Fighting the fascists

April 21, 2024

Fighting the fascists

Dear All,


efiance: Fighting the Far Right is the name of a Channel 4 documentary series which tells the story of how Britain’s South Asian communities fought back against the white supremacist group, the National Front, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. It is a story of racism, fascism and murder but it is also a story of solidarity and bravery, of activism and protest.

This was a period of recent British history in which violence against Asian communities was rampant: the series director Satiyesh Manoharajah describes it as a time when a “terrifying and brutal campaign of deadly racist violence [was] inflicted on South Asian men, women and children across Britain on a daily basis.” The series tells the story of this deadly campaign: of how excrement and rubbish would be shoved through the letterboxes of Asian homes and graffiti (racist names, Nazi symbols, “go home” slogans) would be painted on their doors and houses; of how NF gangs would target Asian men and hold provocative gatherings (with police protection) in predominantly South Asian areas; and of how deadly arson attacks would be carried out on family homes; and of how indifferent and racist the police were. The series also tells the story of how these South communities came together – from all across Britain – and fought back.

The story of this fight-back is brilliantly told. The three-part documentary intersperses news footage from the time with interviews. Some of the interviews – of activists, police officers, residents – date from when this was all happening in the 1970s while some are new. Thus, you see some of the protest leaders, activists like Suresh Grover, Balraj Purewal and Rajonuddin Jalal in news clips from that time and hear them recalling the events almost 50 years later; and the way these are interspersed is really effective and very evocative.

One feels immense admiration for the activists. They were very young at that time but they fought back by mobilising their communities, launching a fight for civil rights and influencing public opinion. The hate crimes the series focuses on were pivotal in mobilising this civil rights movement. The series begins with an incident in June 1976 in Southall (the community there at that time was more than half South Asian) when NF members came into the area and killed a Sikh teenager named Gurdip Singh Chaggar. This brutal stabbing shocked the desi community but the police refused to treat it seriously (“It’s only Asian blood anyway” one interviewee recalls a police officer saying). This incident led to the mobilisation of the Asian community as they found ways to defend themselves and to protest and fight for their rights.

The protests had begun and support mobilised but the violence continued and another seminal moment of this campaign of violence was the murder of young garment worker, Altab Ali in Brick Lane in 1978. A week and a half later, seven thousand people gathered in a funeral procession behind his coffin and marched all the way to Hyde Park.

Fighting the fascists

All of this was happening in a climate in which the NF was becoming increasingly confident and aggressive. After Chaggar’s murder, for example, the NF chairman’s comment was “One down, one million to go.” The group’s confidence grew because most of the time it seemed as if the police were on the side of the white supremacists. This was certainly the feeling throughout the years of these protests and is well illustrated by the killing of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demonstration in Southall in 1979. Peach was a (white) teacher, of New Zealand origin, who had come from East London to take part in the protest. He was struck on the head by a policeman as a police unit charged through the terraced streets. Director Satiyesh Manoharajah recalls, “A 33-year old teacher, Blair Peach, was hit hard on the head by a police officer using a non-regulation weapon… [he] had been walking back to his car with friends to head home when he was struck… To this day no police officer has been brought to justice for his killing.”

There were also arson attacks on Asian homes at this time. One of the most chilling was the 1981 attack on the family of Yunus Khan in Walthamstow, north-east London, when petrol was poured though the letterbox and ignited as the family slept. Khan’s wife and three children (aged between 2 and 11)) were burnt to death. He survived, albeit with terrible burns, as he fell from a first-floor window. The police made him a suspect even though the forensic evidence showed that the attack had been carried out and the explosive ignited from OUTSIDE the front door – and he had been upstairs on the first floor. Tests of Yunus Khan’s clothing also showed no contact with petrol. Despite that, the police insisted on making him the only suspect and disregarding and not bothering to investigate accounts on NF youths coming into the area and marking the houses of Asian families.

The case of the Bradford 12 is also recalled and revisited: in July 1981 there was news that NF skinheads were on their way to Bradford, a predominantly Asian city. Shopkeepers were told to shut their shops and go home. Some members of Bradford’s United Black Youth League decided that they needed to be able to have some sort of defence (the police wasn’t expected to be much help) so they filled around three dozen milk bottles with petrol “in case the skinheads came.” The police found the bottles and 12 men were arrested and charged. The trial took place in Leeds one year later and the jury cleared all the defendants – a decision that is considered a landmark ruling on the right to self-defence, which is what they had pleaded.

Defiance is a timely reminder of not just how fascism and the far right are facilitated but also of how these can be countered. This three-part documentary is a reminder that effective mobilisation of public opinion is possible and that protest is a right that we cannot allow to be curtailed and which we must fight for. This is something to think about when peaceful anti-war protestors in London are repeatedly labelled “threatening” and “extremist” by the supporters of war, violence and genocide.

Kudos to the people featured in the film, mwho fought against injustice and racism. Their heroism needs to be recognised by younger generations in Britain. Kudos also to Channel 4, to Rogan Productions, to Left Handed Films (actor Riz Ahmed’s production company) and to Group M Motion Entertainment for coming together to make these excellent films.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Fighting the fascists