Today in London anti-racist history, 1981: the Black People’s Day of Action protests the New Cross Fire

On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson, at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross.

The victims of the New Cross fire were Humphrey Brown, 18, Peter Campbell, 18, Steve Collins, 17, Patrick Cummings, 16, Gerry Francis, 17, Andrew Gooding, 14, Lloyd Richard Hall, 20, Patricia Denise Johnston, 15, Rosalind Henry, 16, Glenton Powell, 15, Paul Ruddock, 22, Yvonne Ruddock, 16, and Owen Thompson, 16.

Twenty seven others were seriously injured.

Anthony Berbeck, caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide following the trauma of the event, in July 1983.

The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade.

“The suspicion was that it was a racial attack. A lot of that was happening in the country at the time, in the East End of London, everywhere. So it seemed perfectly reasonable to believe the place had been fire-bombed. I genuinely believe that, and everybody believed that at the time. A policeman told Mrs Ruddock on the night of the fire that there was a fire-bomb – from his mouth came the words.” 

Over the preceding two decades, elements of the political class and the media had stoked a climate of racism in which horrific levels of brutality, including murder, became routine. The incidence of racist attacks was closely related to government and media-inspired resentment against immigration; of the 64 racist murders between 1970 and 1986, 50 occurred in the five years – 1976 and 1978-81 – when immigration scares ‘reached fever pitch’.

The New Cross fire occurred in the context of racist arson attacks across South London, particularly in New Cross and Deptford. In 1971, three petrol bombs had been thrown into an African-Caribbean party in Sunderland Road in Ladywell. The immediate response of the police was to arrest eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party on their way home from visiting victims in Lewisham hospital. Both the Moonshot youth club in New Cross and the Albany centre in Deptford had been burnt out by fascists in the preceding few years.

After initially suggesting that the New Cross Fire might be a racist attack, the police quite quickly back-pedalled on the racial aspect of the tragedy. Police officers had told Mrs Ruddock twice, within the first couple of hours of the fire, that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer to point to arson was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. Other witnesses reported the suspicious behaviour of a man who pulled up and drove off in White Austin Princess. Four days later, the South East London Mercury reported that the police were trying to trace the driver of the vehicle which was parked outside the house (22 January 1981)

Survivors and witnesses were grilled by the police and treated with suspicion, and hostility, even at the inquest: “I was one of the last people to give evidence, and so I had to watch everyone – you know, all my friends go in and do their bit, and then it was me. And I was scared. But I used the inquest as an opportunity to let everyone know what had happened the night when the police did interview me, ‘cos I felt as if they were asking me the questions and then they were answering them themselves. So I used that as an opportunity to say, Well, okay, this was what was happening. But I think the build-up to it was a lot worse than the actual day was. Bishop Wood was a big help. And he was in there with me, and I suppose I needed someone in there with me, anyway. And he was my support, really, yeah. It was an experience, for my age. It was an experience, and not one I’d like to go through again in a hurry. Yeah, it was terrible. Every morning, you’d pull up at the court and it would be sort of, like, cameramen and all that, every day…. There were times when I did feel, especially when 1 was being interviewed by the police, I felt like, Hold on, I am the victim here, yet I feel as if I’m a suspect.”

Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. Police fed stories to the media about gate-crashers and cannabis at the party, detained black youth for questioning and twisted evidence at every turn to ‘prove’ that the fire was not started by racists. Despite the fact that the New Cross massacre was the worst atrocity suffered by black people in Britain, it took the Day of Action to force MPs to raise it in parliament. Local Labour MP, John Silkin, said not one word in the House of Commons and for three weeks did not send even a message of condolence to the families. As one woman stated at a press conference, if the fire had taken place in a dog’s home and killed 12 dogs, there would have been more response.

“The action committee – which was Darcus Howe then, and Mrs Phoenix – they wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and one to the Queen. And they never get a reply until six weeks after. Six weeks after! That’s when they get the reply. But, I think it was two weeks after the New Cross march, they had one in Ireland and forty-eight died. That was a Sunday, too, ‘cos that happened this Saturday night, some disco, and forty-eight people die. And straight away condolence went from here to there, and we had to wait for six weeks reply. That was bad! Bad, that very bad. Something happen in your country and you write to the authorities and you didn’t get no response from them. And six weeks after the time, that couldn’t look good, and 1 felt very bad about that. That wasn’t good enough, six weeks.”

To the families, friends of the dead, and wider communities they came from, the lives and deaths of black people were considered unimportant; black lives did not matter.

Racist attacks on black people in Britain had been part of black communities’ lives since the 1950s; the activities of fascist groupings like the National Front and the British Movement had been both capitalising on white British racism and encouraging and whipping it up though the 1970s.

An inquiry was launched, led by South London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell This enraged black activists, as Stockwell had been instrumental in reinstating the incitement to riot charges against the Mangrove Nine (including Darcus Howe). Stockwell’s form was not lost on the campaigners. Darcus Howe was convinced that the decision to put Stockwell in charge of the investigation was essentially “a political decision, because he knew some of the characters in the game”. Relations between the police and the local community were already strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency.  There was a rejection of moves by police to bring the black community behind the Community Relations Councils (CRCs) and the Commission for Racial Equality, as this was seen as undermining an independent struggle for justice.

The NCMAC also established a Fact Finding Commission on 20 Jan 1981 to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved.  It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information.  Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements under pressure. The Fact Finding Committee discovered that the police were detaining the young survivors of the fire, in some cases without their parents’ permission, and pressurising them into signing statements saying the fire was the result of a fight at the party. 11-year-old Denise Gooding, whose 14-year old brother Andrew had died in the fire, was questioned in a police station for many hours before finally being released at 1 a.m. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told by officers not to lie, just to tell them there was fighting in the house. NCMAC would eventually expose how child witnesses were made to sign false statements under police duress at the Inquest into the fire, by which point the Met had abandoned the theory of a fight as the cause of the fire altogether. However, as La Rose later pointed out, the movement had been forced to “exercise every ounce of alertness and vigilance to stop the police framing a group of young blacks who were at the party”.

Rumours of a racist attack carried out by far right groups were too easily overlooked by the police.

For many Black Londoners the New Cross Fire was the last straw. The fire was to have a long and traumatic impact on black consciousness in the UK – in the short term it galvanised a sudden and angry movement in response. New Cross was after all, the arena for mass resistance to a National Front march in 1977: locals were less and less prepared to be pushed around by racists or treated like shit by the police.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.  Fuelled by a history of attacks on black people, including several incidents in the Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford areas, suspicions soon arose about police methods of detection and inherent racism.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee coalesced around three members of the Black Parents Movement – Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris, together with Alex Pascall – who formed a delegation and visited Mrs Gee Ruddock, owner of 439 New Cross Road, at the house of black community leader Sybil Phoenix.  Mrs Ruddock had lost both of her children in the fire.

“’I was in a meeting of the Black Parents’ Movement. There was an alliance between the Black Parents’ Movement, Race Today, which I edited, and the Black Youth Movement. That would be at Finsbury Park, around John Larose’ and the New Beacon Bookshop, and we were there on Sunday night and a phone call came, I think it was via Sibyl Phoenix, to tell us that this terrible thing had happened on the Saturday. And the first thing we did was to stop the meeting, adjourned it, and went. And we met Mrs Ruddock and Sibyl Phoenix and they invited all of us down on the Monday to the Moonshot Club, youth club.” (Darcus Howe)

The Pagnell St/Moonshot Youth Club in Pagnell Street, New Cross, was a local community centre established for and by black youth: survivors had gathered here in the early hours of Sunday morning. Sybil Phoenix, who ran the Moonshot, had arrived at the scene of the fire while bodies were still being carried from the building. Phoenix had been asked by the police to try to find people who had been at the party to help identify the badly burned bodies. She was to play a crucial role supporting the bereaved through the devastation of the days and weeks that followed.

On the Sunday after the fire (20th January 1981), a mass meeting was held at the Pagnell Street Community Centre in New Cross, attended by over 1000 people.

