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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, 21 May 2010
A chilly damp grey day greeted us as we travelled down to Lewisham. Only a couple of us diehards were making the morning journey to the trade union, soft left counter-demonstration, hoping somehow that we might succeed in diverting a few people to New Cross. That’s where we’d need thousands to block the road, hold back the cops, then launch an all out attack on the Front. Halfway to Lewisham the streets appeared remarkably empty, the omnipresent police vehicles aside. Miserable weather seemed to have dampened people’s enthusiasm, the usual crackling tension was strangely absent. Still, it was early, any action would be later in the day. So we walked briskly to the park where the counter-demo was assembling, its stewards busily plotting the most direct route away from the nazi gathering and any worthwhile action. A small bottle of brandy had been acquired, just a little something to banish the morning chill, to help energise. I usually adhered to a strict rule of never going into aggro unless completely straight, no blur; adrenaline providing me with buzz enough. And anyhow, you can get as pissed or zonked as you like later. But on so cold a morning, a couple of neat gulps didn’t go amiss.
A reasonable number had assembled for the counter-demo. Our instincts told us that a fair few of these were out for confrontation, and had come here mistakenly thinking that the demo would be heading up to New Cross. We hastily conferred, arriving at a decision to join the demo if necessary, and try to divert it up to New Cross. With five thousand police on duty we’d need as many bodies as possible. A determined group of about fifty of us gathered, most of whom I’d met on previous occasions, including some from the SWP who’d sensibly dumped their comics to keep their hands free for action. Gauging the reactions of those we’d already agitated, we concluded that substantial sections of the crowd were up for major aggro. The idea developed to seize the initiative as soon as the demo left the park. We’d split off, taking a sizeable chunk with us. Lacking a loudhailer for communication, it became a case of circulate, mingle, verbalise, persuade. Not that we needed to do much of that. The mood of most, party and union hacks aside, was business-like: this was the opportunity to finally get to grips with the nazis rather than echo empty chants down empty streets, to really do it in a set-piece confrontation. “We’re gonna ‘ave ‘em, and now!” was a fair summary of the general feeling.
Finally the demo, now several thousand strong, left the park, headed by local notables in suits and, leading his flock, an ecclesiastical gentleman in all his gear, mitre included. “It’s da bishop!” joked one character, drawing laughter from our subversive throng. As soon as we hit the road we swung into action urging people up to New Cross. “The time for marches is over! Let’s go occupy the road up at New Cross!” “Nazi scum this way!” pointing in a general direction up the hill. Most responded immediately, whilst only a couple of years earlier we’d have been rebuffed by the vast majority. But things had now changed, people were eager to get stuck in. The demo was poorly policed – they obviously hadn’t expected trouble from this quarter – whilst stewards were virtually non-existent. An ideal scenario. Pavements and road were crowded with people ready for the journey to New Cross, so without further dawdling, off we moved. We probably numbered well over a thousand. Still, no cops, except for a handful in the distance, frantically radioing-in reports of the unexpected mob headed for New Cross. Inevitably a hastily formed line of uniforms appeared, impeding progress. Us instigators halted. Some wanted to smash straight through, and although there were only about a hundred cops it would have damaged our momentum. So we decided to ignore them, swerving right down a side street, a slight diversion. The police, orders not forthcoming, couldn’t up sticks and pursue us, so discipline in order they stood like a row of dummies as we all vanished elsewhere. Over the heads of the reception committee a police helicopter clattered impotently as we surged through the streets, ready for anything. Apart from anti-fascists, the streets were deserted. We’d outmanoeuvred the authorities so far and it looked like we’d be able to occupy New Cross Road with or without reinforcements. We took a short cut, running full pelt to the meeting point. A couple of thousand had already gathered, surrounded by police, but not to heavily to discourage an occupation of the road. I rushed up to my mob, which was now about three hundred strong. Breathless, gasping for air, I spluttered, “I know it sounds like bullshit, but…”
“Where the fuck have you been?” someone from the previous evening demanded.
True, I had solemnly promised to arrive early. “But,” I continued after a well-earned swig from the brandy bottle, pointing up to the chopper, “There’s well over a thousand on their way to occupy the road.” Then, with some sarcasm, “And what are you lot doing standing around here on the pavement? Why aren’t you on the road, blocking it?”
