A Radical History: Southall ’79 and the Politics of Racism and Resistance

A Radical History: Southall ’79 and the Politics of Racism and Resistance

Jas NIjjar

23 April (England’s national St George’s Day) 2019 marks forty years since the murder of Blair Peach, who was a teacher and anti-racist activist killed by police in Southall, West London while protesting the National Front’s unwanted and provocative presence in the town. In the spirit of what Howard Zinn (1990) called ‘radical history’, this essay remembers the violent events in Southall in 1979, with a view to discussing their significance for contemporary anti-racist sensibilities. I want to recall the grassroots anti-racist resistance that sprung out of Southall in the 1970s and 80s, whose defiant impulse should inspire, guide and galvanise the many, but related, fightbacks of today. I also look to highlight the striking immediacy of the political, social and cultural conditions in which Blair Peach died. This should aid in sharpening our perceptions of a dangerous and dynamic present in which institutional racism continues to ensure that racial violence endures, far-right fascism flourishes and anti-migrant sentiment thrives.

The death of Blair Peach was the dire outcome of a double-edged state racism. The police that day staunchly protected a racist gathering in a predominantly Asian community, while unleashing militarised measures of control and punishment on demonstrators looking to oppose the fascists (Institute of Race Relations, 1979). Indeed, the confidence of the far-right rested firmly on a popular and political landscape inspired by Enoch Powell, which, in trying to conceal a post-war crisis in capitalism, conflated ideas about race, nation, immigration, invasion, dependency and criminality. This included various media and policy discourses which framed Asian citizens as welfare-scrounging ‘illegals’ ‘flooding’ Britain, African-Caribbean households as pathologically dysfunctional, and their children as idle and criminally inclined (Hall et al., 1978; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1982). Furthermore, the sheer ferocity that was unleashed by police on the protesters through truncheons, dogs, horses, shields and vans represented racism, as a relation of power, functioning at its deadliest, and enjoying a sense of impunity that saw no police officer prosecuted for Peach’s murder. Yet, 342 people were charged with various offences relating to the protest.

It is important to emphasise that remembering the events of 1979 means remembering more than the murder of Blair Peach. For resonant in how Southall’s Asian community was brutalised by police was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which reaches its centenary on 13 April 2019. That atrocity in Amritsar, India, described as “[o]ne of the more exemplary cases of colonial martial law” (Hussain, 2003, p. 118), saw British troops execute 379 men, women and children attending a peaceful protest. Furthermore, one cannot recall Peach’s death without recalling the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18-year-old Sikh who was stabbed to death in June 1976 by white youths outside Southall’s Dominion Cinema, “a symbol of Asian self-reliance and security” (CARF/Southall Rights, 1981, p. 51). Nor is it possible to ignore the Southall uprisings of July 1981, when Asian youths razed the Hambrough Tavern pub after skinheads, attending a concert there, began terrorising the community. Thus, to grasp the significance of Southall ’79 is to engage with a broader politics and history of race, harassment and violence not only in West London, but also colonial Britain.

But these events also meant that Southall developed a strong black radical counter-culture that saw racial injustice as political, as plural but relational, and as murderous. The Southall Youth Movement (SYM), a self-defence group formed after Chaggar’s murder, was driven by a militant ethos that challenged institutional racism, such as formal restrictions on the number of local school places available to ‘immigrant’ children, which meant Asian students were bussed to schools outside of Southall. The SYM, alongside Southall Monitoring Group (now The Monitoring Group) and Southall Black Sisters, also mobilised around black politics, rather than ethnic identity. Nowadays, undermining the significance of black as a political culture appears the fashion. But, in Southall, political blackness countered separatism by strategically unifying Asian and African-Caribbean youths, through their common experiences, against a multitude of state racisms (see Ramamurthy, 2006). And, the state’s failure to hold any police officer(s) to account for Peach’s murder led to the birth of INQUEST, a charity that has campaigned around state-related deaths since 1981. Thus, remembering the legacy of anti-racist struggle in Southall is a crucial political act, for it shows us that out of systematic racial oppression comes political awakening, collective organising and persistent campaigning.

