but not limited to, the British National Party, then a small neo-nazi grouping, who then ran an infamous bookshop in nearby Welling, set up in 1987. This shop was linked to the spread of violent nazi ideas, and an upsurge in racist attacks, in large areas of South East London and North Kent, and wider afield; but the organised right was also able to meet and operate from a number of other places, such as the Abbey Mead Social Club, a haunt of BNP and the British National Socialist Movement. BNP ‘faces’ drank in the Horse and Groom Pub in Charlton, attempting to whip up racism among Charlton Athletic fans. In Thamesmead itself, racism centred on the Wildfowler pub, where a number of local racist residents and friends hung out. Black people were effectively barred from the pub. Harassment of black residents, beatings knife attacks, were a regular occurrence around the area.

But the influence of the BNP and other overt fascists was a matter of debate at the time – not only because racism among many white residents was more ingrained, but also because the climate of national policy, media and government approaches had played a significant part in creating both a climate of hostility to minorities, and a sense of abandonment and despair which turned into anger, resentment, and fuelled gang violence as well as the blaming of ‘foreigners’ for taking our jobs and houses blah blah. Failures of state and left responses to these developments generally only compounded the situation.

In early 1991 things came to a head in Thamesmead. On February 21st 15-year old Rolan Adams and his younger brother were walking home to Abbey Wood across the estate from a local youth club, when they were attacked by a gang of young white racists, from a Thamesmead gang calling themselves the NTOs – standing according to them for Nutty Turnouts, though others claimed it really meant ‘Nazi Turn Outs’, (they were also known as the Goldfish Gang, or later just the Firm). Rolan was stabbed in the neck and died.

A few weeks later, on May 11th, Orville Blair was stabbed to death outside his home in Thamesmead; some claimed this was a gang murder, not racist at all, as Orville Blair may have been at some point associated with the NTO. Some of the NTO were interviewed at this time, claiming they were racist and had black members, and were at war with rival gangs, notably the ‘Woolwich Mafia’, a predominantly black but multi-racial gang from neighbouring Woolwich, which had allegedly not only been trespassing on their turf, but also winning allegiance from Thamesmead black kids (very likely out of fear?)

But the second murder ratcheted up an already fierce tension on the estate. Around100 racist attacks were reported in the area in the first few months of 1991. Several black families, including some who had vocally opposed racism or confronted the NTOs, asked to be rehoused off the estate and were moved. The Hawksmore Youth Club, which had attempted to organise anti-racist events, was firebombed – and then helpfully closed down by the council, giving the arsonists a pat on the back.

A campaign had arisen in the area, following the murder of Rolan Adams. A packed public meeting was held (police representatives were angrily ejected from this meeting, as people had little confidence in the figleaf of police protection). A militant and angry demonstration was held on 27th April, which saw some 1000-1500 people march round the estate, and then marched on to the BNP bookshop: “When we reached Welling, the anger erupted, and hundreds brought the march to a halt… The Nazis kept wisely out of sight, and it looked for a moment that we we’d all go home with a brick out of their wall as a memento, but the police and others came to the rescue…”

It was among local black youth that the initial angry response had developed, but increasingly a plethora of organisations got involved, with the stated aim of supporting anti-racism in Thamesmead and opposing both BNP influence and the wider culture of racism. Anti-racism and anti-fascism were growing in support generally, but these diverse movements were riven by many factions and splits; some organisations wanting to rely on police and state solutions (flying in the face of the these institutions ‘ involvement in creating the problems and encouraging racial violence), others fronts for left groups, opportunistic at the very least and inconsistent cynical much of the time; there were others who labelled all white people as the problem, and ignored the anti-racist feelings or actions of any white working class people in Thamesmead and elsewhere, which did tend to add to the widespread alienation and increasing division. Meetings tended to end up as dogmatic rows between different factions, and campaigns quickly could become paralysed by this. Actions proposed by some would always be denounced by others, sometimes on sectarian grounds, sometimes simply to be seen to be saying something; though there were genuine political differences and some useful critiques, but amidst all this, much energy that should have been directed at defeating fascists and opposing racism was spent in backbiting. Anyone who spent time involved in opposing fascists around this era is likely to recognise these dynamics.

In Thamesmead specifically at this point the angry campaign meetings organised initially by local black youth had become a debating ground for various groups, including The Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks (Gacara for short  – a local group monitoring and campaigning around racist attacks borough-wide), trotskyite left group the Socialist Workers Party, Anti Fascist Action, (an alliance of socialists and anarchists who advocated physical  resistance to fascism – beating them off the streets – well as politically winning white working people away from racist ideas), as well as the National Black Caucus, a black political grouping. Arguments had begun to prevent action. Anti Fascist Action noted: “One local pub in particular, the Wildfowler, was identified as a meeting place for the racists and the fascists who inspire them. Immediately after [the first campaign meeting on the estate] a posse went down to the pub to let the landlord know the score and to challenge what was described in the meeting as an unofficial colour bar. It was a successful first step in a campaign aimed to either get the fascists out of the pub or to close it down… the pub should be a facility for everyone in Thamesmead, or it should be a facility for no-one…
However, before any of this could happen, some of the people from the meeting, including some of the people from the Socialist Workers Party who had made rousing speeches about fighting racism ‘by any means necessary’ set themselves the task of talking everyone out of the idea of going to the pub at all… They lost the argument… It showed that they could be very good in meetings but not so handy when it comes to putting words into action… some of these characters will even go to the lengths of actively dissuading others from taking action…”

