Newham, London: The Newham 8, police racism and community action

A big group of school students stand outside a court building, some are shouting and some carry protest banners.
  School students picket outside the Old Bailey during the six week trial of the Newham 8. Courtesy of Ilona Aronovsky

When

1980 – 1983

Where

Newham, London

Racist harrassment and violence was a fact of life for Newham’s Asians in the 1970s and 1980s. The issue came to a head in 1980 when a young man, Akhtar Ali Baig, was killed during a random attack by white teenagers.

The murder sparked angry protests from the Asian community and activists set up a new organisation, the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) to confront the authorities about racism.

A black and white image of a huge crowd of people walking along a wide street at a protest. Many carry large banners.
Mass demonstration following the murder of Akhtar Ali Baig. Courtesy of Andrew Wiard

I lived most of my life as a youth [in Canning Town] in fear. You couldn’t go to sleep at night because you had youth running up and down the road with the Union Jack and every now and then you’d know that some poor Asian family’s had its window smashed.

Adbul Karim, school student

As a schoolchild, Goga Khan was taken on the massive demonstration protesting Baig’s murder. Two years later, in September 1982, when he was just 15, a group of white males barged into his school’s playground, hitting, punching and shouting racist abuse at the children. One of the gang ran at Goga, and he hit him back. The racists got the worst of the fight that ensued. A week later, Goga was arrested in his classroom and taken to Forest Gate police station.

Goga was released, but word got around that the gang were coming back for revenge.

‘You guys just beat up police officers, you’re in big trouble, you’re going to go to prison’. That’s when we realised, these guys that attacked us, they was police officers!

Goga Khan, member of the Newham 8

Due to these rumours Goga and a group of friends had decided to escort younger children home safely. A car screeched up beside them. Three men jumped out and began attacking members of the group. Some of Goga’s friends ran off, but others fought back.  Then a police van arrived and arrested Goga and seven others – Rana, Indy, Raja, Mat, Punkaj, Bop and Gurj.

At Forest Gate police station, the group were charged with affray and actual bodily harm to their attackers – police officers, a fact they discovered only on arrival at the station.

The arrested group became known as the Newham 8. Word spread quickly and the Asian community rallied behind them. NMP, Stardust Youth Club, local politicians and teachers were all involved in the campaign to support the Newham 8. Stardust Club was essential in mobilising young people and providing a space to plan their support and action.

The young people decided a school student strike and a picket at West Ham Magistrates Court would demonstrate their anger and strength of feeling. The date was set for the day of the Newham 8’s committal hearing – 5th November 1982.

Black text on a white background title reads “Racist attacks damage education! All out on November 5th…”
Clipping taken from a Newham 8 campaign leaflet written by Newham teachers supportive of the student strike.

The Director of Education said people fomenting a strike were damaging children’s education, so we retaliated with ‘Racist attacks damage education’ on the strike leaflet.

Ilona Aronovsky, Newham teacher
Newspaper cutting showing an image of people handing out leaflets outside a school. Text surrounds the image accompanied with the headline ‘Teachers rap plans for pupil strike”.
Cutting from the Newham Recorder, Thursday 4 November 1982.
© Newham Recorder, courtesy of Ilona Aronovsky

When the day came, hundreds of striking Newham pupils and adults joined the court picket.

When the 8’s case was heard at the Old Bailey a year later, students went on strike again. During the Old Bailey trial hundreds were outside the court protesting daily with banners and placards. Support for the campaign came from across the country, particularly from Asian and black youth and community groups and antiracist movements – all coordinated by the NMP.

A big group of school students stand outside a court building, some are shouting and some carry protest banners.
School students picket outside the Old Bailey during the six week trial of the Newham 8.
Courtesy of Ilona Aronovsky
A big group of school students stand outside a court building, some are shouting and some carry protest banners.
School students picket outside the Old Bailey during the six week trial of the Newham 8. Courtesy of Ilona Aronovsky

The judge accepted that the eight had acted in self-defence. Goga and three others were found not guilty, the other four were found guilty of affray – the actual sentence was 50 hours community service at Stardust!

Despite this victory for the eight, nothing happened to the police who had been exposed in court for carrying out the attack. However, the case (and that of the Newham 7 the following year) played an important part in inspiring community campaigns across the country to challenge the racism of the police force and made the issue national news.

Things were now changing. Young people were not going to take it lying down, they were going to confront this. With the support of activists it became quite high profile.

Satnam Singh, Newham teacher and Stardust youth worker

Watch the film – Interview with Goga Khan

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