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Remembering and reflecting on the 'Battle of Lewisham' in August 1977, when a mobilisation by the far-right National Front in South East London was met by mass opposition. A series of events to mark the 30th anniversary. Contact lewisham77@gmail.com

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Policing in Lewisham '77

The approach taken by the Metropolitan Police at Lewisham was controversial at the time. In this extract from a book edited by Peter Hain (now of course a cabinet minister), it is suggested that the head of the Met, David McNee, pursued a course of deliberate confrontation:

… in August 1977, there was a major battle on the streets of Lewisham in South East London, caused chiefly by the policies that McNee had adopted in 'dealing' with the Grunwick pickets - a strategy of confronting opposition directly and with the necessary force to break it up. The issue here was whether or not the National Front should be allowed to march through an area of London with a high proportion of West Indian residents. Although they denied it at the time the police had in the past taken the initiative in re-routing such marches to avoid confrontation. For instance, in Leicester in 1974 the police banned the Front from going anywhere near the main Asian Communities. Yet at Lewisham they ignored calls made by most of the national press, the local press, the local council, the TUC and the Labour Party for the march to be re routed or banned altogether.

What McNee and his senior officers had effectively set up was a confrontation with the black community, in particular black youth, and anti-National Front demonstrators. The NF march was tiny, demoralized, and was repeatedly attacked by demonstrators breaking through the police line until the police were forced to re-route it, and finally to bring it to an abrupt end. But it was only after the demonstration was over that the police attack was launched, with riot shields and Special Patrol Group vans driving at top speed towards groups of demonstrators, and repeated charges on foot and horseback. The violence of those clashes caused a national furore; that and the use of riot shields led some commentators to speculate on the need for a paramilitary force. The riot shields appeared again at the Notting Hill Carnival later that month.

After Lewisham the Police Federation called for a ban on all demonstrations 'likely to lead to public disorder'. McNee opposed this with the equivocal logic that it would draw the police into 'making political judgments outside the framework of the law' since 'My powers under the Public Order Act are limited to imposing controls on, or banning processions', and 'They do not extend to banning other forms of public demonstrations at which widespread disorder could be deliberately provoked'. This was an extraordinary interpretation of the Act, under which McNee was fully equipped with the power to ban any demonstration likely to lead to 'serious public disorder' (See 5.3(1) of the Act).

This tends to give credence to the theory that the police explicitly decided upon a confrontation strategy at Lewisham, the consequence of a political decision by the police, as McNee put it 'to uphold the rule of law on the streets of London - by the use of lawful force if necessary ...'. It is significant that the Association of Chief Police Officers stated, in September 1977, that 'the police can no longer prevent public disorder in the streets' and called for a 'new Public Order Act giving the police stronger power to control marches and demonstrations, similar to police powers in Ulster.' It seems that McNee felt some pressure to quash speculation over the role of the police that followed Lewisham. When his first annual report was published, he told the Press 'that the shortcomings of the traditional helmet were evident during the disturbances' (at Lewisham and Notting Hill). Defensive equipment was used reluctantly 'and I stress that it does not mean we have foresaken traditional methods of policing demonstrations.'

Yet the police went to Lewisham fully prepared for a riot. Nearly two years later they adopted the same strategy in Southall. In both Lewisham and Southall the black community, West Indian and Asian, took to the streets in opposition to the National Front and found themselves confronted by an aggressive police operation, with the SPG at its centre. It would be naive to accept at face value the police's explanation of why the National Front are permitted to carry out such activities as marches and meetings in the very heart of communities they consistently and viciously insult and attack. The police were fully aware of the level of opposition the National Front would meet in Lewisham and Southall. Were confrontations like these deliberately planned or prepared for in order to train the riot police of the future; and to train them on the most alienated section of society — black youth?

Back in May 1971 the Special Patrol Group raided the Metro, a black youth club in Notting Hill, on the pretext that a 'wanted' youth had entered the premises. In the course of the raid sixteen youths were arrested, charged with affray, and all subsequently acquitted. The raid provoked this response from Rudy Nayaran, Vice-Chairman of the Lambeth Council for Community Relations:

'The Special Patrol Group, of course, are the nomad commandos of the Met and move into an area, anywhere, anytime, with no relationship of loyalty themselves to the local community - they therefore descend in a cloud of smoke, do their worst with as much arrogance and contempt as they think fit and leave in their wake the local officers to pick up the pieces. In the Metro Case the SPG descended to seek out, find and destroy one black boy with one piece of stick! The fact that there were no armoured cars or flame throwers owes more to the lack of supplies, than to lack of desire to smoke out the Blacks in what, for waste of police time and manpower and sheer hooligan destruction of community goodwill, must rank in the Met's history as the greatest monument to arrogance and racialism of all time. The new Commissioner of Police clearly has a role to play in immediately reviewing the function and operational role of the SPG'.

The Metro raid followed the pattern of police raids on black clubs and restaurants since the mid-sixties in Notting Hill. In 1972 the National Council for Civil Liberties stated in its evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations:

'We would be failing in our duty if we omitted to convey our considered opinion that the worsening situation between the police and the black community is very serious indeed ... A significant and vocal section of the black community feels it is being harshly treated by the police and that there is little justice when their cases come to court. It feels that more violence is used against black people by policemen than would be used against white people. It feels that their homes are walked into by policemen with a temerity which would not be tried on the white community. It feels that charges preferred against them when they are in trouble are usually of a more serious nature than a white person would receive ... Even if the black community is wrong in these beliefs they are nevertheless widely and sincerely held. Our view is that there is some justification for them' .

Source: Joanna Rollo, 'The Special Patrol Group' in Policing the Police, volumed two, edited by Peter Hain (London: John Calder, 1980), p.184-187 .

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