The first peak of the anti-fascist campaign came with the events at Lewisham in August 1977, which led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League and from there to the two Rock Against Racism carnivals. The events at Southall were different. Sustained fighting between anti-fascist demonstrators and the police ended this time with the defeat of the anti-fascists and the killing of one demonstrator, Blair Peach. Peach’s murder resulted in a series of further events: an inquest, a verdict of unlawful killing and the eventual disbanding of the Met’s Special Patrol Group. Within days of Southall, Margaret Thatcher had also been elected prime minister. The Front suffered a humiliating setback. But so did Labour. Both the left and the far right suffered.

The fighting at Southall needs to be set against a background of clashes between the National Front and the left or young Asians. There were places of conflict in west, north, east and south-east London. Anna recalls weekly fighting at Chapel Market in Islington. ‘It got very bad in the winter of 1978 and 1979. You’d see seven or eight Union Jacks on a great spike flag, a hundred fascists at a time.’ So how did anti-fascists respond? ‘We produced leaflets every week, on a Gestetner machine. We were getting support from the local unions. We leafleted every estate. We knocked on every door. The clashes at the market were just at the end of that work.’

Demonstrations now routinely ended in fighting. Early in 1978, the NF attempted to stage its first Young National Front Rally in the centre of Birmingham. Five thousand people protested against them, clashing with police wielding batons and riot shields.  In Leicester, on 21 April 1979, an estimated 2,000 anti-fascists mobilized to oppose less than 1,000 NF supporters. The police re-routed the shaken NF march out of Leicester, and then attacked the remaining anti-fascists. The news showed police dogs chasing anti-fascists on to the Leicester University campus. Eighty-two people were arrested, including Balwinder Rana from Southall in west London, who was stopped by four plain-clothes officers and bundled into an unmarked car while on his way home. For Mike from Preston, Leicester was a victory ‘even more clearly than Lewisham’. David from Leeds was less upbeat: ‘The police were completely out of control and I remember discussing that someone was going to be killed soon.’

Whose police?

Many anti-fascists also remembered the role of the police at Wood Green or at Lewisham, when anti-racists had hoped to block marches called by the National Front, but had instead come face to face with the Metropolitan Police, and had been on the receiving end of considerable violence. After Lewisham, National Front News publicly thanked the police for their successful ‘organization’ of the day’s events, which had allowed the march to continue for as long as it did.  The following month, Arthur Bailey, secretary of the Lancashire Police Federation, gave a public speech criticizing the Trades Union Congress for its public endorsement of anti-fascism, suggesting that the trade union campaign against the far right marked ‘the beginning of the end of free speech’.

According to David R from Leeds, ‘the police response [to anti-racism] was at best sneering and abusive, and at worst brutal’. For Kim Gordon of the black socialist group Flame, the crucial issue was stop and search – ‘police harassment’ that rose with the soaring black unemployment of these years. The black paper Samaj suggested that young blacks were victims of a police desire for reprisal, following the riots at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. ‘Because there is nothing that the police can find against them, they are being charged for “Sus” (“being suspected persons loitering with intent to steal”) or for “conspiracy with persons unknown to rob persons unknown”.’

In Preston, according to local Anti-Nazi League activists, the National Front openly boasted of having a ‘sympathetic friend’ within the force. Such claims might be dismissed as bluster, were it not for the signs of co-operation between the state and the far right.

In Manchester a defence campaign was created to support Nazir and Munir Ahmed. On 2 July 1978, strangers attacked the Ahmeds’ shop in Longsight. There was racist graffiti up all over the area, and the Ahmeds assumed that the attackers were linked to the National Front. But when the brothers attempted to call the police, they learned that their assailants were in fact plain-clothes officers. Nazir and Munir Ahmed were eventually charged on several counts, including assault on a policeman, wounding with intent and carrying offensive weapons. They could count themselves doubly unfortunate. For most victims of racist attacks, the police merely contributed to the problem; they were not the problem itself.

Steve, the defence lawyer for Nazir and Munir Ahmed, suggests that the Longsight police were operating lynch law. ‘The police were just out of control. That was beyond anything that would have been sanctioned by the top cops.’ After Lewisham, the use of truncheons and riot shields became standard. More resources were given to the Special Patrol Group, more use made of the Public Order Act.

Police from as far away as Birmingham marshalled Martin Webster’s one-man march through Hyde. A young doctor, Annie, recalls watching the pictures of this march on television in Brazil, where she was on holiday. Walking at the head of several hundred police, NF leader Webster’s demonstration looked as much to her like a police as much as a fascist exercise. ‘A Labour government was prepared to use whatever it took to ensure that a fascist could march.’

Manchester chief constable James Anderton was a passionate authoritarian, who believed that God sanctioned his interventions. Anderton attempted to ban gynaecologists from the city (or at least those who allowed abortions), and enforced the harassment of gay men. His officers introduced a ‘preference’ system for journalists, and also prosecuted more obscenity cases than every other force in the country combined. Activists were not pleased to learn in March 1978 that Manchester police had received a special delivery of Armalite rifles and Sterling sub-machine guns. They were later tested in exercises in Collyhurst, a working-class district. The Manchester police were said to possess more powerful guns in greater numbers than even the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast.

Throughout the late 1970s, many anti-racists continued to believe that the police were neutral or even on their side. Bev from Nottingham ‘didn’t get involved in any confrontation during demos’ and generally found the police ‘quite tolerant and unprovocative’. If the police stopped anti-fascists, others argued, then this was only because the fascists were the ones holding the meetings, and the anti-fascists were the ones on the attack. The initiative belonged to the far left. If the situation were reversed, surely the police would protect anti-fascists?

