The Guardian Angels – not very welcome on the London tube


IMG_6899Back in 1979, the lawless and only recently financially bankrupt city of New York spawned a group of vigilante do-gooders called the Guardian Angels.

The idea was that these trained young individuals would ride the city’s subway system looking out for any wrongdoing. Like anybody else, they could make a citizen’s arrest.

At the time, this got quite a bit of publicity in the UK media. Then somebody got the bright idea to bring it over to London. I can say from the outset, Londoners didn’t like the Guardian Angels one bit.

You’d be on the tube and these guys in their T-shirts and berets would be standing at the end of the carriage like an ominous presence. It was too weird and alien for Britain and mercifully the whole thing petered out.

 

 

When the Left nearly took over the Labour party in 1981


Over the last two years, there has been a revolution within the Labour Party in the UK. The Left has taken control of all the key levers in the party from the national executive committee to the leadership. Only the parliamentary party remains as an obstacle to total domination.

Rewind 37 years to the early 1980s – to the last time the Left came anywhere close to taking over the party. Back then, the right wing of the party had strong allies. While the left had a strong base in the constituencies and the national executive, the right wing was able to lean on certain trade union bosses. The struggle was much more evenly balanced.

Labour had lost the 1979 general election and Thatcher had come to power. Many in the party blamed the outgoing prime minister James Callaghan and his chancellor of the exchequer Dennis Healey. They believed socialist principles had been jettisoned during the 1974-79 Labour government and now wanted commitments to nuclear disarmament, nationalisation and abolishing the House of Lords.

But equally, there were trade union leaders who despised the Left and simply wanted a middle of the road Labour party back in power giving them access to Downing Street once more. They feared Thatcher was creating a society in which the unions would see their membership erode as manufacturing was allowed to decline and a new politics where they were being sidelined.

Things came to an almighty head when Callaghan decided to resign as party leader, having stuck around for a year after losing the 79 election. The Left devoted their energy into taking the deputy leadership. Tony Benn would run against Dennis Healey. This became a vicious battle fought in every constituency and union branch. In the end, by a slim margin, Healey won.

This film captures the intensity and vitriol that was unleashed at that time.

 

 

The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978 – a story of racism in Tower Hamlets 40 years ago


In 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park.  The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.

Altab Ali Met Police AppealBut who exactly was Altab Ali?

Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall.  They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.

However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community.  Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.

If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End.  Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.

This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen.  To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.

It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which.  The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.

On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers.  What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans.  For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.

The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane.  Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance.  None came.  Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.

The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.

On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks.  Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries.  Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.

September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects.  The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.

In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers.  For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.

 

The death of Blair Peach and the Southall riot


In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:

The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps.  The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.

The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”.  Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.

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Blair Peach – died in the 1979 Southall riot

As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.

The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury.  There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.

Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am.  After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened.  His full report was only made public three decades later.

A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution.  However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.

On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched.   In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.

There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.

But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit.  He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.

The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s.  The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth.  In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.

The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation.  But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.

Notting Hill carnival ends in riots


 

In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse. 

In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters.  Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.

“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife.  She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”

Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative.  The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.

But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn.  The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.

Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing.  What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.

The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets.  Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.

One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.

“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”

The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody.  But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run.  All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.

Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up.  Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’.  And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”

As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence.  There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields.  Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.

But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused.  They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.

The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.

“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers.  Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles.  But suddenly things changed dramatically.

‘Get them!’

The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions.  The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.

Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.

“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”

Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone.  After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.

Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles.  Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.

The media would not be disappointed.  All hell duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road.  The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.

Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well.  Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.

The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts.  Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.

Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.

The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.

“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”

The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.

“War Cry!  The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”

On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs.  This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.

Austerity economics – how it failed 35 years ago


Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on an economic policy described as ‘monetarism’   This entailed rigorous control of the money supply in order to curb the great British disease of inflation.  The outgoing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, no stranger to cutting government spending himself, had dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.

9780436164859-uk-300The high priest of monetarism was a professor at the Chicago school of economics by the name of Milton Friedman.  Without going too far in to the vast detail that any debate on economics can become mired in, Friedman essentially threw out the conventional Keynesian wisdom that in a depression, governments should spend to keep people in work.

Out of control public spending, he argued, would lead to something called ‘stagflation’ – stagnation with high inflation – which was a prevalent condition of many economies in the 1970s.  The answer was a kind of shock therapy where high interest rates, as one weapon, would make it unattractive to spend money.  This would then lead to restraint in wages and prices, which would result in inflation coming down.

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JK Galbraith

Oh that life was so simple, Keynesians retorted angrily – in many newspaper columns and on the letters pages.  Friedman’s leading Keynesian nemesis on the global stage was the elderly but highly alert J K Galbraith, who had served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration steering through the New Deal.  He warned over and over again that Friedman’s medicine would lead to idle industrial plants and high unemployment.

