Remembering Blair Peach…

We take a moment to remem­ber a teach­er, cam­paign­er and act­iv­ist who died dur­ing an anti-racism riot at the hands of police.

In April 1979, the events of the gen­er­al elec­tion were over­shad­owed by fight­ing between the police and the largely-Asi­an pop­u­la­tion of Southall near Heath­row in West Lon­don. In the middle of this struggle, one left-wing teach­er Blair Peach was killed. The back­ground to the events lay with the decision of the far-right Nation­al Front to hold an elec­tion meet­ing in Southall. The Front had almost no sup­port­ers in the area, but was hop­ing to gain pub­li­city by bull­doz­ing its way through the Asi­an dis­tricts of out­er Lon­don.

Three years earli­er a Nation­al Front-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chag­gar in Southall. After the killing, Kings­ley Read of the Nation­al Party was quoted as hav­ing remarked, ‘One down — a mil­lion to go’. Chag­gar’s killers were nev­er con­victed. The fail­ure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. Prom­in­ent loc­al anti-racist act­iv­ist Bal­win­dar Rana remem­bers read­ing about the NF meet­ing in the Eal­ing Gaz­ette, ‘The news spread like wild­fire. People felt very angry and insul­ted.’

On 18 April, res­id­ents met with the Home Sec­ret­ary Merlyn Rees to ask him to ban the Front’s meet­ing. Rees declined. Instead, the Met­ro­pol­it­an police was instruc­ted to keep the NF meet­ing open. On Sunday April 22, the day before the planned NF meet­ing, five thou­sand people marched to Eal­ing Town Hall to protest against the Front, hand­ing in a peti­tion signed by 10,000 res­id­ents. Loc­al work­places also agreed to strike in protest against the Front, includ­ing Ford Langley, Sun­Blest bakery, Walls pie fact­ory and Quaker Oats.

Southall, April 1979

Monday April 23 was St. George’s Day. Loc­al shops, factor­ies and trans­port closed at 1pm, and people began to block the road from lunch­time.

By one or two o’c­lock, Bal­win­dar Rana recalls, ‘There were young people milling around. A bus went past, with skin­heads on, mak­ing v‑signs. Some of the young Asi­ans star­ted to fight the skin­heads, and the police respon­ded by fight­ing the Asi­ans. Soon they were char­ging down the streets.’ One of the most fright­en­ing aspects Rana remem­bers was the noise of the police drum­ming their sticks against the riot shields.

By 3.30 in the after­noon, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, mean­ing that it was free of anti-racists. Rain had begun to fall in buck­ets, fur­ther dampen­ing the mood. Large num­bers of people found them­selves on the wrong side of police bar­ri­cades. The ten­sion rose, reach­ing its peak at around 6pm.

Accord­ing to Rana, ‘The police used horses, they drove vans into the crowd, fast to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with bricks, or whatever they could pick up.’ The situ­ation was now one of chaos. The links between the pro­test­ers had broken down. Indi­vidu­als were run­ning into the park to hide, or shel­ter­ing in loc­al homes.

The police decided to close down the ‘Peoples Unite’ build­ing, which anti-fas­cist demon­strat­ors were using as their make­shift headquar­ters. Those inside were giv­en ten minutes to leave. Police officers, formed up along the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the build­ing, bleed­ing from his head. Clar­ence Baker, the paci­fist manger of Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma.

The build­ing itself was so badly dam­aged by the police action that after­wards, it had to be des­troyed. Officers with bat­ons smashed med­ic­al equip­ment, a sound sys­tem, print­ing and oth­er items. Jack Dromey a full-time offi­cial of the Trans­port and Gen­er­al Work­ers’ Uni­on, told a later inquiry, ‘I have nev­er seen such unres­trained viol­ence against demon­strat­ors … The Spe­cial Patrol Group were just run­ning wild.’ His view was echoed by Mrs. Dia­lo Sandu, a Southall res­id­ent who watched the riot from her garden, ‘They treated us like anim­als. It’s the first time I would ever speak against the police. But I saw what happened with my own eyes.’

At least three pro­test­ers suffered frac­tured skulls. Oth­ers were beaten until they lost con­scious­ness. Car­oline, then an act­ive mem­ber of the Anti-Nazi League in Eal­ing, spent the night driv­ing between Southall and Heath­row,

‘Many of the Asi­ans kids that the police arres­ted, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of Lon­don. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motor­ways, nowhere near tele­phones or any­thing. These young kids were con­fused, cry­ing. The police just wanted to humi­li­ate them.’

Per­mind­er Dhil­lon describes her memor­ies of the day. ‘Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a res­taur­ant where Rock Against Racism and Indi­an music had been blar­ing out all even­ing, drown­ing out the Nation­al Front speak­ers inside the town hall. Their words still bleed­ing, people saw the Com­mis­sion­er of Police, the Home Sec­ret­ary, and oth­er “experts” on the black com­munity con­demning the people of Southall for their unpro­voked attack on the police! As usu­al, only pic­tures of injured police­men were shown — noth­ing of the preg­nant women being attacked and the count­less oth­er police assaults.’