Colin Barnett of the Northwest TUC argued this line through the protests in Hyde. He suggested that, once the first fascist march had been banned, opponents would do better to ignore subsequent provocations and leave the handling of the National Front to the police.  Generally, it was the Labour Party and members of business associations who argued this line, but even some socialists attempted at times to avoid permanent confrontation. If the fighting was always between police and anti-racists, as it had been at Lewisham, then the lines dividing left and right might be obscured.

While some anti-racists argued that police hostility was purely a tactic, and that in the last resort the police would come to their aid, others remembered the protest in support of the Lewisham 21 in July 1977, a month before the more famous Lewisham anti-fascist protest. There, it was fascists who had charged and attacked anti-racists. The police still found 23 anti-fascists to arrest.

Others remembered the brutal scenes at Grunwick in July and August 1977, when the police had determined to remove the pickets supporting around 100 Asian strikers. Police officers were observed smashing press cameras, hitting one teenager’s head repeatedly against the bonnet of a car, dragging strike leader Jayaben Desai by her hair through the crowd, and kicking one black worker repeatedly in the face. T

he argument between anti-fascists over whether police racism was accidental or institutional came again to the fore at Southall, on 23 April 1979. It was a full police riot against the left and the Asian community. Southall kids are innocent Southall had a largely Asian population. According to the 1976 census, 46 per cent of the local population had parents born in the Commonwealth or Pakistan, or were born there themselves. The National Front had few supporters in Southall or anywhere in the borough of Ealing. Their intervention was all about muscling into an area from the outside.

The protests began when the Conservative council agreed to let the town hall to the NF, to hold an election meeting. In June 1976, an NF-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall. Local young people had responded by turning out in large numbers to remember the dead youth, before marching on the town’s police station. The following weekend, some 7,000 people marched through Southall carrying placards, ‘Powell is a murderer’ and ‘We are here to stay’.  They also joined a great demonstration against racist attacks through central London. The memory of the state’s failure to take action against the killers helped to give later events their edge.

Prominent local Anti-Nazi League activist Balwinder Rana remembers reading about the NF meeting in the Ealing Gazette: ‘The news spread like wildfire. People felt very angry and insulted.’ Pete Alexander was a former student and anti-apartheid activist. By spring 1979, he was the Socialist Workers Party west London organizer. Alexander recalls the strength of local organization. Forces included a large Anti-Nazi League group and the Southall Youth Movement (SYM), established in 1976 after the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar. There were also branches of the SWP and a black socialist organization, Peoples Unite, with its headquarters at 6 Park View. Each group worked with the local branches of the left-wing Indian Workers’ Association, led by Vishnu Sharma, who was close to the Communist Party, and his deputy, Labour councillor Piara Khabra.  The International Marxist Group also had members in Southall, and the IMG’s leading speaker, Tariq Ali, was a Socialist Unity candidate for Southall in the April 1979 election. The Indian Workers’ Association, based in Coventry, had a branch in Southall, known as the IWA(GB). Better here than elsewhere, Alexander argues, there were organizations that could mobilize popular anger.

We should not exaggerate, however, the warmth of the relationships between different left-wing and community groups. Balraj Purewal was one of the founders of the Southall Youth Movement. He remembers having contact with left-wing parties, and takes pride in the independence that his young comrades kept from a majority ‘white’ left. ‘Even now I don’t know what left and right in Southall means. Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over . . . they gave us their own slogans and placards.’ Balwinder Rana, recalls this period differently. He had emigrated from India back in 1964. In 1969, he had been the founding president of the Indian Youth Federation, the first political Asian youth organization in Britain. He joined the International Socialists in 1974 and worked as a full-time organizer. He had also led anti-National Front campaigns at Gravesend in Kent. Today, he remains sceptical of the community movements:

“Before 1979, I felt that people in Southall were not interested. I used to organize coaches to protest marches against the NF everywhere. But it all used to be white people; never more than twenty Asians came. The Southall Youth Movement, when it started, was very good. Locally, they often fought against the fascists and they gave us a hope that we had reached a turning point in our struggles against fascism. But they did not develop politically and became very parochial. They hardly ever went outside Southall to confront the fascists and would often say that the NF would never come to Southall. It was a big shock for people when the NF came into Southall.”

If the left succeeded in mobilizing people, this took hard work and a practical desire for unity. Following the news that the council had agreed to let the hall, local activists decided to call a mass meeting to organize protests. Rana contacted Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association. Why didn’t they just organize a small activists’ meeting under the auspices of the Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Anti-Nazi League? ‘If the left had called it, the press would have been hostile.’ The plan was to hold a delegate meeting, with no more than two people present from any one organization. ‘We didn’t want the churches or the community relations council taking it over.’

Local socialists toured around the unions, women’s and community groups in Hounslow, Southall, Ealing and Hayes to build support for the meeting. When it gathered, the entire local movement was represented – not just community groups, but engineers, teachers and hospital workers. The meeting itself was divided. Two police officers showed up. A vote was taken to exclude them. Piara Khabra from the Indian Workers’ Association argued that the best tactic would be to call a stay-away. The focus should be on a demonstration before the National Front’s meeting. Yet the Anti-Nazi League and their allies in the unions were determined to confront the NF head-on. Socialists addressed the IWA meeting. Vishnu Sharma was also sympathetic to their ideas. Pete Alexander remembers, ‘We moved a resolution that workers should go on strike and walk out, to stop the meeting taking place. The top table didn’t know how to respond. They went into closed session, and then came back. They agreed.’ A programme was also agreed:

To petition the Ealing Borough Council to request the cancellation of the booking of the hall for the National Front;  The petition to be put to the Council on the day before the demonstration, on Sunday 22 April, after a march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall;  That all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards.

