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Fighting Fascism: Art As Activism

Jan Fuscoe, of the ‘Brick Lane: The Turning Point’ project, hears from Dan Jones, an artist, activist and campaigner for over 50 years

The Battle of Cable Street Mural. Photo: Jan Fuscoe

Fighting FascismArt As Activism

Jan Fuscoe, of the ‘Brick Lane: The Turning Point’ project, hears from Dan Jones, an artist, activist and campaigner for over 50 years

On 9 and 10 November 1938, 82 years ago, a pogrom against Jews was carried out in Nazi Germany. On Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the streets were littered with broken shards from the smashed windows of Jewish-owned shops and synagogues. More than 90 Jews were murdered. The authorities didn’t intervene. 

Two years earlier, on 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and a supporter of Adolf Hitler, tried to march with his Blackshirts through the predominantly Jewish East End of London. It was a deliberate act of provocation and more than 300,000 anti-fascist protestors – including local Jewish, socialist, anarchist, Irish and communist groups – took to the streets to stop it. The violence that ensued became known as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’. 

The route was blocked, from Aldgate to the Docks, by masses of people and deliberately abandoned trams and buses. Hastily built timber and broken glass barricades jammed the west end of Cable Street as thousands shouted ‘¡No Pasaran!’ (‘they shall not pass’) – the rallying cry of the anti-fascists defending Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, which had started just weeks before.

There was a very heavy police presence, with more than 7,000 police officers – including mounted police (nicknamed ‘The Cossacks’) – mobilised to clear the barricades to allow the fascists to march.

Protestors were attacked with truncheons, resulting in many serious injuries and there were dozens of arrests – predominantly of the protestors. Marbles were scattered under charging horses, while neighbours from overlooking houses threw whatever they could lay their hands on onto the police and fascists below. 

The National Front Emerges

Forty years later, east London’s Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP) – with the support of Dan Jones, then secretary of the local Trades Council – proposed the creation of a commemorative mural. 

Dan is also an artist who has been painting the East End and its community for half a century. His wife Denise, a local councillor, was a key figure in THAP. They live in Cable Street.

His mother, a lithographer, had lived and worked around Whitechapel in the 1920s and 30s. Her illustrations in The Real East End included lithographs of “snazzily dressed Jewish girls strutting their stuff in Whitechapel” and even one of herself painting ‘Down with Fascism’ on an Aldgate wall in 1936, then “scarpering from the Police”, he said.

“I love this area, warts and all. It’s a very special place and we’re lucky to live here.”

“Our home in Cable Street was next door to the very multi-racial area they called the ‘Coloured Quarter’, where sailors from Sierra Leone, Somalia and Nigeria had settled with English girls,” said Denise. “There were lots of Maltese people here, and increasing numbers of seamen, mostly Sylhetis from East Pakistan [now Bangladesh]. Then their families came to join them.”

By chance, Dan got a job two minutes from his front door, where he worked as a community and youth worker for 25 years. 

“I was involved with local activists, the law centre, Irish tenants on the Bigland Estate, Bengali youngsters on the Berner Estate, including Jalal Uddin and the Bangladesh Youth Movement, film-makers with Maggie Pinhorn, and setting up drama groups, football teams, and camping trips for the kids,” he explained.

Planning for the mural began in 1976 when Dan met David Binnington, a furniture maker and painter. An Arts Council grant was secured and David began his research, using newspaper and film coverage of the original event, and interviews with veterans. 

“Cable Street had played host, unwillingly, to fascists, but there remained racist organisations that were involved in direct confrontation, and peddling race hatred,” Dan added.

In 1967, the far-right fascist group, the National Front, was founded, with its focus on anti-immigration, as well as anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Like the British Union of Fascists before it, the group targeted the East End. As its support grew among the poor white-working class, so did outbreaks of racist violence in Tower Hamlets, this time with local Bengalis being attacked. 

In 1978, the National Front moved its headquarters from the outskirts of London to Great Eastern Street, the heart of multiracial Hoxton. The violence escalated. Groups of young skinheads routinely ran down Brick Lane smashing shop windows and attacking and abusing local Bengalis.

Dan recalled that the police response was poor. Arriving to find angry Bengali victims standing amongst the broken glass, the police often “did nothing”, he said. “Or it was the victims who ended up getting arrested, while access was given to the National Front to sell their poison at the top of Brick Lane full of race hatred about ‘Pakis’ and ‘niggers’, and even material claiming Jews had made up the Holocaust”.

