35 years since Southall 1979

23 April is the 35th anniversary of the Southall ‘riot’ when police violently attacked a counter-demonstration against the National Front in the South London borough – an act of police violence that left dozens injured and one protestor dead. David Renton’s blog Lives Running has been documenting the aftermath of Blair Peach’s death at Southall in April 1979 and the fact that despite an internal police investigation narrowing the suspect list down to 6 police officers, no one was ever held responsible for the killing of Peach. I suggest that you browse the documents that David has posted over the last few weeks.

I have written about the reluctance of the British government (under both Labour and the Conservatives) to call for a public inquiry into the death of Blair Peach before, but thought I would post this brief section from my PhD thesis on the events of Southall 1979. Part of this material ended up in this article on the CPGB and anti-fascism in the 1970s.

Southall 1979

Southall 1979

Southall and the Death of Blair Peach

Southall had one of the largest concentrations of Asians in Greater London, originally attracted by the employment of Sikhs at Woolf’s rubber factory, but then expanding to other ethnicities and job opportunities.[i] The Asian community had suffered from racism for decades, but as stated in Southall: The Birth of a Black Community, ‘The black community of Southall… fought against racism all along the line’.[ii] With the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in June 1976, the Asian youth of Southall became militant, with ‘no time for resolutions, nor for reliance on the goodwill of politicians’, forming the Southall Youth Movement.[iii] For the SYM, ‘the racist attacks against young black people makes black people feel it is not safe to go out at night’ and after Chaggar’s murder, ‘whilst leaders were saying keep calm and trying to play down “isolated incidents”… [w]e knew it was time to organise ourselves’.[iv] While the Indian Workers Associations had been important organisations for Asian workers during the 1960s, by the 1970s, the second generation Asian youth felt that the IWA had begun to ‘degenerate into the position of mediator, into the posture of a support force and into downright conservative, leadership-seeking reaction’.[v] The Asian youth organised around the SYM sought a more active and militant organisation. The SYM was dedicated to ‘physically keeping racism off the streets of Southall’ and countering the ‘lack of youth provision in the Borough’.[vi]

The new militancy and self-reliance of the SYM and of Asian Youth Movements across Britain reflected the influence of ‘Black Power and Third World liberation movements’,[vii] rather than the emphasis on class struggle and industrial politics endorsed by the white left. John Rose wrote in International Socialism that the formation of the SYM ‘took the entire local left by surprise’, writing that they had ‘already given chase to the racists on the streets… and ultimately they will give the racists chase in the factories’.[viii] However Rose stated that the ‘only long-term chance that the SYM has for growth and development is if the leadership comes to decisively adopt revolutionary socialist politics’.[ix] The SYM experienced difficulties in maintaining its own identity when dealing with the left, as explained by the General Secretary of the SYM, Balraj Puriwal: ‘Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over… they gave us their slogans and placards… our own identity was subsumed, diffused and deflected all over the place’.[x] There was sympathy for the left amongst those involved in the AYMs, but not at the substitution of their own identity. As Nermal Singh wrote in Kala Tara, the publication of the Bradford AYM:

The white left tell us only the working class as a whole will be able to smash racism by overthrowing capitalism and setting up a socialist state.

This maybe so, but in the meantime are we, as one of the most oppressed sections of the working class, to sit by idly in the face of mounting attacks. No! We must fight back against the cancerous growth of racism.[xi]

To oppose the National Front’s meeting at Southall Town Hall on 23 April, 1979, a community meeting, called by the Southall IWA, was held on 11 April and decided on a course of action to petition the council to refuse the NF access to the Town Hall, march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall on 22 April and that ‘all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards’.[xii] Sharma explained that this form of protest was called a ‘Hartal’ and was ‘quite a common tactic in India’.[xiii] Sharma also emphasised that the 11 April meeting had ‘decided not to resort to confrontation with the police’ and organised a ‘massive peaceful sitdown’ outside the Town Hall.[xiv] The SWP, the ANL and Socialist Unity, an organisation led by Tariq Ali that incorporated the IMG, had called for a protest march on 23 April, but had been ‘turned down by local groupings in favour of the sit-down protest’.[xv]

The NF meeting was to begin at 7.30pm and the protest had been scheduled to commence from 5pm, but confrontations between police and youth had been occurring since the early afternoon. With over 2,700 police involved, around 2,000 demonstrators were confronted by the police and the Special Patrol Group (SPG), which began to prevent demonstrators from protesting out the front of the Town Hall.[xvi] Dave Renton has written that, ‘Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot’.[xvii] The SWP pamphlet, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, described the events:

