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Pepper to throw at fascists: the forgotten women of Cable Street

As we commemorate the Battle of Cable Street, it's important to recognise the role women played – and their legacy today.

It's the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, an event often characterized by the dramatic photograph of a young woman demonstrator being dragged along an east London street by three policemen. Yet the role of women in this historic protest is often ignored in stories of the day, and is still in danger of being forgotten.

For British Jews, the fight on 4 October 1936, to stop the British Union of Fascists marching through the streets of Stepney, was a watershed. It was not only a collective fightback against months of intimidation and violence in the neighbourhood where Jews had lived for decades. It was also a brazen act of defiance against the established West End Jewish leadership, who had banned attendance at public demonstrations, by a younger, more militant generation of Jews. But even though women played an active part in the demonstration itself and an essential part in building the local solidarity that made it victorious, they are often left out of the story.

By 1936, young working-class women and girls from immigrant families had long been regarded by Jewish philanthropists as a particular danger to the respectability of the communal public image. In the East End, middle-class Jewish youth workers were acutely aware of the lingering aura of Victorian anti-Semitism, which linked immigrant Jews with prostitution. It was clearly with this in mind that, in 1936, they issued Jewish teenage girls in Stepney with the stern warning not only “to avoid taking part in, or being in any way associated with rowdy street meetings” but also to keep fit, “abstain from loitering the streets at night”, “reject extremes of fashion” and “refrain from excessive painting of the face and dyeing of the hair”.

The idea that fascism would go away if only Jews kept a lower profile was, however, hopelessly out of touch with events unfolding in the East End. Wiping off their lipstick did not protect women from street attacks by fascists – nor were women exempt from police brutality at the Battle of Cable Street. In fact, Jewish women were energetically involved in anti-fascist activism leading up to the Battle, from heckling and selling campaign literature at Blackshirt speaker meetings, to whitewashing walls with anti-fascist slogans and street fighting. At Cable Street, women were not only behind the barricades but also above them. When police tried to clear the road, women standing at the windows of the tenements threw missiles on them, and when they fled into nearby sheds, women came down from the buildings and chased them out.

Angela Davis' mother Millie was only 17 when she disobeyed her religious father and legged it with her two older sisters down to Aldgate where the crowd was gathering to protest. “The girls all went out with pepper pots in their coat pockets to throw pepper into the faces of the fascists,” Angela says, “they were all prepared to literally do battle with them. They wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the dockers – working people the same as they all were, and socialists.”

The display at Cable Street of unity across religious, sectarian and ideological differences has been the subject of celebration and nostalgia ever since. But it would not have come about without a much longer local history of collaboration among Jewish and gentile political activists, often involving female leadership. In 1912, for example, during a long-running dock strike, support for the dockers’ families was co-ordinated by two young Jewish anarchist women, Nelly Ploshansky and Millie Sabelinsky.

They persuaded local Jewish retailers to donate clothes and shoes, and working-class Jewish families took in the children of their neighbours. Describing the five who came to stay with her family, Nelly said: "I must have been about 15 at the time, and we had to take care of the children of the dockers because there was nothing for them to eat. And so we organised and took these children and spread them out among all the comrades that we knew, and they stayed with them until the strike was over, and then they went home. That was one way of helping.”

Throughout the 1930s, too, women activists participated in contesting illegal or exploitative practices by East End slumlords. The Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, spearheaded by the Communist Party, hoped to address local anxieties about housing that the BUF was manipulating to garner support. They formed tenants’ committees – frequently all-women, with Jewish and non-Jewish women working together – and women organised demonstrations, rent strikes, pickets, fundraising parties and parades. They met with resounding success, both as housing campaigners and as community-builders.

In 2016, as so many times previously, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street feels timely. Once again the nation is fractured, vulnerable and intolerant, with uncertainties about employment and housing expressed in overt hostility to migrants. But reflecting on that extraordinary moment of solidarity in October 1936 need not just be an exercise in nostalgia. East London today, a vortex of gentrification, austerity and social exclusion, is also experiencing a renaissance of grassroots protest that carries forward the legacy of Cable Street. The creative resourcefulness of feminist groups like Focus E15 and Sisters Uncut is markedly reminiscent of anarchist and socialist activists in the early twentieth century, who understood locality as the place where social divisions could be challenged and overcome.

Nadia Valman is Reader in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London where she teaches nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, researches the history and culture of the East End of London and leads walking tours.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.