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Two weeks before the election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power in May 1979, the far-right National Front (NF) held a rally at Southall town hall, west London. They were met by a huge mobilisation of anti-fascist demonstrators, among them the New Zealand-born teacher Blair Peach. Also drafted into the area on the day were thousands of police, who were determined to ensure the NF meeting went ahead in the face of massive opposition led by the local Asian community. The police ranks included units of the already notorious Special Patrol Group. It was members of one of those units that attacked and murdered Blair Peach as he tried to get home with his friends.
The events at Southall can be traced back to the formation of the NF in 1967. Its first chairman, A K Chesterton, was chosen to emphasise the group’s supposed moderation. A former supporter of Oswald Mosley, Chesterton had broken from Mosley’s British Union of Fascists before the second world war and served in the British Army during the war. He then worked for Lord Beaverbrook, ghost-writing his memoirs. In 1954, he founded the League of Empire Loyalists, which carried out stunts at Conservative Party conferences to demand the return of Empire and the adoption of polices hostile to ‘New Commonwealth’ (i.e. black) immigration.
The NF promoted itself to potential voters as a party that was singly and overwhelmingly concerned with stopping black migration to Britain. Some of its supporters treated membership as a licence to commit racist attacks. Blood on the Streets, a pamphlet published by the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council, documents a series of incidents by NF supporters in London’s East End over the summer of 1978, ranging from sending people in large groups to chant racist slogans outside local shops to attacks on black people in the street or in their homes. One NF supporter, Fred Challis, pleaded guilty to the murder of a white vagrant, after which he had used the man’s blood to smear the slogan ‘NF rules OK’ on a nearby wall. At his sentencing, he asked for 300 incidents of attacks on other vagrants or on Asian youths to be taken into consideration.
The NF’s activities were met with widespread opposition. In 1974, the NF had attempted to march through London’s West End under the slogan ‘Send them back’ with the intention of meeting at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. The London area council of Liberation, a group which campaigned for national independence for third world countries, called a counter-demonstration, which was to end in the square. There, the protesters, some of whom had attempted to occupy the square, were attacked by police using batons, some on horseback. Kevin Gately, a 20-year-old maths student from the University of Warwick and a rookie demonstrator, was caught up in the fighting and killed.
In June 1976 a young Sikh man, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, had been stabbed in Southall by a gang who were believed to have been inspired by the NF. Protests in Chaggar’s memory included a march of around 7,000 people through Southall carrying placards reading ‘We are here to stay’.
In October 1976, the photographer Red Saunders launched Rock Against Racism (RAR), a collective of musicians, designers and writers, objecting initially to a drunken racist outburst by the guitarist Eric Clapton. RAR organised its first anti-racist concert in December of the same year, and from 1978 put on a series of huge anti-racist carnivals, the first two in London attended by 80,000 and 100,000 people respectively.
The news that the NF was planning to hold a meeting in Southall reached Vishnu Sharma, president of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA), on 7 April 1979. The IWA’s response was a mixture of the cautious and the militant. An emergency meeting of its local executive voted to petition the council to rescind its decision to allow the NF to use its hall, and voted against confronting the NF. The IWA decided to hold a march from Southall to Ealing town hall on the Sunday before the meeting, where the petition was to be presented, and to invite businesses in the area to close from 1pm on the Monday before the meeting began.
On 11 April, a further public meeting took place in Southall, with community groups and the engineers’, teachers’ and hospital workers’ unions in attendance. Two police officers also came; a vote was taken to exclude them. While the IWA continued to argue that the right response was to meet the NF with what its activists termed ‘a wall of silence’, a consensus emerged that as well as the activities already proposed by the IWA, there should also be peaceful sit-down protests at 5pm on the roads leading to Southall town hall. A coordinating committee was elected, with Vishnu Sharma as its convenor and both community groups and the left represented. Balwinder Rana was appointed chief steward.
On Sunday 22 April, the day before the NF’s meeting, 5,000 people marched to protest, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 people. Jeanette Thomas was with them: ‘The march passed a group of NF youths, wearing swastikas etc, who started shouting and swearing at us “Bloody blacks go home” and other racial abuse. One of the black kids in the demonstration got really upset and started swearing back and shaking his fist. The police grabbed him but did not do anything to the boys on the other side of the road, even when one of them drew a knife.’
