Monday, 20 August 2012

A People's History of Protest in Newham

History has a habit of repeating itself. Thus the Occupy movement, it turns out, has long forgotten ancestors in Plaistow: at the turn of the twentieth century, unemployed workers occupied land in an attempt to set up a farm colony called the Triangle Camp. The local council brought legal action for trespass against them, they were evicted and then tried to reoccupy the site, leading to scuffles with the police and the imprisonment of one Benjamin Cunningham. Nor are deaths in police custody an entirely modern phenomenon: in 1931, clashes between the police and the unemployed outside West Ham town hall in Stratford led to the savage beating of a protester with the unlikely name of Walter Disney, who was arrested and died on his way to hospital. In a echo of the claims made about the death of Ian Tomlinson, police alleged that his death was the result of him falling and hitting the road.

These stories were part of a fascinating talk today on the history of protest in Newham, held at the temporary 'People's Museum and Gallery of Newham' on Stratford High Street. In a little over an hour, Geoff Bell, chair of Eastside Community Heritage, covered a very broad period from early examples of racism, against the Irish in 1781, up to activism by Newham's black communities in the late 1980s. In between was a reminder of the rich history of dissent that this borough can take pride in. It includes the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (who lived on Upton Lane in Forest Gate) and her brother Samuel Gurney, the anti-slavery campaigner, as well as the Coloured Men's Institute set up in Canning Town by Kamal Chunchie, the militancy of dockworkers led by Jack Dash and the community resistance to racism and fascism that led to to the creation of the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) in 1981.

It still gives me particular satisfaction to know that NMP continues to contribute to the long history of anti-racist struggle in the borough, despite the unsuccessful efforts of its politically ambitious first worker to shut the project down in the late 1990s. However, there is much more to tell – other stories of protest in Newham, against the racist murder of Panchadcharam Sahitharan in 1991 and the unlawful killing in police custody of Ibrahima Sey in 1996, against the 'war on terror' and the war in Iraq during the last decade – were not covered in today's talk. In many cases, these stories (like NMP's refusal to give up when its council funding was cut) have not yet been written, although I hope that soon they will. Nevertheless, in a borough so often associated nowadays with an outright rejection of dissent by our imperious Mayor and his council colleagues, it was helpful to be reminded today that protest has always played an important part in the social fabric of Newham. Long may it continue to do so.

The People's Museum and Gallery of Newham is based at the former West Ham Labour Party offices at 306 High Street, Stratford E15 1AJ and continues until the end of October. Geoff Bell will told a talk on the Coloured Men’s Institute and Kamal Chunchie on 1 October at 4pm.

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