Today in London squatting history: RampART squat social centre evicted, Whitechapel, 2009.

“After over 5 years and many eviction scares it has finally happened… 3 people and a dog were inside when police attempted to chainsaw the door. They also had climbers going up to the roof conjuring up memories of the raid during the G20 in April. Police are blocking the entrance to all three roads leading to the social centre with vans and their bodies. They are handing out a piece of paper with a telephone number to call to get belongings out of the building.”

RampART (also variously known as rampART Social Centre, rampART creative centre and social space) was a squatted social centre in London’s East End, opened in May 2004 and (located at 15-17 Rampart Street, London E1 2LA). Originally squatted as a crash space for pople coming from outside London/from other countries to attend the 2004 European Social Forum events, the centre was established in a derelict building in Rampart Street which was previously used as an Islamic school for girls, then left empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block. The project was initiated by a mixture of artists, community groups and political activists. During the European Social Forum rampART accommodated over 50 European visitors as well as laying on free food and a range of entertainment, as well as hosting the Forum’s Home Education Forum and acted as homebase for the European Creative Forum and the Laboratory of Insurrectional Imagination.

According to one account of rampART’s founding:

“Every social event or project, has as many versions as people participating in it.

My own personal version of Rampart Social Centre would be that it was born, together with many other squats in 2004, out of the need to house hundreds of attendants to he European Social Forum and adjacent alternatives.

The meetings for the preparation of said forum did acknowledge the need, and the problem of accommodating such a big number of people in the most expensive city in the UK, probably Europe.

But the possibility of housing them in squats was mercilessly laughed at in the ESF meetings.

Regardless, tens of anarchist and otherwise active activists set on occupying as many empty building as possible, as big and stable as possible. All the buildings squatted as a result had been empty for a very long time, left to rot by owners and developers in their speculation activities, because usually the hard bare land was higher market value than a whole building, especially if “too many” repairs are needed and the planning permission for demolition and new development had been granted.

The ESF was a success, and thousands of attendees were accommodated in legitimate and lawful accommodation while only a few hundred stayed in squats like Rampart. But it remains regarded today as an unreported odyssey, that with practically no owner resources, a whole non-hierarchical organisation managed to create accommodation for so many people for over a week.

The media never knew, or reported about this; it only focused over the money than the then London mayor was spending in the events and accommodating ‘lefties’ from all over europe.

Same as speculation and what it does to buildings and communities does not get reported.

In London’s most ‘desirable’ areas, buildings are left empty for years, roofs smashed to accelerate their decay, some times squatters gain entry to highlight the madness of having empty buildings and, at the same time, homeless people. They delay the process for two weeks, two months… then get evicted and the owners can continue with the destruction and subsequent sale to other business for more profit because it is their property, and they can do what they please with it.

So squats do not usually stay squatted for very long. The most exciting squat I remember was in Aberdeen Road, in 2001. Friend called ##ohf6Kie## talked about it thus: “I am amazed it is still there running, after two months. We are most used to one week, two weeks. We were all over the moon when Stoke Newington lasted for three weeks. But two months!”

So, three weeks after the end of the ESF, many squats that had been opened for the accommodation of events and punters had been evicted. All but Rampart.

Rampart survived many years and provided space and resources for many good noble social causes, like rooms for meetings, rooms for computers, even a video editing suite, a pirate radio station, and a whole hacklab – a room full of computers, all gathered from dumps and repaired and put back into use for workshops on how to produce documents, books, radio programmes and news … donated or saved from landfills.

They were many years, thanks to a building that, had it not been for the free dedication of a few, admittedly very privileged people, who could afford and chose to dedicate themselves full time to a project that did not make them any money nor friends, instead of working in paid jobs, it would have rotten until falling down in the pursuit of capitalist profit by the owner, who would rather wait for speculation to give them good money rather than let people use it in a context of rampant homelessness. Now it is the home of groups like Bicicology, the hacklab and ours, migrant support.”

[Nicked from here]

Within its first year, the building had hosted over 100 cultural and political events – placing the rampART firmly on the activist map of London. At this point the Whitechapel area was home to the London Activist Resource Centre and a renaissance of sorts was occurring at the long-running Freedom anarchist Bookshop nearby; rampART grew into both a local network of activist spaces, as well as being linked to wider networks across London and beyond…

The building underwent transformation from the moment it was opened – a partition wall on the top floor was removed to create a space large enough for banner painting and the once empty building was soon bursting at the seams with furniture and equipment collected from the street.

The centre was run as an autonomous space by an open collective, and was open to all to use on the basis of equality for all. Projects were run on an entirely voluntary basis by the people involved, in a spirit of co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid.

rampART’s constitution stated that:

“The rampART is run collectively. Any one is free to get involved or make proposals relating to use of the space by come along to one of the weekly meetings which are held Mondays after 6pm. We attempt to make all major decisions relating use of the space by building a consensus, both out of a desire to avoid hierarchies and also in recognition that decisions are more likely to be carried out when decided by consensus.”

The space and the projects based there were funded day-to-day by donations given by the users, or by raising funds through benefit events such as gigs, cafés or film nights.

rampART was open for five and a half years, hosting meetings, screenings, performances, exhibitions and benefit gigs. During that period the building and resources evolved to adapt to the demands of its users.