“And we thought, or I certainly thought, Well, we’re going to meet a committee of about ten people. When we got there there were three hundred people. John and I were, by and large, two of the major figures in that alliance, so I said, “John, this is trouble. This is it.” But, you see, I wasn’t surprised that much, because the black people were starting to gather.” (Howe)

At the beginning of the meeting, Lewisham Police Commander John Smith arrived uninvited to address those present: his words were drowned out by angry shouts of ‘ Go away murderer! ’. Smith, visibly shaken, by the experience, later called his reception ‘ rather sad ’. Flanked by Scotland Yard Press Officer, Bob Cox, he left the building without speaking. So much anger against the Met was hardly surprising – police had failed to investigate a string of suspected racist attacks in the area properly. The Met’s failures, particularly when dealing with suspected arson, were legion. The Moonshot club itself had burnt down in December 1977 a few weeks after reports of it being identified as a target for attack during a local meeting of the National Front. Nonetheless, the police excluded arson as a possible cause. Similarly, the police’s decision to rule out foul play when The Albany Theatre in Creek Road, Deptford, burnt down in August 1978 caused rage locally.

“And then we decided to have a public meeting. This is Monday, for Saturday, and when we went down there were about three thousand people.”

The second meeting ended with a demonstration to 439 New Cross Road, which blocked the main road (the A2) for several hours.

A series of public meetings were held across London to encourage support.  There were also regional committees set up across the country, in Leicester, Manchester and Rugby, as well as committees in North, West, and South East London.

“And we started to meet every Tuesday. It was a kind of black assembly – hundreds of people came every Tuesday. John Larose was chair. We had a committee which I was on, the officers were officers of Race Today in Brixton, by which time we could organise. We took a political decision to do that, for one simple reason: every single week you would hear clashes between the police and blacks all over London and it was becoming something of importance. There were other issues at large, and I said, “Well, if they’re going to kill so many kids in a fire, we have to mobilise and show them we got some power in this place, and only way to do that is to call a general strike of blacks.” That was at the back of my mind. I discussed it with Race Today people. I said, “Let’s see how it goes ‘cos I think we can pull this one off.” (Darcus Howe)

It was the Black People’s Assembly which decided on holding a Black People’s Day of Action, on a working day, set for Monday 2nd March 1981. The committee planned a campaign of support for a demonstration on that day.

“So we decided to call a day of action, the meeting, and they decided it should be on a weekday, a working day, and I thought, “Well, let’s see how it goes.”

John La Rose, the chair of the NCMAC, recalled in an interview:

‘People would be saying, “Man we have got to do something about this thing. The police cannot get away with this thing!” That kind of talk went on. And they said, “Yes we’ll go on a march.” “Where are the guns?” That kind of talk…And I said, “Have you heard of a man called Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations? If you haven’t read his book then you should read it. Because if you are talking about going to Parliament with guns then you have to take on Kitson.” He had been the Commander in Northern Ireland, he was GOC in Britain. I said, “Let’s talk seriously, you are starting at the end, let’s start at the beginning.”

‘We had that sort of interchange all the time at the meetings, very open, free meetings. So they said, “OK we’ll go on a march.” We said, “Well, what day are we going to march?” Because the normal marches took place on a Sunday, when nobody’s working, everyone’s home, the people said that they wanted it to be on a day when the British are bound to take notice. So what day? We had to disrupt British society; that was absolutely clear. That is what we were saying in that movement. We wanted to snarl up traffic all over London.

‘So we decided it must be a Monday; that came from within the audience. We wanted to make this place realise that we’re serious and we’re going to disrupt the whole of British society. We aren’t going to work that day…

‘What demonstrations in the past usually did was to march on Hyde Park into Whitehall. We said we were going to go where the people are going to know that this is happening, we’re going to march in all those areas – like Peckham – before we come to Blackfriars Bridge. That way you are going to hit that area of London with all those people who are really concerned about what’s happening in the whole New Cross area, and then march through the financial centre, the City, and shake up the place, terrify them.x

The Black People’s Day of Action saw the biggest political mobilisation of black people seen in Britain up to that point. 20,000 black people and their supporters marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park in New Cross, through Peckham, Elephant and Castle, across Blackfriars Bridge, into Fleet Street, Regent Street, then Cavendish Street and finally into Hyde Park, with banners and placards with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover‑Up’, ‘Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come’, ‘New Cross Massacre Cover Up’; ‘Forward to Freedom’, ‘Babylon will fall’; ‘No stopping us now we are on the move’; ‘No Rights, No Obligations’.

Attempts by the police to control and restrict the scope of the march had failed. As the Day of Action drew closer, Darcus Howe entered into tense negotiations with the authorities over the route and date of the march. Howe and John La Rose headed a small delegation which met with Inspector Pollinghorne, who had been placed in charge of policing the march, at Brixton Police Station in late February. The NCMAC proposed route of the march went from New Cross over Blackfriars Bridge, through the City and Fleet Street, past Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament before finishing in Hyde Park some 17 miles later.

The route was symbolic. It had been picked so the protestors could express their disapproval at the distorted press coverage of the fi re, protest at the police’s handling of the investigation and so that the parents of the dead and members of NCMAC could hand in a statement to Parliament voicing concern at the lack of a government response.

Inspector Pollinghorne objected to the length and route of the march and said it should go through the Old Kent Road, a route which the campaign had already rejected. Howe defended the NCMAC’s preferred route, which had been designed to maximise the support and participation of the black community by going via Camberwell and Peckham. Pollinghorne demanded to know how long it would take the protestors to walk the 17 miles. Howe replied: ‘ you’re a military man, Inspector, we plan to advance a mile a day ’. At this, Pollinghorne walked out. The meeting lasted barely 5 minutes.

The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

Darcus Howe recalled that the weather on the morning of Monday 2 March was beautiful; not cold but temperate and bright. He arrived at Fordham Park next to the Moonshot in good time and watched the marchers assemble in awe as wave upon wave came down the hill into the valley to join him in the park. Buses, organised by the NCMAC, kept arriving carrying black people from across the country. Hundreds of school children walked out of their schools to join the demonstration.

“The start of the demonstration was in a valley. You came down a hill in this little valley. And I was there, commander in chief, really, on the day, dealing with the stuff. I was in charge of the big truck, and I was in charge of the mike. So I was settled in. I was there on time, and beautiful weather, not cold, just temperate, bright sun, and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves of black people coming down that hill. It was a Charge of the Light Brigade… And off we went: “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” That was the slogan. “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” So the whole organisation of the march was around the fact that we can’t get an explanation from anybody.” (Darcus Howe)

“In the wake of the New Cross Fire we took a decision very early in the first meeting that it was a massacre politically. We decided that the protest would be Black~led and we decided that we would mobilise the whole country from a central co~ordinating group. I can remember very vividly being part of the debate. It was clear that we didn’t want it to be part of a commission or whatever because those bodies are not political bodies. If we were to wage any struggle, it had to be a political struggle, purely based on the resources of the community. You don’t apply for grants to take political action!” (Trevor Sinclair)

The march had been planned carefully. The stewards, who wore identification berets, were briefed by Howe to show discipline and restraint in the face of police provocation, ‘otherwise the march would collapse into a mass violence and the point would not be made’. With the Collective acting as chief stewards, he knew that if anything went wrong ‘ we would be held responsible ’.

The police had said they wanted the march to start at 11.30 a.m. At 11 a.m., Howe called over to one of the officers and said ‘ Let ’ s go ’ in the hope it would upset any plans they might have to disrupt the march along the route. It was tactical flourishes like this which led Linton Kwesi Johnson to christen Howe with the nickname ‘ General ’. Tactics aside, Howe opines that the police were unprepared in a second sense. From studying James, from his experiences in the Caribbean and America, from travelling the country during the Lindo Campaign, from the Basement Sessions, and his run-ins with the police, Howe was prepared for the Day of Action. The event was unprecedented, but Howe’s years of experience organising campaigns and his theoretical understanding of the dynamics involved in mass protest meant that he was as prepared as anyone for the march. The police, by contrast, had no idea what they were dealing with. “They underestimated us. . . . They thought we were a load of little, stupid, black people.” The police were caught off guard by the scale of the march and the sophistication of the organisation. “There had never seen that size demonstration of black people before. So the police didn’t know culturally what to do”. (Howe).

