December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

What motivated skinhead attacks in the 70s?

9 min read
The late 1970s saw a wave of attacks on LGBT people and ethnic minorities by young thugs of identifying as skinhead so what was the motive? Tony McMahon investigates.

In this series of blog posts I’m looking at the problem of the extreme Right in the 1970s and the misery it created for ethnic minorities and LGBT people in particular. The streets could be a dangerous place forty plus years ago. So what motivated thugs to launch unprovoked attacks that in a small number of cases resulted in death. I’ve been trawling through newspapers, research papers and other publications from the time to hear from those on all sides.

WARNING: There is language in this following blog post that some may find offensive – but was very common at the time. This is no way endorses these kind of terms.

As a 12-year-old in 1976, I biked with friends to the M25 motorway underpass ten minutes from where I lived. Chopper bikes, flared jeans, a Harlem Globe Trotters T-shirt and a brown corduroy jacket. That was my mid-70s uniform. We gazed down at the congealed, dust covered globules of blood on the pavement. This had been the very spot where two students, Dinesh Choudhri aged 19 and Riphi Alhadidi aged 22, had been stabbed to death.[1] [2]

They lived at the Queen Mary College halls of residence, three unmissable 1960s tower blocks near my old junior school in South Woodford. After the M25 motorway was built in the early 1970s, the students got to experience a constant roar of traffic and the attendant carbon monoxide fumes from their high-rise rooms.

Each day, Choudhri and Alhadidi would have caught the Central Line tube from this east London suburb to the college in Mile End. On the evening of their death, they were reportedly on their way or coming back from a local Chinese takeaway, the Ping Onn, opposite the ABC cinema. I went to that junior school with a girl who worked there helping her family at the counter from a young age.

In a completely unprovoked attack, Choudhri and Alhadidi were killed. Their assailants were described as a “gang of white youths”. Nothing about this incident surprised us as kids at the time. We were all aware of the horribly termed “Paki bashing” of young British Asians in the 1970s and that these crimes appeared to be consequence-free for the perpetrators.

On the 14 July in the middle of the riots, The Sun tabloid newspaper interviewed a 17-year-old skinhead from Battersea in south London called Steve Viney. His chilling words are a very accurate summation of what we assumed was the mental process of the average skinhead.

He began by professing his hatred of “blacks and queers”. He then rattled off a victimhood narrative where at 13 he had been mugged by a black guy while when he had long hair, he was “approached by queers”. There’s no suggestion that he had ever committed a very serious crime, but he openly described his relationship with British Asian youth:

“I hate Asians – Pakis and Indians. Don’t know why. We chase them and bash them up. It just gives you a bit of a kick when you’re drunk. You don’t touch West Indians because they can get violent, they carry knives and that. But Pakis, they just cower a bit.”[3]

He wasn’t a member of the National Front or British Movement but supported them. However, he had fought alongside black youth at the 1981 Brixton riots and thought the violence on the streets that year was more about unemployment than race.

He also disliked Margaret Thatcher for having put people out of work. In short, the primary grievance he felt was economic exclusion, but the target of his anger was young Asians. And that violence meted out by his fists and boots seemed to be more of a cheap, drunken thrill than to make a bigger statement.

Already at the end of the 1960s, opinions began to diverge within the British Asian communities on how to counter the all too prevalent racism they faced. Organisations like the Pakistani Welfare Association (PWA) and the National Federation of Pakistani Associations (NFPA) strove to tackle the problem through race relations officials and political channels as well as trying to repair police-community relations.[4]

But others wanted to overturn the image of British Asians as passive and compliant.[5] They were influenced by the Black Power movement and other socialist groups as well as the Pakistani Progressive Party (PPP) and the Pakistani Workers’ Union (PWU).[6] Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 and the rise in the electoral fortunes of the National Front in the 1970s necessitated a different approach in their view.

It’s hard to imagine how de-humanised people from the Indian sub-continent often were by racists in the 1970s. I’m blessed or cursed with an elephantine memory and remember several illustrative incidents. At junior school in about 1973, a very clipped posh white kid was horrified when an Asian pupil kicked him after being racially taunted in the playground. The white kid wheeled round to the rest of us, crimson faced:

“Did you see what that paki just did?”

He was incredulous that an Asian Briton would dare to lash out. In another incident at secondary school, a fellow Asian student who was painfully shy didn’t turn up one day to a French class. Our school-bully-in-residence loudly enquired if anybody knew where he was, as if he seriously gave a damn. And to my disappointment, the teacher, who I assumed up to that point to be a lefty like me, commented with a sly grin:

“Probably having a shit in the assembly hall.”

Forty years after the grim scene on the motorway underpass in South Woodford, I read about a young Asian Briton called Suresh Grover who came across what he described as a “pool of blood” on the pavement in Southall, west London in June 1976.[7] It was a sight that would have a dramatic impact on his political outlook.

Suresh’s father was a Kenyan Asian who had left newly independent Kenya in the 1960s after a policy of ‘Africanisation’ made it difficult for Asians to remain[8]. Uganda went one step further in 1972 under its mercurial dictator Idi Amin and formally expelled its Asian population.[9]. These two waves of Asian migration to the ‘mother country’ were exploited to great effect by neo-fascist, racist and far Right groups throughout the 1970s[10].

