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The day Blair Peach died – a personal account

40 years ago anti-racist demonstrator Blair Peach was killed by the police while protesting against a National Front rally. BALWINDER RANA, the only surviving member of the five-member committee elected by the community to organise the protests, looks back on that horrific day

ON April 23 1979, police killed Blair Peach in Southall while he was protesting against the fascist National Front (NF) rally. 

For those of us who were there, the memories of that day will be etched upon our minds forever. 

It was a couple of weeks before that we heard that the NF was being allowed, by the then Tory-run Ealing Council, to hold its election meeting right in the heart of our town, the town hall. 

The news spread like a wild fire and immediately the Indian Workers Association (Southall), under the leadership of the late Vishnu Sharma, called a meeting of all the local organisations in west London and asked them to send two delegates each.

The meeting was held in the Dominion Centre and there were about 80 people present, representing a multitude of religious, cultural, political as well as trade union organisations.

The meeting took a number of decisions, including to raise a petition demanding that the Tory council should ban the NF rally and to hold a protest march, on Sunday April 22, from Southall to Ealing Town Hall, to hand over the petition to the council. 

If the meeting was not cancelled then we decided to ask all the local workers to go on strike from midday on Monday April 23, and ask all the local shops and businesses to shut down in protest at the same time. 

Then from 5.30pm, two hours before the starting point of the NF rally, we would hold a peaceful sit-down protest outside the town hall. 

The meeting then elected a five-member committee to implement those decisions and I was elected as one of those five. 

The committee then further appointed me as the chief steward for the demonstrations. Unfortunately, the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) did not take part in that meeting and had decided to make their own protest. 

On Sunday April 22, about 5,000 people assembled in the Dominion car park to begin our march. 

But the car park was surrounded by masses of police on horseback and loads of police on foot. I approached the chief of police and told him that I was the chief steward and asked him why there were so many police. 

He replied that they were there to protect us! I told him that we didn’t need any protection as there were enough of us to protect ourselves from any perceived danger. 

As the march proceeded, the police began to unnecessarily harass the marchers and outside the Southall police station, a very convenient place for them. They arrested a young black lad for no reason other than just being a bit overexuberant and took him inside the police station. 

I immediately halted the march and, together with Vishnu Sharma, then president of the Indian Workers Association, went inside the police station and demanded that the young lad be released immediately. 

Initially the police chief threatened to also arrest us both but soon came to his senses and released the young lad and the march started to move again.

However, as we were marching past the Ealing hospital, some police, even more aggressively, started to harass the youngsters again and some scuffles broke out. 

Thereby, the police proceeded to arrest 15 people, thus setting the scene for the next day.

On Monday April 23, the police started to arrive in the town from early morning and by midday nearly 3,000 of them were present, with police coaches lining many roads in the town centre. 

Soon they were marching up and down and directing people in aggressive manner. 

At about 1pm all the local shops and businesses were shut and almost all the workers in the local factories went on strike. 

At about the same time rumours were heard that the police were trying to smuggle the NF into the town hall early. 

So many protesters, led by the SYM, gathered near the town hall. Police soon started pushing them away and attacking and arresting them. 

When I tried to intervene, the police threatened to arrest me too, and from then onwards they refused to co-operate with the stewards. 

Southall lockdown 

When more and more people began to arrive, the police set up road blocks, many hundreds of metres away from the town hall, at the four roads leading away from the building, which is situated at one of the corners at the centre of the crossroads.

By 5pm thousands of people, young and old, men and women, black, Asian, white, had gathered at those four road blocks. 

The protesters were mostly local but there were also many anti-racists from outside who had come to show their solidarity. 

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

People were not even being allowed to go to their own homes that were within the cordoned-off area and it looked like an occupied town. 

People were becoming very restless and agitated and often they would try to break through the police lines, only to be followed by the police pushing them with their riot shields, attacking them with their long truncheons, while snatch squads went into the crowds, carting off some struggling youngsters and others. 

This would make the protesters even more angry and whereby a pattern was to follow. The protesters would push at the police lines and throw at them what ever they could get their hands on from the side streets. 

Then, they would be first attacked by the foot police, followed by the mounted police charging at them and the Special Patrol Group (SPG) vans driving at high speed towards them. Then the SPG squads jumped out of the vans and threw anyone in sight into their vans. 

The people tried to run away from the police and police dogs chased them into the side streets while biting at the fleeing protesters.  

The brave protesters returned with half-bricks and anything else they found and the whole process was repeated again.

This went on for many hours in the pouring rain and a very cold and wet afternoon and evening.

However, despite the police road blocks, it was still possible to drive around further away from the centre, via the ring-road of Park Avenue, Beaconsfield Road, Dane Road, Lancaster Road and the Dormers Wells Lane.

I managed to drive around a couple of times to see what was happening in each area while talking to the stewards and encouraging people to stay steadfast and to keep up their spirits.

At about 6pm, I was at one of the police cordons near Southall Park, next to the People’s Unite building, which was in the cul-de-sac Park View Road and was being used as a medical and law centre for the protest. 

At about 6.30pm, some people tried, unsuccessfully, to push through the police line and a couple of flares were let off. 

But soon the police line opened and a dozen mounted police charged into the crowd, hitting people over their heads with their long truncheons and chasing them in all directions. 

They were followed by SPG squads that indiscriminately attacked people and chased some of them into the People’s Unite building. 

There they attacked everyone downstairs and then lined the staircase and ordered people to come down from upstairs. 

