Tuesday, October 03, 2006

When East Enders stopped Sir Oswald

ILP pamphlet souvenir of the battle, and young Charlie Goodman being brought in.

OCTOBER 4, 1936 was a quiet English Sunday.
Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, commonly known as the Blackshirts, were to assemble in uniform and military formation at 2.30 that afternoon in Royal Mint Street, EC1, to be inspected by their Leader before a march into London's East End.

Tension had been growing, as Mosley and his lieutenants had turned to East London, preying on unemployment and demoralisation to divide workers, and reviving earlier anti-immigrant agitation to stir up hatred against the area's big Jewish population. As if people had not seen enough of what fascism was doing in Germany and Spain, in the months preceding the planned march the fascists stepped up provocations and racist attacks.

The Jewish People's Council, whose formation reflected East End Jews' distrust of the bourgeois, even aristocratic, Jewish Establishment, as much as concern about the fascists, circulated a petition which gathered 100,000 signatures asking the Home Secretary to ban the Blackshirt march. The government declined to interfere with the fascists' "freedom". This fitted the experience people reported, of police arresting anyone who heckled fascist speakers, but turning a blind eye to fascist attacks.

As the day neared, the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Labour Party, Jewish Chronicle, and Daily Herald all urged people to stay away, indoors and out of trouble, as the fascists held their march. The Communist Party, which had a growing following in the East End, wanted to go ahead with a Young Communist League rally for Spain in Trafalgar Square on the Sunday afternoon. It told members to keep order and avoid clashes with the BUF so the government would have "no excuse to say we, like BUF, are hooligans".

Stepney branch of the Party, sensing the mood around it, rejected this line and managed to reverse it, so that the Daily Worker changed its tune and called on people to rally in the East End against the fascists. The Spanish Republican cry "No Pasaran!" was adapted as "They Shall Not Pass!" The left-wing Independent Labour Party(ILP) also mobilised and many ordinary Labour Party members ignored their leaders' advice and turned up to stop the fascists.

On the day police forcibly cleared Royal Mint Street and the streets around it so the Blackshirts could assemble, though Mosley arrived well late. At Gardners Corner, Aldgate, thousands gathered to oppose the fascists and a tram was skewed across the road and disabled by its driver to block their path. The crowds grew so thick the police could not force their way through. It was the same at Leman Street.

The fascists had won support in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, where small furniture workshops were hit by depression and people were persuaded to blame Jewish competition. Mosley might have hoped his past record on Ireland and fascism's claim to defend the Church in Spain would work for him among the dockers of Shadwell and Wapping, many of whom were of Irish Catholic descent. But instead, class traditions of solidarity, tested in common struggle, and sharpened by news from Germany, prevailed.

On Cable Street, where the Jewish East End met docklands, Jewish workers and dockers joined in erecting barricades. Charging police were bombarded with stones, bottles and the contents of chamber pots from the residents on either side.

In the end, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner decided to tell the fascists his men could not clear a way for them, and they had to troop back, dispirited and angry, to the West End. The East End had won a victory, though the struggle was not over yet, against fascism or the state. The Public Order Act, introduced in response to Cable Street, restricted the fascist use of uniforms, but mostly it powers were used against the Left.

Charlie Goodman, a young man arrested at Cable Street, found himself in prison. When an official from the Jewish Discharged Prisoners Aid, a wing of the Board of Deputies, visited, Charlie took his turn behind burglars and robbers who pleaded poverty as the reason for their crimes, and whom the visitor promised to help. Then it was Charlie's turn. "What are you here for?", he was asked. "Fighting fascism", our hero replied. "You!", said the official, "You are the kind of Jew who gives us a bad name. Through you the Jews have to suffer, and it is people like you that are causing all the aggravation to the Jewish people!"

Charlie thanked the man for telling him this, because after his release he intended going on a speaking tour of Jewish neighbourhoods, "and I'm sure I can convey the sentiments of the Board of Deputies to them."
(The East End Battles On, Jewish Socialist No.1, Spring 1985)

Sadly, Charlie Goodman is no longer around as time takes its toll of the veterans, but Aubrey Morris, who was also at Cable Street that day, will be speaking on Wednesday evening, October 4 to a meeting called by the Jewish Socialists' Group on Cable Street and today's struggles. With him will be Dave Rosenberg of the JSG and Assad Rehman, of the Newham Monotoring Project. The meeting is at 7.30pm at the Indian YMCA, Fitzroy Square, W1, near Warren Street and Great Portland Street tubes.

Two books dealing with the East End battles of the 1930s are:-
Phil Piratin's 'Our Flag Stays Red', from Lawrence and Wishart, and
Joe Jacobs, 'Out of the Ghetto', Phoenix Press.
Among various articles on line, I've found: The Battle of Cable Street: Myths and Realities, by Richard Price and Martin Sullivan

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