Memories of Politics of Conflict, Solidarity and Resistance: Southall 1976-1979

Memories of Politics of Conflict, Solidarity and Resistance: Southall 1976-1979

Avtar Brah

I came to Britain from the USA at the end of 1971 and lived in London for a while before moving to Bristol University to work as a research assistant, and subsequently to enrol to study for a PhD. I returned to London in 1976 in order to conduct research in Southall for my PhD. My primary interest was in mapping intergenerational continuity and change amongst South Asian heritage and white fifteen-year-old school students and their parents in and through an ethnic comparison.

Academic studies and media representations as well as general social commentary of the period foregrounded ‘cultural conflict’ when referring to Asians and described Asian youth as singularly prone to inter-generational conflict with their parents. I was concerned that this overemphasis on age-group ‘conflict’ among Asians might be exaggerated.  Indeed, my contention was that similar conflict was also likely to be present among white young people and their parents. After all, a plethora of reports about ‘youth counter-culture’ were also simultaneously extant. But whilst ‘youth culture’ debate was largely focussed on white youth and there was a sense in which this modality of social change was construed as an instance of creativity, Asian youth cultures tended to be pathologized. According to these perceptions Asian parents were likely to be conservative and stuck in Asian traditions whereas their British born children were modern, anglicised, and in rebellion from stifling cultural constraints.

Based on narratives of matched pairs of fifteen-year-old school students and their parents, my research problematic was constructed around analysis of these discursive formations and was focussed on the possibility of both intergenerational continuity and change. The question of conflict, in my view, was one that needed to be investigated rather than taken as given. Working through academic literature on what was labelled as the ‘problem of generations’, I made a distinction between age-group and generation which enabled me to distinguish continuity and change associated with an age group understood in terms of lineage as compared with those related to broader age cohorts in the context of historical time.

My interest was not merely academic. I was equally concerned with what was happening on the ground in Southall in terms of youth politics. How, for instance, did youth politics differ from those of adults active in various community organisations in the vicinity? Were the relationships between the two age groups amicable or were they antagonistic? Would we designate any evident political differences as routine outcome of age span issues or could they be seen to represent broader long-term generational change?

Such questions about politics and resistance assumed sharp immediacy in the summer of 1976 when a seventeen-year-old Asian boy, Gurdeep Singh Chaggar, was stabbed to death across the road from the Dominion cinema. He had been to see a film at the cinema. As I interviewed fifteen-year olds in three schools in Southall, racism began to emerge as an important factor in the lives of these young people.

Racism was rife in the 1970s, with the inflammatory rhetoric of Britain being ‘flooded’ with Asian and Black immigrants peddled by the media as well as politicians such as Enoch Powell. Incidents of racial attacks resulted in several murders. East London, for instance, witnessed five murders of Asian men during this period, two in 1976 and three in 1978. The British political far right had a field day during this period until communities rose up against them and checked their progress. Of course, we are witnessing the anti-immigrant activities of the far-right flourish again throughout Europe today.

In that month of June 1976, Southall was in shock, and the grief of the community as a whole was palpable when over 1000 people joined in the funeral services of Gurdeep Singh Chaggar. This murder was a watershed case in which generation played an important role as youth and the adult community leaders did indeed come into conflict around how to organise politically in the face of street violence. There was a march against racism held on 14th June in which youth presence, especially that of young men, was strikingly visible.

Almost immediately after the murder, two young men Suresh Grover and his friend Denis Almeida wrote on the pavement where Chaggar fell, ‘this racist murder will be avenged. We’ll get you racist scum’. Their choice of words did not sit well with the community leaders. There were serious differences between the youth and the older groups about tactics of political response. The former wanted militant action whereas the latter were inclined towards a lower key response. In a recent interview about that period, Grover explains, “The combined impact of his (Chaggar’s) racist murder and the protests, including violent public disturbances and street occupations, that followed were historic. The events propelled a new generation of young street fighters and campaigners against state racism, busting myths of Asian docility. A new voice emerged and its potency unleashed new political and artistic forces of dissent and victories” (Grover and Patel, 2017: 122).

