“A Breakdown in Society”: Spontaneous and Organised Resistance

“A Breakdown in Society”: Spontaneous and Organised Resistance

Adam Elliott-Cooper

For the campaigns and uprisings against street fascism and state racism in Southall (west London) in the 1970s, the killings of Gurdip Singh Chaggar and Blair Peach were moments of rupture that brought together local youths, lawyers, advocates and activists. Like the New Cross Fire in 1981, the death of Cynthia Jarrett in 1985 or the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, these high-profile deaths brought black communities and anti-racists across the country together, challenging the justice system, changing media narratives and engaging in protests and uprisings. While we remember the uprisings, rebellions and organisations that emerged in the later 20th century – the Southall Monitoring Project, the Black People’s Day of Action, the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign and the Stephen Lawrence Campaign – it is also important to recognise the cultures of resistance they have left us with today. Not only the organising models which bring black communities together, but also the spirit of resistance among the black youth – who are rarely identified as political actors – at the sharp end of police racism.

Gurdip Singh Chaggar was killed in a racist attack in 1976, as he left a cinema in Southall. The bloodstained pavement was left unattended by police, and a young Suresh Grover, now of The Monitoring Group, chalked a response to the killers next to the crime scene: ‘This racist murder will be avenged. We’ll get you racist scum’. Young people spontaneously began to gather around the spot where Gurdip was murdered, and speeches were accompanied by some sporadic outburst of violence against property by local Asian youths. At a public meeting shortly after, older community members remained committed to following the ‘proper channels’ of the state and judicial system, in bringing an end to the violence. The younger people were less convinced, and made their way down to the local police station in protest. Following verbal racial abuse on the streets on their way down to the station, the protesters were met with police barricades. Staging a mass sit-in, the number of protesters swelled, into what newspaper headlines described as an: ‘Asian mob in siege of police HQ’. While far-right and police racism had led to this uprising, the press’s main concern were allegations of violence against police officers. The police, with the tacit support of the press, thus criminalised the local Asian community, framing them as the instigators of violence. Despite the different approach in tactics among the population of Southall, the events of 1976 re-galvanised the culture of resistance necessary to challenge racism on both the streets and from the state.

In July 2017, Rashan Charles, a twenty-year-old black man from London, was followed by police into a corner shop in Hackney (north-east London), where he was wrestled to the ground by officers. The police claimed they were attempting to prevent Rashan from hurting himself, after they saw him put something into his mouth, presuming it to be a package of illigal drugs. CCTV footage from the shop shows a struggle as the officer kneels on Rashan’s back and performs an oral cavity search. When Rashan loses consciousness, an ambulance is called, but it is too late and the young man is pronounced dead in hospital. Protesters demonstrating Rashan’s death in Hackney’s Kingsland High Road were met with riot police shortly after. Predictably, the people from the local community responded to this display of force, violently resisting the riot shields and batons laying siege to a community in mourning. Rashan’s uncle, Rod Charles, a former police officer, called into question the flawed investigation into his nephew’s death, foreseeing the findings of an inquest which exonerated all the officers involved. The strongest judgment the jury were able to deliver was accidental death. According to Inquest, “the coroner did not leave the option for the jury to come to a more critical conclusion, such as unlawful killing or even neglect, saying she did not believe a ‘reasonable jury could see this’”.

It was later revealed that the package Rashan Charles had swallowed did not contain illegal drugs – a subsequent analysis found none in his system, only paracetamol and caffeine. But the police press releases had already been reproduced across the media; images of a young black man in a baseball cap, smoking, accompanied headlines that claimed Rashan boasted on social media of ‘drug dealing’ and that he was ‘hard to kill’. While Rashan’s social media posts and pictures were spread across the newspapers, all the officers involved in his death remained anonymous, their faces impossible to make out in the grainy CCTV footage. A trial by media had already taken place, and a young father who was depicted as a criminal was presumed deserving of the police violence that led to his death.

Like the organised campaigns and spontaneous responses to police violence in previous decades, the ongoing resistance to the killing of Rashan Charles became interwoven with other struggles against police racism. The Charles family joined campaigners in the United Family and Friends Campaign, a coalition of people directly affected by death at the hands of state agents. A year after Rashan’s death, at a public meeting in south London led by the Justice for Sean Rigg Campaign, Rod Charles outlined the failings of the inquest system, while others connected these deaths to wider racisms in Britain and beyond. But while the family were still living with the memory of fatal police violence, a collective community memory also reverberated among people not traditionally identified as activists.

In August 2018, police followed a young black man into a McDonalds in Hackney, Kingsland Road, a stone’s throw from where Rashan was killed the previous year. Officers wrestled him to the ground, restraining him and striking blows onto his body. But unlike the newsagents where Rashan was killed, this McDonalds was full of young black people. While some of the young people recorded the incident on their mobile phones, others intervened physically, attempting to stop the assault with their bodies. In the recorded footage one officer can be heard swearing at the young people, while another draws his taser and points it at the crowd.

The police and media response to this incident was rapid. First, police spokespeople railed against an apparent jury by media’ that their officers were subjected to, complaining that ‘it’s very easy for members of the public to take videos and film of an incident to portray it in any way they want to’. Accompanying these pleas to the public to not record officers assaulting people, was a more assertive demand from the Police Federation. Describing the physical intervention of young people attempting to resist the arrest of a young black man struggling underneath two officers on a the floor of a fast-food restaurant as a ‘breakdown in society’, they claimed that violence against police officers had become ‘normalised’. They claimed that punishments for attacks on police were not harsh enough, and that judges didn’t care enough about the welfare of officers.

It may not have occurred to the police that, just over a year before, another young black man, in very similar circumstances, in the same part of London, had lost his life trapped under restraining officers. Is it possible that if such a ‘hostile crowd’ had been present during the restraining of Rashan Charles, he would still be alive today? It is impossible to say. What is more evident, however, is that the ‘hostile crowd’ condemned by the police are the predictable consequence of a system of racist policing which stops, searches, detains, arrests and kills young black people. For these young black people, violence from the police doesn’t constitute a breakdown in society; it is society functioning as normal. While their protests are met with riot squads, and their legal campaigns lead to dead ends, preventing possible harm or death before it takes place is something some young people are clearly willing to take into their own hands.

While the second decade of the 21st century is very different from 1970s Britain, it is vital that we identify the continuities between them. Learning from the legacies of Southall and other political movements is fundamental to recognising that their legacies continue to have influence today. While they took a radical approach to challenging violence and injustice in the community, they were often accompanied by both spontaneous street uprisings, and legal campaigns against the police and fascists. When Blair Peach was killed by police in 1979, it was a combination of radical organisations like Southall Youth Movement and Southall Black Sisters, legal campaigns and spontaneous uprising which offered multiple avenues of anti-racist resistance. By recognising the broad range of resistance tactics in previous decades as well as today, we can not only appreciate the radical cultures of resistance developed over decades of struggle, but also better-understand how to build movements against racism in the 21st Century.


Adam Elliott-Cooper is a research associate at King’s College London. He sits on the board of The Monitoring Group.

Image Credit: Flickr