Pragna Patel, the director and co-founder of Southall Black Sisters, vividly recalls April 23, 1979. As a teenager, she, alongside her family, watched scenes of violence, chaos and police brutality unfold on the family’s television screen. Community protests against a meeting of the far-right National Front at the town hall were met with brutal force by police, resulting in many injuries, and the death of Blair Peach, a teacher and anti-fascist activist. It was soon after that Ms. Patel and others set up Southall Black Sisters, a non-profit devoted to helping South Asian and black women tackle gender-based violence and racism.
Peach was killed after being struck on the head, in an action widely believed to have been carried out by a member of the Special Patrol Group — a former unit of the Metropolitan Police. The National Front had controversially been allowed to hold the meeting by the then-in-power Labour Party, reluctant to take a firm stance against the right as it faced down a resurgent Conservative Party. “The police presence was unprecedented,” recalls Harsev Bains of the Southall Community Alliance.
The harsh handling of the protests and their aftermath — hundreds faced criminal charges while Peach’s death was ruled as “death by misadventure” by an inquest jury — helped spark a radical movement that brought together Southall’s diverse community. “It was a moment that shaped me profoundly… a watershed moment. This was the first time you saw Asians resisting against racism in this way,” recalls Ms. Patel. She also remembers the diverse nature of the groups involved. “It was a rare moment of unity and was about the right of people to exist free from violence and fear.”
A united front
“1979 showed the depth of organisation within the community… it showed it was united and had the inherent ability to defend itself,” says Mr. Bains. Till then, with some notable exceptions, it had been Britain’s black community that had led the struggle against racism. “We, the younger generation, had the security that our parents hadn’t had — and less of the fear ‘what will happen to me if I start campaigning’,” he says, recalling slogans of the Asian youth movements that had sprung up such as “We are here to stay, here to fight” and “Black and White, Unite and Fight.”
The impact of the struggle reached well beyond Southall, linking up with anti-racism campaigning up and down the country, including in Bradford, where 12 men (‘the Bradford 12’) were tried and acquitted of making explosive devices as part of protests against skinhead gangs and attacks on the Asian community there.
Forty years on, organisations involved in the anti-racism movement have come together to revive the community’s collective memories of the past, through the umbrella body Southall Resists 40. Last weekend, hundreds joined a march through the centre of Southall, bringing together community leaders, activists, and politicians, including Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell. More events are set to take place in coming months — with plans for a film and documentary festival, and a day for local students to present their works on what had unfolded.
It comes amid growing concerns around racism and the rise of the far-right again in Britain: in 2017-18 over three quarter of the over 94,000 hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales were deemed racially aggravated.
Southall Resists’s aim is partly to help prepare for the new environment. “Our aim is not only to remember the past by learning lessons from the resistance that was created, but also to prepare for the future,” it states on its website.
Mr. Bains and Ms. Patel are cautious about what can be achieved, in a diverse community increasingly divided along communal lines. “The optimist in me says there is a huge amount of potential but the realist in me acknowledges we have a long way to go to recreate the sense of unity of the 1970s and 80s,” says Mr. Bains.
“I wouldn’t say there is yet an anti-racist revival but what is very positive is that young people are learning their history,” says Ms. Patel. “The point is not to forget. It’s to say to people who freely go about their business… you are free to do that because of movements like the one that developed here in Southall.”
Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London Correspondent