Blair Peach, a school­teach­er and a mem­ber of the Anti-Nazi League, was clubbed to death as he sought to escape from the fight­ing. His death took place at around 8.30pm. He was killed on Beach­croft Aven­ue, a nar­row sub­urb­an road. Peach had attemp­ted to shel­ter from the police. His body was found towards the end of the road, on a corner that faced back towards the Town Hall. There was a bed of bego­ni­as grow­ing at the oppos­ite end of the road. The fam­ily oppos­ite tried to shel­ter him, not real­ising that Blair was already dying. We know that an officer from the Spe­cial Patrol Group (SPG), the force that had stormed the People’s Unite build­ing, hit him on the head. Anna’s daugh­ter Miri­am was attacked on the same road.

‘They were going home. The streets were covered in glass. Then they heard a siren. Someone shouted “run”. They ran into a side alley, then into this garden. They’d already seen what the SPG was up to. Six officers with truncheons got Miri­am in a corner and hit her. She’d nev­er known any­thing like that. When they stopped, they said, “We’ll be back for you later.” She had blood every­where. One loc­al Asi­an fam­ily took her in, and offered her sug­ary tea. Later she went to the St. John’s Ambu­lance. She still gets pains from where they hit her.’

In the after­math of Southall, the papers swung over­whelm­ingly behind the police. The Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Tele­graph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The head­lines included, ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Elec­tion Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arres­ted’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’, and ‘300 ARRES­TED AT POLL RIOT’. One edi­tion of the Daily Mail went fur­thest in delib­er­ately con­fus­ing the racists and the anti-racists, pro­claim­ing, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’. The press depic­ted a mix race group of young anti-racists as viol­ent, aggress­ive thugs — as much a threat to soci­ety as the real crim­in­als of the Nation­al Front.

Yet, in the days that fol­lowed, it slowly became clear that the police had gone too far. It became clear that the vast major­ity of Southall res­id­ents felt a great sym­pathy for Blair Peach, the man who had died for them. The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police’s vic­tory crumbled. The murder of Blair Peach became a sym­bol of the unjus­ti­fied use of police viol­ence. Fif­teen thou­sand people marched the fol­low­ing Sat­urday, in hon­our of Blair Peach, with Ken Gill speak­ing, from the TUC. Work­ers at Sun­Blest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s wid­ow.

Bal­win­dar Rana remem­bers that for the next week, pro­test­ers were every­where, fly­po­st­ing, speak­ing, organ­ising, dis­cuss­ing the les­sons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large num­bers, but they did not dare to stop people from organ­ising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enorm­ity of what they had done.

Rock Against Racism brought out a spe­cial leaf­let, Southall Kids are Inno­cent, ‘Southall is spe­cial. There have been police killings before … But on April 23rd the police behaved like nev­er before … The police were try­ing to kill our people. They were try­ing to get even with our cul­ture … What free speech needs mar­tial law? What pub­lic meet­ing requires 5,000 people to keep the pub­lic out?’ Ques­tions were asked in the New Zea­l­and par­lia­ment.

For eight weeks, Peach’s body was left unbur­ied, while people paid their respects. Queues formed out­side the Domin­ion Theatre, where his body remained. Accord­ing to one source, Peach’s death had ‘par­tic­u­lar rev­er­ence for the pre­dom­in­antly Sikh Pun­j­abi com­munity, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the coun­try, and as an enemy of tyr­an­nous oppress­ors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in pop­u­lar bazaar cal­en­dar art.’

Am offi­cial inquest con­tin­ued, lim­it­ing itself to the sole ques­tion of how Blair died. One dis­tin­guished patho­lo­gist Pro­fess­or Mant com­men­ted on the dam­age done to Blair Peach’s skull, with an instru­ment that had not pierced his skin. He con­cluded that the murder weapon was prob­ably not a truncheon, but more likely a cosh, or pos­sibly a police radio.

Writ­ing in the New States­man, Paul Foot com­plained of the delays, ‘I won­der what the reac­tion would have been if a police­man, not a demon­strat­or, had been killed at Southall. Would the inquest have been post­poned until the middle of the sum­mer hol­i­days? Would there have been almost total silence in the Press about the murder hunt? Would the sus­pects have been left to carry on their jobs without being charged or even cau­tioned?’

The friends and sup­port­ers of Blair Peach were not sat­is­fied. ‘There was no justice for Blair’, remem­bers Anna, ‘We knew who’d done it.’ Two papers, the Sunday Times and the Lev­el­ler, pub­lished leaks nam­ing the officers that had trav­elled in the van that held Peach’s killer. They were Police Con­stables Mur­ray, White, Lake, Free­stone, Scot­tow and Richard­son. When the lock­ers of their unit were searched in June 1979, one officer Gre­ville Bint was dis­covered to have in his lock­ers Nazi regalia, bay­on­ets and leath­er covered sticks. Anoth­er con­stable Ray­mond White attemp­ted to hide a cosh. No officer was ever pro­sec­uted.

On 13 June 1979, Peach was bur­ied. Ten thou­sand people joined the pro­ces­sion. Anoth­er ten thou­sand marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the fol­low­ing year. A school was named after him and fur­ther memori­als have been organ­ised since.

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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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