30 September 2006
When the East End said “No Pasaran”
Next wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the “Battle of Cable Street”, a day when the people of the East end united in defiance of Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) and refused to let them march through their streets.
Shouting the Spanish civil war slogan "No pasaran" thousands (more than 300,000 according to the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper) of East enders turned back a Blackshirt (another name for the BUF - not surprisingly on account of their predilection for wearing black shirts) march that was intended to be a general show of its strength in the area and to intimidate the local Jewish community (The east end at the time was home to s substantial proportion of Britain’s Jews).
The Jewish Board of Deputies had advised Jews to stay away. But they didn’t keep away. Side by side with the other East enders they built barricades, women threw the contents of chamber pots on to the heads of policemen and children hurled marbles under their horses and burst bags of pepper in front of their noses.
Professor Bill Fishman who was 15 on the day: "There was masses of marching people. Young people, old people, all shouting 'No Pasaran' and 'One two three four five - we want Mosley, dead or alive'," he said. “Between 3pm and 3.30 we could see a big army of Blackshirts marching. They were surrounded by an even greater army of police. There was to be this great advance of the police force to get the fascists through. Suddenly, the horses' hooves were flying and the horses were falling down because the young kids were throwing marbles."
Thousands of policemen were sandwiched between the Blackshirts and the anti-fascists. The latter were well organised and through a mole learned that the chief of police had told Mosley that his passage into the East End could be made through Cable Street.
"I heard this loudspeaker say 'They are going to Cable Street'," said Prof Fishman. "Suddenly a barricade was erected there and they put an old lorry in the middle of the road and old mattresses. The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on to the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism."
Max Levitas, now 91, was a message runner at the time: "I feel proud that I played a major part in stopping Mosley…They did not pass. It was a victory for ordinary people against racism and anti-Semitism. The Battle of Cable Street is a history lesson for us all. People as people must get together and stop racism and anti-Semitism so people can lead an ordinary life and develop their own ideas and religions."
Some may regard this portrayal of the Battle of Cable Street as romanticising a riot. It also ignores that there was also fair degree of support for the BUF in the East end. Perhaps it is to some extent but I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments of both Professor Fishman and Mr Levitas. Living as we do in a vibrant and relatively inclusive society, racism and anti Semitism may not be quite so overt as they once were but there is still plenty of it around.
The East end’s Jewish community has declined considerably over the years, having been replaced to a great extent by Muslim Bengalis; they are now main targets for racist abise (and have been since well before 9/11 etc) . The BUF is long gone but in recent years we have seen a rise in support for the British National Party. The targets change somewhat, the names change but it is clear that the fight is far from over.
According to the East End Advertiser , there will be a commemoration day on Sunday October 8 with a procession, street theatre, music, singers and an exhibition of photographs from 1936, as well as stalls and other festivities.
What Next Journal (a Marxist perspective but worth reading)
For what it's worth, the battle of Cable street from a BUF supporting perspective