People power that beat the fascists who took a wrong turning

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On the morning of 4 October 1936, Kathleen and Alice Pingel-Holmes, dressed in their Sunday best, began erecting a barricade in Cable Street in an attempt to stop Sir Oswald Mosley and his 4,000 Blackshirts marching through London's East End. Breaking into a nearby builders' yard, they dragged out bricks, ladders and planks of wood and positioned them across the road. Within minutes mounted police had arrived, raised their batons and then charged at the resolute mob. The infamous Battle of Cable Street had begun. It was not until later in the afternoon that the commissioner of police told Mosley that his officers had failed to clear a path through more than 100,000 protesters and that he would have to tell his fascist troops to go home.

Yesterday, the two sisters, now in their seventies and early eighties, recalled the day with a mixture of pride and disdain. "The police were very cruel and brutal that day and there were a lot of injuries," said Alice, 81, speaking at a march and rally organised by Tower Hamlets Trades Council to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle.

She said: "The police just charged at us with their batons swinging, cutting people down in their path. I've got this very vivid image of a man who used to ride around the East End in a cart selling winkles - he was picking up the wounded and ferrying them to the local hospital. There was this terrific feeling of comradeship. We, the dockers, the Irish, the Jews, whoever, were stopping the fascists from marching on the East End."

The resistance to Mosley that day had been organised mainly by the communists, with the Independent Labour Party and various Jewish organisations, but joining in the battle were tens of thousands of local people determined to defend the East End from the onslaught of fascism.

"It wasn't a question of politics at all," said Alice, "it was the people who simply were not going to have the fascists march on their territory." As the police charged, the East Enders threw bottles, stones, chair-legs and even marbles into the paths of the approaching horses. One veteran said he even saw men lobbing balls of barbed wire at the police. Chalked on the pavements was the famous phrase the resistance had adopted - "They shall not pass" - translated from the slogan "no pasaran" of the republican Spanish who began the defence of Madrid against General Franco that day.

Standing on the steps of St George's Town Hall in Cable Street yesterday was Labour's home affairs spokesperson, Jack Shaw, one of 150 people arrested and taken to Leman Street police station for questioning that day 60 years ago. Jack, 79, a former machinist, returned to his home near Commercial Road a bruised and battered man after being given what he calls a "thorough hiding" by plain-clothed police.

Yesterday's march was also a pledge by local residents, trade unionists and anti-racist groups to stand up to Mosley's political successors. With continuing racist attacks in the area and talk of the British National Partyputting up 50 candidates in Bromley Bow, Stepney, Whitechapel and other parts of Tower Hamlets in the coming general election, many feel they may once again have to battle against the extreme right.

As one Cable Street veteran put it: "The similarity between the plight of the Jews in the 1930s and the attacks today on the Asian community here, is all too close to home.