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Thousands March To Commemorate 80th Anniversary Of Anti-Fascist Battle

Whitechapel Road, midday. The East End is no stranger to noise, activity and occasional chaos; a hub of street markets and hot food that’s been home to a mix of ethnic communities for centuries. But where once herds of livestock caused congestion on the main thoroughfare, yesterday it was thousands of Londoners armed to the hilt with banners and flares, shouting ‘Never Again, No Pasaran!’ who were the ones stopping traffic.

The crowds had come to march in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when the Jewish community prevented Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists from marching through the East End. The successful defeat of Mosley and his Blackshirt troops was the most important anti-fascist victory to have taken place on British soil; a defining moment in time when working class people and immigrant communities came together to reject racism from their neighbourhood.

Crowds began to assemble at 11am in Altab Ali Park, a place named in tragic remembrance of a British Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered on 4 May 1978 in a racially motivated killing. Ali’s death marked another brutal chapter of racism and intolerance in London’s East End - but one that also mobilised a community to come together and march for change in the spirit of their forebears. In the warm autumn sunshine, a celebratory spirit prevailed as the park filled with a diverse mix of trade unionists, anti-racism groups, Labour societies and Jewish and Muslim communities, who chanted and cheered as an assembly of speakers including Rushanara Ali MP and Frances O’Grady roused the crowd to action.
For some, celebrating Cable Street’s historic resistance provided a chance to remember the East Londoners’ heroic actions, as well as live their values. “It’s really important that we remember those who fought fascism and keep that tradition alive”, Nicholas, a volunteer at the Marx Memorial Library, told us. “Cable Street is the perfect example of when a community responded to an attack with complete solidarity - Irish workers and Jewish workers united to say ‘No Pasaran’. We have to really remember and commemorate that history - it’s of increased relevance, continued relevance, and it’s so important that it’s marked.”

Meanwhile for Sara Huws, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum, which looks to record, celebrate and amplify the “awesome” stories of East End women, the march provided the perfect opportunity to “commemorate and show solidarity”, as well as right the history books. “Just like today, women played an active part in direct action at Cable Street in 1936”, she explained. “Of the 79 who were arrested that day, eight of them were women. Some of those participants are still alive - and while it's easy to think of marching Blackshirts as ancient history, they remind us that we're still fighting the same battle today. East End women have a long tradition of fighting racism, fighting xenophobia, fighting poverty - from the Suffragettes to Sisters Uncut.”

For Mike Katz, co-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion), an affiliated society of the Labour Party since 1920, seeing a diverse range of people unite against politics of division was reason alone to feel inspired. “I think it’s really important that lots of different strains of not just community, but Labour politics, anti-fascist, anti-racist movements all come together,” he told us. “Cable Street’s always been a good celebration of what unites people with progressive views, whether they’re inside the Labour party or outside of it, far-left or trade union, or whether they’re not politically aligned but into fighting racism and fascism. It’s great to see so many people turning out.”
“I’m here today, partly because it’s a mini family tradition - my family came from the East End, and we have a proud East End Jewish history,” added Hannah, 24, also with JLM. “And partly because I think it’s really important that JLM are massively visible and showing that we’re proud to be here and celebrating our history.” The familial ties were also strong for Bridget, the “product of an Irish immigrant,” who had wrapped herself in a flag to show solidarity.

But as thousands came together to preserve shared history, an awareness that the march wasn’t simply a commemoration of a divisive chapter from a bygone age, but a lesson in mobilising against fresh racism and bigotry, seemed at the forefront of everybody’s minds. “It is because of those who stood up against intolerance here in the East End of London, that we can live in safety and in greater harmony,” said Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in her address to the crowd. “While we mark the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, let us remember that the struggle against racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism continues across our society.” After a summer which has seen reports of hate crimes soar in the wake of Brexit, talk of anti-semitism in the Labour Party and growing fascist sentiment in Europe, it’s not hard to see the circularity between the ugly political tension of 1936, and the creeping xenophobia of the present.

“In the aftermath of the referendum, it’s quite obvious that all sorts of racial hatred and xenophobia is being stirred up by UKIP and the Conservative government and sadly by the Blairite right-wing of the Labour party,” Toby, a retired history lecturer, told us. “Therefore it's absolutely essential to defend migrants, to defend free movement, to stand firmly against xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism - any variant of this hatred against people who aren’t white English.”
Toby’s concerns were shared by younger members of the crowd. “I think it’s an important part of our history; it’s when the community came together against the threat of fascism,” Zak, a national organiser for Stand Up To Racism told us. “Across Europe, far-right parties are on the rise; in France, Marine Le Pen got the highest vote ever at the last regional election. We have to stand up to racism and other forms of discrimination. We’re in an economic crisis, like they were in the 1930s, and extreme ideas come to the fore.” Elsewhere, student Camilla felt troubled by increasing Islamophobic attacks levelled at those simply “trying to express their religion,” that have dominated recent news. “I think it’s really important for us to all stand together against all this racism and Islamophobia,” she tells us. “We’re all British, we’ve all grown up here, we’re just expressing our religions in different ways. At the end of the day the British people are immigrants themselves.”

As the government considers plans to make companies declare foreign workers and Theresa May vows to tighten controls on migration, making a determined effort to come together and celebrate our differences seems more critical than ever before. But whether the UK will become any better at accepting its rich and multitudinous makeup in the coming months is another question altogether. The people of Cable Street may have fought off fascism to resounding cheers of “They Shall Not Pass”, but eighty years on a sense of trepidation still persists about what discrimination minority communities must endure next. The question on everybody’s minds now: will this pass?