The first lines of foot police opened up and made way for SPG men with riot shields and hoards of baton-wielding police on horseback. Some demonstrators tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks. But it was useless. The mounties ran amock, joking, laughing and making racist remarks as they smashed skulls with their batons. The footmen followed up using riot shields as weapons and arresting anyone… The police violence did nothing to control the situation.[xviii]

At around 7.45pm, Blair Peach, an ANL and SWP member, was ‘struck on the head by an assailant widely believed to have been a member of the SPG’, dying of his injuries after midnight.[xix] By the end of the night, 342 people, ‘mostly Asian and local’, had been arrested.[xx]

The following day’s Morning Star, having gone to press before Blair Peach’s death was announced, reported the ‘total shutdown’ of Southall.[xxi] The paper reported the police claims of 250 demonstrators arrested during the evening and 77 arrested in the afternoon, along with forty people taken to Ealing Hospital, including eighteen policemen.[xxii] The next day’s Morning Star contained the headline, ‘Curb The Mad Dogs Of Racism!’, declaring that ‘Rees, McNee and Thatcher – All to Blame in Southall Tragedy’.[xxiii] Home Secretary Merlyn Rees was accused of allowing the NF ‘to spread its racist poison in clear violation of the Race Relations Act’ and that the ‘holding of an election does not annul the Race Relations Act, nor absolve Mr Rees of the responsibility to ensure that it is rigorously applied’.[xxiv] Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee was also accused of ‘protecting a handful of racist hoodlums’, when it was McNee’s ‘duty to protect the freedom of the citizens of Southall’, but he had failed to do so and, ‘On the contrary, his men assaulted them, left, right and centre’.[xxv] Thatcher was also criticised for ‘encouraging the growth of racism’ and the Morning Star declared, ‘it is sheer humbug for Mrs. Thatcher and Co. to prattle on about law and order when she talks about Britain being swamped by black people’.[xxvi] The CPGB reiterated its line that ‘throwing missiles at the police is not the way to fight racism’, but understood ‘the sense of frustration, anger and outrage’ felt by the black community in Southall.[xxvii] Whatever violent action was taken by the protestors on 23 April, the Morning Star stated that the ‘real violence in Southall was the officially sponsored violence from mobs of police, apparently including the notorious Special Patrol Group, who simply went beserk [sic]’.[xxviii] The death of Blair Peach and the violent clashes in Southall were ‘the direct result of the toleration of the National Front provocations by the authorities’, declared CPGB General Secretary Gordon McLennan, tolerance that the CPGB thought should be remedied by the use of the Race Relations Act to its full extent.[xxix]

Approximately 15,000 people marched through Southall on 28 April, 1979 in memory of Blair Peach.[xxx] An official inquest, like that held after Red Lion Square, was never held, but the NCCL held an unofficial inquest and Scotland Yard’s Complaints Investigation Bureau also conducted a report. The Leveller reported in January 1980 that this report implied that ‘prime suspicion for Peach’s murder was narrowed down to six police officers’.[xxxi] No one has ever been indicted for his murder.

——————————————————–

[i] Paul Harrison, ‘The Patience of Southall’, New Society, 4 April, 1974

[ii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 45

[iii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 52

[iv] Bahaj Purewal, cited in, ‘Against Racism in Southall’, Challenge, 36, August/September 1976

[v] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 17

[vi] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 54

[vii] Anandi Ramamurthy, ‘The Politics of Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’, Race & Class, 48/2, p. 39

[viii] John Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, International Socialism, 1/91, September, 1976, p. 5

[ix] J. Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, p. 6

[x] Cited in, Shivdeep Singh Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s? Southall and the Conjuncture of 23 April 1979’, Socialist History, 23, 2003, p. 21

[xi] Nermal Singh, ‘Racism: Time to Fight Back’, Kala Tara, 1, p. 3, http://www.tandana.org/pg/PDF/SC/SC2.PDF, accessed 14 March, 2007

[xii] Cited in, David Renton, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2006, p. 141

[xiii] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, Marxism Today, December 1979, p. 22

[xiv] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, p. 22

[xv] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 3

[xvi] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 143; S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 4

[xvii] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 146

[xviii] SWP, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, SWP pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 3

[xix] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 5

[xx] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 60

[xxi] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxii] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxiii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxiv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvi] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxviii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxix] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxx] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 6

[xxxi] ‘Six Names Out of the Blue’, The Leveller, 34, January 1980, p. 6

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