An account of rampART written during its existence recounts some of the practical work done to reshape the space:

“With meetings, rehearsals, workshops, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances, the space was quickly put to good use and evolved. PeaceNews volunteers created a wheelchair accessible toilet and a ramp that could be placed at the entrance and windows on the ground floor were bricked for sound proofing after the weekly samba band practice led to a noise abatement order.

Different layout were tried in the hall and modular stage created. The kitchen was rearranged to make it a more practical space and a permanent serving area built. Further work on these improvements were put on hold when the local authorities started correspondence about health and safety inspections. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade followed, then emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices sprung up around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a new fire exit as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building.

The highly effective sound proofing was seriously compromised by the new fire exit and a second noise abatement order was recently served despite the best efforts of the collective and most of the event organisers. Most of the complaints, however, related not to music from the building but noise and nuisance generated from people in street during and after events and this has proved to be a much harder problem to solve than soundproofing.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors to shape the rampART has been it’s proximity to the London Action Resource Center (LARC) . There has been virtual no interest in office space at the rampART, with groups preferring the long term security offered by LARC. Groups have tended to prefer using LARC for regular meetings while larger one off meetings often end up at rampART along with benefit gigs and screenings. It’s strength as a gig venue has led to a bit of a party culture in terms of proposals, something that the collective is keen to keep in balance.

The need to keep noise off the street during events has led to work making the roof garden a more attractive place for people to go for a breath of fresh air or a cigarette. A covered area with seating has been built and railings set up around the edge but it remains to be seen whether this is a practical solution. Excessive noise from the roof is still likely to generate complaints and in the past, providing access to the roof during events has resulted in major damage to the tiled area of the roof when drunks have dislodged slates, creating leaks which have bought down the ceilings and destroyed equipment.

Attempting to encourage more events other than parties, the collective recently made the biggest changes to the building to date. Although there have been various large meetings and even weekend long gathering at the rampART (for example, the last few months has seen public meetings relating to DSEi and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camp), many people have commented that the rampART was too dark for such meetings. To address the problem walls on the first floor have now been removed to make a large, light and airy room about two thirds the size of the downstairs hall and good for meetings of up to 50 or 60 people.

The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London. For example, seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer.”

Some projects that ran from rampart included amateur theatre, art installations, acoustic concerts, weekly film nights including Indymedia London film festivals, eg the Caminos De Resistencia (Paths Of Resistance) and the Middle East Film Festival), poetry, photography exhibitions, political discussions and meetings, skill sharing and workshop including Samba, radio, juggling, banner making, computer skills training, screen printing…

Other resources included a Free shop, info library, media lab, wireless Internet, kitchen / café. rampART had a library of donated books, as well as a BookCrossing zone.

Other examples of what took place at rampART: the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army held training sessions at the centre; and the UK No Border network held a gathering at rampART from 10 to 11 October 2009, 7 days before the eventual eviction.

“Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the womens cafe, food not bombs and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows – Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.”

In November 2007 property developers planned to partially demolish the squatted houses next to the social centre and build three new properties at the back. rampART itself was under no immediate threat and regular activities continued as normal; however in December 2007 the centre received eviction papers. The date for eviction was set at 3 January 2008.

The day after the April 2009 G-20 London summit protests, which had seen the death of Ian Tomlinson, the rampART squat was raided by a large force of police, (240 according to one account) who pushed the occupants about, pointed tasers at people., and made a couple of arrests. [here’s an account of the raids there and at other centres the day after the G20.

Despite the  December 2007 possession order, the centre survived a year and a half, before finally evicted at 5:30am, October 15th, by 45 police, bailiffs and a priest(?!) chainsaw was used to enter the building. Climbers broke in through the roof, and a chainsaw was used to cut in downstairs.

After the eviction, the collective, still named “the rampART collective”, stayed together and temporarily moved to a new space in Walworth, South London where they continued to hold weekly meetings.

A rampART statement after the eviction:

“Priests and Chainsaws Revisited

At 5am on Thursday, 15th October, 2009, the rampART Creative Centre and Social Space was evicted by 45 police with chainsaws and, remarkably, a Church of England vicar. Three people and a dog were inside.

The eviction marks the end of nearly five and a half years of occupation, during which rampART has served as a landmark for the social centres movement in London and a venue for a diverse range of events including political meetings, workshops, info cafes, fundraising parties and the London Freeschool.

The eviction, significantly, happened on the same day that Non Commercial House, a freeshop operating out of a building in nearby Commercial Street, lost their case against eviction and a week after the collective occupying 2a Belgrade Road in Stoke Newington successfully defended the space from eviction by council bailiffs.

This may be a coincidence, but with the London Olympics less than three years away and in a time of crisis for a city that depends on financial services and tourism, it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that squatted properties are being targeted in a concerted scouring of the city, setting an example so others dare not even try.

