Racism in Forest Gate in the 1970s and 1980s Part 2 - the fight back begins

Tuesday, 12 June 2018


This is the second part of a post on racism in Forest Gate in the 1970's and 1980's - see the previous article for part one.

Gurdip Singh Chagger was murdered in Southall on 4 June 1976. A week later a demonstration was held in Stratford Town Hall by the pro-fascist Democratic National Party. It's leader, John Kingsley Read declared:

I have been told I cannot refer to coloured immigrants. So, you will forgive me if I refer to niggers, wogs and coons. As for the murder of one Asian youth in Southall last week. That was terribly unfortunate. One down, one million to go.

Read was charged with incitement to racial hatred. It took the jury just ten minutes to reach a 'not guilty' verdict, after they had been directed by  Judge McKinnon, in his summary:

In this England of ours we are allowed to have our own views still. Thank goodness, and long may it last.

Read was, he said, was a man: "who had the guts to come forward in the past and stand up publicly for the things he believed in."

This was part of the local context for a series of dreadful racist incidents and the catalyst of effective and organised community opposition to them in Forest Gate, in the 1970's and 80's. What follows is that story.

Ten months after the murder of Chegger - on St George's Day 1977 - three Sikh brothers, Mohinder, Balvinder and Sukvinder Virk were repairing their car in front of their home in East Ham, when they were approached by five white youths, who had been drinking heavily and then began racially abusing and attacking them.

The Virk bothers resisted;  there was a struggle and one of the white youths was stabbed. The Virk family called the police - but it was they who were arrested, refused bail and charged with grievous bodily harm.


Campaign leaflet, in
support of the Virk brothers
The white attackers were the prosecution's principal witnesses at the trial fifteen months later and when the Virk brothers' lawyer attempted to prove the racist nature of the original assault, by asking the white youths whether they were members of the National Front, the notorious Judge Argyle, presiding, ruled the question: "out of order".

The Virk brothers were found guilty and given sentences of between three months and seven years. In comparison, the killers of Chaggers - mentioned at the top of this feature - received only four years, for manslaughter.

The very different verdicts in the two cases caused outrage within much of the black and Asian communities. A number of "defence" groups were established - among them the Steering Committee of Asian Organisations and the Newham Defence Committee. Funds were raised and demonstrations organised.

The campaigns succeeded. The Appeal Court halved the Virk brothers' sentences, the following year - with the judge declaring them to be "law-abiding citizens". Police and judicial racism was now firmly on the agenda for black and Asian community groups.

Similar racist-inspired attacks, however, continued, including the murder of 10 year old Kennith Singh in Plaistow in April 1978 and 19 year old Narinder Singh Marway, on Green Street. Marway was racially abused, spat at and hit on the head with an iron bar. When the police arrived, it was Marway who was arrested, for "being in possession of an offensive weapon".


The former Forest Gate police
station, on Romford Road
The "offensive weapon" was his Karaa (the Sikh bangle) - a sacred symbol; to be carried by all adult Sikh men, throughout their adult lives, and with which they are cremated.

Angry demonstrations followed in support of Marway - but it was only when the matter was raised in the Indian parliament that the charge was dropped.

One of the most notorious racist killings at the time was of 29 year old Akhtar Ali Baig, who was savagely attacked on East Ham High street by a gang of skinhead boys and girls. 17 year old Paul Mullery pulled out a sheath knife and stabbed him in the heart, shouting "I've just gutted a Paki."




Newham Recorder reports of killing of Akhtar Ali Baig - report on centre (above) by current Newham Heritage activist, Colin Grainger!

The murder provoked outrage and lead to a spontaneous demonstration of about 150 black and Asian people outside the then Forest Gate police station.

The police refused to release any details of the murder, except declared it not to be racist - but simply a mugging. The youth took to the streets again - to the spot where Baig was murdered - and there were 16 arrests.

The Newham Youth Movement was formed around the attack and on 19 July 1980 an estimated 2,500 people marched through Newham in protest. The Newham Youth Movement's Bulletin described the response:

The tempo and the feelings of the youth were high. The march was planned to pass Forest Gate and West Ham police stations, and return to the murder spot.

On the way to the Forest Gate police station about six Asian youth were arrested. Due to the police's unreasonable behaviour, there was a sit-down protest outside Forest Gate police station. A delegation was sent inside to negotiate their release.

