Blair Peach, 30 years on: death of a protestor

The police attack on the man who died in the G20 demonstration has parallels with the death of Anti-Nazi protestor Blair Peach. This is his story

BY Harry Underwood LAST UPDATED AT 01:00 ON Wed 8 Apr 2009

Thirty years ago this month, Blair Peach, a 33-year-old who'd come over from New Zealand to teach at a special needs school in East London, was killed while protesting with the Anti-Nazi League against the decision to allow the National Front to hold a meeting in Ealing town hall.
Throughout the 1970s, Southall, an Asian enclave of west London, had been a hotbed of tensions between immigrant residents, their supporters on the political left and anti-immigration groups such as the neo-fascist National Front.

At a meeting held on St George's Day, April 23, 1979, the National Front were preparing for their General Election campaign. Their candidate, the Socialist Worker newspaper reported, pledged to "bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet".

When anti-Nazi protesters approached, police started using their truncheons

Three thousand officers - with horses, dogs, riot vans and a helicopter - were put on duty to police the demonstration against the meeting. Through the afternoon, there were spats between white skinheads and Asian teenagers.

When the Anti-Nazi League protesters approached Southall town hall in the early evening rain, police started using their truncheons to disperse the crowds. Fifty demonstrators were cornered in a local churchyard. Many suffered bloody injuries.
The police then decided to shut down 6 Park Road, the protestors' makeshift headquarters, and charged in. They were led by members of the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group (SPG), an independent and controversial police division which specialised in dealing with serious public disorder.
So great was the damage caused - music systems, first aid equipment and printing tools were trashed - that the building itself later had to be destroyed. One witness said, "I have never seen such unrestrained violence against demonstrators... the Special Patrol Group were just running wild." 

Tariq Ali, the celebrated Pakistani-born writer and broadcaster, was given a bleeding head. Another activist, Clarence Baker, who said he had been warned by a policeman: "You black bastard. We are going to get you," ended up in intensive care with a blood clot on the brain.
Blair Peach was less fortunate. This is what Parminder Atwal, a local resident, remembered: "As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with the stick. I was in my garden and saw this quite clearly. He was left sitting against the wall. He tried to get up, but he was shivering and looked very strange. He couldn't stand. Then the police came back and told him, 'Move! Come on, move!' They were very rough with him and I was shocked because it was clear he was seriously hurt."
Found wounded at around 8.30pm in Beachcroft Avenue, a begonia-bordered suburban side street, Peach was taken in by an Asian family. After an ambulance was called, he started having fits. He was pronounced dead on arrival in hospital.

Though the press initially feted the police for resisting the demonstration, public opinion soon turned, and the matter was even discussed in the New Zealand parliament. Peach's eventual funeral was attended by some 10,000 people, and he became a hero amongst the Sikh community. A Southall primary school now bears his name.

Seventy-nine MPs called for a public inquiry into Peach's death, but this was refused. His inquest was one of the longest in legal history, and a total of 84 witnesses, including 40 members of the SPG, were called to give their account of what happened. Eleven of the witnesses claimed they saw members of the SPG beating Peach in a side street. A pathologist suggested that the damage inflicted on Peach's skull could not have been done by a truncheon, but rather a rubberised police radio, or a lead-filled cosh.

There was an internal investigation, led by Commander John Cass of Scotland Yard's Complaints Investigation Bureau. Though the report was never made public, Peach's family were shown part of it in 1986, and his brother reached an out-of-court settlement with the Metropolitan Police in 1989.

The Sunday Times revealed that several members of the SPG were found to have weapons including baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers in their lockers, and that one, Greville Bint, possessed Nazi regalia. But no police officer was ever charged with any crime following Peach's death. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.