Social centres are important and not only because they provide space for political organising, D-I-Y culture and free education outside of the institutional constraints that are increasingly limiting free expression and the development of cultural alternatives. Squatting draws attention both to the dimensions of homelessness in one of the world’s richest cities, and the consequences of rampant property speculation (in 2008, there were 100, 000 empty homes in London). It also draws attention to the lack of facilities where people with a diversity of interests can meet and socialise without paying
exorbitant prices and contributing to capitalist expansion, or fitting into paternalistic, box-ticking government agendas. More importantly perhaps, the occupation of commercial and government owned premises blocks the flow of capital which homogenises cities and their populations.

The free spaces of the city are increasingly few and increasingly under siege. This is why it is vital that we continue to organise and exploit the empty properties which the current recession has made available. rampART was sited in a part of London which has witnessed a history of struggle for autonomous expression and the rights of workers and exploited minorities. At a time when global capitalist expansion and the rise of neo-liberal ideology has destroyed the lives of many peoples around the world, it is essential that that struggle continues.

rampART was not just a building but a convergence of committed individuals and groups willing to give their time and energy to creatively demonstrating that it is possible to effect change. That energy has not dissipated. We will not be beaten. rampART is dead. Long live rampART.”

Something of rampART can still be seen at their old website

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London religious history, 1742: Methodist John Wesley stoned by unbelievers, Whitechapel.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist branch of the Christian mystery, was a great one for preaching to large crowds in the open air. Throughout much of the 18th century, Wesley could be found bothering people with his brand of religion, in fields, squares, commons… whether people wanted to be bothered or not.

Many of the crowds that gathered when he preached didn’t come to listen or be converted. Many came to mock, catcall, and take the piss. And often they went further…

On September 12th 1742, Wesley’s attempt to preach in Great Gardens, an open space between Whitechapel and nearby Coverlet Fields, ended with him being stoned by non-believers:

“Many of the beasts of the people laboured much to disturb those who were of a better mind. They endeavoured to drive in a herd of cows among them: but the brutes were wiser than their masters.” Not totally disheartened by the failure of their unpredictable and obviously unmotivated cattle, the demonstrators rely on a more manageable weapon, the traditional stone: “One . . . struck me just between the eyes: but I felt no pain at all; and when I had wiped away the blood, went on testifying with a loud voice that God hath given to them that believe “not the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”  {Wesley, Journal. Ill, 45).

Wesley had been attacked already that year: in January he had been pelted with stones while preaching in his Long Lane chapel. In St Ives in 1743, Wesley was beaten up by a crowd; there were riots at Falmouth and Wednesbury against him.

Some of these events were were just plain old dislike of godbotherers telling people how to live and get saved. However, some of the violence targeted at Wesley and other Methodists was somewhat more complex…

inspired by more orthodox Anglican clergy, trying to cut out the competition. Wesley and his fellow Methodists were seen as dangerous, possibly Catholic in sympathy, and suspicious. The Anglican establishment and elements of the existing social hierarchy that backed Anglicanism as a vital part of the status quo, combined to prevent Wesley from preaching, and encouraging violence against him. In some cases people were paid, or even forced, by their employers to join crowds attacking Wesley and other Methodists. Magistrates sometimes declined to prosecute rioters who attacked Wesley and his congregations, which of course gave a green light to further attacks…

The Whitechapel mini-riot against Wesley seems to have been pure joyous spite against holy rollers, however… Nothing wrong with that. An old East End tradition, that the Skeleton Army would later revive a century and a half later.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s rebel history: bread rioters in the East End seize food, 1855.

“Yesterday some bread riots took place in Whitechapel and the mob did a considerable deal of damage to the workhouse…”

There’s this idea that we have progressed from mid-Victorian times, and in many ways this is true. You know, like in gender equality, the NHS, not jailing people for being gay or hanging them for nicking a pint of milk, and trying not to electrocute each other…

And some other stuff. Much of it the result of long social struggles.

However, in some ways, we have regressed since the mid-19th century. De-evolved.

One example of this is the modern unwillingness to riot when faced with extreme provocation. When rational reaction would in fact be to gather as a mob and take it out on some property, and fit a bit of wealth re-distribution while we’re at it.

This is where out ancestors were way ahead of us.

For centuries food riots were a regular feature of life. When poor harvests, shortages, recession or war caused the price of food, particularly staples like bread, to rise, 1000s of the poorest could not afford to feed themselves. Instead of taking this lying down, in many cases people rioted, seizing food they needed from the shops, markets or food transports. A certain ‘moral economy’ operated, so that on many occasions, the crowd would not merely loot food, but would force shopkeepers to sell at the usual lower price.

Other times mobs would just take it without paying.

A poor harvest in 1853, followed by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, fuelled steep price rises in Britain, and heralded a period of sharply rising expenditure. The total number of ‘outdoor’ paupers in Middlesex, for instance, rose by nearly 40 per cent, from 33,869 in 1853, to 47,097 in 1855. London’s riverside districts registered the harshest poverty. The winter of 1854-55 was very severe, and the Thames froze over in February, stopping all work in the docks and river work.

A report in Reynolds Newspaper noted that “there are fewer than 50,000 men out of employ, who have been for several days past subsisting on the scanty relief doled out by the parishes and unions.”

