Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Misadventure" at the hands of the Metropolitan Police


THIS blog has become a bit like a chronicle of deaths in the past few postings, but c'est la vie. We are commanded to remember, especially those left crying out for justice. Today, St.George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday for some, a friend posting on facebook reminded me of this one:
 On 23 April, this day, in 1979 the anti-fascist Blair Peach was killed by a blow to his head by an unknown policeman, a member of the Special Patrol Group. The exact identity of his murderer remains unknown. The Guardian reported that when other police "raided lockers at the SPG headquarters he uncovered a stash of unauthorised weapons, including illegal truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather stick. One officer was caught trying to hide a metal cosh, although it was not the weapon that killed Peach. Another officer was found with a collection of Nazi regalia."
See also: Blair Peach killed by police  Peach, a 33-year old New Zealander, had been teaching Special Needs children at a school in the East End of London for ten years, and became chair of the East London Teachers Association in the year he was killed. He had also joined the Socialist Teachers Association and the Anti-Nazi League, which campaigned against racist and fascist activity in east London and elsewhere.

On the night he was killed he had gone to Southall in west London, where the National Front was holding a St.George's Day meeting in the town hall. Local people had petitioned the council not to allow the NF the use of the premises, but were told it was entitled to hold a meeting with the general election coming. On the night about 40-odd Front supporters were bussed in, while more than 2,000 police confronted protesters, mainly young Asians Blair Peach was struck down by a blow to the side of the head. He died later in Ealing hospital. The official verdict was "death by misadventure". Another demonstrator hit by police was in a coma for five months.

Some 10,000 people took part in a tribute to Blair Peach in Southall. In later years there were demonstrations on the anniversary of his death.

Not till April 2009, thirty years later, was the police report into what happened, by Commander Sir John Cass, released, (with officers' names redacted), after persistent campaigning for truth by Blair's family and friends, notably his girlfiend Celia Stubbs, who wrote:

  The report states what we always believed – the fatal blow was struck by a police officer from Unit 1 of the Special Patrol Group based at Barnes police station, and it is likely that it was the first officer out of the police van parked at the corner of Orchard Avenue and Beechcroft Avenue who dealt the blow. But, equally disturbing, in reading the report the deliberate untruths told by officers and their success in obstructing the police inquiry have been laid bare. The deceit and lies these officers told is a major factor as to why no policeman was prosecuted for Blair's death.

The mindset and attitude of Commander Cass, other senior Metropolitan police officers and coroner John Burton also stymied this inquiry. Cass set the scene by saying: "It was an extremely violent, volatile and ugly situation where there was serious disturbance by what can be classed as a rebellious crowd ... Asian youths appeared quite often to lose complete control of their emotions." He said "the demonstrators received orders from the Anti-Nazi League."
Of Blair, who was known to the police as an anti-racist campaigner, he stated: "If he was true to form he may have been in dispute, conflict, obstructing or interfering with the police."

Celia Stubbs 

So according to Cass, the thousands of angry young local Asians who saw the NF rally in their area as a provocation, by an organisation they associated with racial attacks, appeared to "lose control of their emotions", but they were taking "orders" from the ANL, like a disciplined force - such as the Metropolitan Police were supposed to be.
And though witnesses say Blair Peach was doing his best to restrain the youth and persuade them to stay on the pavement when he was hit from behind, it is enough for Sir John to suggest the teacher had "form" and that he "may have been" obstructing or interfering with the police. In other words, he was a "Red", so who needs evidence?   

As the Guardian noted:
From the outset, the Cass investigation appeared unlikely to find an officer guilty. He defined Peach as a member of a "rebellious crowd" in his terms of reference, adding: "Without condoning the death I refer to Archbold 38th edition para 2528: 'In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed'." <>I remember my Dad, who served in India after Amritsar, telling me about the Riot Act, and the regulations that are supposed to govern the conduct of forces dispersing crowds and how much force they can use. From what he told me and from what I have seen of the Metropolitan Police in action, the soldiers like him were more resticted, and certainly less enthusiastic in breaking heads. But I suppose the scabby old imperialist lion is bound to get more savage in its lair, and the police didn't just enlist for a shilling a day, especially not in units like the SPG which consider themselves an "elite". So we may never see justice for the death of Blair Peach, any more than for the killing of student Kevin Gately in Red Lion Square five years earlier, But we are obliged to remember. As  does Bernard Regan, nowadays a leading member of the National union of Teachers:
Today 34 years ago my friend, colleague, comrade, neighbour Blair Peach was murdered whilst leaving a demonstration against the National Front. The only people in the vicinity were members of the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group. The names of all six members of the unit have been known since that night. None have ever been charged.

At the time the NUT Executive and the TUC called for a public inquiry into what happened. None took place. The Union was united in shock and anger at what happened.
There are many friends and comrades who will have their own memories of Blair -just a few of my own all of which could be illustrated with stories reflecting his professionalism, principles,seriousness and sense of fun.
We lived next door to each other, worked together in the same special school, taught the same children, were active in the Union together, took part in demos, argued about politics, shared jokes, played football on Victoria Park, badminton after school. Blair was the President of East London Teachers Association when I was Secretary. He was a committed teacher, trades unionist, anti-racist, internationalist, anti-sexist, opposed to homophobia and all forms of discrimination. He campaigned against the victimisation of the teachers at William Tyndale School in Islington, marched on demos against the fascist coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende in 1973 by Margaret Thatcher's ally General Pinochet, supported the campaign defending a gay teacher who had been outed for participating on a demonstration.

He is remembered for his stance against racism but he participated in campaigns in all these areas. It was very fitting that the Union created the Blair Peach Award. We should cherish his memory but as Blair would have said it is not enough just to say we are committed to these principles - it is important that we act on them.

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