Monday, April 06, 2009

Another Death in the City, Another "Misadventure"? BLAIR PEACH born New Zealand, 25 March 1946, killed Southall, west London, 23 April 1979. Witnesses said he was battered by police. The inquest said "misadventure".

A man died during the police violence which I anticipated would meet G20 protests in London. Ian Tomlinson was just coming from his work. He collapsed, apparently with a heart attack. Witnesses say he was assaulted by riot police, near the Bank of England, before he collapsed.

If so, it would not be the first death caused by Metropolitan Police taking action against demonstrators.

On April 25, trade unionists and local people in the Kings Cross -Islington area of London will be commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Grand Demonstration when 100,000 people marched from Copenhagen Fields to demand the release of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset farm workers transported to slavery in Australia, for daring to form a trade union.

But across west London, in Southall, friends of another trade unionist and socialist, New Zealander Blair Peach, will be marking the thirtieth anniversary of his death at the hands of the Metropolitan Police. Blair Peach, who taught in a special needs school in London's East End, was a member of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Teachers Association. A firm opponent of racialism, Blair was also a member of the Anti-Nazi League(ANL), although he is said to have resigned from the Socialist Workers' Party, a central element in the ANL, just before he was killed.

On April 23,1979 the far Right, racist National Front was holding a 'St.George's Day' election rally in Southall Town Hall, in an area with a large Asian population which had become used to fighting back against racialism. Anti-Nazi League supporters and Asian youth demonstrated against the Front's presence in their area, and were confronted by a large force of police, including units of the now notorious Special Patrol Group(SPG).

It's said Blair, who had answered the ANL's call to demonstrate, had turned and was urging youth back on to the pavement when the police charged across the road, and he was hit on the back of the head - some say with a cosh, some with a rubber-clad police radio.

News of Blair's death sent a shock wave through the community and the labour movement. An inquest recorded a verdict of death by "misadventure". Blair's girlfriend Celia said the killer was being let off scot-free, and vowed to seek justice. A search of SPG lockers and homes found numerous unauthorised weapons. But no one was ever charged. The Metropolitan Police reached an out of court settlement with the Peach family in 1989. Labour MP Jack Straw had supported the call for a public inquiry, and for the death to be reinvestigated, but he never accepted this call after he became Home Secretary.

Blair Peach has been commemorated by a primary school named after him in Southall, as well as a plaque on the school in Tower Hamlets where he taught. On the tenth anniversary of his death there was a big march through Southall. We are still waiting for justice.

Blair Beach was not the first person to be killed while demonstrating against the National Front. This year will see the 35th anniversary of Kevin Gateley's death, during the clashes at Red Lion Square. Kevin, born in 1954, was a second-year maths student at the University of Warwick, near Coventry. Although not particularly involved in left-wing politics, he was certainly against racism and fascism. When he heard that the National Front was holding a demonstration in central London, culminating with a rally in Conway Hall - more commonly a venue for left-wing events - Kevin was persuaded to join his girlfriend and other Warwick students going down to London to oppose them.

It was 15 June, 1974. Apparently the first time Kevin had been on a political demonstration; certainly his last.
The London Area Council of Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) had called the anti-NF protest, but it was also supported by among others, the International Socialists (who later became the Socialist Workers Party), the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) - a Maoist group - and the International Marxist Group(IMG). Some of the Warwick students were IMG supporters, and it was among their contingent that Kevin Gately found himself.

While a large part of the anti-fascist demonstration filed past the police cordon and held their own rally, a group of Maoists made an ineffective attempt to break through the cordon into Red Lion Square, and this seems to have been the police excuse to kick off, charging the crowd. The International Socialists decided to pull their people back, but there seems to have been some uncertainty among the IMG over what way to turn. Their contingent came under attack from both SPG and mounted police, and was at one point chased into a side street, where the police tried to arrest one of their organisers, asking for him by name.

Kevin Gately was very tall, well over six foot, and stood out among the crowd. He may have been hit by a blow from a mounted police truncheon. It was after the Warwick students had got away and were about to set off home that they realised Kevin was missing. Back at the scene St.John Ambulance crew were attending a young man with serious head injuries. Kevin Gately was gone. The first person to be killed on a political demonstration since the 1930s.

Neither a coroners inquest nor a public inquiry into the Red Lion Square events headed by Lord_Scarman were able to find conclusive evidence to prove or disprove claims as to how Kevin Gately was attacked. An IMG commission of inquiry into the Red Lion Square events seems to have been constrained by "security" considerations. A silent march of protest was organised, and Warwick students campaigned against the National Front. A Kevin Gately Memorial Painting hangs in the Warwick University Students' Union, and was restored in 2004.
It depicts anti-fascist struggle, but not Kevin himself, nor the events on June 15, 1974.

Blair Peach was a dedicated political activist, Kevin Gately was attending his first demonstration because of his concern over an issue, and to join his friends. It is perhaps appropriately symbolic of the present capitalist crisis that the latest apparent victim was not even a demonstrator, but just a person coming from work and caught up in events near the Bank - like millions of people have been.

Here's the report by Mark Townsend and Paul Lewis in Sunday's Observer:

'The man who died during last week's G20 protests was "assaulted" by riot police shortly before he suffered a heart attack, according to witness statements received by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Investigators are examining a series of corroborative accounts that allege Ian Tomlinson, 47, was a victim of police violence in the moments before he collapsed near the Bank of England in the City of London last Wednesday evening. Three witnesses have told the Observer that Mr Tomlinson was attacked violently as he made his way home from work at a nearby newsagents. One claims he was struck on the head with a baton.