The pub drink also illustrated which side the police were keen to take: “despite the fact that there was no question of violence or disruption – it was a peaceful drink, the first time in a long while that blacks could have a peaceful drink in the pub – the police very soon appeared and emptied the pub of anti-racists. Then, out on the street, they set out to provoke incidents with the local youth – they were itching to wade in and make arrests.” All too often the cops were happy to let racists carry on as you were but batter and nick anyone who attempted to resist this, whether ‘violently’ defending themselves against racist attack or peacefully occupying a pub.

Others involved in the campaign at the time grew aggravated at the diversion of anger into tokenism: “The campaign meeting in the week after the march brought out many of the problems. The Socialist Workers Party’s only contributions were to propose an anti-racist concert in June and a pocket of the Tory-controlled Bexley Council… They tried to rubbish any talk of self-defence as terrorism.” However, Anti- Fascist Action’s stance also took some flak: “AFA talked about defence purely adventurist and elitist (‘we will protect you’ terms – which leaves the local community dependent on their mobilisations…” This critique, from a small, black-led trotsykist splinter called the RIL, does caricature AFA’s position, but had an element of truth, in that AFA tended to concentrate on physical intervention in specific arenas, but this didn’t always help with building a longer term more grounded resistance. Which all would admit is more complex than shouting slogans and running away. However, AFA criticised most of the other groups as posturing without any sense of how to draw white working people, the fodder for BNP propaganda, away from racist ideas. Which was always true and has remained so – catastrophically so in some parts of Britain. Gacara were braod based, but had links to the labour Council in Greenwich, who many though bore some responsibility for the shite conditions on the estate which fuelled much of the violence there. Almost everyone involved in the Thamesmead campaign noted that the people mostly ignored were the local black youth who had started the fightback, who (as elsewhere) found themselves marginalised by the squabbling lefties. In response some set up the Thamesmead Youth Organisation, which gathered some of the most active local youth and tried to combat racism while demanding that the local councils improve facilities…

While some in the NTO Thamesmead gang denied that they were inspired by the BNP, the BNP did want to get involved… The growth of the BNP from nazi fringe loons to the bigger racist populist organisation they would become was only really just beginning then; and they were still less concerned with public relations and concentrated on legitimising racist violence and playing on fear to build up hatred. They saw the two deaths and the wider attacks as evidence for their campaign that ‘multi-culturalism doesn’t work’ – black and white people couldn’t live together. Their nasty rhetoric may or may not have always directly inspired racist attacks, and they were not directly involved in all cases of racial violence (though they were in some), since racism was widespread throughout local white working class populations, and violent expressions of it didn’t necessarily need the BNP’s hand… But the BNP seized joyfully on the situation, beginning to spread their nazi propaganda around, and announcing a ‘Rights for Whites’ march through Thamesmead for May 25th, claiming they had been ‘asked by white residents’ to defend them against ‘black muggers’. The ‘Rights for Whites’ theme was a big BNP push, as their propaganda made a big thing that ‘white British people’ were being oppressed in their own country and had no rights while ‘blacks, gyppos, pakis and other darkies’ were getting special treatment in terms of housing, jobs, human rights etc. This was blatant nonsense, since white racism still allowed discrimination on all levels of society, and official equalities policies masked hatred of minorities in the police, local government, national policy. However it had an appeal to a disgruntled strata of working class whites, wondering where the jobs had gone and left adrift by social change – as well as to the empire-nostalging and eugenically-inclined, of various classes…

The BNP Demo on May 25th was opposed by a strong contingent of anti-racists and anti-fascists. Even top cops in the Met pointed out that allowing the march to go ahead was deliberate provocation; this didn’t prevent them from using a fair bit of trunch on the day to protect 150 or so BNP members (around its realistic away crowd then) from a much larger angry crowd of anti-racists. A number of fascists who turned up late were caught and battered by anti-fascists. But despite a decision taken in the campaign meetings to physically attempt to confront the BNP march, on the day the main campaign organisers (by now backed by the SWP and National Black Caucus) backed off from this and led people in the opposite direction, just as the BNP march was entering the area, and ignored protests that this was against what had been decided.

“This decision was not supported by all present – on addition to AFA and a substantial number of local youth, Searchlight supporters and even some individual members of the SWP refuse to go along with the last minute about face.”

Thamesmead being designed like it was, there are a hundred back ways, alleys, bridges, paths, which could have been used to bypass the police and confront the fash; in the end only part of the crowd attempted to do so. Bar a bit of running after stray Nazis and some provocative kids, the day came to a frustrating end.