Monday 23 April saw police officers on duty from early. Police coaches were parked on each side of the town centre, and officers on horses could be seen patrolling the streets. The IWA established a headquarters in central Southall. Supporters of the Anti-Nazi League set up a first aid centre at 6 Park View Road, the headquarters of black community organisation Peoples Unite, which counted among its leading activists Clarence Baker, the manager of the reggae band (and regular RAR performers) Misty in Roots.
Rumours spread that the police were planning to get round the sit-in by smuggling NF members into the town hall long before the meeting was due to begin at 7.30pm, and even before the sit-in with its planned 5pm start. Members of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM), which had not taken part in the meeting of 11 April, began to assemble outside Southall town hall from shortly after noon. Balraj Purewal of the SYM led a march of some 30 to 40 people along South Road to the town centre. Passers-by joined along the way, so that on reaching the town hall the SYM contingent had swollen to around 200 people. They attempted to form a picket outside the town hall but around 40 of their supporters were arrested.
Between noon and 2pm, central Southall emptied with shops closing as planned. The shutdown proved even more successful than the organisers had hoped. Not only was central Southall closed on the afternoon of 23 April but so were a series of local factories with mixed or majority-white workforces. These included Ford Langley, the Sunblest bakery, Wall’s and Quaker Oats, all of which had voted to strike.
The organisers had planned the protests to begin at 5pm, and to take the form of sit-downs occupying each of the surrounding streets. Through the course of the evening, large contingents of people came together outside the police cordons, comprising a mixture of activists and local residents, many of whom had no greater ambition than to escape through the police lines and return home.
A number of demonstrators were sheltering in the legal observers’ and first aid building at Park View Road. Police officers entered the building, taking control of it, and instructed those sheltering there to leave.
A 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 . . . While we were waiting for the ambulance, two police stood in the doorway with their backs to us while people were brought down from upstairs and I saw truncheons rise and fall and I heard shouts and screams from the women.’ Clarence Baker, the manager of Misty in Roots, was also hit on the head and was in hospital for three weeks and ill for a year.
Also caught up in the events at Southall on 23 April 1979 was Blair Peach, a 33-year-old teacher. Born in New Zealand, he was educated at Victoria University in Wellington, where he had helped to edit a literary magazine, Argot, while working in his spare time as a firefighter. He emigrated to London in 1969, where he taught at the Phoenix school for special needs children in east London. He was still working there ten years later. Peach was by all accounts an inspirational teacher who immersed himself in the lives of his pupils, visiting them at home and providing reading classes in school holidays. He lived with another activist, Celia Stubbs.
A member of the Socialist Workers Party, Blair Peach had been elected president of the East London Teachers Association in 1978. Friends recall the atmosphere in the association in the 1970s as excited, as young teachers struggled to make sense of the world around them. There were debates on the politics of Ireland and South Africa, solidarity in support of other trade unionists, such as the victimised Shrewsbury pickets, and calls for the defence of council housing, the democratisation of schools, and the removal of pay differentials between teachers.
On 23 April 1979, Peach had travelled to Southall by car with various friends, Jo Lang, Amanda Leon, Martin Gerald and Françoise Ichard. Arriving in Southall at about 4.45pm, they found that their initial plan of heading directly to the town hall was prevented by the sheer weight of police numbers. They made their way to the Broadway and remained there until 7.30pm, when a police coach forced a way through the demonstrators’ lines, and brought members of the NF into the building.
After the bus had passed, the police removed the furthest cordon on the Broadway and made concentrated efforts to clear the area by bringing in further officers, many in vans. Some protesters tried to escape by heading south into Beechcroft Avenue, a narrow residential road running north to south. But Beechcroft Avenue was no haven. It turned at its southern end onto another road, Orchard Avenue, forcing demonstrators to turn left again (towards the east). Together on a map the two roads make a flattened and elongated ‘C’: at its far end, Orchard Avenue led back onto Uxbridge Road, back towards the town hall and back towards the heaviest concentration of police numbers.
