I doubt there has ever been a bigger funeral for any New Zealander in London. 10,000 mourners joined the procession as it made its way through the streets of East London on the final journey for a young special needs teacher from Hawkes Bay.
In the months which followed a local school was named after him and this week in London events are planned to mark the 30th Anniversary of his death. Don’t expect to see this reported in the media here because he never received a knighthood or made himself rich off the work of others and yet he is affectionately remembered by the children he taught and the people who knew him.
So who was this New Zealander so widely and warmly respected in the less fashionable areas of London?
Blair Peach was his name and he was killed by police during a protest against the neo-Nazi National Front in Southall, London on 23 April 1979.
When Blair left New Zealand he settled in Southall and taught at a local school for children with special education needs. This was a low-income area of London where recently-arrived Asian migrants predominated.
It was the late 1970s and there was upheaval in Britain over immigration issues. Neo-Nazis made inflammatory speeches inciting young disaffected Britons to believe the economic problems of the day lay with increasing numbers of Asians in Britain. There were frequent racist attacks in the area and just three years before Blair Peach was killed a local Asian man was attacked and murdered.
So local Southall residents were shocked and worried when the National Front announced they were to hold an election meeting in the Ealing Town Hall in the heart of their community. The NF had few local supporters and their decision was seen as a deliberate provocation.
5,000 locals marched on the local Tory-dominated council to call for the meeting to be abandoned but the council approved it. 3,000 police were brought into the area to defend the right of a racist white minority group to threaten the local immigrant community. The NF candidate said he wanted to send the immigrants home and “bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet”.
Activists from the local area and across London turned out to defend the immigrant community and many local Southall shops and factories closed in protest as the inevitable confrontation loomed.
Blair was a member of the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Workers Party. He turned up and joined the defence of the community he worked in. Residents later described the police Special Patrol Group attacks on the protest as a “police riot” which scattered everyone.
Local resident and eyewitness Parminder Atwal described the attack on Blair Peach:
“As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with the stick. I was in my garden and saw this quite clearly. He was left sitting against the wall. He tried to get up, but he was shivering and looked very strange. He couldn’t stand. Then the police came back and told him, ‘Move! Come on, move!’ They were very rough with him and I was shocked because it was clear he was seriously hurt.”
A friend of Blair’s, Jo Lang, added these details:
“At least two Special Patrol Group vans came up. The officers got out and charged us. We ran, but Blair wasn’t with us. So we went back to look for him. An Asian family had taken him into their living room. You couldn’t see how badly injured he was. It was later said that he was hit with a lead-filled cosh. While he was in the ambulance he started having fits. At 12 o’clock they phoned and told us he was dead.”
Blair’s killer remains at large. Members of the SPG closed ranks and identification was made more difficult by many of them growing beards after the riot. However a search of the lockers and homes of the police involved in the killing turned up neo-Nazi material and “unauthorised” weapons.
No-one was charged and the authorities handled the issue with delay and obfuscation such that even today details of police reports are not available. As Blair’s girlfriend Celia Stubbs says “they got away scot-free”.
Blair Peach began life as a schoolboy soccer-player in Napier’s Nelson Park, just a stone’s throw from my family home. It ended with his killing by police in London near the school where he taught.
With all the recent criticism of migrant workers here we should learn some lessons from this English experience.
This Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of Blair’s death and many Londoners will gather to remember the quiet teacher from Hawkes Bay. New Zealanders should do the same.