As the march set off along New Cross Road, Howe could see that many thousands had missed school or work to protest. By the time that the front of the march arrived at the remains of 439 New Cross Road half a mile away and stopped to pay its respects to the 13 young lives lost in the inferno, the tail end of the march had not yet left the Fordham Park.

“… undoubtedly, [it was] black people, in the leadership of the march. In the main, if you look at street demonstrations, even street demonstrations around issues that affect black people, you get a sense that white people were somehow in command of events. They’d organised it. This was black organised, black led and you felt that. So it was very much a black community event. And then the numbers who joined it, that was significant, as you went along. But also in some parts of the march the hostility, directed by people who were undoubtedly racist…” (Darcus Howe)

As the mass of people passed through Southwark towards Blackfriars Bridge, the organisers reckoned that somewhere in the region of 25,000 people may have been on the march. When the chief stewards tallied their numbers together at the end, the final figure they arrived at was a little over 20,000. There was a sense that the police were frightened, that they had never seen anger from the black community on this scale before and that the movement which had mobilised that day ‘shook them to their roots’ .

When the march got to Blackfriars Bridge, it started to rain. A small delegation consisting of John la Rose and the victims ’ families left the head of march to take their protest to Parliament. A group of about 50 young people at the front of the march pressed ahead and overtook the lorry only to find they were confronted by rows of police blocking the entrance to Blackfriars Bridge. The police were determined to stop the demonstration from crossing the bridge. The bridge was symbolic. This was the first protest march since the Chartist Procession of 10 April 1848 to attempt to cross Blackfriars Bridge and the police were determined to block it. As a result, fighting broke out as the youth struggled to break through the police lines and fought to free comrades arrested by the police. “. . . Runners amongst the stewards were despatched to bring forward the truck trapped way back from the pitched battle. Chaos was increased as contradictory directives were issued by the police commanders. As Lewisham police tried to ease a way for the truck to move forward, the City police continued with blocking manoeuvres. The impasse was broken as the truck nosed its way through the seething mass, Rasta flag flying aloft. Strengthened now by the presence of the lorry, the crowd with one last heave laid siege to the police line, and with a resounding cheer, broke through the cordon.”

Among those arrested during the melee by police officers who called him a ‘ cunt ’ and ‘ bastard ’ was the Policy Studies Institute undercover researcher who was writing a police-funded study of young black attitudes towards the police….!

“We come across Blackfriars Bridge. No demonstration had crossed that bridge since the Chartists and, suddenly, the police threw a cordon across the road and say, “You are not going anywhere.” And the driver of that huge wagon, I said, “Drive!” Just leant towards him. “Drive that.” Brrrrm! And the police . . . “What? Are you going to stand before a truck?” I don’t know any police officer that brave. And we crossed the bridge into Fleet Street, running…” (Howe)

Once they had crossed the Thames, the protestors regrouped and continued their demonstration through the City and into Fleet Street. Marching in tight formation past the Red Tops and broadsheets, the protestors offered up the cries of ‘ Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said ’ and ‘ Fleet Street Liars ’. All the participant accounts concur in reporting abuse that the marchers received from the offices in Fleet Street.

“And then as we came up Fleet Street there, the taunting and the abuse that rained down upon us from the Express building in particular, I will never forget that.” (Paul Boateng)

As they passed by The Sun‘s offices ‘ there was a torrent of racial abuse from people working in the building . . . “ Go Back Home you Black Bastards ” , the usual banal kind of things that these people say ’… people leaning out of windows making ‘ monkey noises ’ and throwing banana skins at the crowd.

Against the chants of ‘ Justice, Justice ’ and the jeers of journalists, Fleet Street also saw renewed confrontation between the protestors and the police.

“In Fleet Street the whole mood of policing changed. The police imposed themselves on marchers, pushing, shoving, and kicking people off pavements. Scuffles broke out up and down Fleet Street, and, unlike Peckham, it was the police and not the stewards who stood guard in front of shops.”

In an isolated incident, which the vast majority of protesters were oblivious to, one small group broke off from the demonstration to smash and loot a jeweller’s shop. As police tried to stop them, an officer was injured. Obviously this was the incident that dominated the newspapers the next day. Despite the aggressive police tactics, of the thousands who marched that day, only 25 were nicked and charged with minor offences by the police.


There continued to be clashes and altercations with the police for the remainder of the march. Police rode horses into families with young children at Cumberland Gate in an apparent attempt to break up the march and stop it reaching Hyde Park.

Notwithstanding the provocative methods used to police the march, it did finally reach its destination at Hyde Park 7 hours aft er it had set out from Fordham Park. Thousands of protestors gathered around the lorry to listen to speeches by Howe and others.

From New Cross to Hyde Park, traffic in central London was brought to a standstill. Youth fought to break through police lines at Blackfriars Bridge and the march surged into the heart of the City… ‘city gents cowered in their offices terrified at the sight of the oppressed demanding justice’. The symbols of wealth – a bank and a jeweller’s shop – ‘fell victim to a hail of bricks and stones: journalists who quite rightly are seen as siding with the racist British state got rough justice…when a youth was arrested the march came to an immediate halt shouting “Let him go!” which police were forced to do as the marchers refused to move without their captured comrade.’

The racist response of the millionaire press to the 2 March was predictable. The Sun raved of ‘a frenzied mob’. Headlines screamed ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’.

For many on the black communities, the Day of Action felt like the birth, or rebirth, of a large-scale black people’s movement in the UK; the sense of strength it gave people in the midst of the horror and tragedy of the fire help cement community and political unity of a kind…

If many first generation West Indians who moved to the UK responded to the racism, police attacks, discrimination, they faced by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) As their children grew up, however, a new angrier attitude evolved.

“Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain; to force institutions and society to respect black people and their rights.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.” (Race Today, 1982)

The feeling of a growing widespread resistance to racism, both organised and unofficial, murderous and repressive or simply daily harassment, was amplified five weeks later when Brixton erupted into uprising in response to years of racist policing and in particular Operation Swamp ’81.

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Postscript: Inquests into the Fire

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee closely monitored the Inquest proceedings, which began at County Hall in London on 21 Apr 1981.  Four theories were advanced from the police: 1) a firebomb attack from outside the building; 2) an opportunist arson attack from outside the building; 3) a deliberate fire from inside the building; 4) an accidental fire from inside the building.  However, it was soon clear that racial motives were being ruled out as theories 1 and 2 were abandoned, despite the revelation from forensics that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene.  The speed and force of the fire had also caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house, but this theory was dismissed.  The Coroner, Dr. Arthur Gordon Davies, refused to take any notes of evidence during the hearing, preferring to read from police statements.  The jury returned an open verdict.

Families with the support of the NCMAC appealed for the inquest verdict to be quashed and demanded a new inquest, considering the hearing to have been biased.  The fact that the Coroner refused to take notes during the hearing was ruled illegal under Section 6 of the Coroner’s Act 1887, and the Attorney General authorised the Appeal lodged by the relatives of the dead.  The integrity of the initial investigation was also called into question.  On 10 May 1982, the relatives won leave to Appeal, and an Appeal date was set for 5 July 1982.  However, the inquest jury refused to quash the open verdict. Despite attempts by the courts to avoid a second inquest, the NCMAC and relatives of the victims demanded that a new inquest should take place.

An International Commission of Inquiry was also planned by the NCMAC, although it never took place.  In an unfortunate decision, the Courts decided to hear the Appeal during the same period planned for the International Commission of Inquiry.  The latter had already been postponed from Jan 1982 due to the unavailability of some of the Commissioners chosen.  In Jun 1983, the NCMAC was at last planning to hold its own independent inquiry, but decided to postpone it again after detectives suggested that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. This subsequently turned out to be misleading.

The Committee also established a Fire Fund to support the families involved, to raise money to help families to bury their dead, and to care for the injured.  The fund was chaired by Alex Pascall, member of NCMAC, and broadcaster of the daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme.  Access to broadcasting proved invaluable for interviewing relatives and members of the NCMAC, reporting on the New Cross Massacre Campaign, encouraging public support, and analysing social and political tensions.  A total of £27,000 was raised.

Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was also set up in 1981 by the families of the victims.  Following a request from black community leader Sybil Phoenix, Lewisham council erected a memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997.

Despite repeated requests, the opportunity for a second inquest did not come until 1997, when the police re-opened the investigation.  Calls for a new inquest were twice rejected, until the High Court finally agreed in 2002.  A second Inquest began in Feb 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred.  An open verdict was again returned.

 

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’s racist history, 1973: Black Panther Unity bookshop destroyed by arson attack, Brixton .

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…”_ Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.”_ In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

Brixton, with its large west indian population and a strong street culture that police saw as threatening, was a major target for police operations, which often turned into sieges of the area, mass arrests and beatings.

To this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, in Brixton, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In response, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began to organise resistance to police violence. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, the Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. It only lasted a few short years, but from it emerged the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met I think in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the UCPA.)

The UK Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, Brixton, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

The Panthers set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools and Black Studies groups, and had a library as well as organising anti-racist demos, producing both propaganda and informational material about black struggles around the world. They also ran social and cultural events: Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into groups like the Panthers.

The groups opposed everyday police racism and violence. And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In March 1970 (in fact 48 years ago tomorrow, the 16th) four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by the notorious Sgt. Ridgewell, at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested. Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment. However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House, Kennington, turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Unity Bookshop

In 1973 the Black Panthers squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, and their paper, Freedom News. Farrukh Dhondy, then a leading Panther member, takes up the story [a warning: it’s a shocking tale of a narrow escape from fire.]

“We used to run a newspaper called Freedom News and we had a lot of books for sale which we used to sell outside Brixton from another handcart, and Ridley Market in Dalston. So we had all these sorts of bookshop and we thought we should have a proper bookshop and so we squatted a place called 74 Railton Road on what was then playfully known as the frontline because people used to hang about there all the time and other activities. So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building, but a friend of mine called Keith, Keith Carling, he was an architect, he’d just finished architecture school, so he knew how to build and plaster and stuff. So, he put in toilets and showers and we made it decent. So we had two flats and we had a basement room in which a fellow who I can only remember as Afrika, because he called himself Afrika with a K, and he moved in there and he played the bongo drums most of the night and disturbed everybody, but the bookshop ground floor, me first floor… Keith first floor, me second floor, and on the 15th of March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking, I didn’t have a bed, I had a mattress on the floor, or a couple of mattresses on the floor, and I woke up choking wondering whether I’d left the fire on or what, what was choking me. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick, so I got up and stumbled towards the fire, but of course the fire was off, and then I saw the smoke coming through the shut door of the first floor. I opened that door door and the fire was raging on the staircase and I couldn’t get the door shut because of the draught, it was… it banged then and I went to the window, all this time not breathing now, so a minute/two minutes without breathing, you know what it’s like when you duck under water, and I opened the window and took one deep breath of fresh air or whatever there was. Nobody about and the glass of the front, the glass front of the bookshop was breaking outwards with booming noises, you know, which fire does, I believe, it heats up the glass, and blasts it outward, and I heard all these blasts and then I heard the neighbours shouting, ‘Oh god. Oh god’, you know all this, and I just shouted, you know, ‘Don’t call god, call the fire engine, yes?’ I was only in my underwear, so I didn’t know what to do, whether to grab my clothes, go back into the smoke-filled room, I was just gasping for air. I jumped from the thing, I had to get out because the fire was coming up, so I jumped and I landed in the burning glass, you know, red hot glass and cut my feet and broke my ankles and that, but I struggled up and by that time some neighbours had gone and called the people at Shakespeare Road, which was one of our bases, and Ira [ ]and I think Neil [Kenlock], people came out, they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he got a coat and he put a coat around me and sat me down on the steps and I waited until the fire engines and police and so on came. The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass. I didn’t hear a crash. So, I hung about, they phones friends for me and a couple of mates came. They said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to go to school’, right, where I was teaching, even though I had broken ankles. They took me to the thing and they bandaged it up, there was nothing they could do, that was it, so I sat on the steps until school opened, this was kind of 6.30, 7.00, and I sat there until the headmaster and people turned up and said, ‘Why are you in a coat and underwear?’ ‘Because I’ve got nothing else [laughs], this is a borrowed coat, the underwear is mine,’ and so that it was it. The newspapers said that evening, the morning papers didn’t have it, the Evening Standard, or whatever it was then, the Evening News, had five places had been bombed that night, and this bookshop was one of them, some Asian shops and some black project somewhere and all in the same day… the police never did anything. One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story…”

Police apathy towards the attack was hardly surprising – the frontline was widely despised by the cops, enemy territory they policed only in numbers and violently. The Panthers were vocal opponents of the cops; and police racism was notorious. In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

And bizarrely, even in Brixton, the then growing National Front did attempt to show its ugly face publicly. Several times in the decade, and at least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Southborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewis ham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The arson attack on the Unity Bookshop, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another, was not a unique event. Racist fire-bombings in the 1970s were not even uncommon, often against Black and Asian people in their own homes, but also against black and anti-racist spaces, cultural venues or leftwing centres. Other high-profile targets of arson that was suspected to be fash-inspired at the very least, included the Albany Centre in Deptford, the nearby Moonshot youth Club in New Cross, the Commission for Racial Equality HQ, the SWP’s offices… to name but a few.

The most high profile fire believed to be the result of racist arson was the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 black teenagers died (another died of injuries later), which was ignored and played down by police, who did nothing to investigate. This horrific event sparked the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a huge angry march through London… And the climate of racist policing and blatant refusal to do anything about these kind of attacks contributed to the rage and hatred of the cops that gave birth to the 1981 riots…

But rightwing arson attacks didn’t end in the 70s or 80s… in our own time attempts were made to twice burn the 121 anarchist centre, just down Railton Road from the Black Panthers’ shop, in the early 1990s… (Their friendly neighbour chased off the crap arsonists in 1993)… and in 2013, the anarchist Freedom bookshop in Whitechapel was badly damaged by arson, again, probably by Nazis. The police stirred themselves again on that one… And its not only political targets: in recent years, tens of mosques have been targeted for arson, as have eastern European homes both before and since the Brexit referendum. Whether its active fascists, common or garden racists, little englanders – rightwingers love nothing so much as burning out foreigners and people who won’t put up with their swivel-eyed bollocks.

Postscript: The terrace that the Unity Bookshop was part of has, I think since been at least partly demolished. Many shopfronts were run down and empty at that time, and were regularly squatted for various projects. A couple of doors down from the short-lived Unity shop, a year later, no 78-80 Railton Rd, (in front of the also squatted St George’s Residences), included a squatted Claimants Union office, a women’s space, and the famous South London Gay Community Centre, around 1974-6.

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A brief introduction to the UK Black Panthers in Brixton and the racism and police violence they were resisting, can be read in past tense’s pamphlet ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, which can be bought here

The interview with Farrukh Dhondy (who went from the Panthers, to seminal Black magazine Race Today, to writing and Channel Four), was lifted from the excellent ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, interviews with and photos of the UK Panthers, published by Organised Youth.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London’s anti-semitic history: attacks on Jews follow king Richard I’s coronation, 1189.

Anti-semitism and widespread persecution of Jewish communities is almost as old as Christianity. While the twentieth century witnessed its most horrifying peak, the root of events like the Holocaust go back centuries. Medieval Christian teaching on the Jews, labelling them killers of Christ, fed into xenophobia, scapegoating and distrust of outsiders or communities with differing religious or cultural beliefs. State and church persecution was regular, if inconsistent; officially sponsored massacres, riots and murders were common. At other times attacks on Jews might arise among the lower orders, whipped up by long-entrenched racism and the urge to blame an easy outside target for the shiteness of your own life.

Even when authorities were not behind such attacks, often elements of the ruling elites were involved or turned a blind eye.