I want to suggest that in those moments from Southall’s history lie some overarching guidelines for resisting the many forms of contemporary racist expression and practice. This is not to romanticise past anti-racist struggles, nor is it to abstract anti-racism from time and space. It is lazy and no doubt unproductive to assume that strategies to challenge racism are totally transferable from one spatial and temporal context to another. Reading the works of Stuart Hall, Peter Fryer, A. Sivanandan and Rozina Visram teaches us that racism and its complex relationship with capital and patriarchy is a multifaceted problem that varies according to history and geography. Nonetheless, recognising the politics of racism, the way the many manifestations of racial injustice speak to one another, and their potential to kill are open-ended principles. As such, they are broad enough to move not only previous fightbacks in spaces like Southall, but also grassroots resistance in the present.

For contemporary anti-racist efforts to draw inspiration from previous struggles, we must recognise how past racisms remain alive today, albeit in mutated form. The Brexiteers’ clamour to ‘take back control’ of British borders rests on the construction of darker-skinned bodies as ‘out of place’, as a burden on public services and job prospects, and as importing unlawful and disorderly values, ideals and habits. Remembering the hegemonic power of past anti-migrant ideologies that degraded communities in Southall (and elsewhere) assists us in removing the mask off similar sentiments today. That is, it contributes to exposing how Britain’s foreign policies have left migrants with virtually no option but to make the perilous journey to Europe, and how austerity, capitalism and neoliberalism, rather than immigration, have crippled social services.

Recalling the history of racism in Southall does something else too. It adds vital depth and intensity to the view that the machinery of immigration measures which corresponds to anti-migrant discourse is not only itself an official form of racialised cruelty, that materialises through the denial of basic rights, detention and deportation with devastating and deadly effects. Rather, Britain’s hostile and inhumane immigration regime is also key to rejuvenating, legitimising and mainstreaming a resurgent far-right, whose appeal is rooted in the politics of race and nation.

To explore the relationship between the present and the political and historical forces behind Blair Peach’s murder is to also account for how colonial relations continue to shape contemporary racist orderings. Recognising the way colonial power resonated in the violence of 1979, and then how the latter speaks to militarised policing today, reinforces arguments about the gradual consolidation of neo-colonial structures. The belligerent policing that killed Peach now materialises through hyper-intrusive surveillance technologies, spit hoods, physical restraint techniques, batons, tasers, and firearms that are deployed by police to wage war on racially-coded issues like terrorism, ‘gang’ crime, ‘illegal’ immigration and public protest. Hence, remembering Southall’s history helps to clarify the long continuity of racism as a formal strategy of police warfare, and, thus, refute claims that contemporary instances of racist and violent policing are aberrations. It also prompts us to acknowledge that systematic police intrusion, intimidation and brutality are not problems specific to one racialised group. Rather, they are experiences that bind African-Caribbean, Asian, migrant and refugee communities – an acknowledgement that opens one of many doors for a unified anti-racist fightback.

On that note, it is also worth recalling that February 2019 marked twenty years since the landmark Macpherson report was published. Macpherson put the Metropolitan Police’s shambolic handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder down to ‘institutional racism’. Yet, it feels as though the notion of institutional racism has been ripped from its radical foundations and taken away from us. I express that sentiment because Macpherson’s definition of the concept, which is now mainstream, given its general acceptance across popular and political circles, failed to capture what was most crucial: that racism is ultimately a power relation between state institutions and racialised communities, upheld through official procedures, laws and guidelines. It is unsurprising, then, that the battles which were fought against state-sanctioned and far-right racism in Southall during past decades are still the battles being fought today. What delving into Southall’s radical history does is show us that while some of the details of those struggles for racial justice have inevitably changed, their overarching terms remain political, relational and a matter of life and death.

Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and Southall Rights (1981) Southall: The Birth of a Black Community. London: Institute of Race Relations.
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982) The Empire Strikes Back: Race and racism in 70s Britain. London: Hutchinson.
Hall, Stuart., Critcher, Chas., Jefferson, Tony., Clarke, John. and Roberts, Brian (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan Press.
Hussain, Nasser (2003) The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Institute of Race Relations (1979) Police Against Black People. London: Institute of Race Relations.
Ramamurthy, Anandi (2006) “The politics of Britain’s Asian Youth Movements.” Race and Class, 48(2), pp. 38-60.
Zinn, Howard (1990) The Politics of History. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.


Jasbinder S. Nijjar is a third-generation Southall resident, whose grandparents migrated to the area from India in the 1960s. He is also a PhD student at Brunel University London (examining the relationship between institutional racism and the militarisation of policing in London), editorial assistant of the online open-access darkmatter journal and works with The Monitoring Group.