Photographer Anna Branthwaite said: "I can remember seeing Ian Tomlinson. He was rushed from behind by a riot officer with a helmet and shield two or three minutes before he collapsed." Branthwaite, an experienced press photographer, has made a statement to the IPCC.

Another independent statement supports allegations of police violence. Amiri Howe, 24, recalled seeing Mr Tomlinson being hit "near the head" with a police baton. Howe took one of a sequence of photographs that show a clearly dazed Mr Tomlinson being helped by a bystander.

A female protester, who does not want to be named but has given her testimony to the IPCC, said she saw a man she later recognised as Tomlinson being pushed aggressively from behind by officers. "I saw a man violently propelled forward, as though he'd been flung by the arm, and fall forward on his head.

"He hit the top front area of his head on the pavement. I noticed his fall particularly because it struck me as a horrifically forceful push by a policeman and an especially hard fall; it made me wince."

Mr Tomlinson, a married man who lived alone in a bail hostel, was not taking part in the protests. Initially, his death was attributed by a police post mortem to natural causes. A City of London police statement said: "[He] suffered a sudden heart attack while on his way home from work."

But this version of events was challenged after witnesses recognised the dead man from photographs that were published on Friday.

An IPCC statement was due to be released the same day and is understood to have portrayed the death as a tragic accident. However, the statement's release was postponed as the complaints body received information that police officers may have been more involved in events than previously thought. An IPCC spokesman said yesterday that in light of new statements it was "assessing" the information it had received before deciding whether to launch a full investigation.

Part of the commission's inquiries will involve the examination of CCTV footage from the area.

Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth said: "Eventually there will have to be a full inquest with a jury. It is a possibility this death was at police hands."

A police source told the Observer that Mr Tomlinson appears to have become caught between police lines and protesters, with officers chasing back demonstrators during skirmishes. He was seen stumbling before he collapsed and died on Cornhill Street, opposite St Michael's Alley, around 7.25pm.

At around 7.10pm, protesters had gathered outside the police cordon to call for those contained inside - some for hours - to be let out. Officers with batons and shields attempted to clear them from the road.

Around 7.20pm, five riot police, and a line of officers with dogs, emerged from Royal Exchange Square, a pedestrian side street. Three images taken around this time show Mr Tomlinson on the pavement, in front of five riot police, and in apparent distress. He had one arm in the air, and appeared to be in discussion with the officers.

Mr Tomlinson then appears to have been lifted to his feet by a bystander. Minutes later he fell to the ground. "We saw this guy staggering around," said Natalie Langford, 21, a student. "He looked disorientated. About five seconds later he fell, and I grabbed my friends to help him."

Police have claimed that when paramedics tried to move Mr Tomlinson away for urgent treatment, bottles were thrown at them by protesters. He was later pronounced dead at hospital.

Branthwaite added: "He [Mr Tomlinson] was not a mouthy kid or causing problems, but the police seemed to have lost control and were trying to push protesters back. The police had started to filter people into a side street off Cornhill. There were a few stragglers who were just walking through between the police and protesters. Mr Tomlinson was one of those."

The police tactics during the G20 protests were condemned in the aftermath of the demonstrations. The clearance of a climate camp along Bishopsgate by riot police with batons and dogs after nightfall on Wednesday came in for particular criticism.

Protesters marched to Bethnal Green police station in east London yesterday to demand a public inquiry into Mr Tomlinson's death'.

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At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Paul Seligman, Cardiff said...

Hi Charlie

thanks for publicising this. I was at Southall in 1979 and was injured by the police. Ian Tomlinson's death brought back thsoe memories, not that they arer very far from the surface. I knew immediately that the police initial statements this time were untrue, you could just spot the panicky cover-up lies.

I will be going to the 30th anniversary meeting in Soputhall on April 26th. We still need to fight for justice for Blair in particular.

At 5:15 PM, Anonymous prianikoff said...

Good article Charlie.
I was at both of these. Red Lion Square was particularly nasty and it's a miracle that more people weren't killed or seriously hurt.
Once the demonstrators were forced into Southampton Row, they faced a hostile crowd of NF banging drums and shouting " We've gotta get rid of the Reds". The police acted as their mounted cavlary in clearing the crowd.
There was a huge political demonstration -cum memorial march to commemorate Kevin Gately's death, but no one ever was held responsible.

By the time Blair Peach died in Southall, the anti-NF demos had grown in size and had considerable mass support. So despite what happened something was gained.

The death of Ian Tomlinson is very reminscent of those days and shows that the failure to hold anyone accountable risks them being repeated. Not only that, but the guy wasn't even on the demonstration! So failing to deal with those cases from 30 years ago endangers everyone today.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks to these two readers for their comments. As we know, the evidence of what happened to Ian Tomlinson was caught on camera and is now subject of an investigation.
We have also mow seen on TV one of these bold heroes of the Met, apparently a seargeant in the tactical support group, slapping a small woman in the face with his gloved hand before striking her across the legs with his baton.
City of London and Westminster Trades Union Council has had reports from trades unionists who work in the City and were shocked by what they witnessed. The trades council is now gathering evidence for an inquiry of its own into police methods and tactics - not just the individual incidents but the way they are acting to crush rather than merely "control" dissent.
I have now heard from friends in Southall that the meeting to remember the events of 1979 and honour Blair Peach will be 2pm on Sunday, April 26 at the Dominion cinema, Southall.


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