Back 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.
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.
But 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.
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’.
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.
The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.
Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.
The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.
Peter Tatchell – the prolific human rights campaigner – first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. If ever an episode in politics revealed the prejudices and bigotries of the age, then it was this one. Even to look back on it now just makes me depressed.
The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat. Mellish was a die-hard Harold Wilson loyalist who once announced in 1976 that he was NOT an “anti-racialist” and opposed letting the Malawi Asians in to the UK, in spite of the fact they had UK passports and had been forcibly expelled by the Malawi government. It’s worth noting that 1976 was, in this humble scribe’s view, the high water mark of National Front activity and attacks on Asians in Britain – particularly those who had come from Uganda, fleeing Idi Amin.
Needless to say that Mellish did not appreciate the Bennite and Militant swing to the left within his constituency party in the early 80s. First he announced his intention not to run again, then decided to sit as an Independent MP before finally finding a home with other Labour renegades in the newly formed Social Democrat Party.
Just to stick up a final two fingers to the Bermondsey comrades, he resigned his seat precipitating a by-election in 1983. And several Labour councillors joined his desertion to the SDP.
His constituency party had already selected Australian born Peter Tatchell. It should be noted that contrary to some misinformation, the Militant Tendency did not support Tatchell – they had their own preferred candidate who if my memory serves me right had an impressive 80s mullet.
Tatchell’s opponents would go on to use his place of birth and sexuality as door-to-door campaigning issues. The Liberals – now the Lib Dems – squirmed on this issue for years but if you’ve ever campaigned against a Lib Dem candidate (I have), you won’t be surprised by any tactic they employ. I’m not going to repeat the anti-gay slogans and innuendos – just Google away and you’ll find them.
From his selection in 1981, elements in the Labour Party goaded on by their former colleagues now in the SDP tried to get rid of Tatchell – trying to rule him out as a candidate in Bermondsey. In 1981, Tatchell penned an article on his political views that advocated direct action against the Thatcher government.
The inappropriately named Labour turned SDP MP James Wellbeloved rose to his feet in parliament and asked Margaret Thatcher – and Labour leader Michael Foot – to denounce this call for extra-parliamentary action.
What Tatchell had written was no different to what many MPs and Labour activists advocated at that time but the vehemence towards him was, to my mind, very much tinged with the casual homophobia of the era. There was a sneering vitriol employed towards him – and he’s spoken since of the threats he faced as a candidate.
Michael Foot, in a reaction that even surprised me at the time, denounced Tatchell and said he would never be accepted into the Labour Party, let alone run as a candidate. Needless to say those words and no doubt his hat were force fed to the party leader at a later date as Tatchell did indeed run – though he would be defeated by Liberal Simon Hughes (who subsequently declared his own sexuality decades later).