The release was promised and the march continued to West Ham Park and ended up at the original murder spot - where prayers were read from the Koran. A further 29 people were arrested during the march.


A second march - to demand the release of the arrested - was organised by the Newham Youth Movement. 5,000 attended and East Ham was brought to a standstill.

The Baig murder sparked new levels of anger and protest within the local Asian community, and beyond. Community activist, and now Greater London Authority member, Unmesh Desai, had this to say of it, a decade later:

As friend told me later, it was actually their mothers who got them all up early, and said: 'Come on, we've all got to go on the march.

Although there was a wave of anti-fascist activity at the time around the country, I distinctly remember the Akhtar Ali Baig march as the most angry, militant march I had been on.

The trial became the centre for demonstrations and press attention. Racism was the focus of the trial. James Parker and Paul Mullery were found guilty of murder. The police said that neither had shown any remorse.

Parker's bedroom, it emerged, was bedecked in Nazi and NF material and as Mullery left the court, he gave a Nazi salute, shouted 'Sieg Heil' and 'All for a fucking Paki'.

In the light of the overwhelming evidence, Judge Russell concluded that the killing was "clearly motivated by racial hatred". Obvious, perhaps, but some progress on earlier judicial observations and on the initial police response to the murder.

Organisations that had emerged to campaign around the Baig murder soon collapsed, due to inter-generational and other tensions. But the black and Asian communities were becoming politicised in ways and in places that some people found surprising at the time.

The Asian Women's Project, for example, emerged, campaigning for support for the often isolated women members - including the needs of Asian women refugees. Other issues were campaigned on.  Writing in 1990, Gulshun Rehman, of the organisation commented:

The black women's movement was highlighting the whole use of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera, and Behno-Ki-milan (ed: the Sisters Movement of Asian Women, established in 1979) got involved in picketing Forest Gate maternity hospital (ed: the former Industrial school, now Gladys Dimson court) on Forest Lane, over the use of the drug.

Gradually black and Asian anti-racist organisations coalesced around the issue of racial harassment and in 1980 formed the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP). It, at once, began compiling a dossier of cases, which it sent to local MP's (who were not always sympathetic), and established an advice centre in Forest Gate. It soon began to operate a 24/7 emergency help-line for black people experiencing racial violence and harassment, from 382 Katherine Road.

Moves were afoot elsewhere at this time, often spearheaded by many of the departing "old guard" of Newham council: messrs Wales, Corbett and Baike, and other still prominent figures like MP Steven Timms and recently retired Cllr Conor McCauley, to address some of the institutional racism that prevailed in the borough.

The story is long and meandering, but basically, old stager MP's like Reg Prentice and Arthur Lewis were de-selected and younger bloods like Tony Banks took on the Parliamentary role.

The old racist guard were swept from power at the town hall too, and gradually more progressive thoughts and policies - particularly around race - began to win through.

One notable litmus test of the change was when Newham became the first local authority in the country to evict a tenant for racial harassment - Rosina McDonnell - in 1984. One of the Canning Town housing officers at the time, involved in the eviction, was the future Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant.



McDonnell family evicted twice by Newham Council for racially harassing neighbours in 1984-85

Newham was under siege from the press and wider political establishment for being 'left wing extremists' and 'politically correct, gone mad' etc. Leading council members and senior officers resisted massive pressure and, in some cases, intimidation to back down, but stood firm.

Winds of change blowing through the Greater London Council, at County Hall, meant that for the first time groups such as the NMP  were grant-aided, in an attempt to fight local racism.


382 Katherine Road, today. In the 1980's
 hq of Newham Monitoring Project
This was not without difficulties for the NMP, who not only had to deal with racists outpourings and harassment, but also sectarian divisions from the left and some community organisations - often driven by jealousy at their prominence and successes.


Present GLA member,
Unmesh Desai, at the time
prominent in Newham
Monitoring Project
Strength of purpose and resolve prevailed at the NMP, as Unmesh Desai was later to reflect:

The NMP, we felt, should not seek bureaucratic answers to anti-racist issues ... it has always got to keep its sharp, campaigning fighting edge ... we learned in those early days that it is not white individuals who were the problem, but white society as a whole.

