The Battle of Cable Street: antifascism’s intimate community roots

A wave of activity from white supremacist and fascist groups has accompanied the Trump administration’s rise to power. From the burst of reported hate crimes immediately following election day to the violent Charlottesville clashes this August, such groups have been emboldened by Trump’s openly nativist, nationalistic and militaristic rhetoric.

Debate around the best way to resist these dangerous far-right demonstrations has been heated and unceasing. The Left seems divided over what an effective “antifascist” is or should be and what tactics they should embrace.  Knowing our history might help resolve that debate by reminding us what people have done in the past in the face of the unthinkable.

The “Battle of Cable Street” that took place in London’s East End in 1936 indicates that inter-community cooperation can be a powerful means of countering fascist actions.    During this historic antifascist stand, immigrant Jewish and Irish communities, labor unions and radical leftists collaborated to stop the British Union of Fascists, or “Blackshirts,” from marching through their neighborhoods.

Today, the Battle of Cable Street is regarded as an influential antifascist victory, as well as a testament to the strength of collective community action.  Because these groups forged strong organizational links, they were able to mobilize a mass of people large enough to physically block the fascist parade from proceeding. These links survived long after the battle,  and continued to serve cross-community needs in the form of tenants’ rights campaigns.

As Nazism gained steam in Germany in the 1930s, an active fascist movement emerged in England as well. Led by Sir Oswald Mosley, an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) pushed an agenda of virulent anti-Semitism, nativism and nationalism.   Using language that has an echo today, a pamphlet distributed by the BUF claimed “Fascism alone [would] deal with the alien menace because fascism alone [put] ‘Britain First.’”

The “alien menace” referred to the large immigrant communities of Jews living in London’s impoverished East End. By 1932, more than 60,000 Jews of mostly Eastern European origin lived in the East End borough of Stepney. The BUF, in step with Hitler, blamed them for much of the economic hardship of the Great Depression.

In 1936, Mosley planned to celebrate the fourth birthday of the BUF with a uniformed march through the East End.  For years, the BUF had instigated anti-Semitic violence and street fights in these very communities. The march was to be a show of force that could foreshadow violence on an even larger scale. Despite this serious threat, the British government refused to ban the march and even gave the BUF a thousands-strong police escort.

Communists, anarchists, socialists and trade unionists had been leading antifascist organizing efforts in the East End since the emergence of the BUF in 1932. To oppose and prepare for Mosley’s march, these groups teamed up with the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JPC). Many of the trade unionists were Irish dockworkers — immigrants themselves — who had received support from Jewish unions and community groups during previous strikes. Together they planned for a mass mobilization of people to block the BUF from entering the East End.

On October 3, 1936, the day before the march was to take place, its proposed route was published in the communist paper The Daily Worker, along with a call to block the march at several key points.

Tens of thousands of East End residents answered that call when the BUF approached the next day.  Antifascist protestors greatly outnumbered both Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts and the mounted police escorts. Though police tried to hold them back with baton beatings, the antifascists managed to erect effective road blockades with overturned trucks. Women, children and elders who were not in the streets participated in the action by throwing glass bottles and jars, marbles, rotten food and waste from chamber pots out of their apartment windows. This rain of debris made it difficult for police on horseback and BUF marchers to advance. The Communist Party organized on-site medical care for the wounded. Free legal support for arrestees was arranged by the JPC.

Eventually the police informed Mosley that the BUF would have to turn around without marching through the East End. The mobilized opposition had been able to halt the parade, thanks to the broad participation of an array of different groups within the community.

While the “Battle of Cable Street,” as the mass confrontation came to be known, did not put a definitive end to all anti-Semitic violence in the East End, it did forge lasting connections between participants. Leftist radicals, Jewish community groups and labor activists united by the antifascist struggle soon formed the Stepney Tenants Defence League, a political group that advocated for better housing conditions and fair rents. The mass antifascist mobilization in 1936 was borne of deeply connected community organizing traditions and was followed by more community-centered projects and efforts, carried out by the same people and groups.

The Battle of Cable Street is commemorated with a vibrant mural in London’s East End. It depicts the events of the battle, including the shower of objects thrown from the apartment windows and a banner reading “Mosley Shall Not Pass; Bar the Road to British Fascism.” It is a moving tribute to community power and solidarity.

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