80 years ago, London's immigrant communities fought back to halt a fascist march
In 1936, a tide of fascism was sweeping across Europe. Adolf Hitler had seized and consolidated power as führer of Nazi Germany, and was throwing his support behind Francisco Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.
The British Union of Fascists, founded in 1932 by far-right MP Oswald Mosley, had developed a sizable following among the working and middle classes thanks to isolationist and protectionist policies. This following shrank dramatically as the BUF — known as "blackshirts," after their uniforms — adopted a xenophobic, antisemitic platform and clashed violently and repeatedly with anti-fascist protesters.
In October, Mosley and his blackshirts announced a plan to march through London's East End, a neighborhood populated mainly by Irish and Jewish refugees and immigrants. The government allowed it against the strenuous objections of local groups.
Some anti-fascist groups, including the Labour party and Jewish Board of deputies, decided to ignore the march to starve it of attention.
Most, however, were not about to allow such a thing in their community. A broad coalition of Jews, Irish, Communists, Socialists, unionists, dockworkers and other East Londoners were determined to halt the fascist march by any means necessary.
On the day of the march, Mosley marshaled about 3,000 blackshirts on Royal Mint Street. The fascists were protected by approximately 6,000 police, many of them on horseback.
They were met by tens of thousands of demonstrators who blocked the streets with improvised barricades, tearing up paving stones and tossing furniture out of windows to make the marchers' route impassable.
When the police charged the barricades and attempted to clear the route, they were pelted with garbage, rotten vegetables, stones, and the contents of a few chamber pots.
As the police swung truncheons and pushed into the seething crowds, the demonstrators chanted the Spanish Civil War slogan "No pasarán!" or "they shall not pass!"
The battle raged for hours through the narrow streets, resulting in hundreds of injuries to police officers and demonstrators, including women and children, and around 150 arrests.
Finally, Mosley called off the march, and the anti-fascists declared triumph.
The battle initially appeared to be a pyrrhic victory for the protesters, as it led to a spike in fascist support and antisemitic violence — exactly what Mosley wanted. However, laws were quickly passed which banned marching in uniform and required police permission for marches.
The British Union of Fascists declined in membership as it became increasingly associated with Nazi Germany. In 1940, the party was banned altogether, and Mosley was interned for the much of the war.
Today, the East End — now home to communities of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere — bears numerous plaques and memorials to the Battle of Cable Street, a moment of solidarity against racism and fascism before the bloodshed of World War II.
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