Many Unite members proudly attended Sunday’s (October 9) 80th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Cable Street in Tower Hamlets, London.
On Sunday, October 4, 1936 around a quarter to half a million people were on the East End streets. Many of them were local Jewish people because they knew that Oswald Mosley, and his fascist blackshirt followers, had sought to blame the economic crisis, which had left millions impoverished, on Jewish people, who were then one of the few ethnic minorities in Britain.
The top Jewish organisation, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, had urged their congregation to stay indoors and avoid physical confrontation with the Mosleyites. This policy had proven fatal in Germany when Hitler’s brownshirts had mobilised.
Grass roots Jewish organisations were not so complacent and along with Jewish workers’ circles and the furniture and garment workers’ trade unions they mobilised thousands of their followers. They were joined by thousands of non-Jewish Londoners, many of whom had been organised to attend by the Communist Party, which at the time had strong roots in the trade unions, in many workplaces and among the unemployed.
The huge numbers in attendance meant Mosley’s several thousand blackshirts had no chance of marching through the East End unless the route was cleared by the police. Vicious baton charges, both foot and mounted, were made on the anti-fascist protestors who met the police with volleys of bricks, whilst marbles were thrown under the hooves of the police horses.
Eventually the Metropolitan Police Chief, who had been directing operations, told Sir Oswald he could not march to his proposed rally in Victoria Park and the uniformed blackshirts marched west through a deserted City of London, where they dispersed – defeated.
In the East End the delight was unbelievable. The fascists had been humiliated. A hastily organised victory march was held to Victoria Park. Many of those who took part were to later join the front line in the armed battle against fascism against Hitler and Mussolini a few short years later when World War II kicked off.
‘Couldn’t be prouder’
This Sunday (October 9) the crowd assembled at Altab Ali Park, which is named after a 25-year old Bangladeshi textile worker who was stabbed to death in a racist attack in 1978 and following which the local Bengali community mobilised in huge numbers to oppose racism.
Unite member Amina Ali is a Labour Tower Hamlets councillor. She is of Somali background and there is a long history of trade union involvement in her family.
“My dad, who was a seafarer, taught me the importance of the trade union and labour movement in fighting racism and improving the lives of all working people,” she said.
That wasn’t easy as at times. Some in the trade union movement did not welcome the involvement of black people. In the 1950s, Amina’s dad worked closely with Cardiff MP Jim Callaghan in an ultimately successful campaign to end the National Union of Seamen’s refusal to allow black seamen to join the union.
“My dad always opposed any policy that divided workers on racial lines,” Amina explained.
Amina’s uncle, Aden Ali, was at Cable Street in October 1936.
“He came to Britain in 1924 and when he found that Somalian seafarers found it difficult because of racism to find rented accommodation. He opened a boarding house on Cable Street itself. When he was told about Mosley’s intended march he got all the Somalians, Nigerian and Yemeni seafarers out on the streets to oppose him. I am here today to celebrate those seafarers contribution to Mosley’s defeat and to participate in the current fight against racism and fascism,” said Amina.
Lambeth’s Susan Matthews is chair of the Unite national Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities Committee.
She spoke at the rally at the end of the march.
“I really couldn’t be prouder, especially as October is also Black History Month. Sadly, we are experiencing dark times as the vote for Brexit has given the green light for some people to engage in hate crime,” she said.
“We must do what people did in the 1930s, when Jewish people were scapegoated and blamed for a lack of jobs and poor pay, and stand together. I am pleased to be speaking alongside the newly re-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and delighted to see he has appointed a number of black women to the shadow cabinet”.
Corbyn drew widespread applause from the crowd during his speech when he stated that his mother Naomi had been present to oppose Mosley eighty years earlier.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady was also clapped when she told the crowd, “Trade unionists must always stand for respect and equality.
“Politicians who blame migrants for our problems are playing with fire as they are stoking hatred and division. The government should focus on improving working people’s lives and tackling bad bosses rather than fueling hostility against decent people in search of a better life”.