A moment later, right on cue, the cavalry arrived, filling the road. Some had mysteriously acquired weapons; chunks of wood ripped from fences, iron bars from demolished gates, even dustbin lids. The pavement protesters needed no further cajoling, brushing aside disintegrating police lines to take the road, merging with the arriving mob. Rain steadily drizzled but no-one cared. The cops, fearful of being surrounded and attacked withdrew, forming a larger cordon outside the mass. We were all buzzing now, elated that we’d taken the street with such minimal effort. But this was only a beginning. The real work lay ahead. Holding our ground, then kicking, bricking and fighting our way through police lines to give the nazis what was coming to them.
Folk were pouring into New Cross including many black people and youngsters. The crowd in the road swelled as the pavements overflowed. The three hundred or so anarchists with their black flags and banners lent the scene particular visual appeal for me. Most of them were up for real aggro, as were the majority of the crowd who struggled with the lines of police now several deep who fought in turn to contain the still growing crowd. Placards flew through the air, raining down on the police without causing any damage. With a couple of trusted mates I weaved my way up to the front line armed with a thick lump of wood. The crowds were now dense and movement was slow. Truncheons were out, the cops giving as good as they got. One of the bastards tried to crack me over the head, he hadn’t seen I was tooled up. I lashed out at him, catching him on the side of the head. As he staggered back, more surprised than hurt, I felt a surge of pure joy and satisfaction. A couple of enraged cops tried to haul me out, but couldn’t make any progress due to the sheer pressure of the crowd. They weren’t too pleased though, so one struck a man on the noggin as recompense. Just someone who was trapped there, unable to move. I was close enough to hear the truncheon make contact, a distinctive sound like a wooden ball hitting a coconut at the fun fair. Reason deserted me for a few blind moments as I tried to lunge forward, have it out with the filth. Very stupid of me, considering the day’s entertainment was only just beginning and I was intending to see it through to its final curtain. In the event, it proved impossible to brawl with the cops as the ebb and flow of the crowd pushed me sideways. So I returned to the horde, most of whom were well prepared for the fray. Stout clubs made of chair legs, broken banner poles, bits of fencing, bottles, the odd half brick or two. It was the revival of a great British tradition, all the implements of a Saturday afternoon riot. And we were well hyped up, certainly this was the biggun. The whole crowd was now raring to go as even more filth appeared in a vain attempt to contain the mob. City of London cops with their distinctive helmets joined the throng, struggling to hold us back with their hard-pressed colleagues. Rain began to fall again, but spirits weren’t going to be so easily dampened, the grey skies now adding to the drama, set off by a backdrop of crumbling cinemas, dance venues, grimy pubs, boarded-up shop fronts and tower blocks looming in the distance. Rumours spread like wildfire amidst the chaos and din: thousands were marching up from Brixton to join us; the fascists had bottled it, hadn’t shown up; a thousand nazis were assembled just a couple of streets away; there’d been an anti-asian pogrom on the Isle of Dogs; and that hardy perennial, someone had been killed by the police. All totally impossible to verify one way or another.
In a final effort to clear the road, mounted police were deployed. They trotted their animals, nostrils flaring, right to the edge of the mob who stood solid, resisting all attempts to budge them. Foolishly they succeeded only in pushing most of the crowd close to the point where the nazis were assembling. So far I hadn’t actually seen a single fascist. It was impossible now to gauge crowd numbers. Four, five, six thousand. More? Who knows? With a couple of hundred people, all of us brandishing weapons, I moved to the right of the heaving masses, towards the point where the nazis were long overdue to emerge. Progress was painfully slow until a great roar went up and I could see, surrounded by a thick cordon of police, the pointed flagpoles of the Front moving like masts in the distance. The party was on.
The entire crowd surged forwards and the police lines broke. People just swept by, pushing hundreds of filth aside. The human tide advanced remorselessly, heads bobbing up and down. In the distance, the air became thick with missiles flying into the Front march. Now we’d broken free and were running. Ahead, more police tried in vain to stem the flow. They lashed out at random with their batons, occasionally dragging away some hapless soul plucked from the fringes of the action. Four or five would escort each arrestee: the cops by now probably figuring it better to arrest someone and fuck off back to the station, away from the action than be trampled by the mob. This was no Grunwicks, and they were shitting themselves. We were now right up, parallel to the Front, their police cordon having disintegrated, the pigs thinking now of their own skin. No slogans, no chanting, just thousands of yelling voices, the sound of bottles crashing into nazi ranks, bricks crunching as they thudded into the road, off the sides of buildings, advertising hoardings, boarded up shops. Whole garden walls were demolished in seconds. We charged the Front, this was the long awaited opportunity and we weren’t reluctant to get stuck in. Bricks and bottles raining all around, it was bloody, no holds barred, hand to hand fighting. Although the Fronters looked just like us down to the long hair and combat jackets, some even sporting flares, it was obvious who was who. Flying kicks, punches and the clashing of improvised weaponry filled the space around me.