“Tens of thousands of the poor are deprived of employment by the severity of the weather, especially in all vocations connected with the river.”

In early February the St George-in-the-East Workhouse ran out of bread… “Measures have been taken by the Guardians and Police Magistrates to supply the destitute at least with food ; but the number of applicants was so great that the officers could not relieve them fast enough.”

A few days later, as the Whitechapel Workhouse refused to give out any relief, a crowd built up, and ransacked food shops in the area. Bakers’ and chandlers’ shops were plundered of bread and coal. Food riots spread to other parts of the East End, and to Bermondsey in South London.. Meanwhile other parts of the country were also rioting, especially in Liverpool.

“Mobs collected, under the leadership, for the most part, of stalwart and turbulent Irishmen; who, loudly demanding ” bread,” paraded the streets, and pillaged the shops, not only of food but of money. In this alarming state of things, most of the shops were shut ; and a kind of terror prevailed from ‘White- chapel to Hackney. The Police, however, regardless of numbers, rushed upon the ringleaders and arrested many. All day on Thursday, the Magistrates in Stepney, Worship Street, ‘and Southwark—for there was some rioting in Bermondsey—were engaged in dealing with the fellows under arrest, and several were committed for trial. They also received deputations from the inhabitants asking for protection, begging that special constables might be sworn in. The Thames Police Magistrate declined to grant the latter request; but Superintendent Howie was present, and assured the applicants that he had a large and increasing force at his disposal, and that he would be able to maintain order. It was evident that the example of Liverpool had not been without effect, for it was spoken of with zest by the rioters.”

Extra police were drafted in, and some rioters were lifted, and sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Luckily for the authorities a sudden thaw eased conditions on the river, and the riots subsided as fast as they’d arisen…

But the vast overwhelming poverty of many residents of the East End and other parts of London remained a looming menace for the authorities. Dockers marched to the Whitechapel Workhouse in March 1855 demanding bread. Food rioting would break out again in East London and Clerkenwell in 1857, 1861 and 1866… and in Deptford in 1867.

Today the ratcheting divide between rich and poor is increasing pressure again. 1000s cannot afford to feed themselves. Food banks are all very well. But perhaps its time for some backward evolution. Can we rebuild a sense of our own ‘moral economy’ – and start taking back the products of our labour… from those who steal it from us?

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

Today in London’s radical history: Jewish anarchist club opens in Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, 1906.

“The Jubilee Street Club played a great part in East End Jewish life because it was open to everyone. Anyone could use our library and reading room or join the adult education classes without being asked for a membership card…” (Rudolf Rocker)

In the late nineteenth century, a powerful Yiddish speaking working class movements evolved among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion, though it soon became associated with anarchism. More on the history of Arbeter Fraint here

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement, one of the largest sections of which took on a strongly anarchist character. The group around Der Arbeter Fraint was associated with a number of meeting places in Whitechapel – the international club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, and most famously the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel (the building has since been demolished – it’s now under Jarman House). In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

“The club had a main hall that could hold 800 people, and a number of smaller rooms and halls. One hall on the ground floor was used as a library and reading room. A smaller building adjoining the club served as the editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint.” (Rocker)

The opening night, 3rd February 1906, was packed – hundreds attended, and large numbers were locked out as there was no more room. “Almost every Jewish trade union in the country had sent us messages of congratulation. There were also messages from Malatesta, Louise Michel and Tarrida del Marmol. I was reading out the messages when a storm of cheering and clapping cut me short. Peter Kropotkin had arrived. His doctors had warned him not to appear at any more public gatherings, because of his heart. But this was an occasion from which he felt he must not stay away.

I begged him not to speak. He waved me aside. He spoke for over half an hour…” (Rocker)

The club was destined to play a central role in the political, social and intellectual life of the Jewish east End for a decade. It had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist who by now was at the heart of the group, spoke regularly. Rocker’s view was that workers who could think for themselves were in a much better position to combat their bosses, and escape the clutches of political parties and religious leaders, which exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses.

Cultural activities were a major part of the Club’s appeal, “in a world where there was a thirst for modern culture alongside a deep attachment to tradition.”

However, the lack of an official membership, while allowing a freer access to many, did have its drawbacks, as it “made it impossible for us to sell drinks in the club, from which most of the other clubs got the greater part of their revenue. For the law restricted the sale of intoxicants in clubs to club members. We sold only tea and coffee and food. So we had to fins other ways of meeting our running costs.”

Rocker recalled that the groups who met there regularly included trade unions, the Jewish Workers’ Circle (an important workers society), a Russian Social Revolutionary party branch, and English anarchist groups.

Descriptions of the Jubilee Street Club can also be found in police records, this time because suspects and witnesses of the 1911 Sidney Street gunfight frequented the club. Nicolai Tockmacoff was a seam-presser born in Moscow who was interviewed by the police. He played the balalaika at the Workers Friend:.

“I used to go to the [Workers’ Friend] Club for entertainment and theatrical performances… There is a hall there and refreshment room for tea and coffee. Anyone can go in. There are all sorts of people there, English and Russian… There is a library which anyone can go into… There was a Lettish [Lithuanian] Concert on one occasion… Men and women go to the Club to borrow books.”