Anti Fascist Action’s position was that this was a wasted opportunity and had strengthened the hand of the BNP: “The issue facing anti-fascists in Thamesmead is a clear one: do we want a token campaign which expresses our opposition to the BNP and racism, but does not actually confront the fascists, or do we insist on concrete action against specific targets?” This question had come up before and would come up again. The BNP in South/Southeast London certainly felt stronger, and would try to build on this through the summer of 1991, standing in a council by-election in Camberwell in July, and stepping up a regular presence in Bermondsey.

Their bookshop/HQ in Welling would remain, despite regular demonstrations demanding its removal – the fash were helped by tory Bexley Council, who steadfastly opposed racism by, er, refusing to do anything at all about the shop. Although there were constant arguments among anti-racists and wider about how much racist violence in Southeast London was caused by its presence, or whether the BNP were a symptom of a wider racist culture there, there is little doubt that the flood of fascist propaganda the BNP had put out continued to have an effect, encouraging serious racial attacks. In any case, racist attacks and racist murders increased. 16-year old Asian Rohit Duggal was murdered by a gang of ten white men in July 1992; In July 1992, Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a white youth outside a kebab shop. The killer, Peter Thompson, was found guilty of murder. He was said to have links to a racist gang around Neil Acourt, who carried out a number of attacks on black youths in 1992-3. The attack came a year after the stabbing of another man outside the same shops. Police said there was ‘no evidence of a racial motive’, which was bollocks, but then Neil Acourt’s crim dad had several dirty cops in his pocket, so…

Kevin London, a black teenager, claimed he was confronted in November 1992 by a gang of white youths, including Acourt’s mate Gary Dobson, who was armed with a large knife. The claim came to light only after the killing of Stephen Lawrence. No charges were laid.

In one week in March 1993, two men were stabbed in Eltham High Street, with witnesses describing members of the Acourt gang. The following week, a white man, Stacey Benefield, was stabbed in the chest. He identified David Norris as the attacker and Neil Acourt as being with him. Norris was the only man tried. He was acquitted.

Acourt and Dobson would of course become notorious, as in April 1993, they together with several other white men, murdered Stephen Lawrence in Eltham. This killing did focus a national spotlight on southeast London and would lead to the Lawrence Inquiry and far-reaching public relations changes to how the police allow themselves to appear.

The campaign against the BNP bookshop would reach a peak with a massive demonstration to Welling in October 1993 which would end in a police ambush and serious fighting, between police and demonstrators. 31 demonstrators were arrested and several jailed. Eventually overwhelming pressure led to Bexley Council being force to set up a planning inquiry and the shop closed down.

The Socialist Workers party, after years of telling AFA and other anti-fascists that Nazis were a tiny irrelevant fringe, shortly after Thamesmead began to change their position, and re-founded the Anti-Nazi League, which they had also been movers in back in the 1970s. The ANL made a big splash, carried lots of lollipop placards, and ran around a lot.

Anti Fascist Action deserves a more considered epitaph, but this isn’t the place. Another time.

Racism and fascism seems to be alive and well.

A postscript

Only one man was convicted of murder for the attack on Rolan and his younger brother Nathan, who escaped with his life. Mark Thornburrow was jailed for a minimum of 10 years. Four others were given community service for violent disorder. Mr Adams said there was unwillingness by police and prosecutors to go after anyone else for the killing.

In 2014 it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had admitted to Rolan’s father Richard that its now disbanded Special Demonstration Squad had spied on him and other members of the family and campaign, as they did on other black justice campaigns.

It’s unknown if any of the information collected on Rolan Adams’ family was harvested by any of the three spycops described by Peter Francis, an undercover cop working for the SDS who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), an anti-racist front for the trotskyite Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) which, along with the Socialist Workers’ Party-run Anti-Nazi League, had largely organised the Welling demonstration in October 1993, there were police spies operating that day – on both sides.

Seven of the ten police spies then (admitted to be) active from the SDS were “sufficiently embedded in the right political groups to supply intelligence in advance of the demonstration.”

As well as Peter Francis (spying on YRE as Pete Black), another SDS police officer was involved at a high-level with the SWP-controlled Anti-Nazi League. Interviewed for Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s book, ‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’, Francis observed the actions of his colleague as the riot developed: “There was a moment when I am a SDS officer going forward with my group, and there’s another SDS officer in the Anti-Nazi League running backwards, calling on the crowds to go with him away, trying to get people to follow him.”

The book also claims, in the same chapter, that an undercover cop was involved with Combat 18, a so-called ‘neo-nazi’ group, later widely regarded as a Special Branch honey trap for unsuspecting right-wing activists, and claims: “A fourth spy was actually inside the BNP bookshop. For some time, he had been a trusted member of the party. He and others were expected to defend their headquarters in the event the crowd broke through the police lines and started attacking the building. ‘He was bricking it,’ Black says. ‘We had to protect the bookshop that day as Condon (the Met’s commissioner) knew that there was an undercover police officer in there.'”

