Read Campaign Officer, Emi's reflections on the Battle of Cable Street on it's 87th anniversary.
What was the Battle of Cable Street?
On 4th October 1936, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF) planned a march through the predominantly Jewish East End of London. The aim of the march was to incite hatred towards the Jewish community, to intimidate and harass them. The march also confirmed the BUF’s stance that antisemitism was increasingly part of their political position, taking the lead from other fascist parties such as those in Italy and Germany. The BUF were famous for their use of military grab, most notably their black shirts, and for using this military façade as a means of trying to claim legitimacy as a political party.
However, the march never ended up taking place properly. This was due to clashes between the police, brought in to protect the fascists, and the anti-fascists who assembled in opposition to the BUF, defending the East End’s Jewish population. It was these clashes that became known as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.
Why is it important that we still talk about it today?
The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has a complicated but, important legacy for the modern day. In the 87 years since it took place, the themes and arguments that surrounded the march are ones that are still taking place.
Freedom of Speech and the right to protest
In the lead up to the march there was a petition to stop the march going ahead that signed by over 77,000 people. This included the mayors of the five east London boroughs. John Simon, the Home Secretary at the time, ignored the petition and claimed the right to political free speech trumped the potential harms of the march. It is also important to note that the largest bouts of antisemitic violence happened the week after the ‘battle’ when 200 Blackshirts descended upon Stepney, in the east end of London, where they smashed the windows of many Jewish businesses. The balance between free speech and prevention of harm is still a live issue today, and this also gives a very clear example of when free speech can lead to hate speech and eventually violence.
Despite popular perceptions, the BUF and the anti-fascists never actually fought. The ‘battle’ was the one that happened between the police, who were trying to ensure that the march could take place, and the anti-fascists who where there to protest and to block the march. The police were situated in between the two groups and it was the counter protesters who were targeted by the police. They simply told the BUF that it was advisable for them to leave. The BUF were never subjected to violence. The mythologising of the event and the ‘forgetting’ of the police violence speak to ways in which police violence and brutality are often swept under the rug.