A nazi leapt out yelling, “COME ON THEN, YOU RED BASTARD!” We struggled, me slamming him with a lump of wood. He relaxed his grip, someone had bashed him on the side of the skull with a brick. He caught many a boot as he hit the deck, my own included. I had that glorious novocaine feeling above my upper lip. Pure adrenaline, pure violence. A punk grabbed my club and disappeared into the nazis wreaking havoc. Everyone without exception was brawling toe to toe, the road strewn with broken glass, bricks, bits of timber. I joined the general mêlée in the centre of the road, propelled by the sheer momentum of it all, from one punch up to another, cutting my fists, getting kicked, booting back. I was struck on the side of my face, a small trickle of blood ran from somewhere near my ear, I didn’t feel a thing however amidst the brick dust and confusion. The police had regrouped, running, batons drawn, to the epicentre of the tempest. Some of us pulled back to the opposite pavement, bombarding those nazis who’d sought shelter in the shop fronts. The deadly hail, mixed with fumes pouring from smoke grenades, ripped into the bastards. There seemed to be plenty of them but they were outnumbered, outclassed, outgunned and outmanoeuvred. We were heaving whole metal dustbins into the Master Race, taking no small pleasure as they clattered into their midst. Many of these Fronters were tough cunts, they stood their ground and traded blows. I was surprised though at how many of these fuckers were middle aged, there didn’t appear to be many youngsters left in their now thinning ranks. By this time most of the nazis had run off to preserve their worthless hides. And after ten more minutes that flashed by like seconds, the Front had dispersed, their tattered remnants heading down Deptford Broadway, bound for Lewisham. The cops too had ceded our portion of New Cross road to the mob, and we were jubilant, celebrating by tearing and burning captured banners. After some whooping and merriment I came to my senses. I’d been punched, kicked and pounded, although after I’d dabbed some of the blood away from my ear I felt fresh and ready for more. Some of us started haranguing the crowd: “Come on, let’s get down to Lewisham! Let’s finish the bastards off!”
So we left the revellers, picking up discarded weapons. Thankfully, I’d retained my brandy bottle and gulped back a refreshing swig. After all, it looked like being a long, exhausting afternoon. The Front had vanished by now, save for a few nursing wounds, and a couple laying sprawled in the gutter where they belonged. Fighting continued to rage on the edges of the impromptu carnival, truncheons were still out as knots of young blacks and asians fought the cops. Normally this would have been an exciting conclusion to the day, well worth getting stuck in, but I felt this was a mere diversion, there was still fun to be had. Not worth getting embroiled. So picking up a few stragglers who were up for more, I by-passed the drama at New Cross, dashing towards Lewisham Way, hoping to make it to the High Street. Others were of a like mind, a steady stream of us drifting downhill. No more police impeded our relentless progress. We were all mega-hyped, armed and dangerous. It’s a steep descent down to the High Street and the panorama unfolded below as we progressed downhill. I pressed ahead, noticing that most of the folk with us now were black and not all of them youngsters. On the other side of the road a dozen beefy middle aged blacks emerged from a minicab firm, some wearing crash helmets, others carrying bin lids like shields. All were tooled up. Things were getting more interesting by the minute.
