Anniversary of 1936 Battle Shows Power of Grass Roots Versus Racism

Londoners recently got a reminder that the power of ordinary people to halt racist behavior can never be overstated. Oct. 4 was the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, an event before the outbreak of World War II that saw 250,000 Londoners, including many Jews, stop a fascist march in the streets of London’s Jewish East End.

A series of editorials, video presentations, art exhibitions and other events marking the anniversary culminated in a street fair on Cable Street last Sunday.

By the mid-1930s, the British Union of Fascists, headed by the charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley and his “blackshirts,” had made anti-Semitism a central part of their platform. Mosley’s East London terror campaign swung into full force in the summer of 1936, carried out through endless street-corner meetings, firebombs, smashing of windows of Jewish shops and ethnically motivated verbal and physical abuse.

On Oct. 4, 1936, the blackshirts planned a government-sanctioned march through London’s Stepney neighborhood, which at the time had the largest Jewish population in England.

Despite petitions by local Jewish groups and residents, the Conservative government refused to ban the march, sparking protesters — a mix of Jews, local working class people, Communists and Irish dock workers — to take to the streets and stop the march with grass-roots action.

The chaos that ensued included clashes with police and confrontations by barricades on which protesters wrote, “They shall not pass!”

The resulting “siege,” as it was dubbed by London papers, forced the union to abandon its march, and sent Mosley into disrepute.

In honor of the anniversary, eight short films on the uprising, produced by 14 aspiring filmmakers, were screened at an East London cinema Oct. 4. Last Sunday, celebrations culminated at a street fair on the grounds of St. George’s Town Hall on Cable Street, which also is the location of a famous wall mural commemorating the battle.

The fair included live music, information stalls from an array of groups, including the London Anti-Racist Alliance and the Jewish Socialists Group, and a book signing by one of the battle participants.

A preview of a “Protest and Survive” photographic exhibition, which will be shown at London’s Art Pavilion until Oct. 21, was displayed.

The Battle of Cable Street is considered to have dealt a crushing blow to the fascist movement in Britain. Some historians argue to what extent Mosley’s blackshirts would have succeeded in mobilizing a large-scale fascist movement, but nobody contests that the confrontation played a role in preventing fascism from gaining a real foothold in Britain.

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