It was decided that on the day of the NF meeting there should be a peaceful sit-in on roads around the town hall, and that those arrested should comply peacefully. Rana was elected chief steward. The meeting also set up a co-ordinating committee, which distributed some 25,000 leaflets and 1,000 window posters around the borough, stressing that the protest was to be peaceful. As well as these materials, the ANL produced a number of leaflets in English and Punjabi, while Socialist Worker ran a front-page headline, ‘Shut Down Southall’. On 18 April, representatives from the co-ordinating committee met with Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary, visiting Ealing as part of Labour’s election campaign. Rees insisted that he possessed no powers to ban an election meeting. The Chief Superintendent of Southall Police requested a meeting with ‘community leaders’, including some protest organizers, such as Vishnu Sharma.

Balwinder Rana was also there. ‘When I came in, they were sat there with their hands clasped; it looked like they were praying. The Superintendent made a speech warning that left-wingers wanted to destroy the town: “Next week evil is coming.”’ Rana responded that he only knew one kind of evil, the racism of the National Front. ‘Then Vishnu Sharma jumped up, and supported what I said. Then all the others began to nod their heads in agreement!’

On Sunday, 22 April, the day before the election meeting, 5,000 marched to Ealing town hall to protest, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 people. This was a huge demonstration, with all sections of the population represented, including older women in long white dresses and Sikh men in turbans and beards. But even this march was attacked, with the police picking fights all along the way. Rana recalls his attempts to negotiate with the senior officer in the car park before the demonstration set off. ‘I asked him why there were so many police, and horses. He said that they were for our protection. He had information that the National Front might attack us. I said there’s five thousand of us here, there’s no way the NF are going to try anything. But he wouldn’t take them away.’ In an atmosphere of mistrust, trouble was always likely to break out:

One young demonstrator was playing around. He flipped a copper’s hat off as a joke. But rather than taking it as a joke, they arrested him and dragged him away. I stopped the march, we all sat down in the middle of Southall, outside the police station, and I went in to talk to the chief superintendent. They wouldn’t let him go. So I said, ‘If you don’t let him go, I can’t be responsible for what happens.’ They threatened to arrest me, and I said, ‘Go on then’, and within five minutes, they’d let him go.

At this point, there were 5,000 people in the middle of Southall, with more watching. The police were not going to try anything there. But as the marchers left central Southall, snatch squads grabbed another 20. Despite such provocations, Pete Alexander recalls that protesters remained optimistic about preventing the National Front meeting from taking place. ‘We had wind that the strikes were going to happen. It was clear that the protests were going to be big.’ Black and Asian workers, including staff at Heathrow airport, were at the front of the protests. Activists, including members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, were also able to pull off a strike at Ford Langley. A number of other local workplaces with a predominantly white workforce also backed the strike call, including workers at Sunblest bakery, Walls’ pie factory and Quaker Oats.  These were large-scale strikes, uniting black and white workers, to protest against the NF presence in Southall. Maybe more than anything else, they reveal the success of several years’ active campaigning by left and black activists. The Anti-Nazi League provided the opportunity to make unity work.

A very British coup

Monday, 23 April was St George’s Day. To celebrate, the borough council chose this day to fly the Union Jack from Southall town hall. To most passers-by, this decision seemed crass. Why did the council choose this day of all days to proclaim their British nationalism? On closer reflection, the decision seems even odder. If they wanted to celebrate England, the council could have chosen the red and white cross of St George. But the Union Jack was the British flag. To the young anti-racist protesters, such ‘accidents’ felt sinister. As far as they were concerned, just about the only people in 1970s Britain under the age of 50 who spontaneously identified with flag-waving nationalism were the supporters of the Front. It seemed the council had decided that the most appropriate response to the presence of an Asian minority among their own people was to support the violent racists of the NF.

The police began to arrive in Southall early in the morning. Coaches were parked all over the town centre, and officers on horses were seen patrolling the streets. People felt that the presence of such large numbers of policemen, so early in the day, was a provocation. The mood was tense. Local shops, factories and transport closed at 1 p.m., and people began to gather at the town centre from lunchtime.

One problem for the organizers was that the National Front were not even due to start their meeting until 7.30 in the evening. If workers were going to strike against the NF, as many did, then it should be at least a half-day strike. According to Balwinder Rana, ‘the shops closed at 1 p.m. We asked people to assemble outside the town hall at 5 p.m.’

Before the left and the striking workers, young Asians arrived on the scene first. Rumours had spread that the police were already trying to smuggle National Front members into the town hall. Thus members of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) began to assemble outside the town hall from around 12.30 p.m., while others were waiting for the official 5 p.m. starting time. Balraj Purewal led a march of some 30 to 40 members of SYM, along South Road, to the town centre. People joined along the way, so that on reaching the town hall, the SYM contingent had swelled to around 100, and eventually 200 people. They attempted to form a picket outside the town hall and were forcibly dispersed by the police. Soon, up to 40 arrests had been made. Members of the SYM attempted to meet with senior police officers, but were turned away.

The people around the Southall Youth Movement had fallen victim to rumours and were determined to confront both the National Front and the police. According to one activist interviewed by the BBC in Southall, ‘This is our future, right? Our leaders will do nothing . . . our leaders wanted a peaceful sit down, but what can you do with a peaceful sit down here? We had to do something, the young people. We don’t want a situation like the East End where our brothers and sisters are being attacked every day.’  Pete Alexander contrasts the mass tactics of groups such as the Indian Workers’ Association with those of the SYM:

“The IWA mobilised their forces through the afternoon and did march at about 5 p.m. in the afternoon, i.e. on time. The Southall Youth Movement lacked discipline. Responding to the provocation of the police, and in an attempt to show how militant they were, they marched a few hundred youths towards the town hall in the early afternoon. Given their relatively small numbers, it was easy for the cops to deal with. This not only took some of them out of the fray before things had really started; it also gave the cops some justification for occupying the centre of Southall.”

The left set up headquarters initially at the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, at 46 High Street, close to the centre of town, but far enough to prevent the building from coming under attack. Stewards were provided with red armbands. First aid centres were set up, and there was a legal advice unit and even an unofficial ambulance. The organizers of the protests feared that the police would turn violent.

Paul Holborow recalls that ‘There was a threatening police presence throughout the day. Their only purpose was to intimidate people.’ Pete Alexander goes further: ‘It was a military occupation.’ A Catholic priest, Father Thomas Lloyd, described seeing a police coach with the ace of spades held against the window, and ‘NF’ written by officers on the steamed-up glass.  Huge numbers of police, some 2,756 officers in all, were used to break up the anti-fascist protests. By 2 or 3 p.m., the police were in control of the town hall. The members of the Southall Youth Movement were dispersed across the surrounding area, and as new contingents of demonstrators arrived, they too were moved on – frequently by force.

One of the most frightening aspects that Balwinder Rana remembers was the noise that the police made by drumming their sticks against their riot shields. The purpose of the police operation was not to arrest any wrongdoers, but to intimidate and ultimately hurt as many of the protesters as possible. By 3.30, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, meaning that it was now free of anti-fascists. Meanwhile, rain had begun to fall by the bucket-load, further dampening the mood. In order to keep the town centre secure, the police established a series of roadblocks that nobody was allowed to pass – not even the people who actually lived on the streets that were being closed.

At one stage the police observed that several dozen anti-fascists had boarded a number 207 bus in an attempt to escape through the police lines. The police then boarded the bus and removed demonstrators by force. Several windows were smashed in the fighting.

According to Pete Alexander, ‘Our original headquarters, where we had planned to have medical and legal support, was in the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, but because of the police occupation we could not operate from there. As a consequence we moved further out, into the Peoples Unite building.’ This community centre was associated with the band Misty and the Roots. It was just outside the main roadblock. By late afternoon, four separate protests had been established at each of the main blocks, with thousands of people at each one.

Balwinder Rana tried to keep people’s morale up, speaking on platforms, working to ensure that as much of the protest as possible could be held together. There should be no repeat of the situation in mid-afternoon, when one group had been cut off from the rest. The situation was desperately unclear. Protesters were still anxious to block the town hall. Police officers meanwhile were refusing to negotiate even with the organizers of the protest. Their orders were that there should be no compromise with the crowd. Rana also noticed that the diversity of Sunday’s protest had not been reflected in Monday’s scene. The older men had not appeared. There were fewer of the women who had marched. Rumours of a fight were keeping many people at home. Pete Alexander recalls the geography of the police riot:

“At the centre of Southall there’s a crossroads: one road going to the west (Broadway), one to the north (Lady Margaret Road, one to the east (Uxbridge Road) and one to the south (South Road). The town hall, where the meeting took place, is on the corner between the north and east streets. The police station is about 80 metres along Uxbridge Road, on the same side of the road as the town hall. After the Southall Youth Movement’s abortive march, the cops took control of the crossroads and the whole area between it and eastwards beyond the police station. When I say ‘took control’ I mean armoured cars, cavalry, the ordinary riot cops in large numbers and helicopters. The Indian Workers’ Association and others blocked the South Road; we – the Anti-Nazi League and others – blocked the Uxbridge Road. Blair Peach and others worked their way around to the Broadway, but we had too few people to the north and the police were able get the National Front in that way.”

The real trouble started as the day turned to dusk. There was still a large group of demonstrators, sitting peacefully on the Broadway, blocking the western route into Southall. One demonstrator, Peter B, was part of this group. In his memory,

“At about 7.30 p.m. the good humour of the crowd was shattered . . . a roar went through the crowd, emanating from the rear. People turned and looked westwards down the street. I saw, to my amazement, a coach being driven fast straight into the back of the crowd. It was a private coach, an ordinary 30–40 seat char-a-banc. At a cautious estimate, I would put the speed of it at 15 m.p.h., which is murderous when it is being driven into a crowd.”

The coach was carrying police officers and some 20 members of the National Front, whose objective was the town hall. From this point onwards, the situation was one of a general mêlée. The crowds were dispersed, the coach broke through. The crowds gathered again. Other police vehicles followed, and demonstrators attempted to block them. They were beaten back. One anti-fascist later reported, ‘Every time people tried to push through the police lines, mounted police on horse-back laid into the demonstrators, beating them to the ground and arresting some of them.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick contrasts Southall with previous protests. ‘After Lewisham, it was much more disparate. The ANL was trying to work with the IWA and with the local community. There was no centralized decision-making. The police were more determined, and willing to use violence. We were broken up too quickly. The police had more control.’ According to Rana, ‘People started to throw bricks. The police used horses. They drove vans into the crowd, and fast, to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with whatever they could pick up.’

Individuals ran into the park, or sheltered in homes, or in the Peoples Unite building where medical facilities were stretched beyond breaking. The police could see how Peoples Unite on Park View was being used, and determined to clear the building. Officers entered the building, occupied it, and gave instructions to the people sheltering there to leave. They formed a gauntlet along the hall and the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the building, bleeding from his head. Clarence Baker, the pacifist manager of Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma. The solicitor John Witzenfeld was inside when the police attacked:

“they kicked in the panel on the door to the medical unit and waving their truncheons told us to get out. I was pushed into the hall with the others behind me. Suddenly I felt a blow to the back of my head and I managed to half-turn and saw a hand holding a truncheon disappearing downwards . . . Whilst we were waiting for the ambulance, two police stood in the doorway with their backs to us whilst people were brought down from upstairs and I saw truncheons rise and fall and I heard shouts and screams from the women.”

The building itself was so badly damaged by the police action that afterwards it was demolished. Officers with batons smashed medical equipment, a sound system, printing and other items. Jack Dromey, a senior official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, told an inquiry called by the National Council of Civil Liberties, ‘I have never seen such unrestrained violence against demonstrators . . . The Special Patrol Group were just running wild.’  His view was echoed by Mrs Dialo Sandu, a Southall resident who was spat at by one police officer as she watched the riot unfold from the security of her front garden ‘They treated us like animals. It’s the first time I would ever speak against the police. But I saw what happened with my own eyes.’

Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot. Dozens of anti-Nazis were beaten. At least three suffered fractured skulls. Others were kicked until they lost consciousness. There is no doubt that the police sought to inflict as much pain, physical and psychological, as they could. Caroline, then an active member of the Anti-Nazi League in Ealing, spent the night driving between Southall and Heathrow. ‘Many of the Asian kids that the police arrested, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of London. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motorways, nowhere near telephones or anything. These young kids were confused, crying. The police just wanted to humiliate them.’

So why were the police so violent? According to Caroline, ‘They wanted revenge for Lewisham.’ After the storming of Peoples Unite, Balwinder Rana was forced to escape by jumping over a garage, and hid from a street full of police horses. The organizers had the numbers of all the phone boxes in central Southall, and had thought that they would be able to keep in contact. But the police occupied the town centre, including the boxes. Angered, disorientated, the protesters attempted to regroup. Perminder Dhillon described her memories of the day’s events in an article for the socialist feminist magazine Spare Rib.

“Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a restaurant where Rock Against Racism and Indian music had been blaring out all evening, drowning out the National Front speakers inside the town hall. Their wounds still bleeding, people saw the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, and other ‘experts’ on the black community condemning the people of Southall for their unprovoked attack on the police! As usual, only pictures of injured policemen were shown – nothing of the pregnant women being attacked and the countless other police assaults.”

One historian, Nigel Copsey, has described how the police ‘contributed to disorder’ as the day went on, ‘first by making peaceful protest impossible, and then by attempting to disperse the crowd using aggressive tactics, such as “snatch squads”, charging with riot shields, truncheons and horses, and even driving vans into the crowd’.  By the end of the day, according to police records, over 700 had been arrested, and some 342 people charged. This number actually underestimated the number of police detentions. These were the largest arrests in Britain on a single day for decades.

Blair Peach was part of the crowds blocking the western approach, as Uxbridge Road joined the Broadway. Along with his friends, Peach saw the police break a route through for the National Front to hold their meeting. Frightened by the intensity of the police violence, Peach and friends headed south. Beechcroft Avenue was not cordoned off, and it must have seemed a way to escape from the fighting. But Beechcroft Road was no real haven: at its far end, the road led straight back on to Uxbridge Road – back to the police lines. According to one later report:

The police formed up across Northcote Avenue, moved across the Broadway and charged into Beechcroft Avenue, carrying riot shields and truncheons. They were moving at a fast walk, but according to some witnesses broke into a run. Once into Beechcroft Avenue, they made way for two Special Patrol Group vans which drove into a street beside them, went round the junction with Orchard Avenue and stopped inside Orchard Avenue. The police officers moved after them. The vans opened, and now more police officers got out. It was at this time, at the junction of Beechcroft and Orchard Avenues that Blair Peach was attacked and fatally injured.

Peach’s body was found towards the end of the road, on a corner that faced back towards the town hall. The family opposite tried to shelter him, not realizing that he was already dying. Peach had sustained a head injury and was taken to Ealing Hospital by ambulance, arriving at about 8 p.m. Death was pronounced shortly after midnight. By about 10 p.m., the organizers of the anti-fascist protest had succeeded in opening a second headquarters. Most of the protesters had gone, and the police began to scale down their operations. The mood was downbeat. Balwinder Rana heard the news of his fellow demonstrator’s death. ‘I knew Blair Peach. We used to gather every Sunday at Brick Lane. The NF tried to speak there, and we tried to stop them. The police said whoever comes first can have the spot. So we would camp out there Saturday night, even Friday night, to stop the fascists. It was there I met Blair Peach.’ It is one thing to lose a stranger, another to lose a comrade whom you have known in struggle.

Blair Peach

In the aftermath of 23 April, anti-fascists were riven by competing feelings of guilt, anger and remorse. The very next morning, at 11 a.m., Commander Cass, who was in charge of investigating the previous day’s events, began by interviewing Amanda Leon, who had been with Blair Peach when he was killed. Leon quickly took the initiative. She told Commander Cass, ‘I saw a police officer strike Blair Peach with an overarm blow with a truncheon . . . I only saw one blow struck. The truncheon made contact on Blair Peach’s head. I don’t know what part of the head the blow fell on. My impression was that it was the back of his head because he was running away.’ She described Peach’s killing as an assault. She said that she herself had been hit on the head with a baton by a police officer and that she had seen a man lying on the ground with a policeman bending over him and hitting him in the testicles. Leon tried to use her interview with Cass to begin a complaint against the police. He, of course, refused to investigate it. Later, the police attempted for seven years to keep the text of their interview secret. It was only released following a High Court injunction.

Blair Peach was a teacher and a member of the SWP. He was 33, a trade unionist and a veteran of campaigns for the participation of the local community in education, in solidarity with struggles in Ireland and South Africa. According to Roger Huddle, ‘He was a very gentle, quiet man. He was absolutely incensed about racism.’ Chris Searle describes Peach in the following terms: ‘there was a particular electricity about Blair’s spoken interventions. He had a stammer that sometimes interfered with his delivery. Yet his personal courage was such that his words and arguments always emerged, forged through a determination that you could feel was willing his voice forward.’  Annie was the doctor in the first aid room. Even today, she holds that Blair’s killing had been given the highest authorization.

What was remarkable on 23 April is that only one person died, given the number of overarm truncheon blows to the head. Those of us in 6 Park View were made to go through a gauntlet of police doing this to each and every one of us as we left the house, and then we were told to go back into the house. Most police would have or should have been trained in the possible effects of blows to the head, and in fact police in general are told to try to avoid hitting on the head, as any blow to the head is potentially fatal. The reason is not only the blow itself, but the after-effects of it, which include bleeding into or around the brain, which may not be detected until it is too late. On 23 April, not only were heavier than normal truncheons used, but police throughout the demo used these heavy truncheons to hit people on the head. Someone somewhere must have said this was OK. Someone somewhere was prepared to see people killed on a demo in Britain. It was perhaps the first time in the twentieth century that this was considered an acceptable result of policing a demo in Britain. After the storm On 23 April, the Metropolitan Police ‘won’. The police succeeded in attacking and hurting as many ordinary people as possible, and also kept Ealing town hall open for the National Front meeting to take place. The Special Patrol Group was fêted for its proud role in having defended democracy from the people of Southall. In the days afterwards, the partisans of British justice took a vindictive approach towards their enemies. Some of the mood that followed can be seen in the account of one of the trials of the anti-racist protesters:

“A 14-year-old Sikh boy appeared before a magistrate at Ealing juvenile court. He had been charged with ‘threatening behaviour’ and being in possession of ‘offensive weapons’ at 6.20 p.m. on 23 April 1979. The sum total of the prosecution case was the evidence of one policeman who stated that he had seen the accused with an offensive weapon . . . The defence produced several witnesses. These included a white doctor, a white solicitor and a white ambulance man. They all testified that the boy, at the time, was being treated for a hand wound and had suffered a severe loss of blood. They knew because they were all in the legal aid room at 6 Park View. I was with them, when the police raided this address and arrested the boy in question and numerous others. But defence witnesses, even respectable ones, are not permitted to obstruct ‘the due process of law’. The boy was found guilty and fined £100. The defence argued that he had no job and no source of income. The Magistrate replied, ‘Let him find a job.’ The defence retorted that it was a criminal act for a 14-year-old to gain employment. But the Magistrate had meant a ‘paper round’ or something like that. The boy in question will be paying 75p a week for the next two years.”

This was not an article from the revolutionary press, but from the liberal Guardian. In the days following Blair Peach’s killing, the police and the courts were arrogant in their defence of power. To be black or Asian, to be young or to oppose racism was enough to constitute a crime.

Mark Steel was a young activist caught up in events at Southall. Back home afterwards, he experienced a complex of emotions, ranging from shock at the news of Blair Peach’s death to remorse that he had been excited by the clashes with the police, and guilt that he had escaped when someone else had died. What angered him most was the press coverage afterwards. ‘Every paper, news bulletin, politician, police officer and respectable member of society was yelping at how this demonstrating mob must be stopped . . . From the way it was reported, there must have been people who thought, “What on earth made those violent Anti-Nazi people want to kill that poor teacher?”’

The papers swung overwhelmingly behind the police. The Guardian was almost alone in the mainstream press in challenging the police riot.  The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The headlines were: ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Election Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arrested’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’ and ‘300 ARRESTED AT POLL RIOT’. One edition of the Daily Mail went furthest in deliberately confusing the racists and the anti-racists, proclaiming, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’.

