Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blair Peach, Southall and the Rasta folk devil

I posted last year on the 30th anniversary of the death of Blair Peach, killed during the anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, West London, on 23 April 1979. Papers finally released today by the Metropolitan Police show that they were well aware at the time that he must have been killed by the police Special Patrol Group, but nobody was ever charged.

There's a huge amount of material on the Met's site which I haven't had time to read through yet. One things I was struck by was an internal report to the Home Office written the day after by a Deputy Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard. It gives the police account of the demonstration, which was called to oppose a National Front meeting in this largely Asian area (note that the NF chose St George's Day for its provocation, just as its successor the BNP chose the same day to launch its 2010 election manifesto last week).

The report is clearly an early exercise in putting together a police narrative that justified the violence used in what was to be described as a 'police riot'. For instance, it describes the notorious police assault on the People Unite centre, in which Misty in Roots manager Clarence Baker was put in a coma, as a defensive operation:

'A group of mainly rastafarians, squatting in a house in Park View Road, threw stones and smoke canisters at police. There were a number of police injuries and it was necessary for police to enter the building . There was considerable violence from those in occupation. Truncheons were used and there were injuries to the occupants and police -including two police officers who were stabbed. A variety of missiles were used, including paint which was thrown over police. Curry powder was thrown in policemen's faces'.

Interesting to see that the report invokes that 1970s 'black folk devil' (Gilroy) , the criminal Rastafarian - armed in this case with that most Unenglish of weapons - curry powder! Writing in that period, Paul Gilroy quoted some choice examples of anti-Rasta coverage in the British media. How about:

'Scotland Yard has alerted police forces in England and Wales about the infiltration threat by a West Indian mafia organisation called Rastafarians. It is an international crime ring specialising in drugs, prostitution, extortion, protection, subversion and blackmail... They favour red, high-powered cars, wear their hair in long rats tails under multi-coloured woollen caps and walk about with 'prayer sticks' -trimmed pick axe handles. They are known to police and intelligence organisations on both sides of the Atlantic as being active in organising industrial unrest' (Reading Evening Post, 1976, cited in Gilroy).

The notion of gangsters juggling global drug dealing with organising strikes seems hilarious now, but the consequences of these attitudes in legitimising repression against black youths were serious enough: 'Ideas of black criminality... intersect with racist common sense and, in that process, provide a wealth of justifications for illegitimate, discriminatory and of course illegal police practices at the grassroots level' (Paul Gilroy, Police and Thieves, included in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, 1982).

Back to that same police report I quoted earlier we can find another example of the barely concealed racism of the period with a statement that 'the violence was mainly from Asian youths, who appeared quite often to lose complete control of their emotions'. Tied up in this is a whole discourse of over emotional foreigners, of Asian males as not quite real men (the main Cass report on Blair's death likewise refers to 'a little Indian man, bleeding').

The police might have got a bit more careful about their language, but pumped up cops from the TSG (successor to the SPG) are still a threat to life and limb as shown by the death last year of Ian Tomlinson.

More on this:

- The-sauce puts police names to some of the blacked out gaps in the documents released today.
- Chris Searle at the IRR remembers Blair Peach, recalling his earlier arrest in 1974 for opposing a racist colour bar at the Railway Tavern in Bow.
- Blue Murder - songs about police killings including Blair Peach, to which I'd like to add another. London Hooligan Soul by the Ballistic Brothers includes the line: 'Blair Peach a crying shame. The NF and unmarked police vans. Who is to blame?'.
- John Eden, an old post on Reggae and the National Front with more about Misty in Roots and Southall.

Flyer for a 1979 benefit gig at Trinity Hall, Bristol for the Southall Defence Fund and People Unite, featuring Revelation Rockers, Stingrays, and The Spics.

1 comment:

bob said...

There's a great exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank at the moment, about the history of Southall, which has loads about music, including both Asian music and reggae, and a little section on the late 70s and Blair Peach. Highly recommended.