Nice to know Special Branch were on both sides… how much the four respective SDS operatives manipulated the struggle around racism and anti-racism, remains unclear, but SDS spies rarely limited themselves to collecting intelligence. Certainly there was speculation at the time of the march that the Met had desired a violent confrontation to allow them some extra leeway for breaking heads. The October 1993 Welling ‘riot’ was suspected by some of us suspicious types at the time to be set up to play into police hands – though conspiracy theories are always to be avoided if possible, you can’t help wondering now whether the SDS were serving a wider police agenda in having the demo walk into a police riot. SDS head Bob Lambert certainly helped the Met out with info from the undercovers concerned when the Stephen Lawrence enquiry into police and other institutional racism was threatening to make them look very bad indeed. Perhaps all the details will come out in the Undercover Policing Inquiry – though given the current police obstruction tactics preventing anything on the Inquiry front from moving forward at all, probably not.

There is more interesting background to the racist gangs, links to crime families, and corrupt relations with the police, here

The above was written partly from personal recollections, though some bits of ailing memory were refreshed from Wikipedia, Anti Fascist Action’s magazine Fighting Talk, CARF magazine, Gacara Report 1992-3, and Revolutionary Internationalist. On May 25th 1991 your writer was a spotter on a bike riding round the estate to keep tabs on the movements of fash and police and report back to anti-fascists. Other memories and views would be welcomed.

Rolan Adams’s grandmother, Clara Buckley, was also the mother of Orville Blackwood, killed in Broadmoor High Security Hospital in August 1991. A powerful woman who never gave up fighting for justice. 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London anti-fascist history: anti-semitic nazi march opposed, Clapton, 2015

On Saturday 18th April 2015, more than 100 local residents and anti-fascists turned out at short notice to bar the progress of a short march by a tiny but toxic group of hard core Nazis in Clapton, East London, a demo which included former 1970s/80s National Front leader Martin Webster.

The Nazi march was organised by Eddie Stampton, a longtime face of the skinhead far right, since the late 70s at least, (though it has been suggested that he also keeps the security services and journalists informed on some of his fash mates… he doesn’t seem very popular even in nazi circles these days…)

Nice Mr Stampton had invited a collection of individuals from an assortment of fascist and racist groups: Britain First, the British National Party, the National Front, the English Defence League and others. But altogether the turnout numbered just 22, carrying banners reading “Rights for Whites” and denouncing “Jewish power”.

They claimed to be marching in protest at the local Jewish community in Stamford Hill being allowed their own “police force” – in fact a private security outfit hired to protect the mainly hassidic community from anti-Semitic attacks, from the friends and associates of Messrs Stampton and Webster, and increasingly from right-wing migrants from Eastern Europe living in nearby areas of North London.

Stampton had wanted his rally in a park in Stamford Hill right in the middle of the local Jewish community but police redirected their march from Clapton station in the opposite direction to a corner beside the Lea Bridge Roundabout.

The walk was only a couple of hundred metres but it was long and slow as energetic and noisy young anti-fascists blocked the way and had to be forced back inch by inch by police while the Nazis were surrounded by scores of police to protect them from angry local residents.

Martin Webster launched a vitriolic attack on Jewish community defence organisations (while standing almost on the spot where, in the 1960s, a synagogue was destroyed by arson perpetrated by members of the Greater Britain Movement – of which Martin Webster and his then colleague John Tyndall, later NF and BNP leader, were members at the time).

A group of six Polish fascists invited by Stampton arrived just as the Nazi meeting was finishing.

Radical Jewish group Jewdas took part in the counter-demonstration. Alongside other activists and local community members, Jewdas claim that they were kept in a police containment area whilst the group were escorted down towards a local mosque at Lea Bridge roundabout; they accused the police of ‘facilitating’ the nazi march. Which is not the first time thats been suggested…

While Webster and his mates have been poncing around on the lunatic fringe for decades, failing to launch a thousand-year reich, but inspiring racist attacks when they could, the more recent influx of Polish racists has jacked up the fash level in North London a fraction. A few months before this (admittedly piss-poor) march, Polish nazi skins attacked a local music festival in South Tottenham, a couple of miles north of Clapton. About 20 Polish far-right nationalists attacked Jewish members of the audience at Music Day, held in Tottenham’s Markfield Park, rushing the stage, assaulted several members of the crowd and events team, and left one man in hospital with stab wounds. The crowd managed to push the skinheads back into a small corner of the park, before four riot vans turned up to shut down the melee and arrest several people for breaching the peace.

Footage shows festivalgoers and the far right exchanging missiles, including flares. Another video shows a man getting arrested wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Wielka Polska”, meaning “Great Poland”. The attackers were from a group of far-right Polish immigrants known as Zjednoczeni Emigranci Londyn (Emigrants United London), a relatively small but hardcore group”, made up of ultra-nationalist Polish immigrants, who had some 350 members on Facebook, sharing ultra-nationalist iconography, racism and links to videos and stories about Polish football hooliganism. Lovely.

The brief hegemony of the British National party as the largest far-right party in the UK, achieving a near-respectability in electoral terms, was followed by chaos and near-collapse as UKIP nicked the ball and ran off swivel-eyed but less overtly violent, to achieve even greater heights of xenophobia and nationalist bollockery. (Though as usual the Tories act as the parliamentary arm of the racist backwater whenever they feel they can get away with it, so UKIP may now flounder).