Jews were bound by restrictive laws on what trades they were allowed to practice; in many places they were not allowed to own land, so could not become farmers. Jews were also not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, severely limiting what work they could learn or make a living at. Local rulers and church officials closed many professions to the Jews, pushing them into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, tolerated then as a “necessary evil”. Catholic doctrine of the time held that lending money for interest was a sin, and forbidden to Christians. Jews were not subject to this restriction, and while the Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible frowned on usury, some leeway was given for lending to gentiles. Since few other occupations were open to them, Jews were motivated to take up money lending. This was said to show Jews were usurers, and subsequently led to many negative stereotypes and propaganda. Natural tensions between creditors (typically Jews) and debtors (typically Christians) were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Peasants who were forced to pay their taxes to Jews could personify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords on whose behalf the Jews in reality worked. It suited the king and lords to have a buffer, a hated layer that could be blamed to deflect tensions, especially in times of hardship, shielding the aristos from getting turned over by the working people they forced to slave for them.

Of course only a part of Jewish communities became moneylenders, but the stereotype was useful.

It was in the late eleventh century that a recognisable Jewish community began to form in London. King William I (the Bastard/Conqueror, take your pick) encouraged Jews to migrate to London as part of a policy of stimulating commercial and financial development – a policy that proved to be instrumental to the restoration of London’s economic infrastructure following the devastating Norman Conquest of 1066.

The nascent Jewish community mainly migrated from northern France, though a minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain, and one or two even from Russia and the Muslim countries. Migrating Jews brought with them money that they lent to the King at interest. For their services, the Jews of London were given rights proclaimed in the Statutum de judaismo, the ‘Jewish Charter’ issued under king Henry I. The Charter guaranteed the Jewish population of London “liberty of movement through out the country, relief from ordinary tolls, protection from misuse, free recourse to royal justice and responsibility to no other, permission to retain land pledged as security, and special provision to ensure fair trial.”

Succeeding rulers confirmed the rights established under the charter, and England in the main, during the eleventh century, was a relatively safe haven for Jews than many places in the continent where persecution was rife, especially after the beginnings of the crusades. King William Rufus (1087-1100) is even said to have encouraged them to enter into disputations with Christian clerics.

By the mid-12th century, communities were to be found in most of the greater cities of the country; besides London, they were present in Lincoln, Winchester, York, Oxford, Norwich, and Bristol. Smaller communities also existed in Exeter, Wilton, Canterbury, Devizes, Marlborough, Calne, Wallingford, Berkhamsted, Gloucester, Colchester, Sudbury, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bedford, Northampton, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Weobley, Coventry, Huntington, Leicester, Stamford, and King’s Lynn.

However, the London community was always the most important. Until 1177 the only cemetery allowed was in London. No communities were found west of Exeter or north of York.

However, English distrust of the Jewish population was growing. In the late twelfth century riots and massacres began, and the climate of fear and hate worsened, as a result of financial disagreements and scapegoating, and a series of criminal allegations, generally false and founded on jealousy and an irrational fear of the foreign and unknown.

In 1130 the Jews of London were fined the then enormous sum of £2,000 on the charge that one of their number had killed a sick man. Credulous Christian morons believed that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays – so-called ‘blood libel’.

The first recorded blood libel took place at Norwich in 1144 and was imitated at Gloucester in 1168, before the precedent came to be followed outside England. Similar accusations were made before the end of the century at Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192).

But the wealthier Jewish bankers were a vital resource for the kings, lending them large sums to fund their pointless wars. Successive kings also imposed punitive taxes and penalties on Jews to fleece them of cash.
In 1168 a tallage (an arbitrary tax, theoretically levied only in emergency) of 5,000 marks (a mark was two-thirds of a £) was imposed by Henry II. In 1188 a tax of one-fourth of the value of their movable property was levied upon London Jewry. The amount raised, according to the rough contemporary estimate, was £60,000, as against only £70,000 raised from the general population. The annual revenue obtained by the state from the Jews is conjectured to have averaged at this time £3,000.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, London’s Jews were concentrated in what would later be called a ghetto, known as Jewry. The original London Jewry was centred on modern Old Jewry Street, then simply Jewry Street, which ran and still runs north from Cheapside, across Lothbury and to Coleman Street. The first Jewish Great Synagogue, the centre of the community’s religious life, was located in modern Ironmonger Lane, the next street across from Jewry Street. (It has been speculated that Coleman Street’s long later history of religious non-conformism had some relation to its being part of Jewry – was it already known for toleration, or did the later association derive from the previous Jewish population?)

Jewry Street, off Aldgate, was the second tolerated area for Jews to live, possibly in the 13th century when pre-expulsion persecution was at its height (under the bigoted Henry III and the rebellious barons who identified jews with king’s financial abuses.)

Old Jewry, like all of the ghettoes in the history of mankind, formed as a result of social, legal, and economic pressures. The very isolation of the Ghetto made it a safe haven, but also marked out and separated the Jewish community, making it a more obvious target and concentrating resentment

From the late eleventh century, anti-semitism in Europe was whipped up even higher than usual by the Crusades. Huge armies formed to march off and fight the muslims occupying the ‘holy land’ around Jerusalem, encouraged by religious blessings and announcements of concessions and free entry to heaven for sinners and criminals who ‘took the Cross’. Millenarian movements who saw this as the final struggle before Armageddon and Jesus’ second coming spread. Mass hatred of muslims was also shunted into the nearer and more convenient target, the non-Christians close at hand – the Jews. Crusaders and mobs massacred Jews all over Europe. Quite apart from general anti-semitic hatred, there was a growing feeling that the Jews should not be allowed to live in peace when brave Christians were preparing to endanger themselves overseas, besides which a belief had spread that to kill any unbeliever guaranteed admission to heaven for a Christian no matter what their other sins might be.

Although this persecution was noticeably absent in England, the muslim conquest of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 1180s marked a turning point. King Henry II died after vowing to become a crusader. His son, Richard, is now known as Richard the Lionheart (although a more accurate moniker would be ‘Richard the rapacious Tax collector who bankrupted the country to fund crusades and other daft wars and his ransom when he got imprisoned by a rival royal parasite’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.) He planned to go off and fight the ‘infidel’ in Palestine.

As Richard took the throne, the latent hostility to England’s Jews broke into the open:

“A trivial episode at the coronation of the new king proved to be the spark which set the tinder ablaze. The proceedings at Westminster were long and stately, and the solemnity of the occasion was emphasised by a proclamation that no woman, and no Jew, should be admitted. [‘Because of the magic arts which Jews and some women notoriously exercise at royal coronations’ according to Matthew Paris (Historia Anglorum, ii, 9). It may be observed that Jewish custom prescribed a special benediction on seeing monarch, the recital of which might conceivably give rise to a suspicion of this sort.]

Nevertheless, on the afternoon of the coronation day (Sunday, 3 September 1189), while the festivities were at their height, a deputation from the Jewish communities of the kingdom presented itself at the gateway of Westminster Hall, bearing rich gifts – probably in the hope of obtaining a renewal of the charter of privileges granted originally by Henry I. Some of them, eager to see the magnificence, took advantage of a momentary disorder to slip in, and were driven out by a zealous doorkeeper with unnecessary brutality. This was enough to arouse the crowd at the palace gates. Several members of the deputation were beaten or trampled to death before they could escape. The wealthy Benedict, who had come as one of the representatives of the community of York, saved his life by consenting to embrace Christianity, and was immediately baptized in the adjacent Church of the Innocents by a priest from his own city.

Exaggerated rumours of what was happening at Westminster soon spread to London, where it was reported that the king had given orders for the Jews to be exterminated. In their well-built stone houses, the inhabitants were able to resist for some hours until, towards nightfall, one of the mob threw up a lighted torch which set fire to the thatched roof. The flames rapidly spread, and before long the whole of Jewry was in a blaze. Though some of the inhabitants found refuge in the Tower of London or under the protection of friendly neighbours, several perished in their houses, and others were done to death, when they ventured into the street. Thirty persons lost their lives, amongst them being the eminent Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, not long since arrived from the continent.

