Sunday, 17 April 2011

Pivo: Isaac

I've had plans to start a series about how right-wing leaders have used anti-immigration rhetoric to encourage working class people to vote against their own economic interests throughout history. This has been waiting on my wall for a couple of months. As if purposely proving my point, David Cameron has provided this timely segue to get back to wheat pasting. So here's one I made earlier.

Meet Isaac, a Jewish boy whose parents emigrated from Poland to Bethnal Green in East London in the early 1930s. They would have arrived to find a community full of other immigrants and many left wing activists.

They managed to escape a Europe where fascism and anti-Semitism were a serious threat. But they would have arrived in the UK to find the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosely and known as the Blackshirts, also attempting to demonise immigrants and whip up fear in a depressed economy.

In 1936, the fascist Blackshirts planned a uniformed march through East London as an attempt to intimidate the large Jewish population. Rather than being intimidated though, Isaac's parents were joined by an estimated 300,000 Irish dockworkers, trade unionist, communist, socialist and anarchist individuals in what became known as The Battle of Cable Street. I stress individuals because the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Communist Party of Great Britain both urged their members to stay away from the East End on the day of the march. This was an example of a disparate group of people getting together outside of any official political banner to oppose fascism and fight for what they believed in.

Although often reported as a battle between fascists and anti-fascists, this was really a battle between the anti-fascists trying to prevent the march and the police trying to allow the march to continue. Anti-fascists carried placards and scrawled graffiti everywhere proclaiming 'they shall not pass'. One tram driver helped out by abandoning his tram in the middle of Cable Street to fortify the blockade.

Eventually, the march had to be abandoned by the Blackshirts as both they and the police were outnumbered by anti-fascists. In the same year, the Public Order Act was introduced that banned the wearing of political uniforms at public meetings. Although this legislation did help diminish the visibility and eventually the power of the BUF (in addition to the UK fighting against European fascism in WW2) it has also been used against Irish Republicans and the Miner's Strike and carries on in the policing of protests today.

Overall, the unity shown in the East End in the 1930s continues to this day, despite right-wing racists exploiting economic hardships in an attempt to divide people along ethnic lines. It is a community that I have been proud to work in since moving to the UK, including making a recent film about a community centre that has been in Bethnal Green for over 120 years. Isaac is based on the boy on the bottom left of this adorable photograph of the 'Bethnal Green Juniors' that came from the community centre's archive.

In the 2010 election, the British National Party were roundly humiliated by the same kind of people power that saw off the Blackshirts in 1936. Billy Bragg refers to this as the contemporary Battle of Cable Street. I'd say that with political leaders like David Cameron, the battle never ends. 

Pasted up near the corner of Kelsey Street and Chester Street in Bethnal Green and probably the last time I'll ever try to paste on a brick wall. It really didn't stick and is already falling down. 

No comments: