Protesters and police clash in Southall
Thirty years ago a new Government was on the brink of victory and society was in turmoil. On April 23rd 1979 the cUK had a foretaste of that turmoil when Asian “immigrants” protested against an extreme right wing rally in the heart of Southall...
Kurt Barling has been talking to people who were present at a Seventies milestone that helped change the face of British race relations.
In April 1979 Britain was in the middle of a deeply divisive election campaign. The Labour government was grievously weakened by a winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were planning wholesale changes to revitalise Britain’s economy which was in a parlous state.
Politics was deeply fractured and the extreme right party, the National Front, was keen to use this climate to press its case to deport Black and Asian people and in its words, raze Southall to the ground and preserve it as a typical English hamlet.
A planned meeting at Southall Town Hall was allowed to go ahead fixed for St George’s Day (April 23rd).
The local Conservative leadership made a public judgment they were in no position to stop a legitimate political gathering as provided for in the Representation of The People’s Act. No matter that there was minimal support for the National Front in the locality.
The decision caused outrage in a part of London which had seen a large Asian community prosper. Ravi Jain is still a community organiser in Southall. He says that despite the law, the community believed the local council leadership was wrong. There was no significant constituency in Southall and rally by the National Front rally was designed simply to provoke a reaction.
It couldn’t fail to get one. Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by the African dictator Idi Amin had recent experience of being kicked out of another country and feared for their future.
The writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lived in Ealing at the time. She’d been expelled from Uganda. She recalls the indignation felt that the National Front could be allowed to have a platform in a community which had suffered a rise in racial attacks in the preceding months.
Like many other migrants Alibhai-Brown felt that she had no choice but to join the demonstration to try to disrupt the meeting at Southall Town Hall.
It was probably the first occasion when the stereotype of the Asian migrant, as meek, mild and diffident was revealed as a myth built on prejudice. The police however deployed heavy numbers on that day to keep the two sides apart.
The police created a sterile zone around Southall Town Hall and drew up police lines to stop any of the protesters reaching there. As tempers frayed towards the end of the day, Alibhai-Brown recalls how the mood suddenly changed from a protest where the police held the line to one where they actively sought to disburse the protesters.
The examples of violent police intervention have been well documented and Southall brought into question the assumption that the police were always the defenders of the citizen.
Alibhai-Brown recounts being chased down a side street by police officers wielding truncheons with several fellow protestors.
They sought refuge in the home of a Sikh family. “The young children were asked by the Sikh gentleman to wave at the policemen from the front window. And we hid at the back of the house until after darkness had fallen.”
The police on this occasion, she says, showed real menace and were, she believes, intent on teaching people on the march a lesson.
The protest was rooted in real concerns about the everyday treatment of Asian immigrants. In a community like Southall, reports of brothers being beaten up at school or women being spat at on the way to work circulated very quickly.
New arrivals like the Ugandan Asians had real experience of the consequences of talk about deportation or repatriation. Fear was real.
Ravi Jain founded the National Association of Asian Youth and was based in the heart of Southall in 1979. The premises of the NAAY acted as a makeshift shelter for young people fleeing the attentions of the police Special Patrol Groups (SPG) which had gained a reputation for tough intervention and violence.
Jain remembers the trigger for a breakdown in the orderly conduct on the 23rd April was a flare thrown into the police lines. This brought an instant reaction from the police to press forward and to allow police on horseback to ride into the protestors. It was at this point that panic set in.
“People were running every which way because they didn’t expect this; women, children, even pregnant mothers. People ran into the park and even ended up climbing trees.”
In the chaos that ensued scores of people were injured and several hundred arrested. But the event that elevated a local disturbance into a full-scale national story was the death of New Zealander Blair Peach.
Police arrest a protester in Southall
Peach was an active member of the Anti-Nazi League and a special needs teacher. Eye-witnesses described how he took several blows to his head from police truncheons in a side street as he was trying to get away from the fast disintegrating protest.
Peach died from his head injuries.
The Special Patrol Group of the Met Police was implicated although no one has ever been charged with causing his death.
Silvander Dillon had just completed his postgraduate studies in 1979 and got involved organising young people to get involved in the march on the Town Hall.
He believes that it was the death of Peach that helped show ordinary Britons that the march was not just about the anger of Asian boys and new migrants but a demonstration to the broader community that Britain was often a place full of discrimination and prejudice.
Peach’s body was brought the half a mile from where he fell to the Dominion Centre. He was effectively guarded by local people until the disturbances subsided.
The public outcry over his death and the responsibility of the police for it (despite no individual officers ever being found culpable) sparked a period of anger which would eventually lead to the Brixton disturbances of 1981 and a full inquiry under Lord Scarman into the sources of minority frustration and anger.
Equality rather than simple tolerance would become the concept around which more harmonious race relations would be built.
It started a period of national reflection which would lead to a new Race Relations Act and new duties for public authorities like the police.
Blair Peach died during the protest
Alibhai-Brown also sees parallels in today’s public debate about the manner in which the G20 protests in the City of London were policed. “The police is the service of the people and they are not there to protect the policies of the powerful, when they do that we are in trouble. I believe that is the situation we are in today.”
The Southall disturbances of 1979 deeply affected those who became caught up in the turmoil that day. Many like the three people quoted in this article remain living in Ealing. Other rights groups set up in the wake of the events are still active, like the Southall Monitoring Group and the deaths in custody charity, Inquest.
The lasting legacy of the demonstration was a realisation by the mainstream of British society that Britain’s migrant communities were here to stay. This meant the state would have to find new ways to get people from different ethnic backgrounds to live and work together.
London can claim some credit for being a world leader in making this happen, but it was done at a price. Blair Peach is remembered above all for this.
last updated: 28/04/2009 at 12:25