Remembering Blair Peach: 30 years on


by Sunny
26th April, 2009 at 2:34 pm    

Written by Chris Searle for the IRR

A friend and colleague remembers Blair Peach, killed by a member of the Special Patrol Group in Southall during a demonstration against the National Front (NF) on 23 April 1979.

Blair Peach was born in New Zealand in 1946. After earning his degree at Victoria University and periods of work as a fireman and hospital orderly, he arrived in London in 1969.

From that year until his death on the streets of Southall on 23 April 1979, he worked at Phoenix School in Bow, East London. He was a dedicated and brilliant teacher who was much appreciated by his pupils. As one of them wrote, after Blair’s death:

He was a different kind of teacher. His interest in his pupils was not confined to the schoolroom but extended into their homes, where he would visit and give advice and practical help whenever he could.

He was a man of high ideals, but ideals are no good if they are not put into practice. He always practised what he preached. At school he instituted a special class to help those children who had difficulty in reading and those classes were extended into the school holidays. He did this because he cared about these children and wanted them to be free thinking adults who would not be pushed about by the system. I know I will never forget him and he will always be remembered as a friend of the people.

The 1970s represented a ferment in education to the young teachers in East London, particularly those organised within the East London Teachers’ Association, the local branch of the National Union of Teachers. As a loyal and committed trade unionist and socialist, Blair Peach was at the centre of debate.

What concerned Blair Peach more than anything was the growth in organised racism in East London all through the ’70s. He didn’t just speak out and condemn the rise in the influence of such fascist groups as the National Front and British Movement during those years, he organised against their poison whether in the classroom, trade union meeting or the street. He hated racism with all his being and was the first to mobilise himself and others in any action which combated it.

He was an active organiser within his South Hackney and Shoreditch Branch of the Anti-Nazi League, was frequently involved in standing firm against racists with the Bengali community in the Brick Lane neighbourhood, and successfully campaigned to stop the Inner London Education Authority allowing schools to be used for evening meetings by fascist organisations.

I have a particular memory of Blair’s strength against racism. After union meetings at Mile End Teachers’ Centre a group of us would always have a drink and continue the discussions at the Railway Tavern, in Grove Road, Bow. During one such occasion, we heard from one of the pub’s customers that the landlord was refusing to serve Black people. We immediately challenged him about this, and he tried to defend the ban, saying that as far as he was concerned Black people ‘were all pimps, queers and prostitutes’.

After a later court hearing which followed the consequences of this incident, the Morning Star (27 November 1974) reported in these words what had been said:

Mr Peach told the court he was “absolutely disgusted” after he heard confirmed that the landlord ‘was a racist.’ He and several other teachers, who used to go to the Railway Tavern after union meetings, went to another tavern down the road.

There they talked to West Indians who used to drink in the Railway but who were now not allowed to drink there. They returned to the Railway Tavern and he was under the impression they were going to stand outside advising people not to go in because of the colour bar. But as no one was outside, he went in and saw teachers and some of the West Indians being refused drinks by the publican. Then the police arrived and told them to leave.

When he asked why, they would give no reason and then one of them said: “Let’s nick him” and grabbed him by the arm and two of them pulled him out of the bar into a police car.

Blair was acquitted of the charge of threatening behaviour after this hearing. As he was leaving the court, a colleague overheard a policeman say to him as he passed: “You have got off this time Peach, but don’t worry, we’ll have you!” I remember we laughed about it at the time, but those words were to come pounding back to some of us five years later in April 1979.

Final years
During the last years of the ’70s Blair was becoming more and more involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist activities. The last time I saw him was in January 1979 at the funeral of Michael Ferreira, the Hackney Black youth who has been stabbed to death by young racist thugs, and who had died on his way to hospital after unconscionable delays in Stoke Newington police station, where Michael’s friends had taken him, looking for a phone. As we walked with hundreds of others behind the cortege through the streets of Hackney, Blair told me how he had been targeted and attacked by local fascists.

As the evening news bulletins of 23 April announced that a teacher from East London had been killed following the intervention of the police in anti-racist demonstrations at Southall in the West London borough of Ealing, even before his name was mentioned, how many other teachers as well as I, had a terrible presage that it would be Blair? For he had been the most committed, the most exemplary, the most selfless, in every way.

