Blair Peach was killed 35 years ago. Lindsey German, who knew him as a radical young teacher, looks back at the day in Southall when anti-fascists bore the brunt of police brutality
Blair Peach was a committed socialist and anti-racist, a member of the SWP and a gently spoken special needs teacher based in the East End of London.
He lived in Hackney and was part of that growing left which had been radicalised in the 1960s and was committed to fundamental change.
Thirty five years ago this week he went to Southall with other National Union of Teachers members to confront the National Front and to demand that there should be no fascist presence in the area.
The pictures from Southall that week tell their own story.
Police lined the streets to stop the local population from protesting at a St George’s Day meeting put on by the fascist National Front.
The handful of fascists who turned up were barely visible, but the boys in blue were everywhere — an estimated 2,500 — to protect the supposed right of these people to hold a meeting, against the wishes of the local population.
The area was in lockdown. Thousands came from across London and beyond to protest at the fascists and their police protectors.
At the end of the terrible day, one protestor, Blair Peach, was dead, another — reggae musician Clarence Baker — was so badly injured he was left in a coma for months, and the police had made it absolutely clear whose side they were on.
The meeting itself was never anything other than a provocation.
The working-class area of Southall, though within the London borough of Ealing, could never be described as a suburb.
It’s an industrial town built around the railway and canal which has long attracted migrants to work in its factories.
Many Welsh settled there during the Depression of the 1930s, often walking from the Welsh valleys to do so.
Soon after the second world war, large numbers of Asians, a large number from the Punjab, came to work in one of the factories.
At first there was much local opposition to immigration.
Indeed, with each successive wave of migrants tensions rose.
As the former MP for Southall, Labour left Syd Bidwell, recalled: “I can remember the top of Trinity Road. Whitewashed on the wall was ‘Go home Welshers,’ on the very spot where I was later to see ‘Go home Blacks.’ The very spot.”
But by the 1970s there was also a strong sense of community and a feeling, especially among the second generation of Asians who were born in Britain, that they would not tolerate the levels of racism and discrimination which their parents had suffered.
The NF had been on the rise in the 1970s and a mass movement against it, the Anti-Nazi League, had developed.
Its success was based on the unity of blacks, whites and Asians in the fight against fascism, and on the need to directly challenge and confront the fascists in order to prevent them from organising openly on the streets.
It took as its model the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was prevented from marching through the East End.
The local community and anti-fascists everywhere were outraged at the decision to allow the NF to hold its meeting — which was not a public meeting in any serious sense of the word — and the resources allocate by the police to protect it. These were conscious political decisions.
The country was just days away from a general election in which Margaret Thatcher would be voted into office for the first time.
The meeting was on St George’s Day, hailed by the fascists as an important and patriotic day although little marked at the time.
There had been increasing class polarisation with the previous winter’s strikes across a range of industries, labelled as the winter of discontent in the media, and with a highly unpopular and tired Labour government.
The mainstream right wing was increasingly on the offensive, helped by Labour’s policies which increasingly attacked its own working-class supporters.
The day was seen as a chance to teach a lesson to those anti-racists, anti-fascists and socialists who demonstrated in Southall. The Metropolitan Police duly obliged.
Peach was hit by successive blows from a policeman’s truncheon, or maybe from a cosh which some of the police used. He died in the Ealing Hospital hours later.
But not a single policeman was ever charged, let alone convicted, of causing his death.
His death caused an outcry.
Thousands of Sikhs marched past his coffin which lay at rest in Southall’s Dominion cinema, and his funeral attracted big crowds as it wound its way through east London streets.
A primary school in Southall was later named after Blair Peach.
There was also the demand for justice.
Fourteen witnesses said they saw a member of the hated Special Patrol Group, forerunner of today’s riot police, hitting Blair over the head with a truncheon.
His family and friends have never gained justice.
Although in 2010 the Metropolitan Police admitted that an SPG member was responsible, no-one has ever been put on trial.
Three people have died on modern demonstrations in London.
Kevin Gately, a young student, died in the Battle of Red Lion Square in 1974, again on a demo trying to prevent fascists from meeting, this time in Conway Hall.
And in 2009 passerby Ian Tomlinson died after being hit by riot police during anti-G8 protests.
Only in Tomlinson’s case has anyone been put on trial, and he was acquitted.
The circumstances of Blair Peach’s death showed the lengths to which the authorities would go to protect the nazis.
They also showed that there was a potentially massive movement of black, Asian and white people who wanted to resist racism and fascism.
They had to fight not just individual racists and fascists but the institutional racism which pervades our society, not least among the police.
The many battles against racism, the riots two years later which shook the Establishment, and the creation of mass campaigns for equality all helped to effect change.
We should remember the part Blair Peach played in that.
From Morning Star
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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