As people did so they were hit over the head and many were badly injured, including Clarance Baker, manager of the Mist in Roots reggae band, who was hospitalised for many months. 

Many people were arrested there and the police then proceeded to smash up all the musical equipment and the recording studio, worth thousands of pounds, and even pulled out the water pipes. The place was then demolished by the council.

I myself was able to escape the police attack by climbing over someone’s garage in Park View Road and I went to the other road running parallel to Park View Road in the direction of Ealing. 

Even in that road police were chasing the protesters and people had come out of their homes to see what the commotion was about. 

I joined a family in their front garden and as the police were running after the protesters they were even hitting people over their heads who were just standing in their front gardens and watching what was going on.  

This was a random attack upon the whole community, not just upon the protesters. 

As the family I was with ran inside their house, I managed to go with them inside and shut the door behind. 

From there I tried, unsuccessfully, to call the People’s Unite building but there was no reply as the phone line had been ripped out by the police. 

Some time later I came out and walked back to Park View Road. There were very few people left there as most had been scattered by the brutal police attack earlier on. 

I spoke to some of them who told me some harrowing stories about the police violence they had suffered. But they were still in high spirits and wanted to hang around till the end.

From there I was able to make my way on foot, via the Dormers Wells Lane and Dane Road, to the Hayes side of the Broadway, near the Ramgarhia Hall and about 7.30pm I joined with the protesters in the Broadway. 

Soon some youngsters tried to throw a small “petrol bomb” towards a police coach which had brought the police during the morning and now was parked in the Broadway.  

The device fell short but the driver of the coach had seen the flash and he immediately drove at high speed towards the town hall and into the backs of the protesters who were being blocked by the police cordon further down. 

There were some few thousand people there who tried to run in all directions to escape the coach coming at them at high speed.

At about 7.30pm, under heavy police guard, a bunch of NF thugs, no more than 30, giving nazi salutes and shouting racist obscenities were escorted into their tiny meeting place, all of them from outside the area. 

This enraged the protesters, especially those who were in the Broadway, even more and they tried to reach the town hall. 

This led to the most violent police attack, with the SPG vans being driven at high speed towards the crowds to throw people into the vans while police on horseback charged into the crowds and police on foot chased people in all directions. 

Again I had to run towards Hayes and into the Dane Road where a very kind family let me into their house. 

I did not see Blair Peach or his friends that evening but I believe they were around when I was in the Broadway and around that time, during one of those police raids, that Peach and his friends were trapped by an SPG group at the end of Orchard Avenue. 

There were at least six witnesses to this event. They saw an SPG policeman club Peach over the head. He fell, then was comforted by the Atwal family who called an ambulance. Peach died in Ealing hospital later from that blow to his head.

I stayed with the family in Dane Road for a while as, by now, it was raining heavily outside and the police were still running up and down the streets chasing after the protesters. 

I came back to the Broadway again and the police were returning towards the town hall. Most of the protesters had also returned, but things were beginning to calm down a bit. 

By 9.30pm the bloody NF thugs had left and protesters were beginning to leave too.  

I went back to 46 High Street, our initial headquarters, and other stewards also started to return. 

We immediately started to phone around the police stations to ask if they were holding any of our arrested people. 

We started to send cars and vans to the police stations to pick up the arrested people and to take them to their homes. 

It was soon after midnight that we got a call giving us the tragic news that our brother Blair Peach had died in the hospital. 

We were all in a shock but that made us even more determined, and we carried on with our work of locating the arrested people and taking them to their homes. 

But there were too many of them as nearly 700 were arrested and 342 of them were charged. 

We could not get to all of them but some of us were up the whole night and in the morning the late Vishnu Sharma invited us to his house for the breakfast.

I had known Peach from a couple of years earlier when we both used to join whole-night protests against the NF in the Brick Lane area of east London. 

There the NF used to sell its racist newspaper at the Sunday market. That led to weekly protests by the Anti-Nazi League and other anti-racists to force the NF out. 

Eventually the police said that whichever group turned up first would be allowed the pitch. So we started turning up on Saturday night, spending whole night on the pavement in the cold and rain to be there first. 

The bloody NF started to do the same and eventually we were turning up on Friday night, spending whole night and the next day, and another night, till Sunday morning. 

Peach was always there and he was a fighter and an active member of the Anti-Nazi League. We shall always remember him!

The next day the whole mass media was blaming the so-called “outsiders” for the previous day’s police riot. Some of the government ministers had also done the same and even our very own and dear late Piara Khabra, later to become an MP, had joined in the chorus. 

But the real problem was that we did not have enough outsiders. I wish we had had 100,000 people there on that day, like in the Cable Street in 1936 when they were able to stop the fascist Oswald Mosley from marching in the Jewish area of east London. Or, as in 1977 in Lewisham where thousands of anti-racists from as far as Birmingham, Bristol and Brighton had turned up to support thousands of local black youth and we were able to stop the bloody NF march and send them packing.

In Southall that day we did what we could, but it was not enough to defeat the massed army of the state which had come to teach us a lesson. 

They wanted to set an example by defeating the biggest Asian population in this country so that people in towns with smaller populations would not dare to protest. 

But, in 1981, at the Hambrough Tavern our youth were able avenge 1979 and teach the bloody racists and the police a lesson.

Balwinder Rana remains an anti-racist campaigner and is an active member of Stand Up to Racism. He is also active in Southall Resists 40, which was formed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Blair Peach’s death.

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