William Fishman’s oral history interviews provide other glimpses of the Club. Millie Sabel recalled her kitchen duties, preparing gefilte fish, chopped liver and pickled herring, and that Lenin would drink Russian tea when he came by. Rose Robins recalled synagogue-going Jews on days of fasting sneaking into the Club to eat the extra food the Club had to prepare on holy days .

On the one hand the club was very much based in the mass movement of the East End, but it was also frequented by the celebrities of the left. Anarchist guru Kropotkin spoke at its opening night. Among those who hung out at the Club were Tsarist secret agents, future Soviet ministers (such as Chicherin) and terrorists (including the Latvian revolutionaries involved in the Siege of Sidney Street). A non-Jewish anarchist close to Rocker, John Turner, leader of the shop assistants’ trade union, took the young Guy Aldred (then writing for anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour paper, which Turner edited) to the Jubilee Street Club, where Rocker asked him to speak one night when Kropotkin couldn’t make it. Ironically Aldred used the occasion to criticize Kropotkin for abandoning revolutionary Bakuninism and becoming a respectable suburban intellectual – which didn’t go down well with the Club regulars.

The Club was also a centre of Yiddish culture: the Yiddishists and cultural nationalists Chaim Zhitlovsky and Ber Borokhov both spoke there; many of the great Yiddish poets read there. Fishman records that there was a great deal of interaction between the Jubilee Streeters and Poale Zionists (labour Zionists) in the years after the 1906 tailors’ strike: people like radical Zionist journalists Kalman Marmor and Dr Wortsman.

The Arbeter Fraint group was throughout its existence very much involved in the struggles of the Jewish tailoring workers, in their strikes, struggles against sweating and other poor working conditions. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. In 1889 and 1906, huge strikes that united 1000s of East End tailors saw mass solidarity; but a 1912 strike in both East and West End tailoring ended with victory on all fronts, largely due to Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group’s activities. The groups was also central in organising solidarity for dockers’ strikes, especially in 1912, where Jewish workers supported dock families facing starvations and took over 300 dockers children to be looked after in Jewish homes.

The strong Jewish labour and anarchist movements faced immediate repression when World War 1 broke out. The Arbeter Fraint group opposed the war from the start. The Jubilee Street Club was forced to close down. Rudolf Rocker was arrested in December 1914, and spent the war in internment camps.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint continued to publish, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by the state. Rocker moved eventually to the USA, where he became influential in the Jewish anarchist movement there.

If you want some seriously inspiring reading, check out:

The London Years, Rudolf Rocker.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William Fishman.

Citizenship and Belonging, Ben Gidley

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

Today in London’s religious history: Salvation Army pelted with mud & rotten fruit by Skeleton Army, Whitechapel, 1881.

Sick of religious fundamentalism leading to murder, rape and war? Feel rage at god-botherers preying on the poor and vulnerable? Infuriated by the vast wealth milked from millions by churches of all denominations… Think the world would be better off without superstition of all kinds…?

…then let’s revive the Skeleton Army!

In the 1880s the growing influence and offensive puritanism of the Christian sect the Salvation Army provoked the birth of the Skeleton Army – locally organized bands of rowdies who disrupted Salvationist crusades, abused and humiliated their preaching and parades, and physically attacked them…

In the 1880s the Salvation Army were regularly attacked when they marched to preach, harass and attempt to convert drinkers in working class areas. Their mission was openly to draw working class people away from the disorderly popular culture that revolved around drinking, singing, smoking, and riotous entertainment and resistance to the police and other arms of the state… towards godliness, respect for authority and sobriety… Like most religious sects of the 19th century, the Salvationists held that the poverty and squalor afflicting the lower classes was largely their own fault, for giving in to drink and gambling and other vices…

An attitude shared by many of the upper and middle class do-gooders, as well as large sections of the more respectable working class – including the chartist and socialist movements…

… as if class divisions, property, the power of the rich and the hierarchies imposed on us all have nothing to do with it…

The original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The same year, a Sally Army march to Stoke Newington led to them being attacked outside the Shakespeare pub. According to the Daily Telegraph: “Yesterday morning… the bands issued forth in the afternoon… the largest marched to the Shakespeare… Here the division of about 20 persons, male and female, began to sing but before the end of the first verse a crowd of roughs had gathered round and began a counter chant. At the third verse someone issued forth from the tavern with a can of beer in his hand, and making use of foul expression, offered it to the Salvationists. This was a signal for a general riot, and in a few moments the members of the Army were attacked, knocked down, and shamefully used. Acting under the orders of their captain, the and gave no blow in return but avoiding their brutal assailants as best they could, covered the retreat of the women. There were over five hundred persons present, but not a single hand was raised in defence of the band… One young girl yesterday was seriously injured, two of the men were much hurt, and nearly every member of the band had been robbed of some article of property. All of this took place within a stone’s throw of two large police stations.”

On New Years Eve 1881, the local Skeleton Army assaulted a Salvation Army parade outside the Blind Beggar pub, in Whitechapel, pelting them with rotten fruit and mud. Now that’s the way to usher in a New Year…

As the location of William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of The Salvation Army, this was a very symbolic spot for the god-botherers.