Just because it hurt, Galbraith thundered, didn’t mean monetarism was actually doing any good to Britain.

“Suffering must have a purpose: out of much suffering there must come much good.  No one is quite sure how this works in economics; one only knows that the bad times are somehow the price of the good.  Pain and punishment are considered especially salutary for other people.”

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General Pinochet – enthusiastic supporter of austerity economics

So agonising were the effects of monetarism that many on the left pointed out that in its most undiluted form, it had only successfully been applied in Chile – which still languished under a military dictatorship.  The implication being that a democracy could not hold the lid down on a population tormented by the rigours of this doctrine.

Within the trade unions, the widespread suspicion was that the Conservatives were using high levels of unemployment deliberately to beat down pay demands.   With an instinctive hatred of state regulation of the economy, Thatcher didn’t want to get involved in imposing incomes policies (as Labour had tried to do in the 1970s) but fear of the dole, it was thought, was her preferred weapon against wage inflation.

In reality, the Conservatives quietly dropped monetarism and adopted a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach after 1982.  But not before they would experience a bitter lesson from Britain’s hugely pissed off youth on how far you can pursue an experiment before the subject bites back.

Shocking attitudes to race in the early 80s


If I want to shock the millennials I work with, I tell them of a grim time not so long ago when racism was not only casual but endemic. Worse, it tipped from the mouths of MPs, broadcasters, senior police officers and judges. I find it almost impossible to believe that when I was in my teens, people could utter some of what follows here…

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Powell – putting his own views in other people’s mouths

Enoch Powell MP was a posh demagogue much loved by the sort of people who would begin a sentence with “I’m not racialist but…” Powell always put his racist views into other people’s mouths. As if to say – I don’t necessarily believe this myself but I’m honour bound as a representative of my constituents to tell you that…etc.

That allowed him to posture as the unwilling messenger who had to relay to all of us the shocking truth about the perils of immigration. He once claimed that an elderly, frail white woman had “excreta pushed through her letter box”.  A woman like her was intended to embody all white people – vulnerable and overwhelmed by the aggressive and sexualised violence of people from the black Commonwealth.

It was all nods and knowing winks from Powell to the racists on the street. That’s not to say that a little old lady didn’t have poo put through her letter box.  But it sure as hell happened to a lot more Asian run newsagents at the hands of neo-fascists – a fact that conveniently escaped Powell.

Winston Churchill’s grandson was a prominent MP in the 1970s – same name as his granddad but less illustrious career. In 1976, he made a very Powell-esque speech himself. He imagined his constituents not being able to recognise their own neighbourhoods anymore.

We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

Churchill, incidentally, once described one of his constituents to the House of Commons as being “as black as your coat, Mister Deputy Speaker”.

Sir Kenneth Newman of the Metropolitan Police had some positives in his career such as backing the formation of Crimestoppers. But he also opined that Jamaicans were incapable of obeying the law: “It’s simply in their make up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority”.  Another commentator even said that mugging was a form of self-employment for “West Indians”.  Crime reporting in those days was often underpinned by the assumption that black people were more disposed to criminality.

Another knighted copper called Ken was Sir Kenneth Oxford running the force in Merseyside. BBC reporter Martin Young spent some time with the Liverpool police and wrote a report for The Listener magazine. Jaws dropped round Merseyside when he claimed there was a view that “half-castes in Liverpool today” were the “products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8 – the red light district”. Oxford bitterly denied that any senior police officer had said such a thing to the reporter – who in turn stood by his story.

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Alfred Sherman

Right-wing ideologues often conflated the perceived threat posed by immigrants – from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean mainly – with the permissive society unleashed by the 1960s. Alfred Sherman was a political guru to Margaret Thatcher and once declared that:

“…the imposition of mass immigration from backward alien cultures is just one symptom of this self-destructive urge reflected in the assault on patriotism, the family – both as a conjugal and economic unit – the Christian religion in public life and schools, traditional morality in matters of sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law – in short, all that is English and wholesome…”

How did black Britons view this kind of thing? In the late 70s and early 80s, change was slowly happening. A new generation born and bred in Britain wasn’t prepared to doff its cap to the former colonial master. And they wanted to succeed in British society.

However, there was still very widespread discrimination in employment and housing. I found a copy of a teen mag called Fab208 – mentioned elsewhere on this blog – where a black single mother was interviewed about what Christmas would be like for her. Mrs Jones, who lived in a dingy flat in Wapping with her kids replied:  “I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide.”

There was so little room in the flat that clothes were hung up outside to dry but were then stolen. The family never went on holidays. Her 14 year old daughter Sharon told Fab208:  “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”

Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family.  “I’m not a sponger.  I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.” 

Shame Enoch Powell never dropped by to hear her account of life in Britain during the 70s and 80s.