On 23 April 1979 the fascist National Front (NF) called a public meeting in Southall town hall, west London.The meeting was in support of its general election candidate J Fairhurst.
The NF had come third in London’s local elections and had big expectations for the meeting, which they organised symbolically on St George’s Day.
The Nazis’ choice of Southall was significant. In 1976 schoolboy Gurdip Singh Chaggar was stabbed to death there by racists, and the NF hoped to further intimidate Southall’s large Asian population.
But there was resistance. The day before thousands marched from Ealing town hall to Southall to hand in a petition against the meeting.
On the day of the meeting parts of west London fell silent as bus, textile and food workers struck in protest against the Nazis. And the Anti Nazi League (ANL) organised a demonstration against the NF.
The ANL had been founded two years previously to combat the rise of the NF and other fascists. Thousands of Asian workers walked out of factories to join the protest.
The Nazis and indirectly the police had taken a beating two days earlier in Leicester—and the police would take their revenge in Southall on that day.
Van after van of cops arrived. They provoked anti-fascists by writing “NF” in the condensation on the windows.
The Special Patrol Group (SPG) turned out in force. A particularly brutal unit, it launched a police riot against the demonstration.
At the time The Daily Telegraph wrote, “Police had cornered about 50 demonstrators against the churchyard walls. As we watched, several demonstrators were dragged crying and screaming to the nearby police station. Nearly every demonstrator had blood flowing from some injury.”
It was as a committed member of the ANL and the Socialist Workers Party that 33 year old teacher Blair Peach attended the demonstration.
He was a white man originally from New Zealand.
Before the protest began he had been called a “paki” whilst drinking with friends in a pub.
While he was leaving the protest, Blair received a blow to the head from a blunt instrument delivered by a SPG officer. He died in hospital that evening.
The death of this revolutionary socialist and anti-fascist captured headlines around the world.
But to this day none of the six SPG cops involved in his death have ever been held to account for their actions on that day.
Blair Peach wasn’t the first person nor the last to be killed by police, but the legacy of his death 35 years ago in particular continues to hound them.
And at the same time the NF openly organised on the streets and terrorised black families.
The apparently unstoppable rise of the NF and the untouchable character of the police culminated in the Battle of Lewisham in 1977.
On 13 August the NF organised a march through Lewisham, south London, where they hoped they would intimidate the large black population who lived there.
Thousands of anti-fascists took to the streets and fought back against the Nazis and the 5,000 police who lined up to protect them—and won.
Lewisham lit the spark that would soon lead to the founding of the ANL of which Blair would become a member.
The aim of the ANL was to build a mass united organisation of black, Asian and white people that would fight the fascists at every turn and prevent them from organising unopposed.
The ANL built a mass propaganda campaign—holding meetings and distributing tens of thousands of leaflets which exposed the fascist nature of the NF.
Anti-fascists threw themselves into building ANL groups in schools, colleges, communities, workplaces and trade unions.
It was the existence of this confident and strong united front that meant when Blair was killed in 1979—the police would not be allowed to forget it.
Blair’s killing came to symbolise more than the death by police of a committed revolutionary socialist and anti-fascist. It was the lightning rod for the anger that had built up for years around police violence and racism.
That anger hasn’t gone away, because in the 35 years since Blair Peach’s killing police brutality has continued.
Since then, Harry Stanley, Jean Charles de Menezes, Christopher Alder, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg and Ian Tomlinson have all died after coming into contact with police.
Today we see the police lurch from crisis to crisis and their reputation has tumbled due to exposures of institutional racism and corruption.
There is a wider mistrust of the police than there was before Blair Peach was killed, and that is because the fight to get justice for him exposed their nature.
Thugs then and now
The day after Blair’s funeral, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir David McNee said, “keep off the streets and behave yourselves and you won’t have the SPG to worry about”.
The SPG were notorious as a force within a force. Formed in 1961, by the time of Blair’s death they had already carved out a reputation as being especially violent.