Colonel George Holmes of The Salvation Army, who was a boy Salvationist in 1881, later recalled:

“It was very rough. I remember attending an Open-Air Meeting one Sunday night outside ‘The Blind Beggar.’ Afterwards we marched to our Hall in Whitechapel Road. The ‘skeletons’, directed by Jeffries, headed our procession, proceeding at a snail’s pace and compelling us to do so. Thus handicapped, we were jostled and pelted with decayed fruit and mud. I was only a boy, and for safety was placed in the middle of the ranks.

An enthusiastic Salvationist in our front rank wore a high hat with a Salvation Army band round the crown. Slipping behind him, Jeffries leant upon his shoulders and deftly pushed the high hat over his eyes, whilst wriggling into the desired position. Then, using the top hat as a drum and his legs as a goad, he ‘drove’ his victim in the procession to the Hall. The Salvationists could have dismounted Jeffries only by rolling their comrade in the mud.”

Charles Henry Jeffries, describer here, sadly succumbed himself to the lure of the Salvationists, after this, however, and rose to become a high-ranking officer… His former allies targeted him repeatedly, as you should…

“In the Open-Airs my old mates gave me many a blow and kick – but I stuck fast. At times they would follow me home singing, ‘Jeffries will help to roll the old chariot along’ – and, thank God, I am doing it.”

The ‘Bethnal Green Eastern Post’ described the Skeleton Army “a genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated… These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… the collector told me that the object of the skeleton army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… 

Amongst the skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…”

The skeleton armies usually carried flags bearing a skull and crossbones; sometimes with additions such as two coffins and the motto “blood and thunder! Others decorated theirs with monkeys, a devil, and rats. Another had a yellow banner with three B’s-” beef beer and ‘bacca !

Some of the local Skeleton bands produced “gazettes” – ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous news-sheets. Favourite ammunition for showering the preachers and marchers included flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats…

The organisation of skeleton armies in London and the publicity this received inspired the growth of other similar groups throughout the country. Serious fighting and conflicts with the police eventually resulted in drastic repression being introduced to deal with the rowdies in the capital, bringing organised trouble there to an end.

The Skeleton Army however, thrived in other parts of the country until 1892. During those years the corps officer’s wife at Guildford was kicked into insensibility, not ten yards from the police station, a woman soldier was so injured that she died within a week, At Shoreham, a woman captain died through being hit by a flying stone.

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As austerity bites, and poverty increases for many; as religious wars multiply, disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and superstition are on the rise… Religious bigots both powerful and powerless try to push back against the freedoms won by hundreds of years of struggle against church, mosque and temple…

But religion by its very nature belongs in the middle ages. Organised faith continues to play a huge role in violence against women, the support of war and of hierarchies and power relations that keep us poor and divided, in the worldwide assault on people’s ability to determine their own sexuality and gender…

Isn’t it time to bring back the Skeleton Army… Not just to harass the modern religious parasites like the United Church of the Kingdom of God…

…but to also oppose the building of new places of worship of whatever religion, to fight religious control over the vulnerable, to support rebels resisting religious control from within.

For a future free from fear, bigotry and hate… from Syria to Tottenham..

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

Today in London radical history: Yiddish anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint founded, Whitechapel, 1885.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s. Oerwhelmib=ngly the majority of the jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

The famous Arbeter Fraint yiddish newspaper had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, the first socialist paper in Yiddish in London, which was based in Spitalfields. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel was founded by Morris Winchevsky, as a socialist paper, written in yiddish, the everyday language of the migrants. It had a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

16 issues appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of greeners, problems with bosses and landlords…

The precarious nature of the tailoring trade made it tough working: workers endured trade fluctuations, leading to busy times and slack times. In the busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, worked very long hours; in slack times, there was no work, great poverty and hunger. 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets.

The Poilishe Yidel encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English, and continually advised the formation of unions.

The ‘Yidel’, though, suffered a split in October 1884, and Winchevsky founded the Arbeter Fraint (Workers Friend), which was to outshine its predecessor.

Initially started as a non-partisan socialist paper in Yiddish, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”, the Arbeter Fraint always held a global view of socialism, advocating revolution; but Winchevsky remained committed to the Jewish poor. It was stern in its attacks on religion, constantly denigrating the ancient faith, and parodying religious texts. It also rejected jewish nationalism.

Philip Kranz was appointed its first editor, (until 1889 when as a social democrat he broke with the anarchists and left for New York); gathering a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, obsessed with debunking religion, who wrote anti-religious satires for the paper.

For a while, Kranz, Isaac Stone and other writers in the Arbeter Fraint attacked trade unions, opining (in common with many other socialists of the time) that there could be no real improvements under capitalism, and trade unionism was just soft soap, . Revolution was the only solution and it was imminent… Fairly soon, however, the local realities in the sweating trades forced them to concede the necessity of the Jewish workers getting organised… From 1886 the paper helped in the drive toward unionisation.