Suresh Grover left his hometown of Nelson, Lancashire to live in London. One reason was the arrival in Nelson of skinheads in 1973, which had led to him being stabbed by a gang. According to Suresh, no incident report or statement was taken at the police station and there was no follow up to investigate the crime. His father refused to believe at first that an English white boy could have done such a thing, saying it must have been a Muslim as they were a Hindu family. This was a throwback to his father’s memories of the inter-communal bloodbath after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Suresh found himself looking at the pool of blood in Southall, a suburb of London with a large Asian population, and asking a police officer what had happened. Suresh says the police officer was dismissive remarking that it was “just an Asian”. Furious at the officer’s attitude, he built a shrine of sorts at the spot with bricks and a cloth to cover the blood.

The victim in this case was an eighteen-year-old student called Gurdip Singh Chaggar. His death would lead to a large protest that year but also a chain of events and developments leading to major riots in 1979 and 1981 that would make Southall headline news. Two trends would make a clash inevitable. A growing determination by Asian Britons to protect themselves and a movement of the far Right into the skinhead scene looking for white working-class recruits.

I should make it clear at this point to older readers that I understand completely that “skinhead” is not synonymous with “fascist”. The 1960s skinhead scene was aware of its cultural debt to Jamaica in terms of clothes and music. And I have met many skinheads today who are vehemently anti-racist. But facts are stubborn things and from the 1970s (and arguably before), there was a growing and regrettable overlap between violent extreme Right groups and a significant proportion of skinheads.

In my 1970s archive, I found a copy of the local newspaper from where I grew up in the London Borough of Redbridge. It dates from 3 November 1978. Redbridge is the outermost of a group of boroughs that cover east London from the river Thames to the boundary with Essex. There was a large Jewish population in Redbridge in the 1970s but also a growing Asian population that was moving out of inner London boroughs like Tower Hamlets.

The front page of the Redbridge Guardian and Independent led with the story: “Skinhead Attack in Park”[11]. A 14-year-old boy was the victim of a “ferocious skinhead attack” where he had been punched to the ground hit around the face. The assailants were described as “thin” and aged 18.

One had ginger hair and freckles while the other “had black hair and wore crossover braces and black boots”. The 14-year-old victim’s name was Misbaul Islam. A week before, there had been an attack on a couple in the same area witnessed by about 40 people, the newspaper reported. None of them called for help.

A spokesperson for the borough’s Community Relations Council noted that “these attacks seem to be occurring with increasing frequency”.[12] Directly below the article, a brief news item pointed out that the Conservative majority on the local council was sticking to its decision to axe the entire grant to the aforementioned Community Relations Council.

Turn to page 5 and the lead story was: “Campaign Acts to help frightened Asians”.[13] It’s a headline to note because the anti-racist actions of both liberals and socialists often had the sense of being largesse distributed from good people to the oppressed. As opposed to the oppressed having some agency in their own liberation. The article reported that the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) was taking action in response to a “vast sticker campaign” by racists.

This use of old-fashioned, pre-digital stickers to intimidate is still a favoured tactic of the extreme Right. In recent years, the now proscribed neo-Nazi National Action group would drench areas with messages like “White Zone” and “Britain is ours the rest must go”. Two NA members were jailed in 2017 for stickering Aston University.[14]

In February 1978, the National Front intended to march through Ilford, which outraged both my Jewish friends at school and the local Asian community. To do my bit aged 14, still remembering the grim scene I’d witnessed at the motorway underpass, I wrote to the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees asking for the march to be banned.

I was informed in a surprisingly lengthy response that a ban was the responsibility of the Commissioner of Police and the “Home Secretary cannot ban processions unless the Commissioner first decides that a ban is necessary and seeks his consent”[15].  So, it rested with the police and not the civilian authority to decide if fascists and racists could march on the streets or hold public meetings.

It would be the refusal to act against a National Front meeting and march in Southall on St George’s Day that would lead to violent unrest in 1979. Legally, the National Front was perfectly entitled to hold that meeting.

After being contacted by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Prime Minister James Callaghan, in his last months in office, said it would require a change in the law to stop the NF meeting. Both the local Labour Party and Ealing Council echoed Callaghan’s view.[16] They might have rued their decision in the rioting that followed.

[1] Goodfellow, Maya, ‘Hostile Environment: How Immigrants became Scapegoats’, Verso Books, 2019

[2] Virdee, Satnam, ‘Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider’, Red Globe Press, 2014

[3] ‘Bashing up Pakis gives you a kick’, The Sun, 14 July 1981

[4] Ashe, Stephen, Virdee, Satnam, Brown, Laurence, ‘Striking back against racist violence in the East End of London, 1968-1970’, Race & Class, July 2016 Web

[5] Hiro, Dilip, ‘Black British: White British’, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971

[6] Ibid: ‘Striking back against racist violence in the East End of London, 1968-1970’

[7] Puri, Kavita, ‘The pool of blood that changed my life’, BBC News, 5 August 2015

[8] Vandenberg, Paul, ‘The African-Asian Divide: Analyzing Institutions and Accumulation in Kenya’, Routledge, 2013

[9] Munnion, Christopher, ‘The African who kicked out the Asians’, The New York Times, 12 November 1972

[10] Taylor, Becky, ‘Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 85, 2018, pp. 120-141

[11] ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’, Redbridge Guardian and Independent, 3 November 1978

[12] Ibid: ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’

[13] Ibid: ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’

[14] ‘Neo-Nazis jailed for posting racist stickers at university’, CPS, Web

[15] Letter from the Home Office to the author, 2 March 1978

[16] ‘Southall riots: 23 April 1979’, ealingnewsextra, April 2019, Web

1 thought on “What motivated skinhead attacks in the 70s?

Leave a Reply