What was so offensive about this story, and indeed about the general press coverage, was the way in which it depicted a mixed-race group of young anti-racists as violent, aggressive thugs, as much a threat to society as the National Front. Regional papers were even worse. The Hereford Evening News was critical of Southall residents for responding to the National Front. ‘However understandable the resentment of the large Asian community in the west London suburb where the National Front chose to stage a deliberately provocative election meting, there can be neither excuse nor forgiveness of their violent attacks on the police.’ Yet in some ways this article was untypical. The Hereford paper was almost alone in recognizing that the trouble had not been stirred up entirely by the Anti-Nazi League. The Oxford Mail was yet another paper to speak up for the police: ‘Because this is a free country, where even detestable organisations have to be allowed to hold election meetings to support their candidates, a big force of police was present. The organisers of the demonstration caricatured this as police repression.’ The Swindon Evening Advertiser claimed that ‘The Anti-Nazi League, which was originally sponsored, in part, by a number of respectable people who did not stop to think twice, has now degenerated into an umbrella for extreme left malcontents.’ The Nottingham Evening Post bemoaned the fact that ‘If the extreme political nut-cases want to behave as they have done, in this country of free-speech, there is little we can do to stop them, short of banning them completely.’

A number of papers called for bans against the far left. According to the Oldham Evening Chronicle, ‘the real consensus in Britain is to get the rabble of both Right and Left off the streets’. The Bradford Telegraph and Argus asked, ‘What price the Anti-Nazi League when the people it persuades to demonstrate use Nazi methods?’ The Oxford Mail termed anti-Nazi protesters ‘enemies of democracy’. Finally, the Lancashire Evening Post developed this phrase, suggesting that while the political right were irresponsible, the left were more dangerous. The ANL were an urgent and pressing threat to democracy. ‘In the short term they are more dangerous than the National Front because they hide their revolutionary and totalitarian aims behind a noble cause.’

Yet, in the days that followed, it slowly became clear that the police and their allies had gone too far. It became clear that the vast majority of local people felt an extraordinary sympathy for Blair Peach, the man who had died for them. The Metropolitan Police’s ‘military’ victory crumbled.

The murder of Blair Peach became a symbol of the unjustified use of police violence, and even re-legitimized the Anti-Nazi League within the wider Labour movement. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday, 28 April, in honour of the dead man, with 13 national trade union banners taken on the demonstration, and Ken Gill speaking on behalf of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. Workers at the Sunblest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s widow.

Balwinder Rana remembers that for the next week, protesters were everywhere, flyposting, speaking, organizing, discussing the lessons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large numbers, but they did not dare to stop people from organising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enormity of what they had done. One activist Kathy had been unable to attend the Southall demonstrations, but her husband Harry took part, and was badly beaten the police. She knew Blair Peach, and tried to make sense of his death in a poem, ‘We cannot offer words / to express our grief and our anger/ we throw red flowers / in silent explosions of pain … the red arrow of the anti-nazis / fuelled to rocket power with our collective anger.’

Rock Against Racism brought out a special leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent: ‘Southall is special. There have been police killings before . . . But on April 23rd the police behaved like never before . . . The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture . . . What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?’ Questions were asked in the Indian and New Zealand parliaments. Even the Daily Telegraph’s reporter described how the police cornered one contingent: ‘Several dozen crying, screaming demonstrators were dragged to the police station and waiting coaches . . . Nearly every demonstrator we saw had blood flowing from some injury.’

For eight weeks, Blair Peach’s body remained unburied. The day before the funeral, he was accorded a ‘lying in state’ at the Dominion Theatre in Southall. Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office had the job of protecting Peach’s body overnight.

“I remember at dawn, we were supposed to open up the building. There was already a queue of people. Later, two police showed up, an officer and a sergeant. They were asking to see Paul. Given what had happened, I was rather unhappy, but I didn’t have the gumption to stop them. After five minutes, the sergeant came out, walking quite quickly. There was the officer, after him, looking straight ahead. Then Paul’s head poked out, ‘And don’t you ever come back!’ In the circumstance of a large community and attacks on a white demonstrator who had been killed, the police quite clearly felt out of their depth.”

People remembered Blair Peach as a fighter. To them, Peach represented the best instincts of the anti-racist left. According to one commentator, Peach’s death had ‘particular reverence for the predominantly Sikh Punjabi community, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the country, and as an enemy of tyrannous oppressors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in popular bazaar calendar art.’  Finally, on 13 June 1979, Peach was buried. Ten thousand joined the procession. Following this powerful show of support, another 10,000 people marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the following year.  A middle school was named after him and further memorials have been organized on anniversaries since. Bringing the police to justice? Faced with such anger, the officials of the state did their best to close ranks. Despite 147 MPs signing a motion calling for a public inquiry, the Labour government refused this request. Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees told Sir David McNee, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that the government gave its full support to his actions. A number of documents were compiled but not published, including an internal Metropolitan Police report by Commander Cass into Blair Peach’s death, a report by Sir David McNee to the Home Secretary, the Linnet Report on complaints against the police, and a report by Deputy Commissioner Pat Kavanagh on the work of the Special Patrol Group. Following the general election, the new Conservative Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw also refused to take action. Justice Griffiths later opposed an appeal, saying that ‘on its worst construction, this is one isolated occasion of a policeman possibly using a weapon he should not have used, and hitting too hard’. The Home Office dragged its heels in opening the inquest into Peach’s death. Writing in the New Statesman, Paul Foot complained of the delays.

I wonder what the reaction would have been if a policeman, not a demonstrator, had been killed at Southall. Would the inquest have been postponed until the middle of the summer holidays? Would there have been almost total silence in the press about the murder hunt? Would the suspects have been left to carry on their jobs without being charged or even cautioned?’

