The 1970s was a pretty grim decade in Britain, with polarisation between left and right and an increasingly repressive response to political turmoil by the forces of the state. The bleakest moment came on 23 April 1979 with the killing of Blair Peach, a 33-year old special needs teacher, whose skull was crushed by a single blow to the head during an Anti-Nazi League demonstration outside Southall town hall, where the National Front was holding a St George’s Day election rally. Peach had gained prominence as an anti-racism campaigner when leading a successful campaign to close a National Front building in the middle of the Bangladeshi community near Brick Lane in east London.
Now, at last, the Metropolitan Police have released the file on Blair Peach’s death, following a 31-year campaign by friends and family of Peach for full disclosure of the Met’s inquiry into the death, and pressure from The Guardian and the organisation Inquest in the aftermath of the death last year of Ian Tomlinson, who died after being attacked by police at the G20 protests in London. The officer filmed striking Tomlinson was a member of the territorial support group, which replaced the disbanded Special Patrol Group (SPG) in 1987. The documents published today confirm conclusively that Peach was killed by one or more members of an SPG unit.
The centrepiece of the released documentation is the report of the Metropolitan Police inquiry into the circumstances of Peach’s death, by Commander John Cass. The Cass report was suppressed in 1980 by the late Dr John Burton, the coroner who oversaw the inquest into Peach’s death, who recently revealed documents confirm as being biased in favour of the police.
Cass concluded that Peach was “almost certainly” killed by one of six SPG officers, some of whom then lied to cover up the actions of their colleague. After reviewing hundreds of pages of evidence, he reached his conclusion: that it could “reasonably be concluded that a police officer struck the fatal blow”. Cass had narrowed his investigation down to six SPG officers in carrier U11, the first vehicle to arrive in Beachcroft Avenue, the suburban street where Peach was found stumbling around, barely able to talk. Moments earlier, 14 witnesses had seen “a police officer hit the deceased on the head”.
One of the men in U11 was Alan Murray, who retired from the Met soon after the death and now lectures – can you believe this? – on corporate social responsibility at Sheffield University. Though his name, like those of the others, has been redacted from the released documents, The Guardian is reporting that he is the most likely the one to have struck the fatal blow. Another member of the carrier was Tony Lake, an SPG sergeant, who later became chief constable of Lincolnshire police, chaired the national DNA database and was awarded an OBE when he retired two years ago.
For the last 31 years these men have lived comfortable lives. Blair Peach was denied his future life, while his partner, Celia Stubbs has lived with the consequences of the police action, whilst campaigning tirelessly for the answer to the question: ‘Who Killed Blair Peach?’ At each anniversary of his death, Stubbs called for the release of the Cass report. Each time her request was rejected.
The turning point was the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson on 1 April last year. Unlike Peach, Tomlinson, 47, was not a protester, but a newspaper seller who was trying to walk home through the G20 protests near the Bank of England when he was attacked from behind by a member of the Met’s Territorial Support Group. He collapsed and died shortly after.
Both Peach and Tomlinson were thought to have fallen victim to the excessive force of the Met’s specially trained riot squad. In the case of Peach, it was the feared Special Patrol Group (SPG), which after Peach’s death became mired in controversy and was eventually disbanded. It was replaced in 1987 by the Territorial Support Group. An officer from the TSG was filmed striking Tomlinson from behind and pushing him to the ground. A year on, no charges have been brought against the officer.
In the case of Blair Peach, it appears that the Metropolitan police are suggesting that no officer will face any further action as a consequence of the release of the Cass report.
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According to Inquest, there have been 954 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990. Not a single policeman has been charged, much less prosecuted, for any of these deaths.
Returning to the issue of deaths on political demonstrations at the hands of the police, in 1974 Kevin Gately was was the first person to be killed on a political demonstration in Great Britain in 55 years. He was a second year student at Warwick Universitywho died as a result of injuries received in the Red Lion Square demonstration in London on 15 June 1974.
Fellow students who were with Gately said that he was injured after several charges and counter-charges involving mounted police, and several newspapers at the time alleged that his death may have been the result of a blow from a mounted police truncheon. However, neither a coroner’s inquest nor a public inquiry headed by Lord Scarman could find conclusive evidence to prove or disprove this claim.
The Red Lion Square demonstration was an attempt to stop the National Front holding a meeting at Conway Hall in the square. Gately was not a member of any political group or party, and had no experience of demonstrations before Red Lion Square.
A Kevin Gately Memorial Painting hangs in the Warwick University Students’ Union, and was restored in 2004. It is displayed alongside contemporary telegrams of support from many other students’ unions and a copy of Socialist Worker from the week following Gately’s death. The painting is symbolic of the anti-fascist struggle and contains neither a representation of Gately nor of the events of June 1974.
As reported in today’s Guardian, one paragraph of the Cass report states:
‘Without condoning the death I refer to Archbold 38th edition para 2528: ‘In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed’.
Does this paragraph in Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice, or something similar, still apply in law?