Defiance, Channel 4 Defiance, Channel 4

Defiance is a serious and inspiring documentary focused on Asian Youth groups’ resistance to racism and fascism in the 1970s, finds Alex Snowdon

This three-part documentary tells the story of Asian youth resistance to racism and fascism in the years 1976 to 1981, especially in Southall, West London, but covering events in other areas too. It is not the sort of subject matter we might expect for a contemporary Channel 4 series, but it is enormously refreshing: a welcome throwback to the sort of serious documentary making, telling otherwise neglected stories, for which the station was once known.

Defiance interweaves original footage from the period, including raw footage of demonstrations that has tremendous immediacy, with interviews with those involved in the events, offering testimony of what happened and often their views and reflections. At the centre of the series are a number of people who were directly involved in the Southall Youth Movement or other groups challenging racism. It has other voices too, including police officers involved in policing fascist and anti-fascist protests, adding their perspectives.

The backdrop to the struggles of the time is evoked through well-chosen footage that conveys the respectability and prevalence of mainstream racism. We see clips of popular sitcoms mocking Asians, fragments of interviews with Margaret Thatcher (as Leader of the Opposition) warning darkly about migrants, and vox pops with white people expressing racist views.

We also get members of London’s Asian communities recounting their experiences of everyday prejudice. It is the personal details – like someone’s experiences of the school playground as a child, or the dread associated with certain streets or neighbourhoods – that reveal so much. The documentary makers are skilful, though, in never letting us forget that there was a larger political and cultural context fuelling such racism.

Defiance is effective in showing how crude and overt much of the racism was: the representations on television, the offensive racist language and the racist violence (‘Paki bashing’). Worst of all, there is the agitation by National Front fascists. The programme draws extensively on first-hand footage of NF meetings or interviews with NF members. The language is extreme and unvarnished: this was before the attempts at ‘respectability’ by European (including British) fascists from the 1980s onwards.

The extreme language was accompanied by violence. The fear of physical attacks is a thread running through the testimony of those who were young and Asian at the time. Defiance is effective in showing the routine and very serious racist violence that grew in this period. It is linked, too, with the fascist agitation of the National Front and the mainstream racism of Westminster and the media.

A small criticism is that the examples of racist rhetoric from politicians are all from Tories like Thatcher, with prime minister James Callaghan and other Labour politicians getting off lightly. Yet there is no doubt that the Labour government (until 1979) played the race card at times, stoking anxieties about Asian migrants, while overseeing a deterioration in economic conditions that encouraged racist scapegoating.

Solidarity and resistance

However, the biggest focus of Defiance, and its greatest contribution, is telling the stories of popular resistance to racism and fascism. The Asian communities that endured racism and were targeted by fascists were certainly not passive. They organised collectively and fought back against racist violence, fascists and, when necessary, a police force that did little to protect them.

Police racism and negligence are a recurring theme. It is powerful to hear a former police officer recalling that racist terms were part of the everyday vernacular of senior police officers. Asians were viewed with deep suspicion, with assumptions of criminality made even when they were the victims. The police became a major focus for protests.

The stories of youth resistance are inspiring. Veterans of this resistance, like Suresh Grover, are immensely eloquent in their interviews, calmly and factually recounting what happened, but with moments when the intense emotions around certain events are impossible to supress. The section in Episode Two around the killing of Blair Peach is especially charged emotionally.

Peach was a socialist, teacher and NUT activist involved in the Anti-Nazi League. On 23 April 1979, he attended a big, multi-racial demonstration in Southall, responding to the National Front holding a meeting there. Defiance provides a definitive account of this demonstration, the police killing of Blair Peach, the community anger towards the police that followed it, and the powerful solidarity in its aftermath, including footage of the funeral, which involved around 10,000 people from all backgrounds gathering to pay their respects. It is extremely moving and a tribute to the anti-racist unity that was forged through these experiences.

It is a little unfortunate that more attention is not given to the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, considering the huge role played by these movements in rolling back the fascist threat and combatting racism more generally. Much of the demonstration footage clearly shows a lot of white faces, but this isn’t fully integrated into the documentary’s narrative, which is more sharply focused on Asian youth movements specifically.

Having said that, all three episodes undoubtedly do a remarkable job of recovering and popularising some crucial episodes in the struggles against racism and fascism in this country. The relevance and the legacy are clear. These stories remain relevant because racism, in however mutated a form, is very much still with us, and it still needs to be opposed through popular resistance and active anti-racist solidarity.

The positive legacy is unmistakeable too. It is more than just the breaking of a fascist party, which had posed a real threat in the late 1970s, important as that is. The kind of crude, overt racism – from the mainstream sitcoms to the ‘Paki bashing’ – of the 1970s is less common today. A stronger anti-racist culture and a shift in attitudes developed, in part because of the movements documented by Defiance. It ends with an understandable note of ambivalence, uncertain of what lessons can be taken from its story. In my view there is plenty to learn, and much by which to be inspired.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).