Tensions continued between the police and black youth, locally, throughout the 1970s and 80s. In the 70's the police used the Vagrancy Acts to pick up young black males "on suspicion" that they were about to commit a crime - the "sus" laws.

Herby Boudier, a Newham community worker in the 1980's gave an example:

In one particular case, in Upton Park Road, a 17 year old youth had just left the offices of the Renewal Project Programme (ed: a voluntary organisation supporting unemployed Afro-Caribbean youth, among other activities) to go to the careers office for an interview, when he was picked up and charged with 'sus'. The police evidence against him was that while standing at the bus stop he "appeared to dip into a woman's handbag". Yet neither the woman, nor any other witness was brought forward.

'Sus' was finally abolished in 1981, but another form of harassment soon replaced it. The police increasingly began to use Special Patrol Groups (SPGs) to target black areas, targeting black youth, almost at random.

The Ramsey case of 1983 gained particular notoriety. David Ramsey of First Avenue, Manor Park, was stopped and arrested for stealing the car he was driving. It was his own! He had been tracked by helicopter. His family home was forcibly entered by the SPG and 11 members of it arrested. They were taken to Forest Gate police station and charged with a number of offences - obstruction, assault etc - connected to their resistance.

The NMP worked with other, similar, bodies from other east-end local areas and held a press conference at the House of Commons, on police harassment of the black community. The NMP called for an inquiry into the case.

The Newham Recorder, which did not attend the press conference, responded by interviewing four black police officers at the Forest Gate station - who dutifully said there was no problem of racism at the station.


Newham Recorder denying racism among
Forest Gate police, in March 1983.
Probably not current prominent Guardian
journalist, Hugh Muir's, proudest "exclusive"

Site of the old Forest Gate police
station on Romford Road, today
Racial tensions escalated into fights and violent attacks at Little Ilford school in 1982. Matters came to a head in September when four scruffily dressed white men jumped out of a car, by the school, and swore at and racially abused some Asian children. The Asian lads feared a racist attack, and a fight broke out.

Police were called, and it transpired that the white men who had provoked the original incident were, in fact, plain clothes policemen, themselves! Eight Asian youth, some badly beaten, were taken to Forest Gate police station.

A Defence Committee was quickly formed and up-and-coming civil rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce, was hired for the defence. A demonstration of at least 1,000 marched through Newham, as a National March Against Racism and Fascism on 24 September 1983.


Newham Recorder reports on anti-racist
demonstration, in support of the Newham 8
500 local school children staged a strike and attended The Old Bailey on the first day of the trial of The Newham 8, as the defendants became known. They maintained a daily presence, throughout the trial.

These were the first school strikes in Britain against racism and fascism. They gained considerable media attention.


1983, Newham school children on strike
outside the Old Bailey in support of the
Newham 8. Photo: David Hoffman
The trial lasted six weeks. Four of the defendants were found guilty of the more minor of the offences with which they were charged, and four were found not guilty.

The liberal press criticised the police for their failure to address racial violence, at the conclusion of the trail.  But the lessons weren't heeded, as similar issues arose a year later, in the case of the Newham 7.

On 7 August 1984 a gang of white youths, driving around Newham in a car, committed a series of attacks on black people, seemingly at random. One assault involved a partially disabled Asian youth, who was taken by force to Wanstead Flats and attacked with a hammer.

Later that day a group of Asian youth went to the Duke of Edinburgh pub on the corner of Green Street and Plashet Grove. The pub has recently closed and is now a small parade of shops (see photo). It was at the time, though, a well-known meeting place for NF thugs.


Site of the former Duke of Edinburgh pub,
on junction of Plashet Grove and Green Street, today.
Now a small parade of mainly Asian shops - then
a drinking den of local National Front thugs
A fight broke out at the pub and an Asian youth was arrested on a number of violence-related charges. Six more Asian youths were arrested in the weeks that followed. Five of the youth were remanded in custody for seven weeks, and a writ of Habeas Corpus had to be issued to secure their release.

In contrast, three white youths were arrested as a result of the incident and were immediately released on bail.

As black and Asian youth began to organise around the fate of the Newham 7, a 16 year old black youth, Eustace Pryce died after being stabbed in the head outside the (also, now closed) Greengate pub, on Barking Road on 29 November. (see photo of the site, today - now a Tesco branch).

