I was fifteen years old when he died. I don’t think I had even met him, but I might have. We had participated in the same demonstrations. We had shared the same political agenda. Yet I took his death hard and it left its mark on me to this day.
Blair Peach and many other Englishmen and women were demonstrating against the unthinkable. Not even four decades had passed before Hitler’s Nazi army were massing on the Normandy shores to invade Britain, not forty years since six million of my people, a third of all the Jews on earth, had been murdered in the Holocaust.
And now the British National Party (might have still been called the National Front) was making alarming gains in local elections. As they marched through immigrant neighborhoods, many of us swelled the ranks of the Anti-Nazi League.
I had been brought up to trust the police. “If you get lost,” my mother drilled into me, “find a policeman. He’ll help you.” The neighborhood bobby was still a British value.
And yet, as I stood in the demonstration, preventing the Nazis from marching, the police charged us. I will never forget the one who punched me in the face. I had learned early to duck and weave. My school wasn’t in the nicest neighborhood and I was Jewish, with friends who were black, Asian and Irish. I just never expected a policeman to pop one at me without cause and then look on with no apology. To this day, I fear the uniform.
But Blair Peach, a man who had dedicated himself to teaching kids in a public school for children with special needs was not so lucky. On April 2nd, 1979, he was pulled from the demonstration by members of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, and beaten unconscious. He never woke and died 24 hours later. The next day, over 10,000 of us took to the streets. Disband the SPG (Special Patrol Group) became our mantra. A huge cover up ensued. SPG members shaved their hair, mustaches and every uniform was laundered the next day before any evidence could be found. Many SPG officers, however, were members of the Nazi Party and used unauthorized weapons such as baseball bats, crowbars, and sledgehammers. No apology was ever given, no one brought to trial for police brutality.
I share this as the police patrol the streets of Cairo. I vividly remember an US army officer, flown in to take charge of the army in New Orleans after Katrina, yelling at his troops to put their weapons down. “We don’t turn them on our own citizens,” he barked.
A police officer, a soldier, like any one else has the right to defend him/herself when their safety is threatened. There is no other justification to use violence on anybody.
Blair Peach should be thinking of retirement right now, at the end of a distinguished career, giving four decades of himself to his students. They were denied him, his family were denied him and the police brutality that killed him is still being denied.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com