As ever the BNP’s stumble was followed by a veritable smorgasbord of loony right splinters. Though the violent activity of many of these groups is supposedly denounced by others including UKIP, truth is there is more of a spectrum, with individuals and groups merging, arguing, moving from one to another, and reinforcing each other. Brexit, Trump, Alt-right developments can only help to reinforce such movements, and while they may be seen as a minor problem compared to more corporate forces, these are encouraging times for nazi fuckwits. Support/get involved in your local anti-fascist group…

https://antifascistnetwork.org/

https://www.facebook.com/londonantifascists/

https://northlondonantifa.wordpress.com/

http://jewdas.org/

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Today in London’s radical history: 150,000 oppose British Union of Fascists rally, Hyde Park, 1934.

In 1934 Oswald Mosley’s small but active British Union of Fascists was increasing its activities. Mosley, an aristocratic ex-Tory MP, then Labour Party minister who had fallen under the spell of Mussolini and Hitler and was determined to rise to a similar power in Britain. He recruited ground-level support from rightwing elements in the middle and working classes, but garnered much financial backing among the aristocracy and capitalist classes. As in Germany and Italy, these elements saw the potential need for fascist organisation to be nurtured, in case it should be required as a bulwark to defend capitalism and class rule against any growing working class movement. Famously newspaper baron Lord Rothermere was an early backer, prompting his Daily Mail to headline with ‘hurrah for the Blackshirts’ (he owned the Daily Mirror at this time too, which also went through a Mosley-adoring phase).

Mosley’s fascism was initially not specifically anti-semitic, but anti-jewish rhetoric grew within the Union after 1933, as nazi sympathisers increased their influence with it. White working class anti-migrant support for the BUF was notable in parts of East London But Mosley’s would-be beer-hall putschists found themselves opposed wherever they reared their head. The anti-fascist movement of the time, centred around (though not exclusive to) the Communist Party, became very active and defeated the BUF on a number of occasions.

A British Union rally at Kensington’s ‘Olympia’ in June had been successfully disrupted by anti-fascists, many of who marched from the East End. Despite a heavy police cordon and violent stewarding from fascist goons, so many managed to get into the hall and sabotage the rally that Mosley was unable to make himself heard. However extreme violence from the BUF stewards used against protesters alienated a number of Mosley’s more genteel supporters; the Olympia rally is often quoted as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the crap fuhrer. Rothermere and the Daily Mail hastily backed away from their earlier enthusiasm for a fascist takeover.

Following this, the BUF announced a rally to Hyde Park on 9th September 1934… Anti-fascists determined immediately to “Turn the Fascist Rally into an Anti-Fascist Triumph”. Determined to build on the successful disruption of the Olympia fuhrerfest, the call went out to rally in Hyde Park in opposition to the BUF. On his part, with his supporters increasing their street presence, but also being confronted (and usually routed) wherever they gathered, Mosley threatened to “deal with’ any opposition…

Many trade union organisations and other groups mobilised to bring contingents to oppose the rally. However, the Labour Party and TUC issued a statement calling on workers to stay away from the rally instead of confronting the fash.

In reply the CP pointed to the effects of nazi rule in Germany and suggested that you had to oppose fascism on the street or it would grow to smash all working class organisations (including the Labour and the TUC)…

A well-organised publicity campaign spread the word about the upcoming anti-fascist mobilisation: huge banners announcing the event were hung from scaffolding on the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street, another banner unfurled from the top of the BBC building in Portland Place, showers of leaflets thrown from the roof of Selfridges in Oxford Street and the Post Office in Newgate Street… Live broadcasts by the BBC were interrupted by small groups who grabbed microphones and made short announcements telling people to rally to oppose fascism (before the broadcasts were shut off).

This guerilla publicity and other mobilising brought some 150,000 people out on the day, who marched to Hyde Park. The fascist rally was a fiasco. The BUF marched in at 6pm and out again at 7pm, protected by a vast force of police, their speakers in the park having been drowned out by the crowd of antis.

The violence of the Olympia shindig may have alienated a chunk of the upper class support for Mosley, but the BUF’s support would rise again in the later 1930s. They had to be more decisively beaten at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, and at a number of other rallies. However, it has be to be speculated that some of the need for a strong fascist movement to be kept in the wings was declining. Although the ‘30s saw mass poverty and much working class anger, it was clear that there was little immediate prospect of a revolutionary upsurge in Britain. Also, Mosley had proved himself somewhat inept; scheming would-be backers can put up with a successful Strong Man who uses violence to keep the plebs down, but a Weak Strong Man is just embarrassing.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: nazi rally disrupted by anti-fascists, Trafalgar Square, 1962.

In 1962, faced with a resurgent fascist movement, young Jewish men and women came together to oppose them. Through the 1962 Committee (62 Group), the enemy met their match.

Over time, the fighting and intelligence skills of the 62 Group became legendary and remain an inspiration to anti-fascists and the Jewish community today.