In the London Evening News (24 April), a Southall witness, Mr. Parminder Atwal, described Blair’s fatal encounter with about twenty members of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, who were running towards him carrying shields and black truncheons:

As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with the stick. I was in my garden and I saw this quite clearly. When they all rushed past, he was left sitting against the wall. He tried to get up: but he was shivering and looked very strange. He couldn’t stand. Then the police came back and told him this: “Move! Come on, move!” They were very rough with him and I was shocked because it was clear he was seriously hurt.

His tongue seemed stuck in the top of his mouth and his eyes were rolled up to the top of his head. But they started pushing him and told him to move, and he managed to get to his feet. He staggered across the road and came to where I was in the garden. I tried to sit him down. He was in a very bad state and he couldn’t speak. Then he just dropped down. I got a glass of water for him, but he couldn’t hold it and it dropped out of his hand.

These words express not only the brutal and clinical manner of Blair’s death, but the love which the Black people of Southall showed to him in his last moments, during the demonstrations that followed his death and the events leading to his funeral. This has found its most concrete form in the two schools – the Blair Peach Nursery and First School and the Blair Peach Middle School – that were finally opened in Southall in July 1988.

—–
The context of Blair’s death and the brave resistance of the Southall community are recalled with a telling realism in Colin Prescod’s film, A Town Under Siege, now reissued as one of the four related documentaries of the historical movements of British Black people in the 1970s, Struggles for Black Community, all made with the cooperation of the Institute of Race Relations. They are powerful educational narratives of their epoch, strongly relevant to now-times struggles and packed with vital knowledge of British urban history in the Twentieth Century.


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Filed in: Civil liberties,EDL,Race politics,The BNP






7 Comments below   |  

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  1. pickles

    New blog post: Remembering Blair Peach: 30 years on http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/4400




  1. halima — on 26th April, 2009 at 2:55 pm  

    Brilliant piece. These are the people whose lives we ought to be remember when we promote anti-racism causes in the UK. I have grown up remembering Blair Peach’s name as part of my local history.

    Terry Fitzpatrick was tirelessly campaigning with Tower Hamlets Council (the local education authority where Blair Peach taught) to erect a plaque in his honour a year ago, I don’t know where this got to.

    Bill – maybe you know?

  2. billericaydicky — on 26th April, 2009 at 6:24 pm  

    Halima Ji,

    Of course I do you as do all of us who went through those years. I spoke on friday at the Dominion center in Southall which used to be the cinema where his body was laid out and thousands of local people came past the coffin to pay their respects.

    It was a very emotional evening and the first time that I had been back since that day except to speak. Until we got the plaque put up at the school where he taught, which you know well, he was almost unknown in East London.

    As a result of the G 20 he is in the news again. This should be an interesting post because the scum of the SWP are trying to use the memory of a man they expelled to boost threir failing, useless group of opportunists.

    We remember, don’t we?

  3. halima — on 27th April, 2009 at 1:31 pm  

    Hi Bill

    Yes, I thought there must be a lot of activities going on to remember Blair Peach – and I hadn’t realised the connection to G20 – though it should be obvious. I hope you got a good audience at the Dominion Centre in Southhall. Peach, the cause, you – all deserve the respect for standing up to what’s right. I just noticed Sunny post another link to Southhall on PP and am pleased there is more coverage of this.

  4. dave bones — on 28th April, 2009 at 10:35 am  

    Cheers for this I knew nothing about it.

  5. billaricaydickey — on 28th April, 2009 at 12:32 pm  

    Halima,

    We were talking about you in the house after your last post. Clare hopes that you are well and when are you back in the UK.

    Very emotional times for us all on this anniversary especially as the SWP are trying to exploit Blair’s name to sell their paper and recruit new members.

    There is a meeting which they claim has been organised by us in Central London tomorrow which we are going to picket. Let’s see if I get my head bashed in by the decendents of the SPG!. Watch this space.

  6. billaricaydickey — on 29th April, 2009 at 2:11 pm  

    This is a statement from the Freiends of Blair Peach and his family in relation to events which we understand are taking place at Conway Hall in central London this evening.

    It seems that the SWP and one of its front groups UAF are having a meeting claiming that in some way, at the time of his death, Blair was a member of the Anti Nazi League. That statement is a lie.

    The SWP are a disgusting bunch of opportunists but the prsence on the platform of Paul Holborow is doubly insulting in that he was the man who suspended Blair from the ANL two weeks before his death prior to his, and the hundreds of others, expulsions as a result of their complaints of a total lack of democracy in the organisation.

    Terry Fitzpatrick

    The Friends of Blair Peach

    Southall79@googlemail.com

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