Newham Recorder reports arrests for
murder of Eustace Pryce, November 1984

Former Greengate pub on Barking Road
today - now a Tesco Express
The murder happened after a racially motivate fight outside the pub. Some plain clothes police officers witnessed the end of the fight, from the top of a passing bus. They promptly arrested Gerald Pryce - brother of the murdered Eustace -  questioned him for several hours and charged him with affray  - but did not pick up the killer.

The police eventually arrested Martin Newhouse, who was charged with murder.

The fates of  Gerald Pryce and Newhouse, a month later,  could not have displayed the racist bias of the judicial system more clearly. The killer was released on bail over Christmas "so that he could be with his family". The dead youth's brother, charged with affray,  was refused bail over the holiday period! When Gerald Pryce was eventually given bail, his movements were restricted, to prevent him from visiting Newham, and his pregnant girlfriend.

A joint 'defence campaign' under the guidance of NMP was formed (see photo below), but racially motivated violence persisted in Newham - much of it orchestrated from the Duke of Edinburgh pub.


"Justice for the Pryce Family" march side
 by side with the "Newham 7" campaign.
Photo: Andrew Wiard
Protest marches were held in Newham and beyond, to draw attention to the situation. One, on 27 April 1985, turned out in defence of Gerard Pryce and the Newham 7. It was due to pass Forest Gate police station, on its way to Plashet Park.


Newham Recorder reports on the
trail of the Newham 7 - May 1984
When the march reached the police station, police snatch squads charged into the crowd, pulling out Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth and violently assaulted them. Ten of the youth were bundled into the police station.

3,000 people refused to move from outside the police station until the 10 were released.

As dusk was falling police District Support Units (DSUs) from all over London descended on Forest Gate police station and the surrounding streets. Violence erupted and 34 further arrests were made. Local police officers later complained to the Newham Recorder that before the DSU charges on the demonstrators, local senior officers had forced them to "surrender the streets".


1985 - heavy handed action by the police
on a 1985 demonstartion in support of the
Pryce Family and Newham 7, outside
Plashet Park. Photo: John Sturrock
The trial of the Newham 7 began in May 1985 amid other intolerable abuses by the authorities. At lunch-break on the second day of the trial, one of the defendants, Parvaiz Khan, was racially abused and assaulted by a prison warder - for refusing to eat a pork pie, a forbidden food in the Islamic faith.

He returned to court with a swollen face, and the trail was adjourned for two days. This gained press coverage - not just in the UK, but in India and Pakistan too
.
As the trail reconvened, two police officers, waiting to give evidence, were found riffling through defence files and papers, and other officers were found to be colluding over evidence.

It emerged during the trial, that while racist thugs were plotting in the Duke of Edinburgh pub - unimpeded by the police - the police had informants working in the Wimpey bar opposite (now a betting shop - see photo), spying on Asian youth, who used it as a meeting place!


Paddy Power betting shop, today. In 1980's
 a Wimpey Bar, where police had informers, spying
 on local Asian youth. Near right in photo is site
 of ex Duke of Edinbugh pub, a meeting point
 for the National Front. Police weren't
interested in spying on them
Four of the Newham 7 were found guilty of affray and three were acquitted - but it was the police, whose actions were exposed who were found wanting in the court of public opinion.

As far as the Pryce killing was concerned, brother Gerald was not criminalised and killer Newhouse was sentenced to 4.5 years youth custody - for manslaughter.

The importance of these cases is the successful campaigns around them, in Newham and beyond - often focussing on dreadful behaviour of officers stationed at Forest Gate police station. 

The campaigns shone a light on institutional racism - particularly within the criminal justice system - from which there has been a deliberate, if slow, rowing back since.


Footnote This post has been largely based on the publication: Newham - the Forging of a Black Community, published by the Newham Monitoring Project and the Campaign Against Racism and fascism, in 1991. It is sadly out of print. Though second hand copies occasionally become available. Similarly we are indebted to the publication for many of the illustrations in this post - where-ever possible, we have attempted to credit the original photographer

1 comment:

  1. I was living in Leyton at the time and did not hear about any of these incidents, although my boyfriend at the time did tell me he and his friends had been beaten up by police in a police van. I did later have a horrible encounter with a sergeant in Leyton Police station that shocked me to the core. Can't imagine such behaviour happening now but it's good to read about the Borough's past, thank you.

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