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists, with the immediate postwar threat of a fascist revival gone. Britain’s prewar fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, failed to make his much vaunted comeback and, with little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded into the background. Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation, Union Movement, alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the Jewish 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.

Then in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival. Most of their activities were centred in London and therefore so was the anti-fascist response. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, or 62 Group as it was popularly known.

By the late 1950s the fascists were organising street meetings in earnest again and in 1959 Mosley made a much-publicised return to electoral politics with his Union Movement. In 1960 John Bean’s National Labour Party and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League merged and formed the British National Party. Led by Andrew Fountaine, within two years the BNP was to splinter and produce the National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Jordan and John Tyndall. The League of Empire Loyalists, led by A K Chesterton, also continued to organise.

The fascists played a central role in the “race riots” in the Notting Hill area of west London (Notting Dale), where they had a headquarters, and elsewhere now that they had the new issue of “coloured immigration” to campaign around. In 1958-59 they managed to whip up young people to join them on the streets, and the newspapers reported on how “teddy boys” – gangs of young rockers – attacked West Indian workers.

They painted the walls with the slogan KBW (Keep Britain White). Eventually the inevitable happened and Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter from Antigua, was stabbed to death by fascists. His attackers were never caught.

While many of those who were to join the 62 Group were progressive, and some had been involved in the anti-fascist defence of the black community in west London, what galvanised the specifically Jewish response to the fascists was the attacks on their own community.

Anti-black racism was a new weapon for the fascists but this never detracted from their Jew-baiting.

There had been several fascist meetings in London’s Trafalgar Square during the early 1960s at which anti- Jewish comments were made and this had led veteran 43 Group people and a new generation of anti-fascists to talk of forming a similar organisation again.

The single moment that turned that talk into action was when, on 1 July 1962, the NSM called a rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Britain Awake, Free Britain from Jewish Control”.

As an anti-fascist recalled: “I had been in the 43 Group and had opposed the decision to close down their operations nine years earlier. Each year I saw more and more people turning up to listen to nazi and fascist speakers in Trafalgar Square and marching in torchlight parades in Deptford and Islington. When I heard that a new group openly calling itself the National Socialist Movement was calling a rally in Trafalgar Square and would attack the Jewish community, I started to ring round a few mates. Some had been in the 43 Group, others were just people I worked with or family.

What surprised me most of all on the day was how many Mosleyites were there. But my cousin said it was clear they just wanted to have a pop at the Jews, it didn’t matter which group’s rally it was.

Then it went off. Fights were breaking out all over Trafalgar Square. The papers said there were 5,000 there, of whom about 800 were the enemy. Some Jews had come to make a passive protest and were not up for a fight, but we were. The police shut the NSM meeting down and when we got our hands on the nazis we really laid into them, but it was disorganised.”

The rally ended when police arrested the speakers and a riot broke out. Mosley announced he would be holding his own rally three weeks later. The following month the 1962 Committee was formed.

The 62 Group followed in the footsteps of the militant defenders of the Jewish community who had come before it. With arsons being carried out on synagogues and serious provocations against Britain’s Jews, the community needed a force that could physically defend it. The antisemites soon discovered – often after hitting the pavement – that the stereotype of the weak, cowardly Jew was just another Nazi myth…

Like those who fought at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and the 43 Group in the 1940s, their activities are an inspiration, not only to Jewish people, but to communities that face racist attacks everywhere.

Accounts taken from a history of the 62 Group

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Striking miners & anti-fascists beat off nazi attack on GLC festival, 1984.

On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council (GLC) leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts.

Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To leading nazi-skin activist Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. The Redskins, who were known for their support of the Socialist Workers Party, were for them an ideal target (Shame they didn’t break Billy Bragg’s guitar and mike though, eh; or maybe they thought listening to his set was torture equivalent to a gestapo interrogation… Only kidding? No I’m not, I’ve been kettled with the ****er twice and he started singing both times. Neither time would the cops relent and let us out!).

Several skinheads stormed the stage, injuring one of the guitarists who was taken to hospital accompanied by the compere, Hank Wangford. The NF supporters were chased off by the festival security (Yorkshire miners who were on strike and had been employed as a way of providing support for the miners’ strike fund. Their employment was unusual because the GLC and its unions usually insisted that jobs be done within the GLC), allied with members of the anti-fascist group Red Action.

Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Festival goers grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle, attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten.

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For those too young to have known the GLC, it was an elected body similar to today’s London Assembly, with a set of powers over all of London – mainly strategic – responsible for transport, the fire service, a fair proportion of London’s social housing, waste disposal and so on… as well as taking some part in road maintenance, planning, funding voluntary sector etc. It had replaced the old London County Council.

In 1981 a leftwing Labour Party administration took power, led by Ken Livingstone. Yes, that one, just as gobby and self-promotional. The administration began to spend big on a leftist social democratic program, in vocal opposition to the national Conservative Thatcher government’s diet of austerity, privatisation, savaging of industry and restructuring. The GLC set about cutting bus fares, as well as supporting a plethora of projects, many of which had evolved from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – the feminist movement, black and other ethnic minority groups, gay and lesbian projects… Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from the GLC (and local boroughs). This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly… There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

It was the latter effect that rapidly made the GLC a target of tabloid media frothing –“loony left subsidies for one-legged black lesbian feminists on the rates” (together with a collection of the London boroughs also controlled by the labour left, Lambeth, Hackney, Islington etc.)

