Socialist Worker

Southall ’79, when the police killed Blair Peach

The Nazi National Front came to the heart of the Asian community in West London on 23 April 1979. Guarded by thousands of riot police, they wanted to humiliate but instead provoked rebellion. Rampaging police arrested scores, injured many and murdered Blair Peach. Tomáš Tengely-Evans looks back at the crucial battle against racism.

Issue No. 2651

The National Front organised in Southall in the 1970s

The National Front organised in Southall in the 1970s (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Forty years ago this week Blair Peach joined a thousands-strong demonstration against the fascist National Front (NF) in Southall, west London. By the evening Blair had been murdered—clubbed on the head by a police officer.

None of the six cops involved in his murder have ever been charged. Michael Freestone, Anthony Lake, James Scottow, Anthony Richardson, Raymond White and Alan Murray were transferred from the Special Patrol Group (SPG), the Metropolitan Police’s riot squad.

And the police only released the findings of their internal inquiry in 2010—which found cops had “almost certainly” killed Blair.

Blair, a teacher from Bow in east London, was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Anti Nazi League (ANL).

His killing showed how the police and the state can treat protesters and activists—and the brutality they used to protect the Nazis.

The cops ran amok through Southall on Monday 23 April 1979, with 700 arrests, 344 court cases, and hundreds of people injured. The state had deployed some 2,756 officers to make sure the NF could have a rally in the run-up to the general election.

Southall was the heart of the Asian community in London. People from Britain’s former colonies had moved there after the Second World War. It became the site of struggles by Asian workers to organise for trade union recognition and better working conditions—including some major strikes.

It was also a place where people felt keenly the racist attitudes of police. When racists attacked young Asians it was often the victims who were arrested.

In 1970 the police did nothing when a gang of skinheads rampaged through the town.

By holding a meeting right in the heart of Southall, the fascists hoped to intimidate the local Asian population. The area had become a focus for fascist and racist agitation, including the murder of school student Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976.

But its Asian working class and the Southall Youth Movement—knowing they couldn’t trust the police—organised to defend themselves against racism.

Balwinder Singh Rana was on the committee that organised the protest against the NF. “The news spread like wild fire,” he remembers. “The NF were being allowed to hold their meeting right in the heart of our town.

“And immediately the Indian Workers Association called a meeting of all the local organisations.”

The meeting resolved to march on Tory-run Ealing council on Sunday 22 April to hand in a petition demanding the meeting be called off.

Refused

And if the council refused, they would hold a sit-down in front of the town hall the following day.

Around 5,000 people assembled at a Southall car park on the Sunday. The police were about to give them a taste of the treatment that was to come the next day.

Balwinder said, “The car park was surrounded by masses of police on horseback and loads of police on foot.

“As the march proceeded the police began to harass us. And outside the Southall police station, a very convenient place for them, they arrested a young black lad for no other reason than just being a bit exuberant.”

The march moved on after Balwinder and Indian Workers Association head Vishnu Sharma went into the police station and successfully demanded the black man’s release. But, soon afterwards, the cops began harassing people again.

“The police proceeded to arrest 15 people, setting the scene for the next day,” Balwinder said.

On the Monday, Southall was in lockdown. Cops poured into the area and riot vans lined many of the roads.

But workers on the buses and from nearby factories struck. Local people were ready to come out to defend themselves against the NF.

Jatinder Chohan, a school student who lived in Southall in 1979, said, “I remember feeling scared and vulnerable, but also realising that something important and momentous was happening.

“Our community—as well as supporters from outside formed from many different races and religions—were rising up in one body.

“They were rising up to confront the hate that was being allowed to hold court on our doorstep.”

In the early afternoon there were rumours that the police were trying to smuggle the NF into the town hall.

Mobilisation

The Southall Youth Movement, which had called its own mobilisation, led a protest outside the building.

Balwinder said, “When more and more people began to arrive the police set up roadblocks, hundreds of metres from the town hall.

“By 5pm thousands of people, young and old, men and women, black, Asian and white, had gathered on those four blocked roads.

They were being prevented from reaching the town hall to make their peaceful protest by the massive presence of the police.”

He added, “People were not even being allowed into their own homes that were within the cordoned area.

“It looked like an occupied town.”

Police on foot and on horseback charged at the protesters.

SPG officers drove vans at high speed towards the crowd, before throwing demonstrators into the back of them. Police dogs chased people who tried to get away into side streets.