The news was reported to the king as he sat banqueting. He immediately dispatched the justiciar, Ranulph de Glanville, to check the disorders, but he was unable to make any impression. The outbreak had indeed been of so universal a character, and enjoyed such general sympathy, that it was not considered advisable to take serious measures against those who had participated. Nevertheless, some of the ringleaders were arrested and three were hanged – one for robbing a Christian and two because the fire they had kindled burned down a Christian house. Little else was done except to dispatch letters to all parts of the kingdom ordering the Jews to be left in peace.” (Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England).

However, this royal proclamation was only temporarily successful, with further anti-Jewish rioting postponed until Richard left the country in December. As part of his planned crusade, contingents were gathering in most towns in the kingdom readying themselves to march off and fight Muslims in the ‘holy land’. However, as had occurred during preparations for previous crusades, the first targets of the crusaders were Jews in their own midst.

As a result, a few months after the coronation and the king’s departure, a rash of anti-Jewish riots broke out, often where crusaders were gathering; and coinciding with Lent, always a time of heightened tension, as hatred of Jews for ‘killing our lord’ was then emphasised. There were vicious pogroms in Lynn, Norfolk (now Kings Lynn), where the Jewish community was all but exterminated, and in Norwich, Stamford, Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and most violently at York. Here, the largest Jewish settlement outside London had grown into a relatively prosperous enclave. As usual, however, local barons were heavily in debt to Jewish moneylenders, and they sparked a riot with the aim of evading payment. The community was massacred, with the remainder of the community taking refuge in the castle, but ending by killing themselves when it was besieged. At least 150 died in the castle and many more in the town.

In some places, Jews saved themselves by agreeing to covert to Christianity; in others, Jews were expelled from their houses.

King Richard, hearing of this, did get somewhat narked, in part because
a) it’s the royal prerogative to massacre your subjects, this is not to be sub-contracted;
b) disorder is generally considered a bad thing, c) the king had specifically issued his protection to the Jews, mass flouting of this making him look weak and ineffective,
and d) the royal treasury stood to lose, as the king milked the Jewish community heavily, and thus their goods getting nicked reduced the monarch’s take.

Some limited harsh measures were taken against a very few of the perpetrators of the massacres, but on the whole little was done. The king couldn’t afford to piss off the nobles on whose support he relied for fighting and ruling, and the unpopularity of the Jews made it difficult to make a point of defending them when faced with more important matters like fighting God’s wars.

The reigns of Richard’s successors, kings John and Henry III, were littered with similar events – accusations of ‘blood libel’, robbery, killings and persecutions. Jews as moneylenders were often associated with kings, whose royal power was being challenged by the nobility throughout the thirteenth century. Several popular rebellions against royal autocracy, battles between kings and powerful aristos, also sparked anti-semitic outbursts.

Nobles often targeted Jews because they were under his protection, or had lent the king money, or because they themselves wished to despoil them and/or avoid paying debts to them.

This pattern culminated with the wholesale expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 by the psychopathic Edward I; officially Jews were barred from the kingdom unless they converted to Christianity, a prohibition which lasted nearly four centuries.

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

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Today in London’s xenophobic past: Anti-Irish riot in Spitalfields, 1736

From the Middle Ages, London’s then ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Many have been identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of migrants had struggled to gain a foothold in the urban economy.

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields. Due to their race, their religion (catholic, amidst overwhelmingly protestant English), by language, the Irish were often segregated, wherever they lived in England. London was no different – lodging houses, streets and neighbourhoods became generally Irish in character.

Frequently they were extremely poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was often noted. This lasted for more than a century: the radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers.

In summer 1736, reports spread of English builders being let go from the building of Christ Church, to be replaced by Irish workmen, said to be working below the agreed rate (supposedly at somewhere between half and two thirds of what the previous workers had been paid).

In July this sparked three night of anti-Irish rioting in Spitalfields:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry. 

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him’ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass fly … I heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

Several pubs known as haunts of the Irish were trashed or destroyed; crowds of between 2000 and 400 were involved. The Irish armed themselves and fought back, gunfire allegedly killing one attacker and wounding several others.

A scurrilous pamphlet, entitled ‘Spittlefields and Shoreditch in an uproar, or the devil to pay with the English and Irish’, emerged shortly after the riots, listing those killed and injured, but also clearly ranting against the ‘incomers’: “It is shocking to behold the Cruelty or Impudence of some People, who, even in a strange Country, by the Natives thereof they get their Living; yet these ungrateful wretches are ever belching out their most dreadful oaths, Curses and Imprecations against those very People by whom they have Subsistence. The Truth of what is said here will evidently and plainly appear, by a genuine Relation of the fights which have happened between the English and the Irish in Shoreditch and Spittlefields, which will set forth in true light the Insolence of the Irish, who were Aggressors in this hitherto unheard of Action. It is hoped that proper Means will be taken by the Magistrites to quell those audacious Rioters, and to put a Stop to their wicked, cruel, and inhuman Purposes.”

The pamphlet goes on to blame the trouble on Irish provocation – a familiar story which continue wherever racists gather to harass, attack and murder migrants, yet its any migrants who resist who get blamed and arrested.

Although resentment arising from competition for work was said to be the immediate spark for the pogrom, the general culture of anti-catholicism, dominant in Britain from the 16th century, and particularly sharp in London, may have also been lurking in the background. It has been suggested that the presence in Spitalfields of a large community of Hugenots, and their descendants, French protestants expelled from France some 50 years before, played a part in the trouble – though evidence of Hugenot involvement is scanty. In the 1680s, of course, ‘native’ silkweavers in the East End had petitioned to protest the immigration of 1000s of french weavers into their area, competing with them for work. This may not have precluded the Hugenots’ children from joining anti-Irish protests.

Irish folk may by the 1730s have begun to move into the silkweaving trade, which Hugenots dominated, and Irish workers were later accused of undercutting the rate in this occupation (though I am not sure this was an issue in 1736). By the 1760s, however, Irish weavers were violently resisting wage cuts and sabotaging looms alongside the grandchildren of French exiles and the ‘native’ English.

However, there were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved). ‘Integration’ was a rocky road, proceeding unevenly, with alliances forged by some in the face of common interests, constantly at risk of being undermined by longstanding prejudices…

Which may well have some lessons for us in our own time. If only we ever learned from history, eh?

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

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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 broad-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’s history: White crowds launch Notting Hill race riots, 1958.

“There was a battle, a pitched battle, in Powis Terrace where I lived. I looked through the fifth floor window where I was, and there was a battle between black men, policemen, white yobbos and Teddy Boys. I mean, the street was alight, except for fires and that – Molotov cocktails and so on. And blood was everywhere and it was awful.”

As the ‘biggest street party in Europe’, the Notting Hill Carnival, comes round again, it’s always worth remembering its origins… With the myth of British tolerance and a somewhat blinkered view of our past as rosy and open, the Carnival is often held up as an example of the best in multi-cultural Britain, evidence of how easily and warmly the UK welcomes incomers. It’s essential even for tory leaders to turn up, parade, or at least pretend to approve. The friendliest police are wheeled out. It’s even sometimes mentioned (though not on the bbc news) that Carnival was born after the race riots of 1958, when white gangs, inspired at least if not organized by rightwing groups, launched racist attacks on Afro-Caribbean migrants in Notting Hill.

Carnival evolved in the West Indies from a heady mix of Spanish and French catholic religious traditions, mixing with dances and parades from the culture of the African slaves shipped to the Caribbean in their thousands…

West Indians migrating to Britain in the 1950s, created Carnival in its west London incarnation, however, in 1959-60 as a way of both bringing white and black communities together, and celebrating the migrant Caribbean culture that was to some extent under siege by racism from whites in Notting Hill, West London.

Notting Hill was one of the areas where the first generation of West Indians moving to Britain after World War 2 had begun to build a community.

