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The Enduring Lessons of the Battle of Cable Street, 80 Years On

5 minute read

Cable Street, in the east end of London, has long reflected the city’s diversity. Today it’s home to a large South Asian community, a cycle route to the City for London’s businessmen, and an up-and-coming residential area for young hipsters. In the early 20th century, however, it was home to a large, mainly Jewish community whose stand against prejudice has become famous. Across the street from the train station that connects the East End to the city, a huge painting on the side of the town hall shows a confrontation between local residents and the forces of fascism that happened eighty years ago on Oct.4.

The successful defeat of Nazi sympathizer Oswald Mosley’s march through the East End, known as the Battle of Cable Street, is being commemorated this year by marches, talks and other events in this corner of London. The anniversary is being recognized at a timely moment, after Britain has endured a summer of increased hate crime reports following the EU referendum in Britain, and charges of an anti-Semitism problem in the opposition Labour Party. Coming also as far-right parties are gaining in electoral successes across Europe, it’s a good time to re-examine the forces behind the Battle of Cable Street.

“Among the impoverished workers of the East End, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) built their movement in a horseshoe shape around the Jewish community,” says author and historian David Rosenberg, whose relatives owned a stationery shop on Cable Street at the time. Throughout the mid 1930s, the BUF moved closer towards Hitler’s form of fascism with Mosley himself saying that “fascism can and will win Britain”. The British fascists also took on a more vehemently anti-Semitic stance, describing Jews as “rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel”.

On Sunday Oct. 4, 1936, Mosley led his Blackshirt supporters on a march through the East End, following months of BUF meetings and leafleting in the area designed to intimidate Jewish people and break up the East End’s community solidarity. Despite a petition signed by 100,000 people, the British government permitted the march to go ahead and designated 7,000 members of the police force to accompany it. The counter-protest from the Cable Street community involved members from the Jewish and Irish communities, local workers and local Labor and Communist parties, who succeeded in disbanding the BUF march. As TIME reported in the magazine’s Oct. 12 issue 1936, in an article called “Mosley Shall Not Pass!”:

Ignoring orders from the Labor Party and prominent British Labor leaders, half a million British proletarians liberally sprinkled with Jews went on an anti-Fascist rampage last week which turned out to be London’s biggest riot in years. Every provocation had been given the proletariat by No. 1 British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, who had announced weeks ahead that 5,000 of his Blackshirts would march through the tortuous streets of London’s Jewish quarter east of the Tower. This was interpreted by Jews and workers alike as a challenge to battle, the British Communist Party hurling its cohorts with the slogan “MOSLEY SHALL NOT PASS!”

The battle took place when fascism seemed to be on the rise in other European cities, led by Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. “The fact that so many different communities came together and resulted in such huge numbers turning out against countervailing pressures tells us something”, Rosenberg says. “It was a victory for the united people of the East End.” It was also an awakening for some in the British left, says London School of Economics research fellow Richard Baxell, only months after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. “For some people that were involved in the protest, Cable Street was the road to Spain, and many would go on to volunteer as soldiers for the Republicans there”, he says.

Little is recognizable from that period on today’s Cable Street, apart from the faded street signs. Since 1936, the demographic of London’s East End has undergone multiple reincarnations, yet new residents have faced similar struggles. The area became home to a large Bengali and South Asian community from the 1960s, which has faced racism incited by Britain’s far right. As Baxell understands it, anti-Semitism and racism “resurface in different guises”, evidenced by developments in Britain and Europe over the past year.

British politicians were criticized by the UN for allowing the divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding Brexit to fuel a spike in reports of race hate crimes, a trend that has been replicated across the continent as countries struggle to handle the record influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The increasing intolerance displayed across the European political spectrum show that the same winds that blew across Cable Street eighty years ago still exist today, Rosenberg says. “We are fortunate that the far right in Britain is small and fragmented, but you just have to look at France, Germany, Austria and Hungary to see echoes of the 1930s in much more powerful and coordinated far right movements.”

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