The Murder of Altab Ali

Early in 1978, Dan was asked by journalist friend, Dr David Widgery, to do a painting of a forthcoming anti-racist carnival ‘Rock Against Racism’.

“I’ll go to it [the carnival], and then I’ll paint it,” Dan said. “No no no, paint it now!” was Widgery’s response. “So I imagined it as best as I could. It appeared on the front page of Socialist Worker, and the real carnival was an enormous triumph.”

A few weeks later, on 4 May 1978, the National Front stood more than a dozen candidates in Tower Hamlets’ local elections. 

“There was a lot of tension in the air,” Dan recalled. “That night Altab Ali, a young Bengali machinist in Brick Lane was on his way home through Whitechapel Park before going to vote. He was violently murdered, stabbed to death by three local teenagers for being the ‘wrong colour’. That killing produced a huge and furious response from the community.”

Photo: Dan Jones

Ten days later Dan, and 7,000 others, walked behind Altab Ali’s coffin on a march to Downing Street and Hyde Park to protest against his murder. “It was an extraordinary gathering of people from different politics, and with hardly any notice,” he said. “It was an important turning point.”

That year, Dan produced a major report, ‘Blood on the Streets’, detailing hundreds of racist attacks in the East End, “some fatal, some engineered and supported by the neo-nazis”. 

The Cable Street Mural

Tower Hamlets Council supported the mural project and rendered the 54 x 63-foot-high west-facing wall of St Georges Town Hall at 240 Cable Street with cement. Binnington’s design was approved, he drew its outline onto the wall, and finally, in 1979, he began to paint. 

His design used a ‘fisheye’ perspective from behind police lines, showing protestors being clubbed, punches and bottles thrown, banners being ripped, and barricades smashed. You can see the contents of a chamber-pot being emptied over the police and Mosley’s supporters. Many of the faces were inspired by newspaper photos of those who were there.

That year, Blair Peach had been killed at an anti-racist march on 23 April 1979. “He had gone to protest, with the Anti-Nazi League, at a meeting that the National Front had organised in the heart of the largely Punjabi centre of Southall on St George’s Day,” Dan said.

The New Zealander was a teacher of children with learning difficulties at the local Phoenix School. “He was a great guy who helped me on the Trades Council, and worked with us on anti-racist campaigns and other projects,” said Dan, who created a memorial poster depicting Blair’s body with blood gushing from his head. “He was attacked by a group of six Special Patrol Group police [a paramilitary group of the Metropolitan Police], one of whom fatally fractured Blair’s skull with an illegal truncheon. His killer was never brought to justice.” 

After four years of hard work, the mural was two-thirds completed when local neo-nazis came at night and vandalised it. “They sploshed huge ‘Rights for Whites’ and other racist garbage over it with that heavy thick white paint used for level crossings,” Dan recalled. In despair, Binnington abandoned his work on the mural.

“The council grit-blasted the graffiti, and Desmond Rochfort, with the help of Paul Butler, Ray Walker and others, repainted it to its present splendour,” Dan added.

It was finished in 1983: “On the anniversary of the Battle, we had a great opening event with neighbours, Bengalis, Somalis, Irish, Maltese, Jews, trade unionists, vicars, councillors, and Jack Jones, Head of the Transport and General Workers Union, made a moving speech – he had fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.”

Art Out of the Gallery

“Today I think half the population is now of Bengali origin but also, in various places, it’s much posher than it was,” said Dan. “Racism is still around here, and horrible things occasionally happen. I’m sad how frequently the old stuff is still going on, but it’s getting better, and the police generally seem to have improved relationships with the local community.”

Over the years, the mural has been targeted by far-right groups and been vandalised many times. Tower Hamlets is committed to repairing and repainting it. In a recent interview, one of the artists, Paul Butler, spoke of its importance as a political artwork: “In museums and galleries they’re [artworks] locked away in these mausoleums. The people who go to art galleries are predominantly middle-class. It’s a quasi-religious experience… which stands for ‘Culture’. We have to admit that the arts are elitist. If you want art that is in the environment it has to be taken out of the gallery and into the real world where real people can see it.”

For the past 30 years, Dan Jones has worked for Amnesty International, the human rights movement that his father helped launch back in 1961. He has been involved in teaching about human rights, writing and painting posters and banners for campaigns.

The 80-year-old said: “I still remain very involved in the anti-racist movement in Tower Hamlets and Hackney.”

‘Brick Lane: The Turning Point’ is a collaboration between Four Corners and Swadhinata Trust, in partnership with Paul Trevor. The exhibition will take place in 2022

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