The journalist Peter Evans told the subsequent inquest that there had been no trouble between the police and the crowd on the Broadway until the incident with the coach. He said that the window of a bank on the Broadway was then broken and a lighted flare thrown over the coach, landing on the pavement. The windows of a shoe shop were then broken. Two Special Patrol Group (SPG) vans were then driven west through the Broadway crowd, scattering the demonstrators.
Peach, Leon, Gerald, Laing and Ichard were still together at 7.45pm when they decided to leave the Broadway. They walked west, away from the main police cordon, and turned left (south) into Beechcroft Avenue, which was not blocked by the police. Peach and Leon, who had agreed to stick together, were behind the others. Leon told the inquest that she heard police sirens and saw a row of police officers with shields and truncheons ready to charge. She saw a police officer hit Peach from behind on the head with a truncheon. She too was then hit by a different officer, and was later seen in hospital with a lump on her head.
Peach was now sitting against a wall, where police constable Scottow (by his own account) took him to be hiding from the police charge. Scottow neither asked Peach if he was well nor called an ambulance but shouted at him to move on.
Jo Laing told the inquest that she, Gerald and Ichard had gone back to look for their friends. Amanda Leon seemed very shaken and they could not immediately find Peach, who had been taken into 71 Orchard Avenue by members of the Atwal family. They let Peach lie on their sofa and gave him water. An ambulance was called at 8.12pm. On arrival at hospital Peach was transferred into intensive care, where he was found to have swelling on the outer membrane covering his brain. Despite surgery he died at 12.10am on 24 April. The cause of his death was a fractured skull.
Of the 345 people, the large majority of them drawn from Southall’s Asian community, who were charged with offences arising from the events at Southall, most were ultimately convicted. In the magistrates’ court trials that followed, conviction rates ran at around 85 per cent, compared to the more usual 50 per cent or so for trials following not guilty pleas. A report on the day’s events by Southall Rights concluded that events of 23 April had ‘left a scar on the people of Southall that will take years to heal. The racial abuse that accompanied the violence, the wanton destruction of property . . . and the pursuit of persons running away and/or trying to seek shelter, all give the lie to any suggestion that the police were merely defending themselves.’
The Southall Monitoring Group (today, the Monitoring Group) was set up to coordinate the defence of the accused. It has since become well known nationally for the part it has played in the campaigns against other injustices, including the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel and Victoria Climbie.
As for Blair Peach, Rock Against Racism produced a poster in his honour: ‘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?’
There were huge demonstrations in Peach’s memory, thousands strong, on the weekend of his death, then at his funeral, and finally on the anniversary. In New Zealand, Peach’s friends demanded a boycott of British goods.
Constant campaigning changed the way the press reported Peach’s killing, and shifted responsibility from his fellow protesters to where it belonged: the police. In the days after Southall, the national and local press had been nearly unanimous in blaming the violence on the left and presenting the police as the innocent party in a violent situation. The press termed anti-Nazi protesters ‘enemies of democracy’ and called for them to be banned.
One demonstrator, Mark Steel, recalls 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?”’
And yet within weeks of Peach’s death, the protesters succeeded in showing that Peach had been killed while leaving the protest, had not been violent himself, and nor had any other demonstrator anywhere near him. A key turning point came six weeks later when the lockers of the officers suspected of killing Peach were raided, revealing a private arsenal of coshes, crowbars, leather whips and neo-Nazi insignia. The Sunday People newspaper was typical in responding, ‘No policeman can be allowed to become a goon in uniform.’ From that point on, the main theme of the reporting of Southall, even in the Conservative press, was a note of anger that the officers responsible had not been brought to justice.
After Blair Peach’s inquest, members of the Friends of Blair Peach committee met the families of Jimmy Kelly, Liddle Towers and Richard Campbell, all of whom had died in police custody or at the hands of police officers. Together they formed a united pressure group, Inquest, which has campaigned for more than three decades to get justice for those who have died at the hands of the state.
It has been a long battle, but the message of the campaign – that unity can force the state onto the defensive – remains as important today as it has ever been.
This is an edited extract from Who killed Blair Peach? published by Defend the Right to Protest at £2. To order a copy, go to www.defendtherighttoprotest.org