Much of the Livingstone GLC administration’s politics was radical posturing, however; when challenged on the legality of some of their policies they backed down; as with the cheap bus fares, and their opposition – abandoned at the last minute – to government ‘rate-capping’, basically vicious cuts to the amount they were allowed to charge as rates (like modern council tax) to raise money to pay for stuff. Partly they backed down because you can’t really have socialism in one city, partly because there were just serious limits to how deep their commitment to real change was. For all the financial support for grassroots projects, the hierarchical nature of the Council remained, with a strong element of the old Labour attitude of doing things for people.

During the 1980s many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives, in the GLC and elsewhere; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. ON the other hand, the money ‘Red’ Ken’s tenure saw handed out was both a boon to lots of ground-level schemes that had a real benefit to people’s lives, and a poisoned chalice.; it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could, and did, lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. It was never gonna last for ever. When the grants were withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects were bought off, their challenge to the local or wider state neutralised in this way. The half-arsed social democratic approach was always two-faced, tinkering round the edges, while cheerfully administering exploitation and sending in the cops to squash dissent from below.

In the end, of course, the Thatcher government abolished the GLC, and other ‘metropolitan’ councils (like the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, etc). The huge splurges on festival may have been fun, but in the end didn’t rally a people’s rebellion against the tories. Although the music may have been funky (mostly – Billy Bragg, Not In My Name!)

In the ‘80s, most anarchists, communists, etc, rightly critiqued the GLC and similar bodies as being mere window dressing, holding back more fundamental social change that we desperately need. Nothing has changed in that reality. However, in the last 30 years, our daily experience has got much worse… Capitalism has been reshaped, in the image of the wetdreams of the wealthy, and our collective project to oppose that, drive things in a different direction, while always alive, is fragmented. Nostalgia for the times the GLC operated in would be easy to fall into, since we’re in a much worse state. (is there an extent to which this feeling in part funded the pathetic Livingstone mayoralty of more recent times: an exposure if one was needed of the bankruptcy of the politics of the man. Now compounded by seeming verbal dementia, if his burblings on the subject of Hitler and Zionism are anything to go by).

To build a movement that can challenge the daily misery and poverty and bring about a way of life genuinely in the interests of us all, we need to avoid the cul-de-sacs of municipal ‘socialism’.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: fascist rally in Ridley Road market, smashed by Jewish 43 Group, 1947

After the second world war, pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from his wartime prison, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in he 1930s. A core of former British Union of Fascist leaders, joined by younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.

But many Jews were far from intimidated. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-servicemen formed the 43 group to respond to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.

Ridley Road, in Dalston, East London, was one of the regular battlegrounds between fascists and 43 Groupers, as it had been between the BUF and their enemies in the ‘30s, and would be again tin the 1960s. A bustling street market, in an area with a large Jewish community, it was to see repeated fascist meetings and anti-fascist response…

On Sunday June 1st, 1947, eight men (one fascist, and seven anti-fascists) were arrested after a large meeting of the fascist British League at Dalston’s Ridley Road ended in a fierce battle. Jewish ‘commandos’ from the anti-fascist 43 Group had targeted the meeting with the aim of shutting it down.

Having receive intelligence that the British League would be holding a rally, the 43 Group decided to take them on. Gerry Flamberg, who took on leading the action, briefed a large group of 43-ers. The fascists had scheduled their meeting for 7.00, and planned to send in a ‘holding party’ to prevent anyone else using the space and ensure their meeting went ahead. But the 43 Group had other plans…

Former sidekick to Oswald Mosley, Jeffrey Hamm, and Raven Thomson, another former BUF leader, were the main fascist attractions. Expecting attention from the 43 Group, they had both asked for heavy police protection, and arranged for over 100 of their own heavies, muscular young Nazis, to attend. The fash planned to distribute their literature, and to also try to enrol members on the spot.

Other fascist meetings were being held on the same evening in other parts of London, so Gerry Flamberg was only able to sign up 24 of the ‘commandoes’ the group used to break up meetings; 30 other members were to form a ‘support party’.

The Group’s Intelligence team handed out maps of the layout of the streets, which everyone memorized to make sure they could get into the Road, in small groups of four or five, and escape afterwards if need be. Cars with drivers and black cabs driven by sympathisers were parked all round the area from 7.30 to pick up group members legging it from the fallout. Two doctors, 43 Group members, were also on standby in Amhurst Road and Stoke Newington Church Street, to treat possible injuries.