Arbeter Fraint went from a monthly to a weekly in June 1886, and came under the control of the Berner Street club (the International Workingman’s Educational Club) off Whitechapel’s Commercial Road, where it was based till the club closed in 1892. Amidst disputes between social democrats and anarchists, the paper moved towards anarchism. Occasionally irregular, with a circulation ranging between 2000 and 4000, the paper grew to have a huge influence in the East End, asdn wider afield, as copies were mailed out to yiddish-speaking jews in Britain, the US and beyond.

The anglo-jewish establishment regularly attacked the paper, denouncing it in print, accusing the writers of not being reals jews, and attempting to bribe the printer and compositors to sabotage it, (supporters collected cash to buy their own press). Partly the better-off and longer established jewish hierarchy feared being identified (by the British upper and middle classes they were so keen to join) with the poor jews of the East End; on class grounds the jewish establishment took a dim view of the radicals they saw as stirring up trouble. For its part, Arbeter Fraint took pot shots at respectable anglicised jewry, in particular attacking the Chief Rabbi, mainly for his refusal to intervene in the issue of the poverty of East End jews and the exploitation (‘sweating’) of poor Jewish tailors by rich Jewish employers.

Gradually the Arbeter Fraint group hardened into a more anarchist position, recruiting several libertarian writers and poets,

They were heavily involved in the agitation among East End jewish tailors that lead to a huge tailors strike in 1889… 6000 tailors struck for a broad range of demands – reductions in working hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours… 120 workshops were idle. The strike was won after much agitation, but the masters started to break agreements immediately, and the organisation that had grown up .

After the demise of the Berner Street club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings in the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included such anarchist luminaries as Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

Increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who bcame an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

According to Rudolf Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, mostly tailors: “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”
The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

Under Rocker’s leadership, Arbeter Fraint and the group around it were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes including a 3 week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered… The effects of this were not totally reversed till the seminal 1912 tailors Strike; when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a strike of West End (mainly non-Jewish) tailors, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel, which brought out 13,000 Jewish tailors. Demands for a 9 hr working day, day work not piece work, higher wages, unionised closed shops, an end to bad conditions at work, were in the end won by the superhuman energy of Rocker and many others, working day and night for the strike, which saw Arbeter Fraint come out as a daily strike sheet. Other Jewish unions supported the strike fully. Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions…

Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group also worked hard to unite Jewish workers and east End dockers (traditionally very anti-immigrant as a rule). The AF group encouraged Jewish working class support for the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers’ children into their homes during great poverty among the dockers in 1912… Links were made in these years that lasted decades, bearing fruit into the 1930s, the struggle against fascism, and to the Battle of Cable Street…

However the East End Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with the onset of World War 1. Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ throughout the war, as were a number of others. The Arbeter Fraint, from the start opposing the war, was suppressed by the British government. Heavy repression fell on jewish and other workers who opposed the war. And many Jews and other exiles returned to Russia with the 1917 revolution. Of those that remained, many anarchos and syndicalists joined the new Communist Party, enthused by the seeming success of the Soviet regime; others left the movement, emigrated to the USA, or moved to other parts of London. To some extent also, Rocker’s charismatic influence had become all-important to the maintenance of the Arbeter Fraint, and the wider movement, and without him it fell apart.

Much more on the brilliant and inspiring story of the Arbeter Fraint can be read in:

Rudolf Rocker, The London Years.

and

William Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914.

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

Today in London herstory: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson born, pioneering woman doctor & suffragist, Whitechapel, 1836.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Newson Garrett (1812–1893) and Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born in Whitechapel, London on 9th June 1836.

Elizabeth’s father had originally ran a pawnbroker’s shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.

After two years at a school in Blackheath, Elizabeth was expected to stay in the family home until she found a man to marry. However, Elizabeth was more interested in obtaining employment. While visiting a friend in London in 1854, Elizabeth met Emily Davies, a young women with strong opinions about women’s rights. Davies introduced Elizabeth to other young feminists living in London.

In 1859 Garrett met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor. Elizabeth decided she also wanted a career in medicine. Her parents were initially hostile to the idea but eventually her father, Newson Garrett, agreed to support her attempts to become Britain’s first woman doctor.

Garrett tried to study in several medical schools but they all refused to accept a woman student. Garrett therefore became a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors. After complaints from male students Elizabeth was forbidden entry to the lecture hall.

Garrett discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned for taking their examinations. In 1865 Garrett sat and passed the Apothecaries examination. As soon as Garrett was granted the certificate that enabled her to become a doctor, the Society of Apothecaries changed their regulations to stop other women from entering the profession in this way. With the financial support of her father, Elizabeth Garrett was able to establish a medical practice in London.

Elizabeth Garrett was now a committed feminist and in 1865 she joined with her friends Emily Davies,Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman’s discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group organized a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.

Although Parliament rejected the petition, the women did receive support from Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth became friendly with Fawcett, the blind MP for Brighton, but she rejected his marriage proposal, as she believed it would damage her career. Fawcett later married her younger sister Millicent Garrett.

In 1866 Garrett established a dispensary for women in London (later renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital) and four years later was appointed a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Elizabeth was determined to obtain a medical degree and after learning French, went to the University of Paris where she sat and passed the required examinations. However, the British Medical Register refused to recognise her MD degree.

