Have you ever heard of the Battle of Cable Street? In 1936 British fascists, inspired by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, announced they were going to march through a primarily Jewish part of London’s East End. Roughly 100,000 residents petitioned Home Secretary John Simon to disallow the march because they were afraid that it would encourage the fascists as well as lead to violence in the streets. When Simon refused, the people took matters into their own hands.
On October 4 , 3,000 of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists gathered in a park with the intent of marching through the East End. To their dismay, over 20,000 Jews, Irish, dockworkers, communists, anarchists, socialists and others, barricaded the march route and chanted the refrain “They Shall Not Pass”. When the cops – many of whom were fascist sympathizers – tried to disperse the crowd to allow the fascists to march, the anti-fascist protestors said “What part of ‘They Shall Not Pass’ didn’t you understand?” What followed was a street battle between the cops and the anti-fascist protestors where even old ladies threw the contents of their chamber pots out their windows onto the cops below.
The end result was that the British Union of Fascists didn’t march. They got shut down by the overwhelming disgust that regular people had towards their reprehensible ideology. Jews and their neighbors stood together to fight against fascism and anti-Semitism. The Battle of Cable Street was a blow to the fascist movement in the UK and helped stop it from gaining wider acceptance.
I love this story! I love it so much that I’m planning to throw a party on October 4 in honor of The Battle of Cable Street. I’m still working out the details.
Beyond being a great historical tale about beating fascism, the story of the Battle of Cable Street has many important parallels to today.
Since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent victory there has been a sharp uptick in far right activity. Having someone in the Oval Office who says racists things and retweets actual fascist quotes, has emboldened racists and fascists to come out of their hidey-holes and publicly spew their vile ideas. I’m incredibly proud of how the Bay Area reacted when these people tried to march in San Francisco and Berkeley in 2017. Just like the anti-fascists on Cable Street, we came out en legion to say “Oh hell no! You’re not marching in our cities!” Tens of thousands of us took to the streets, and just like the British Union of Fascists did in 1936, the white supremacists who tried to march here dissipated. It’s not that they didn’t pass, they didn’t even show up.
There’s a lesson here. We cannot tolerate intolerance. As philosopher Karl Popper said in his Paradox of Tolerance “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This is exactly what happened in Germany in the 1930s. By refusing to shut them down in the streets, the other political parties allowed the Nazi’s to consolidate their power and grow their following. We know how that ended.
I’m inspired right now by something that happened recently in Tennessee, and it ties in perfectly with all of this. On Monday ICE showed up in a town near Nashville called Hermitage with the intention of taking an undocumented man into custody. They tried to pull him over in his van and then blocked his vehicle from leaving when he pulled up to a house. The driver called immigrants rights advocates and neighbors, who sallied forth to defend him, ultimately forming a human chain around the man and his son. This allowed them to get into the safety of a house and later allowed them to get in a car and drive away.
As it said in the CNN article “ICE officers chose to depart the scene today without making an arrest to de-escalate the situation.”
If we’ve learned anything from the Battle of Cable Street and the direct action that saved the man and his son in Tennessee, it’s that there are more of us than there are of them. And just because something is “legal” doesn’t make it right. We have a duty to protect ourselves and our neighbors. And when we do so, we win.
These are harrowing times and often it feels like the bad guys keep scoring points. But we will persevere because we don’t have a choice. We know what happens when we don’t stand up to fascists, and we know what happens when we do. We must defend our tolerant society from intolerance, and to do that we have to be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with those being preyed upon by the armies of intolerance. Even if they wear government clothing. Even if it makes us scared.
So do your neighbors a favor and google “What to do when ICE arrive” and prepare yourself. Because if you don’t stand up when they come for your neighbor this time, who’s gonna stand up when they for you next time?
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him atBrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing: http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His guest column, Broke-Ass City, runs Thursdays in the Examiner.