Battle of Cable Street 85th anniversary ‘has political lessons today'
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Faith leaders marking the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street have spoken of civil disobedience and sometimes breaking the law as “justified in the name of humanity”.
They were marking the October 4 anniversary of the day the East End came together in 1936 to stop Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts marching through Whitechapel — despite having the legal right and being protected by police.
A civic reception on Monday at the former St George’s Town Hall in the heart of Cable Street shone new light on the political morality of the day.
“We need civil disobedience,” Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum’s chair Revd Alan Green told the reception. “It’s important to speak out and stand up against what the establishment says should happen.
“The only way to stop fascists marching through the East End was to be there and prevent them coming and those protecting them like the state or the police.”
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Some 200,000 protesters blocked Whitechapel High Street to prevent the provocative march by 2,500 blackshirts passing Gardiner’s Corner into the largely Jewish East End.
But the crowd got wind that the march was being diverted and 20,000 activists headed for Cable Street, where vehicles were overturned and paving stones ripped up for barricades.
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Police trying to clear a path were met by a hail of missiles and chants: “They shall not pass."
Revd Green, rector of St John at Bethnal Green, said: “I stand here with pride as a clergyman looking at those who came together in 1936 to prevent the growth of fascism.”
But he warned that “fascism wasn’t defeated”.
The English Defence League was also prevented from marching through Whitechapel in 2011 targeting the East London Mosque.
It echoed how the East End’s Jewish and Irish communities came out on the streets in 1936 in defiance of the law to stop the blackshirts.
East London Central Synagogue president Leon Silver told the 85th-anniversary reception: “The fascists legally had the right of way, so they were protected by the police.
“But there are times when the law should be broken, times when humanity and common decency override everything else.”
He also spoke of the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, which saw Nazis charged with crimes against humanity.
“The Nazis hadn’t broken ‘the law’ — they were keeping Nazi law,” Mr Silver explained. “That was their justification, but it was deemed that crimes against humanity override man-made law.”
Mosley, who had the law on his side to march through Whitechapel, was held up at Tower Hill by police unable to clear the Cable Street barricades and was forced to cancel.
The retreat has gone down in East End folklore as a “people’s victory” against the rise of fascism.
It has since been commemorated with a giant 50ft mural on the side of the old St George’s town hall. That was started in 1978 by veteran artist Dan Jones and his Cable Street Group, but not without its own controversy.
Dan, now 80, told the October 4 civic reception that he talked to veterans from 1936 about their experiences and included their images on the mural, but people defaced the images with facist slogans six feet high.
“They used road paint which was impossible to get off. The council agreed to sandblast the daubing and the mural had to be started again.”
The mural was eventually completed in 1983 and unveiled by trade union leader Jack Jones, who had also fought in 1936 against Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Schoolchildren from Limehouse created their own banner for the anniversary, which was unveiled at the civic reception and is shortly going on show at the Brady Centre.
They were inspired by social worker Nazira Begum from the Stitch in Time charity, who took them on trips to East End synagogues and the Whitechapel Gallery to "understand the significance" of the Battle of Cable Street.