There were six SPG officers involved in Blair’s death. One was Inspector Alan Murray who is now The Hoare Chair in Responsible Management at the University of Winchester.
Two months after Blair’s death he was transferred out of the SPG and resigned from the police a year later.
Another was Anthony Richardson. He too was transferred out of the SPG two months later to become a constable.
Raymond White was the driver of the unit. When officers searched his locker after Blair’s killing he attempted to hide a cosh in his anorak pocket. He was suspended, but then later reinstated.
Michael Freestone and James Scottow were transferred out of the SPG and became constables.
And Anthony Lake moved to a job inside Scotland Yard in August 1979.
PC Grenville Bint was part of the SPG unit commanded by Inspector Alan Murray that day in Southall.
What was discovered in his house gives an idea of the character of an SPG officer.
Bint said he collected weapons “like some people collected stamps”.
In his home he had a leather weighted plait covered stick, Nazi regalia, bayonets, German awards and medals, daggers, whips and swords.
Two days after the discovery of his collection Bint was transferred out of the SPG to Brixton police station.
It took 30 years of campaigning by Blair’s friends and family to get the Met to reveal that an investigation had concluded he had “almost certainly” been killed by the SPG.
Reports written by Commander John Cass just after Blair’s death was one of several documents released in 2010.
The then Commissioner Paul Stephenson expressed his “regret” at Blair’s death but said it was, “important to remember that the majority of these documents were produced 30 years ago and that they reflect the way policing was rather than is.”
There has been a sea change in attitudes towards the police since the late 1970s which has seen them constantly on the defensive.
The fight for justice for Blair was one reason for this. But this doesn’t mean police violence and racism have gone away.
In 1987 the SPG was replaced by the Territorial Support Group (TSG)—a unit that still functions today to police “public order”.
This was an attempt to shed the association with violence that had come to surround the SPG. But the TSG is used in exactly the same way.
In the 1990s the TSG was used against anti-poll tax protesters and anti-fascist protesters who marched on the BNP’s headquarters in Welling, south east London.
In 2005 one Kurdish youth recorded an encounter with a TSG officer near Paddington police station. The officer was heard saying, “If you say one more fucking word, I’ll smash your fucking Arab face in”.
Stephenson was forced to admit in 2009 that TSG officers carried out a “serious, gratuitous and prolonged” attack on Babar Ahmed during his arrest in 2003.
And it was the TSG’s Simon Harwood who was filmed in 2009 lashing out at newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests. Ian later died of his injuries.
Before Blair was killed in 1979 there had already been a number of high profile deaths involving police.
In particular, Blair’s killing bore strong similarities to that of Kevin Gately on 15 June 1974.
On that day the NF had booked Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, central London to hold a rally where they would whip up anti-immigrant racism.
Kevin Gately was a 20 year old student from the University of Warwick who had travelled to London to attend an anti-fascist counter demonstration.
Officers from the SPG, the unit that would kill Blair five years later, helped form a wedge and started to smash apart the counter protest.
They were joined by mounted police who used long truncheons to strike out at retreating anti-fascists.
Protesters were left lying badly hurt on the road by the joint ground and mounted police assault.
Kevin was found among the injured. The protest was his first demonstration, and just a few hours after it had begun he died of a brain haemorrhage caused by a blow to the head.
His death was the first at a protest in Britain since 1919.
An inquiry was set up chaired by Lord Scarman, who would later head up the liberal whitewash of the racist policing that led to the Brixton riots in 1981. He blamed the violence on anti-fascists and said that the responsibility for Kevin’s death lay in their hands.
Scarman wrote off the police’s brutality and said that Kevin had been dealt a “minor glancing blow”, which was to be regarded as a “minor unnoticed accident”.
There were protests in the week that followed Kevin’s death. But movements against racism and police brutality were still growing, and still far from the kind of large organised response that there would be with the killing of Blair Peach.
New Socialist Worker pamphlet
Blair Peach: socialist and anti-racist
by Nick Grant and Brian Richardson
Available from Bookmarks for just £3