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Southall, April 1979: How to fight the fascists and win (then and now)

Venue: Birkbeck Main Building, Malet Street

Southall – a small town in west London, close to Heathrow airport – has been the home of populations primarily from Ireland and the darker Commonwealth and also, latterly, from Somalia, Poland, and Afghanistan. The postwar period saw sustained political campaigns against those regarded as ‘newcomers’. There were resident campaigns to ‘to stop coloured people buying houses in the area’, a British National Party campaign to ‘Send them Back’ and local borough policies for the dispersal of local South-Asian and Afro-Caribbean children to schools outside of the area through ‘bussing’.

One of the early responses to this was the establishment of the Indian Workers Association, which lobbied specifically for union recognition of darker workers as well as being involved in wider political issues related to changes in immigration laws and countering discrimination in housing and employment. In 1965, for example, there was a seven-week strike at Woolf’s Rubber factory in Southall led by members of the IWA.

The 1970s saw the rise of neo-fascism with an accompanying rise in racist violence. In 1976, a young schoolboy Gurdip Singh Chaggar was stabbed to death by a group of white youths. This prompted a spontaneous demonstration outside the local police station and calls for action to be taken regarding, what was seen to be, the systematic indifference of the police to racist attacks. The local youth responded by forming the Southall Youth Movement and organising protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations.

In 1979, on St George’s Day, the National Front organised a meeting at the Town Hall located at the crossroads at the heart of Southall. Several thousand local residents turned out in opposition. The police, protecting the freedom of association of approximately 60 neo-fascists, mostly not from the local area, sought to disperse the protestors. In the process, they caused the death of one protestor, Blair Peach, and seriously injured a number of others including Clarence Baker from People’s Unite who was to remain in a coma for five months subsequently.

Two years later, skinheads returned to Southall, this time for a musical gig held at the Hamborough Tavern. The local community turned out again to protect their town. They used whatever was to hand to defend themselves from the racist violence perpetrated by the skinheads as they sought to smash windows along the high street and terrorise the local population. Through the sheer strength of numbers and collective action, the local youth overwhelmed the fascists who had to be rescued by the police and led away.

The roar of collective anger against decades of discrimination and racism was such that, at least in Southall, the National Front and like organisations never again showed their face.

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