During this period Garrett became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler over the Contagious Diseases Acts. Josephine believed these acts discriminated against women and felt that all feminists should support their abolition. Garrett took the view that the measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children.

Although she was a supporter of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) she was not an active member during this period. According to her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, she thought “it would be unwise to be identified with a second unpopular cause. Nevertheless she gave her whole-hearted adherence.”

The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote and serve on School Boards. Garrett stood in London and won more votes than any other candidate. The following year she married James Skelton Anderson, a co-owner of the of the Orient Steamship Company, and the financial adviser to the East London Hospital.

Like other feminists at the time, Elizabeth Garrett retained her own surname. Although James Anderson supported Elizabeth’s desire to continue as a doctor the couple became involved in a dispute when he tried to insist that he should take control of her earnings.

Elizabeth had three children, Louisa Garrett Anderson, Margaret who died of meningitis, and Alan. This did not stop her continuing her medical career and in 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women inLondon, a hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired her to become a doctor, was appointed professor of gynecology.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also joined with Sophia Jex-Blake to establish a London Medical School for Women. Jex-Blake expected to put in charge but Garrett believed that her temperament made her unsuitable for the task and arranged for Isabel Thorne to be appointed instead. In 1883 Garrett Anderson was elected Dean of the London School of Medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake was the only member of the council who voted against this decision.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Elizabeth’s sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was elected president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. By this time Elizabeth was a member of the Central Committee of the NUWSS.

In 1902 Garrett Anderson retired to Aldeburgh. Garrett Anderson continued her interest in politics and in 1908 she was elected mayor of the town – the first woman mayor in England. When Garret Anderson was seventy-two, she became a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1908 was lucky not to be arrested after she joined with other members of the WSPU to storm the House of Commons. In October 1909 she went on a lecture tour with Annie Kenney.

However, Elizabeth left the WSPU’s in 1911 as she objected to their arson campaign. Her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson remained in the WSPU and in 1912 was sent to prison for her militant activities. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was upset when she heard the news and wrote to her sister: “I am in hopes she will take her punishment wisely, that the enforced solitude will help her to see more in focus than she always does.” However, the authorities realised the dangers of her going on hunger strike and released her.

Evelyn Sharp spent time with Elizabeth and Louisa Garrett Anderson at their cottage in the Highlands: “Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland…. It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills. Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world.”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died on 17th December 1917.

(This post was stolen wholesale from Spartacus Educational… because they said what had to be said)

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

Today in London transport history: Police seize a no 11 bus for a mobile custody suite, 2002.

It’s the question every Londoner should know the answer to – what number bus route runs from Tower Hill, via Shoreditch, Islington, Plumstead, to Walworth? The no 11 of course… well, now and again…

It all began on June 4 2002, the day of the Queen’s golden jubilee. More than 14,000 police were on duty as tens of thousands of people thronged London.

Among them was a small group of anti-monarchist protesters. They had held a peaceful demonstration shouting anti-royal slogans at Tower Hill, before retiring to the Goodman’s Fields pub nearby for a lunchtime pint.

However such a handful of dangerous anarchists, er, drinking, having, er, left the scene of the protest, were obviously, er, up to something. So police surrounded the pub, questioned people leaving, nicked anyone they didn’t like the look of, and finally entered the pub in force and arrested 19 people.

Marching them outside, (two police officers per demonstrator), they then searched them all. However, there must have been a shortage of police vans that day, as they then flagged down a passing no 11 bus, on its way to Bow, and persuaded the driver to use it to transport the prisoners. It’s not known whether the driver was coerced, or was an ardent monarchist, generally a fan of law and order, or just looking to relieve the mindless tedium of his job.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said the bus was needed because of the number of people arrested and the scores of officers who accompanied them: “The officers used their ingenuity. They saw a passing bus, spoke with the driver, and it was agreed that they could use it as a mode of transportation.”

It’s good to see police using their initiative. Shame it was to cost the Met eighty thousand quid.

Some of the arrested were handcuffed, then the bus, sped off, running red lights, and dropping off arrestees, first at Bishopsgate copshop, then in Shoreditch, then Islington, before trundling down south over the river Thames to Plumstead in south-east London. The last protesters were dropped off at Walworth Road station. They sere held for several hours, but no one was charged.

However the two and a half hour magical mystery tour ended badly – faced with legal action for wrongful arrest, the police admitted that they had no evidence to detain the demonstrators and had to apologise.

The Metropolitan police’s attempt at running a tourist bus costing the force £80,000 and a grovelling apology. The 23 protesters each received £3,500 as the Met settled their lawsuit out of court.

In the letter of apology, the Met wrote: “I am writing to apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan police for the fact that you were arrested and detained for some hours.”

Adding insult to injury for the shame-faced Met, several of the protestors donated part of their compensation to the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group, who used it to reprint yet another edition of the iconic ‘No Comment’ booklet, which is distributed free and advises demonstrators and other troublemakers on their rights on arrest and the best ways to respond to police questioning. Using police payouts to fund ‘No Comment’ has become something of a tradition over the least decade. Thanks, Scotland Yard.

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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