People heroically fought back for hours in the pouring rain, throwing bricks and other projectiles at the cops.

At around 6pm the SPG chased people into the medical and legal support station at the People Unite community centre, which was run by the Misty In Roots reggae band. They then ransacked the building.

The ANL had asked health workers to be on hand, expecting there to be police aggression on the day. One of them was Tony Ventham, a paramedic at nearby Central Middlesex Hospital.

“We tried to drive the five miles from work to the medical point, but this proved futile,” he explained. “By mid-afternoon the only way to get into Southall was on foot from two miles away.

“We then heard the awful news that police had raided the medical point.

“Everyone was forced to walk downstairs to the street with police truncheons raining down on them all the way. A doctor’s skull was cut and dozens of others were injured.”

Another one of the police’s victims in the community centre was Clarence Baker, the manager of Misty In Roots. A cop struck Clarence over the head, putting him in a coma. He only woke up five months later.

Blair was most likely injured shortly after this.

Parminder Atwal described the events that led to Blair’s death to the Evening Standard newspaper the following day. “Demonstrators were at the top of Beachcroft Avenue,” he said. “I was in my garden when two police vans came and about 20 policemen got out.

“The police were carrying shields and truncheons. They tried to break up a line of people and came running down the road pulling people, pulling them by their hair and hitting them with their sticks. Blair Peach got tangled up in it and was knocked over.

“As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with a stick… I was in my garden and saw this quite clearly.”

The police had struck him with a blunt instrument, managing to cave in a part of his skull without showing any external bleeding. Parminder said, “When they all rushed past, he was left sitting up against the wall.

“He tried to get up, but he was shivering and looked very strange, he couldn’t get up.”

The police came back and tried to make Blair get up, shouting “Move! Come on, move!”, and he managed to stumble across the road and was taken in by the Atwal family.

“He couldn’t even hold a glass of water.”

Blair’s friend and fellow NUT union member Nick Grant remembers, “Blair was conscious but groggy. He handed over his car keys before leaving with Amanda Leon.

“Blair walked from the ambulance into A&E in Ealing Hospital. Police already understood that there was something to be worried about and they quizzed Amanda who left with Blair’s belongings, advising her to call back later for an update.”

The hospital informed Blair’s friends at around 11.40pm that he had died in theatre.

“Then sure enough,” Nick added, “within an hour of Blair’s death, plainclothes police were banging on the door.

“They clearly knew where we were and what they’d done.”

The Metropolitan Police inquiry found the SPG had a stash of weapons, including unauthorised truncheons, knives, a whip and a lead weighted leather stick.

This could have inflicted the sort of blow that killed Blair. One SPG officer’s locker was found full of Nazi regalia.

Around 15,000 people came to Blair’s funeral a few days after his death, including Labour MP Tony Benn and TUC union federation president Ken Gill.

It was a testament to Blair’s work in the ANL to fight the rise of the NF.

The aim of the ANL was to split the hardcore Nazis from racists who they had managed to pull around themselves.

But Blair was also a revolutionary socialist, who saw the need to get rid of the foul capitalist society that spawns fascism.

As the obituary in Socialist Worker said, “It is the task of all of us to provide the memorial that Blair would have wished for by carrying on his fight against racism and exploitation.”


Southall murder—cops said it was ‘Just an Asian’

Gurdip Singh Chaggar was fatally stabbed near the Dominion Theatre in Southall, west London, on 4 June 1976.

After Gurdip was stabbed, a passer-by asked a cop who had been killed. The cop replied, “Just an Asian.”

His death came after a decade of racism against Asian people, pushed by mainstream politicians and the fascists.

In the same year as Gurdip’s death British border officials at Heathrow Airport had subjected Asian women to humiliating virginity tests. This was the result of a law passed by the Labour government that said woman didn’t need a visa if they were going to get married.

And in Essex racists had stabbed to death two Asian young people.

But Gurdip’s death ignited a wave of rebellion against racism by young Asian people. They took to the streets and founded the Southall Youth Movement. Similar Asian Youth Movements were set up across Britain.

Suresh Grover, one of the founders of the Southall Youth Movement, said, “We were British Asians with black politics and we wanted to unite people to combat the issue of racism.

“We realised religion, ethnicity, identity had no role or significance in what we were doing, so those issues didn’t come up.”

Remember Gurdip Singh Chaggar and Blair Peach. Demonstrate Saturday 27 April, 2pm. Assemble: Featherstone Terrace car park, Southall UB2 4AX

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