Morris Beckman, one of the supporters on the day, met up with the others in his group, and made their way to Ridley Road: “At five minutes to seven [we] turned into Kingsland High Street. We walked towards Ridley Road along a narrow pavement and found ourselves in a throng of people, mainly young men, all walking the same way. Group members were in the procession but we did not acknowledge one another. We walked alongside one group of fascists and in front of others. They eyed us and we eyed them; no one spoke or made a hostile move. Tension was very high; we felt like gladiators moving towards our joust in the arena. The fascist were silent; so were we… ‘Don’t strike a match’, said Sam, ‘We’ll all go up with a bang…

The size of the crowd surprised us. There must have been over 400 people clustered around the platform which stood in a corner about ten yards away from the Woolworth’s wall. The platform flew two large union jacks and the usual fronting board with the legend, ‘The British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women.’ An eloquent young fascist wearing a black shirt, a plain white tie and slacks (the quasi-uniform that had become the Mosleyites’ standard style) was addressing the crowd. It was the task of those early speakers to create a nucleus for passers-by to latch onto and thus build up a large audience for when the main speakers performed.

Police in pairs were perambulating slowly round the perimeter of the crowd. So were many Group members and fascist stewards. Unlike the police, who were killing time, the two antagonists were seeking the best positions for the coming battle… Fascists were accosting passers-by and selling their propaganda, forcefully, and successfully. Others moved through the crowds doing likewise… In the short time since we had positioned ourselves at the edge of the crowd…it’s numbers had grown. About ten ranks of people now stood behind us…

Gerry pushed through to us. ‘Hamm will speak next. He’ll introduce Raven Thomson for the main speech, then Hamm will finish it off. We’ve counted well over thirty fascists already round the platform and there’s loads of them in the crowd.’

‘Cripes’ said Ivor. ‘We’re well outnumbered then.’

‘The locals have turned out to support us. About thirty.’

‘With Big Arthur?’

‘He’s pushed his way onto a wedge. He’s dead set on knocking over the platform.’

‘How can we tell who supports us and who doesn’t when the fighting starts?’

‘Easy,’ Gerry grinned, ‘if they aim at your head with a cosh, you’ll know it’s not one of our supporters… Now listen… About two dozen police are by the van ready to throw a cordon in front of the platform. That will reinforce the stewards… the wedges will go in from two directions. If one gets through, the platform goes and that’s the end of the meeting. If it doesn’t, go for the fascist next to you and don’t hold back. If sufficient fights break out, he police will not have control and they’ll close down the meeting… if you hear a referee’s whistle blow two long blasts, that means scarper, and bloody quick…’

He disappeared… Ivor nudged me, and muttered. ‘Just in front, about six persons to your left, is out target.’ I looked at four very tough young men… ‘I’ve tangled with them before,’ Ivor said…

A van appeared and crept slowly through two police lines up to the back of the platform. The young speaker eyed it and hurried his words… he introduced Jeffrey Hamm and the clambered to the ground. Hamm leapt onto the platform and spoke into a microphone plugged into batteries inside the van… h spoke briefly, eulogizing Raven Thomson… and referred to the Jewish terrorists ‘killing our boys in Palestine’ and reiterated the need to break the hold of the Jews who were running Britain and how Mosley would solve this problem… Hamm clambered down to a cacophony of applause and catcalls. Raven Thomson, a heavily-built man, took his place. He had barely opened his mouth when the heckling started. It came from all directions.

‘Going back to the Isle of Man for your holidays?” [Thomson had been imprisoned in a detention camp on the Isle of Man, and Brixton Prison, during World War 2)

‘They should have hanged you with William Joyce!’

But Thomson was an experienced campaigner… he ploughed on with what he had to say…

The volume of noise rose to a crescendo… About 30 or more fascists shuffled into a tight ring around the platform…

And then the commandoes struck. I glimpsed the wedge on our side drive through the fascist stewards. Fist were flying… The people in front of us were pushing back with alarm, panicking to get away from the fighting around the platform…. Thomson had stopped speaking and was gesticulating downwards with his right arm, fingers outstretched… then he disappeared from sight. The platform with its two union jacks swayed to and fro and up and down, and then it was gone…

We went at our fascists and they fought back hard. It was a savage few minutes. There were punches, boots flying, curses, and Ivor yelling… I found myself trading punches with a stocky youth.. he kept telling at me, ‘Fucking Jewboy bastard’… I landed several blows on his face, and saw blood trickle from his mouth, and he caught my forehead with resounding blows then he was gone…

Scuffles and fights were everywhere… I heard police whistles and dogs barked frenziedly… Press and other photographers scurried about taking pictures of the swirling action…”

The seven 43 Group members – including the leader of the action on the day, Gerry Flamberg – were bound over to keep the peace (as was the one nazi also nicked). This was usually done to try to prevent the activists from taking part in any more similar frays, but most of the 43 Group commandoes ignored this and were involved in many such battles.

This scene was repeated numerous times in Ridley Road, and in other areas of London seen as targets by the post-war fascists. Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them. After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. The core of the nazi movement, though, and the underbelly of racism it fed on and encouraged, would resurface,, over following decades – though new migrant groups would become the object of the fascists’ main venom…

If you enjoyed this:
You Must Read:

The 43 Group: Battling with Mosley’s Blackshirts, by Morris Beckman

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Police kill Blair Peach during anti-fascist demo, Southall, 1979.

A long post: we make no apologies for that…
Never forget.

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

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online