In the throes of this political upheaval the predominantly male Southall Youth Movement was formed. There were tensions between the SYM and, for example, the Indian Workers Association. The IWA was a left leaning organisation in terms of class politics but SYM felt that they were radical no longer.

In the meantime, my research assistantship in Bristol ended before I had completed the PhD. I started looking for jobs, and in November 1977, came to Southall to work at the National Association of Asian Youth, an organisation that was modelled on the services provided by the youth service, although it was not part of the Ealing Youth Service. News of much that affected Asian young men and women in Southall filtered through this organisation with which SYM had an ambivalent albeit close relationship.

In 1979, Southall becomes the site of public demonstrations again when the National Front came marching in on 23 April 1979. It was the election year and the National Front was fielding enough candidates nationally to win prime time on television for a broadcast which gave them a veneer of respectability. There was virtually no support in Southall for the National Front but as an act of defiance they wanted to hold an election rally in Southall Town Hall. Despite petitions to the local council from those opposed to the National Front, asking the Council not to allow this rally to take place, the Council gave them permission.  In response, the opponents of this provocative rally, which included supporters from outside Southall, organised a counter demonstration. We agreed a route with the local police but were blocked from following the agreed route by the Special Patrol Group.

During the confrontations that occurred, over 700 predominantly Asian men and women were arrested, and bussed out to police stations outside Southall. Of these 344 were charged and tried in courts. There were over 2500 police officers deployed in the vicinity, with horses, dogs, vans, riot shields used by the police against protestors. A white teacher from East London, Blair Peach, died from head injuries sustained when he was hit by police officers(s) from the Special Patrol Group. I have a distinct memory of going to the Ealing Hospital late that evening with a friend to see how Blair Peach was doing, because we had heard that he was hit and my friend knew him. As we walked into the foyer, we came across his bereaved family who had just identified his body.  A black musicians’ cooperative was raided by the police and the equipment destroyed. Clarence Baker, the lead singer of the band ‘Misty in Roots’ was wounded and lay unconscious in hospital for some time. A group of lawyers, doctors and helpers who were using the Cooperative’s premises as a make-shift medical support place were forced to vacate the venue under a barrage of racist and sexist abuse (Brah 2000).

In the aftermath, there was a massive defence campaign when the protesters who had been charged were tried in courts. During this turmoil, a group of us formed Southall Black Sisters, a feminist, secular organisation which is still active today, and now has a permanent centre.  We were of Asian as well as African Caribbean heritage and used the term ‘black’ as a political colour. Our activities at the time included holding advice and support sessions for women at Southall Rights, the local law centre; supporting women on strike at Chix factory in Slough; constructing networks amongst women suffering domestic violence and agitating against sexual harassment and gender violence; and campaigning against ‘virginity tests’.

This work has been continued, strengthened, and extended by a different group of women from ourselves as we all moved out of Southall. This group of women have been at the vanguard of the campaign ‘Women Against Fundamentalism’; they have fought and won key legal battles associated with violence against women, and they have established premises for a permanent centre. From the beginning, Southall Black Sisters’ work has been informed by analysis designed to challenge patriarchal relations within our own communities; patriarchal relations within British society as a whole; and, racism, heteronormativity, and global intersectional inequities and inequalities.

Today, Southall is a much more diverse town, and on the face of it, as vibrant as ever. I am less familiar with its social relations and political intricacies now, though I visit regularly. But the memories of my sojourn there are deeply etched in my heart and mind, and they have indelibly marked my politics.

Brah, Avtar (2012 [1999]) The Scent of Memory: strangers, our own and others, Feminist Review 100: 6-26
Grover, Suresh and Patel Jagdish (eds) (2017) Coming of Age: 1976 and the Road to Anti-Racism, London: The Monitoring Group

Avtar Brah is Professor Emerita in Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London.