The initial migrants from the West Indies faced a wall of racism, hostility and discrimination in many arenas in those first years; housing was one. Many landlords wouldn’t rent houses or flats to black people (the infamous sign in the front window of houses to rent being: ‘No Irish No Blacks no Dogs’). In some neighbourhoods such restrictions were less rigidly applied. Often the poorest places, the slums, where vicious landlords were willing to let run-down, rat-infested housing at inflated rents to people who had nowhere else to go…

Notting Hill had been home to the poorest for a century – migrants, casual workers, the lowest paid. West Indians found homes here…

They also found prejudice: resentment from poor white working class locals, xenophobia and fear of the other and economic competition, all fanned by a jumble of fascist groups – the White Defence League, Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Labour Party and more… all active in the area, stirring it up, provoking hatred where fear already was… For instance, from January 1958 the Union Movement held regular street corner meetings in Notting Hill, outside Kensington Park Road synagogue. “When Mosley came down to Notting Dale some people were sympathetic to his cause, that can’t be denied. He recruited some workers from the Thames Gas Board coal and coke wharf near Ladbroke Grove and local Teddy boys. Some of these were little stinkers, but we were living in uncertain times and Mosley provided people with instant solutions; scapegoating the blacks and Irish, telling people that it was their fault that we had poor housing and that they would take all the jobs.” (‘The Story Of Notting Dale’, Ron Greenwood)… Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its base on Tavistock Road, from where a swastika flag was flown, loud militaristic music played and ‘The Black and White News’ distributed… fascists also had a base in Princedale Road.

Teddyboys proved a fertile recruiting ground for the fash; young white working class teens, a growing subculture, already well-known for violence, both between teds from different areas, against the police and authority in general, but easily also slipping into racist attacks.

Racist attitudes increased turning into violent attacks on black people through the summer of 1958: coming to a head in the last week of August. On the 24th ten white youths committed serious assaults on six West Indian men in four separate incidents. Just prior to the Notting Hill riots, there was racial unrest in Nottingham, which began on 23 August, and continued intermittently for two weeks.

The rioting was triggered by an assault against Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, on 29 August. Morrison was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison at the Latimer Road tube station. A group of various white people attempted to intervene in the argument and a small fight broke out between the intervening people and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends.

The following day, August 30th, Majbritt was verbally and physically attacked by a gang of white youths who threw milk bottles at Morrison and called her racial slurs such as “Black man’s trollop”, she was also struck in the back with an iron bar.

Later that night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys, were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents. The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night until 5 September, although the worst of the aggro was over by the 3rd

Crowds of white youths roamed the area every night for days, attacking any black people in the street, attacking houses where black people were living, with bricks, petrol bombs… After repeated warning from the community had failed to rouse the police to take any action against the white mobs, local blacks got together to resist the racists by force… “black men used to come from surrounding areas, like Paddington and Brixton and Shepherd’s Bush, knowing they’re going to hit this particular street, knowing the whites were going to hit this particular street, this particular night. They would come in solidarity, to fight. In other words, many black people felt, In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“lt’s decided to make a stand at Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent, between Portobello and Kensington Park Road… As the tension mounts the rest of the afternoon is spent amassing an armoury of weapons, including milk bottles, petrol and sand for Molotov cocktails. Then they wait. An estimated 300 in all, men in ‘The Fortress’ at No. 9, women across the road in No. 6, with lights out and curtain’s drawn. At 10pm a white mob starts sniffing around and there’s shouts of “Let’s burn the niggers out.” At which point the top floor windows of No. 9 are opened and Molotov cocktails rain down, scattering the whites. Baron Baker says he ironically shouts, “Get back to where you come from!” and everybody charges out of Totobag’s waving machetes and cleavers. Only a few of the white rioters stick around to throw missiles back. Then a Black Maria hurtles onto Blenheim Crescent and rams the front door of No. 9. Michael de Freitas, Baron Baker, 6 other blacks and 3 whites are subsequently arrested for causing affray. With Jamaican reinforcements coming in from Brixton to counter the white attacks, the police finally get their act together. Just before things develop into out and out race war. On the Monday night they mount one of the biggest co-ordinated policing operations of the 50s. 11 radio-cars and a few Black Marias are soon in the vicinity of Blenheim Crescent. While, at the same time, a house in Bard Road, back on Latimer Road, is attacked by 50 or more white youths, in retaliation for a fire-bomb attack on Mosley’s Portobello HQ, other side of Westway. A paraffin lamp is thrown through the ground floor window setting light to a bed. Then a big black woman runs out into the street brandishing an axe and shouting ‘I’ll murder you for this!’ Whereupon the white rioters turn and run.”

The West Indian resistance finally prompted the police (who had been widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence if not actively condoning it) to make an attempt to get to grips with the situation. They couldn’t have people organising their own self-defence – where would it end? When a large crowd of would be white rioters marched down looking for trouble, this time the police dispersed them and made 50 arrests. The night of Tuesday 2nd was said to be relatively quiet’.

Sporadic incidents continued until September 5th, and black people, who had been avoiding going out, started to venture from their homes…

‘Only a few frightened faces were to be seen among the debris of bricks, broken glass and traces of blood that littered west London. Notting Hill was deathly quiet and unnaturally deserted and police kept a low profile. Pubs, which had been packed during the riot weekend, were now almost empty…’ A month after the riots some still kept their lights out at night and whites are also wary of going out after dark.

More than 140 people were nicked during the disturbances, mostly white youths but also many black people found carrying weapons to defend themselves. A report to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner stated that of the 108 people charged with crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were black.

In 2002, files were released that revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance, despite testimony from individual police officers to the contrary.

In January 1959, five months after the riot, the first carnival was held indoors at St Pancras town hall in central London as an act of solidarity and defiance in response to the racist events. Black radical Claudia Jones among others, was central to organising the event which in 1965 became an annual outdoor parade in Notting Hill. But the tensions that led to the riot had one more act to play out – in May 1959, a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death in Kensal Rise by a gang of white men. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended his funeral, which, in some ways more than the riots, began the process of reversing the racist feeling…

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

Today in London radical history: Albany community centre gutted by (probably fascist) arson attack, Deptford, 1978.

With racism on the rise in the area in the late 1970s, local community centre, the Albany, was an important focus for South East London’s anti-racists. South East London’s disaffected working class white communities, suffering the collapse of traditional industries, had proved a fertile ground for National Front and other racist groups seeking to persuade them that all their problems came from migrant communities. Racist attacks were frequent, the NF had focused on the area. In August 1977 an NF march in Lewisham had been besieged by 1000s of anti-racists and locals and led to serious fighting between New Cross and Lewisham.

The Albany had hosted more than 15 Rock Against Racism benefits, a three-day ‘All Together Now’ festival, at least one Scrap the SUS laws gig, and an anti-racist theatre show, Restless Natives. It seems this may have made it a target for racists.

On 14th July 1978, the building was destroyed by fire, with a note saying ‘Got You”, signed 88, left on the remains the next day. Anti-racists speculated that the 88 signified something to do with Column 88, a fascist paramilitary splinter. But Greenwich Police refused to take any notice of the note, and ruled that “the fire wasn’t arson, it was either an accident or natural causes.” The cops at that time, being diseased with racist ideas and actual fascist members, usually turned a blind eye to racist attacks when they could get away with it, and could rely on higher ups backing them up, too. Evelyn Street fire station judged that the relatively new lighting circuits had not caused the fire, and thought it had been arson. It was not unusual for racists to use arson against such targets – the nearby Moonshot Club in New Cross had been burned out in December 1977, shortly after local National Front members had discussed ‘taking action’ against it. Three years later in 1981, a fire at a teenage party in New Cross Road killed thirteen young black people (a survivor probably killed himself months later). Widely suspected to be a racist attack at the time, the tragedy was played by the police and ignored by those in power – but sparked rage, protest and organising from south London’s black communities.

Both the Moonshot and the Albany were rebuilt, although the Albany was moved from the trashed site in Creek Road to nearby Douglas Way (a move already planned before the fire). It is still going strong today.

Some more on Albany History

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

Today in London’s radical history: 7000 march behind racist murder victim Altab Ali’s coffin, to Downing St, 1978.

On the 4th May 1978, a young Bangladeshi textile worker was murdered in east London. It was a racially motivated killing – not unique at the time – but it aroused a fierce response in the local community, and ended with lasting change.

