It’s difficult to remember that it’s some forty years since Blair died at the hands of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group in Southall in West London while protesting at a Nation Front march and rally in April 1979. Blair arrived in London ten years earlier and went to work as a special needs teacher at The Phoenix School in Bow in London’s East End. He worked there until a day before his death, the only job he ever had in this country and one that he devoted himself to.
I was then squatting, with my family, in a house in Stepney, also in the East End, and had become an activist in the Bangladeshi homeless movement, the Bengali Housing Action Group. Blair was one of a group of white local activists who could always be relied on to turn up and support us whenever we faced confrontations with the councils which owned most of the squatted properties across the borough and indeed across London.
The 1970s were a time of great racial tensions and social change in the UK, and this was played out as much on the streets and housing estates as in council chambers[T1] and Parliament. The far-right National Front, although in decline at the time of Blair’s death, had been a significant factor in the raising of racial tensions with provocative marches and demonstrations in areas where ethnic minorities tended to live, one of which was the East End, itself an area historically of confrontation between immigrant and the established community.
My Bangladeshi community was still recently arrived, growing and insecure in itself and, for me, the support of white people like Blair was not only politically important, in that they knew how to organise, but possibly more so in that they were our contact with a different white society that not only wasn’t opposed to us but actively supported us.
I met Blair many times on demonstrations, pickets and at social events where he would always talk and inquire about Bangladesh, my community in the UK, Islam and was always available for the filling in of a form, phone calls to councils and immigration authorities and all of the things that newly arrived people developing their strength need.
There were many well-known “activists” who would arrive at an event, make a rousing speech and then disappear. Blair was never one of those and many were the time that I would receive a phone call to come and interpret for him when he was sorting out a problem for a Bangladeshi at night or at the weekend.
As the 70’s wore on and the NF declined in electoral support, violence increased. The police, never the friends of the left or immigrant communities, became more and more blatantly supportive and protective of the NF far above and beyond what was required of them by law. Assaults increased on protesters and people demonstrating about issues and eventually, by the time of Blair’s death, both sides went to what should have been a peaceful protest expecting a confrontation. Nowhere was this more obvious than at Southall that day.
I wasn’t there as we, in East London, were expecting a similar attack to the ones that had occurred the previous year, where the NF and football hooligans had rampaged down Brick Lane attacking Bangladeshi businesses and people. So it wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that our friend was dead. What developed from that point was a cover-up at the highest levels that has continued to this day.
A report commissioned by the Metropolitan Police and carried out by Commander Cass was suppressed for nearly thirty years but it only went some of the ways to explaining the events of that day and who was responsible for Blair’s death. The time is now well overdue for a full and independent public enquiry while witnesses are still alive and able to give evidence. During my time as Leader of Tower Hamlets Council, I had a plaque in his memory erected on the Phoenix School where he taught and there is a school named after him in Southall. The best memorial however would, I think, be a full enquiry to apportion blame and to put in place measures to see that such a tragedy never happens again. I am therefore calling on the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to initiate the process of beginning such an enquiry as soon as possible.