THE BATTLE OF CABLE STREET
Reflections from Anne Jones after participating in David Rosenberg’s ‘Anti-Fascist Footprints’ walking tour for ICAHD UK in October 2016
David Rosenberg’s talk as we walked around London’s East One was, as ever, packed with information as well as entertaining. Did you know, for example, that ‘Whitechapel’ has this name because many centuries ago there was a white chapel where a small park is now situated, and the area a mile from that chapel became ‘Mile End’. Or that the park in which the walk began is a memorial to a man murdered by racists during the ‘70’s?
London East One has for centuries been culturally very mixed. At the turn of the 20th century over 50,000 German people lived in Whitechapel. Their church still thrives today, although their numbers have more than halved. Prior to their arrival, during the 18th and 19th centuries came Hugenots, Sephardi Jews, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Ashkenazi Jews arrived, fleeing from pogroms in the ‘Pale of Settlement’ (Poland and parts of Ukraine). Added to the mix were a number of Irish, brought over to work on building roads and houses, and a few Bengalis from nearby dockyards, though each group kept to themselves.
Oswald Mosely seemed to have started his political career as ‘one of the good guys’, becoming a Labour MP (1926-31) and advocating, among other things, nationalised heavy industries, as well as warning about unemployment and an economic depression. A great charmer, with an alleged war wound, he was surrounded by friends, especially women .He had powerful friends, including Winston Churchill and Lord Rothermere (Daily Express) initially, who dropped off but this may have oiled the wheels of his success as he broke away from Labour and formed his own fascist party that became the Brtish Union of Fascists. He cleverly managed to tap into the growing anti-semitism of the time and, as the ‘30’s progressed, his policies and verbiage showed frightening echoes with Hitler’s (though his dictator of choice was Mussolini, for whom he developed a fascination). However, by the end of the ‘30’s his powers were waning because the British public perceived the growing threat from German fascism. Surrounding himself by personal minders – thugs who readily set upon any opposition – contributed to his unpopularity.
The turning point in Mosley’s popularity came with the Battle for Cable Street, when he planned to lead a march of the British Union of Fascists down Cable Street, an almost exclusively Jewish area, on a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. Opponents (such as a remarkable activist Joe Perretti) approached the Home Office to get the march stopped but were ignored. So local people took the law into their own hands, by any means possible: they pulled up paving stones to add to road barriers, or, from bedroom windows, poured buckets of urine on to the heads of unsuspecting marchers and police. A magnificent mural in Cable Street shows this battle. It was drawn during the ‘70’s from extant photos, at a time when racism was beginning to raise its ugly head again. It is a reminder that the battle against oppressive views must never cease.
In the ‘60’s Mosley was still to be found stirring up racial hatred with mis-information about immigrants and Jews – to a handful of onlookers who were quickly chased away by a few teenagers.
There are so many parallels with our times today. In ICAHD we all believe we are standing up for the rights of an oppressed minority, but the details make for uncomfortable discussions. The battle of Cable Street is an important part of Jewish history and, some might argue, a small part of the continuum that ultimately meant that a Jewish state was formed, yet now we witness the terrible daily events there wherein Palestinian people are denied rights in so many ways: schools, infrastructure, education, and homes. Probably each member of ICHAD has a different perspective on the complexities of it all, but as the leader of ‘Stand Against Racism’ quotes regularly: “Bad things happen when good men see them happen and do nothing”.
I am proud to be able to write that both my father and (ex) father-in-law fought against the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street, and my father continued during the ‘70’s when racism reared its ugly head again. This walk and talk served to remind us of the importance of remaining vigilant, and challenging racist oppression whenever we see it.
Anne M. Jones