When it opened, the inquest limited itself to the sole question of how Peach had died. Pathologist Professor Mant explained that the damage done to the dead man’s skull involved an instrument that had not pierced his skin. He concluded that the weapon was a cosh or a blackjack, perhaps a police radio. Sitting without a jury, the coroner refused to accept Professor Mant’s findings. In December 1979, Blair’s brother Roy appealed the coroner’s findings, taking the case as far as the Court of Appeal. Represented by the barrister and novelist John Mortimer, the family was successful in obtaining a ruling that the inquest should be carried out in front of a jury. Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, heard the case. ‘When allegations of brutality or misconduct are made against the police’, Denning found,

“and a fatality does occur, then, if the circumstances are such that something may have gone wrong, and there is a danger of it happening again, a jury should be summoned . . . We have to decide it on the hypothetical circumstances that Mr Blair Peach was struck by a policeman with something heavier than a truncheon … On those hypothetical circumstances, Mr Blair Peach’s brother is entitled to say that there must be a jury, however difficult it may be for the coroner to conduct the inquest in those circumstances.”

At the inquest, the police solicitor tried to use Professor Mant’s evidence in support of his employers. If it was true that a baton had not caused Blair Peach’s death, then it followed that Peach could not have been killed by any police officer. The coroner instructed the jurors to release the police from scrutiny. Not surprisingly, then, the verdict passed was not the condemnatory one of unlawful killing but simply ‘death by misadventure’. Yet in addition to their main verdict, the jury added three riders. First, senior officers should supervise the Special Patrol Group more closely. Second, police officers should be issued with maps before major demonstrations. Third, police lockers should be regularly searched. The effect of these three riders was to restore blame on to the police for the Southall riot.

In the words of the Anti-Nazi League’s Paul Holborow, ‘We regard the verdict as establishing beyond any doubt that police killed Blair Peach.’ The Sunday Times published reports based on leaks from the Cass Report. Attention focused on the officers of Special Patrol Group unit 1/1. At least six members of this unit were known to have travelled in the van that held Blair Peach’s killer: they were police constables Murray, White, Lake, Freestone, Scottow and Richardson. When the lockers of unit 1/1 were searched in June 1979, one officer, Greville Bint, was discovered to have in his lockers Nazi regalia, bayonets and leather-covered sticks. Another constable, Raymond ‘Chalkie’ White, attempted to hide a cosh in his anorak pocket. Either of these instruments would have been consistent with the weapon identified by Professor Mant. A brass handle was also found, a metal truncheon encased in leather about 8 inches long, a lead weight and a wooden pickaxe handle.

The National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL) organized an unofficial committee to investigate events at Southall. The members of the committee included Roger Butler of the engineering workers’ union; the lecturer Stuart Hall; Patricia Hewitt of the NCCL;  Bill Keys, a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress; Joan Lestor, the Labour MP; Dick North from the executive of the National Union of Teachers; Paul O’Higgins, a law lecturer from Cambridge University; Ranjit Sondhi from the Asian Resources Centre in Birmingham; Hewlett Thompson, the Bishop of Willesden; and Pauline Webb from the Methodist Church. The Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett chaired the committee. The Metropolitan Police boycotted the committee, giving the excuse that their time would be better spent seeking an improvement in race relations in Southall.  The final report attempted to remain even-handed, and at several points its authors explicitly criticized the organizers of the Southall protests. The idea of the committee was to draw lessons from the entire situation on the day. But the final paragraph should be quoted in full:

“The outcome of the police operation on 23 April could hardly have been worse. Many police officers and members of the public suffered serious injury. One person died, apparently at the hands of the police. And the confidence of many people in Southall in the police, and the institutions of the law, was shattered. Those protesters who, deliberately or in the heat of the moment, used violence against the police must carry their share of the responsibility for what happened. But we do not accept that the responsibility was wholly or even mainly theirs. We regard the decision to prevent the demonstration to cordon off Southall as entirely misconceived, and the failure to communicate the decision to the community organisations as disastrous. Those who regard our proposed alternatives as unsatisfactory should seriously consider whether such unacceptable consequences would have flowed from a police operation which respected the community’s right to protest; which kept them informed of the police plans; and which enabled stewards and community leaders to exercise authority over the protesters in order to ensure that, as far as was humanly possible, the demonstration remained the peaceful protest which had always been intended.”

The horror of Southall closely linked to events outside. Five days before Southall, 200 police were deployed to prevent anti-fascist protests in Battersea. Three days before, 5,000 police were used at Leicester. Two days afterwards, over 4,000 officers, including Special Branch, SPG and mounted police, were used against ant-fascists at Newham. Over 1,000 police were employed in West Bromwich on 28 April, and similar numbers at Bradford two days later. One further National Front meeting, held in Caxton Hall on 1 May, required 5,000 police to ensure that it could go ahead.  The surrounding area was sealed off all day. With this many police officers used, so often, and with such determination, it was in fact remarkable that only one person was killed. Just as importantly, the National Front public meeting at Southall was held as part of that year’s general election.

As Blair Peach lay dying, a new Conservative government was waiting to emerge. Margaret Thatcher had already staked her claim to the loyalties of former NF voters. Speaking out against immigration, Thatcher had taken up the cause dearest to them. The situation appeared all the more alarming for those young, politically conscious people who led the Anti-Nazi League. Many activists were in their mid- or late twenties. They had been schooled by the events of May 1968 and the victories of the working-class movement in the years between 1972 and 1974. They had seen local cuts and closures. But it was still possible for them to think that this brief downtime might shortly be reversed. Only slowly was the realization dawning that the worse years of the 1980s were ahead. In retrospect, the conjuncture of Blair Peach’s death and Margaret Thatcher’s victory symbolizes the end of an age.

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