Altab Ali, 25, who had moved to London from Bangladesh in 1969, was attacked by three teenagers – Roy Arnold, Carl Ludlow and another boy. He had been on his way back from work, walking through Whitechapel’s St Mary’s park, carrying his shopping. Arnold and Ludlow were 17; the unnamed male was just 16. The murder was racially motivated and random – they did not know Mr Ali and did not care who he was. “No reason at all,” said the 16-year-old boy, when a police officer asked why he attacked Mr Ali.

“If we saw a Paki we used to have a go at them,” he remarked. “We would ask for money and beat them up. I’ve beaten up Pakis on at least five occasions.”

Ali had been stabbed in the neck, and staggered a few metres before collapsing and dying.

Like many others in the area, Altab Ali was a young male working in a factory, sending money home to support his family. His death was seen by many as a sign that things had to change. The National Front were standing for election in 43 council seats the day Mr Ali was murdered.

There had been many other racist attacks over the previous few years, but the murder was the final straw. “The blood of Altab Ali made us realise we couldn’t ignore it, or who would be next?”

“We knew there would be no place for us unless we fought back. So everyone joined together – Bangladeshi people, Caribbean people, Indian people, Pakistani people. Everyone was involved.”

At that time, Bengalis faced a barrage of hostility – if they went out alone, they’d be abused; on council estates neighbours would break their windows, push rubbish through your letterbox – basically make your life miserable.

Police, politicians and other elements in the established political system were accustomed to ignoring, or even condoning and encouraging the onslaught of racism and failing to respond to Bangladeshis’ complaints.

But that political silence was coming to an end. Ten days after Mr Ali’s death, 7,000 people marched behind his coffin through central London, demanding that the government tackle racism in east London. They marched to Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and to Downing Street, to chants of “Black and white, unite and fight” as the large crowd moved through the streets.

Change was far from immediate. In June 1978, just a month after the murder, another Asian man, Ishaque Ali was killed by racists in Hackney. Soon after, the National Front moved its headquarters to Great Eastern Street, just a short walk from St Mary’s Park.

This brought battles between anti-racists and the National Front in Bethnal Green, where skinheads would distribute their literature on Sundays. Groups of people would camp in the area overnight. When the National Front came down in the morning they had nowhere to stand or sell their literature.

(These occupations 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!) During the whole struggle, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested, some 50 anti-racists; while less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

In fact, 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,

Bengalis and other minorities in other towns like Bradford, also facing violent racist assault from both rightwingers and the police, (where the two could be told apart) took heart inspired by how East London’s community had organised to protecting themselves.

Though the process was gradual, far-right groups lost their much of their influence in east London over the following decade and violent attacks became less frequent. By the 1990s the intensity and the violence had declined. However, resurgences and flare-ups of organised racism periodically spill over, and the struggle against rightwing and xenophobic ideas continues.

Since Altab Ali’s death, St Mary’s Park, the site of his death, has been renamed Altab Ali Park; in 1989 a new entrance archway was installed, designed as a memorial to Altab Ali, and to all victims of racist violence.

Locals remember him every year on May 4th – known as Altab Ali Day.

It’s worth checking out the Altab Ali Foundation.

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

Today in London’s history: police attack march in support of framed Newham 7, 1985.

On 7 April 1984, there was a series of racist attacks in the Upton Park and Forest Gate areas of Newham, carried by the same group of racist thugs driving around in a car. These attacks included a vicious assault on a partially disabled 16-year old Asian youth who was bundled into the car, taken to Wanstead Flats and beaten with a hammer. A family shopping on Green Street were attacked, as was an apprentice returning from work on St Stephens Road and a youth on Plashet Road. Further attacks during the day were orchestrated by racists drinking at The Duke of Edinburgh pub and as news spread, local Asian youths gathered outside the pub to confront the racists. The pub was well-known locally as a haunt of racists The police arrived almost immediately, one Asian was arrested and kept into custody overnight. Three white youths who were inside the pub, throwing with billiard balls, beer glasses and bottles at Asian youths, were also arrested but released that evening without charge.

Over the next few weeks, six more Asians were arrested and although two of the seven were granted bail, the other five subsequently spent around many weeks on remand. Week after week, bail applications were rejected by magistrates, as the prosecution maintained that they were still preparing their case. All seven: Zafar Khan, Khan Bahadur, Parvaiz Khan, Amjad Ali, Jyoti Rajabbanm Jamal Chaudhri, Habib Mohammed – were eventually charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage and affray. with additional individual charges including possessing offensive weapons.All carried the potential for heavy sentences on conviction. As a result, on 15 June 1984, the Newham 7 Defence Campaign was officially launched at a packed local public meeting.

On the committal hearing on 14 Sept 1984, 200 people picketed outside Stratford Magistrates Court. Conspiracy charge against six of the seven defendants was dismissed that day. The quick dismissal of a major charge like this raised questions about the decision to bring them in the first place.

On 3 November 1984, the Defence Campaign organised a picket outside Duke of Edinburgh pub, supported by Newham Monitoring Project (NMP). Between 150-200 people shut down the pub for the afternoon. Just as the local Asian community was organising, there was another appalling attack: the racist murder of 16-year old Eustace Pryce, who was stabbed in the head outside the Greengate pub on Barking Road in Plaistow on 29 November 1984. Eustace and a group of friends, including his brother Gerald, had confronted a gang of racists: the end of the incident had been witnessed from a passing bus by plain-clothed police officers.

However, when the police arrived at the scene, it was Gerald, not the killer of Eustace Pryce, who was arrested. Three weeks later, Gerald was charged with affray and denied bail, whilst Eustace’s killer, Martin Newhouse, was granted bail on the grounds it would be wrong to keep him in jail over Christmas. When Gerald was finally released, he was prevented from returning to Newham to visit his pregnant girlfriend.

With NMP’s assistance, the Justice for the Pryce Family Support Committee was formed to ‘Defend Gerald and Remember Eustace’.

On 27 April 1985, a National Demonstration Against Racism was held in Newham, with 3000 people marching in support of the Newham 7 and Justice for the Pryce Family campaigns. The march brought together members of the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities under a common banner and a shared struggle. The march reached Forest Gate Police Station in the afternoon, where the Metropolitan Police’s District Support Unit (DSU) snatch squads charged into the crowd, arresting 10 and accusing them of, amongst other things, ‘spitting and throwing weapons’. Demonstrators refused to move on until all were released and by 6pm, there were DSU reinforcements from across London. Young people were punched and kicked or charged down side-streets in isolated groups. By the end of the day, scores of people were injured and 34 arrests had been made.

Following the events on 27 April, the Defence Campaign decided to hold a second march. On 11 May 1985, over 2000 people participated in a militant but peaceful demonstration that was allowed to complete its route to Plashet Park. However, in a tense atmosphere, the manhandling by police of one black youth led to confrontation, the emergence of officers on horseback and riot officers who charged into the park. It appeared that this had been deliberately engineered: three to four white men in ordinary clothes were seen throwing sticks at the police; but were later seen behind police lines with police radios. Later, riot officers paraded along Green Street and East ham High Street North in a show of strength.

On 13 May 1985, the trial of the Newham 7 started at the Old Bailey. On the second day, one defendant Parvaiz Khan was assaulted by prison wardens for refusing, as a Muslim, to eat a pork pie. His appearance in court with bruises and a swollen eye delayed proceedings for two days. When the trial resumed, two police officers were discovered rifling through defence files and others showed the court how they had compiled notes together, in breach of police rules. The local Asian community also discovered that a meeting place for Asian youths, the Wimpy Bar opposite the Duke of Edinburgh pub, had been placed under constant police surveillance. There was no similar surveillance on white racist organisations. The defence case rested on the right of community self-defence and the use of reasonable force to prevent a crime. The jury eventually convicted four of the seven defendants of affray but by the end of the trial, the actions of the police had been largely discredited. One officer at the trial, a DC Bonczoszek, was so furious at his exposure in court that he wrote an article for Police Review magazine in October 1985 claiming the ‘nebulous’ problem of racism was ‘a fabrication constructed by the left’. The efforts of the Justice for the Pryce Family Support Committee ensured that Gerald Pryce was not criminalised. However, In October 1985, Martin Newhouse, was convicted of manslaughter and affray and sentenced to six and a half years in youth custody.

nicked from the excellent Newham Monitoring Project site.

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