Arriving at Lewisham High Street, we joined a mob at the clock tower. Despite this being a busy shopping area, apart from anti-nazis the streets were deserted. Only a handful of police could be glimpsed in the distance, leading me to suspect they were concentrating their efforts on protecting the Front march. Possibly the Front were holding their rally, it had been rumoured that their final destination was somewhere in the vicinity. I didn’t fancy standing about all afternoon waiting for the nazis to arrive, so we had to take the initiative before some bright spark lefties decided on another march away from our quarry. In response to the red hot rumour that the Front were holding their rally in a nearby bowling alley, we moved as a body. The mob now consisted of black and white in equal measure, and we were in a mean mood. We swept past stationary police buses, cops seated inside and standing on the pavements helpless as we marched towards our goal. Around the side street adjacent to the bowling alley dozens of police linked arms, keeping us from the exits. Maybe the Front were inside or in the car park. A young black kid threw a brick at a few yards range, he couldn’t miss. A fat sergeant was hit, square on the knee. He crumpled, his leg unable to support his ugly bulk. Middle aged heavy blacks started slapping the youngster down: “Don’t waste ammunition!” I was flush with excitement, remarking, “These guys really mean business!” Armed with half bricks, bottles, assorted offensive weapons, we surged forwards further up, only to run into a blank wall. Shouts went up, “Watch out! Pigs are regrouping! They’re going to trap us!” Sure enough, the uniforms were concentrating near their buses. We had no choice but to retreat the way we came. This meant fighting our way through, and everybody steamed in, bombarding the filth with great gusto. Goodbye brandy bottle as I drained the final drop, lobbing it at the cops. Smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles fell amongst police ranks. Some cops went down, most retreated, others picked up flares and returned fire. We had to move before they gained advantage, so we pushed forward throwing bricks at close range. Cops lashed out blindly through the now swirling smoke, everyone a target as though we were all guilty of violent behaviour, which doubtless most of us were. Some unlucky individuals were arrested if they hesitated. The smoke was choking and I’d already masked up, using a souvenir torn from a banner captured from the Edinburgh NF – and they have the nerve to bang on about ‘outsiders’. I took a few blows as I rushed through the police lines, but it was all perfunctory really as they bounced off my padded jacket. I was soon out of the turmoil, back at the clock tower. What to do now? Most were up for more aggro, and the police – virtually an arm of the Front rather than “workers in blue” as some lefty morons called them – were as good a target as any miserable, stinking nazi. Maybe better. I’d long wanted to take the bastards on properly, like they did everywhere else on the planet. No more of this push-and-shove that the left went in for on their boring, predictable, within-the-bounds demos.
More rumours flew. A mob was attacking the police station. Where was it? Further down the High Street, beyond the bridge. “Well let’s fuckin’ go! Let’s find it and burn it!” We all struck up a chorus of approval, moving off. Wilder elements were bricking vehicles, putting through the odd shop window. No one bothered looting, we had other things on our minds. By chance, or more likely propelled by the logic of my attitude, I found myself with various uncontrollable rogue elements, veterans of previous brawls. We’d connected at the right place, right time. The gang was all here. We streamed down to the railway bridge bricking and trashing en route. We halted just before the bridge to regroup, collect a larger mob. Smoke rose in the distance, probably a blazing vehicle. Good, we’d gone far beyond anything the British mainland had witnessed during a political event for decades. Instinctively we knew it, digging it all the way. Time to press on and kill the Bill. Suddenly, cries of alarm. “Watch out!” “Behind you!” A strange sight, never seen before, another first for the record books. Down from where we’d just come, across the wide road, slowly advancing, a line of police with riot shields. It looked spooky, fascinating even, the whole scene made menacing by blackened skies and the distant plume of smoke. I was with a couple of hardcases who’d moved over from Ulster, so I asked them what they thought of it all as the mob stood momentarily frozen, gawping at this unique sight. “Aww, you get this every Saturday back home when the pubs and betting shops close for the afternoon.”
“What do you think’ll happen next?” I enquired.
Already a steady stream of missiles were being hurled by the more athletic who were edging towards the shield line. “Shall we join ‘em or what?”
“No,” came the voice of experience, “They might open up with baton rounds, rubber bullets; Belfast dildoes.”
“Fuck me,” I said, “Never thought of that… What about gas? Look…” pulling out my improvised facemask. “Am I supposed to soak it in something? Maybe we should all be moving off to attack the cop shop.”
But our discussion came to a sudden close. The shield wall parted, the centre evaporating as the cops formed two defensive shells on opposite sides of the road, back up against shop fronts. They’d been attacked from behind, by another mob who swept past in a hail of bricks, joining us. The cops who’d formerly looked like a shapeless black mass, crouched behind their shields, were now all of a sudden to be far thinner on the ground than we’d anticipated. So we held our ground, gathering reinforcements before seeking out the police station. Without warning, a police bus drove through the reforming shield wall, heading straight towards us. Without hesitation we bombarded it with bricks and bottles. It kept coming as we fell back under the bridge. Although there were only around two hundred of us, we were effectively obscured from the cops’ view, and it was impossible for them gauge our numbers. And what with the din and echoes emanating from beneath the bridge, the cops must have been having kittens, we sounded like a thousand. The bus halted before us, it appeared empty, only a driver, but he wasn’t going any further. Another vehicle, another empty bus drove towards us. We lobbed from the sides and middle of the road, straight ahead, at the windscreen. The driver swerved, windows badly dented, not stopping, trying to mow us down. Somehow he got through, speeding onwards to safety. We were rather disappointed as a police bus, burning under the bridge would have made for a heart-warming sight. Then another vehicle, an SPG van full of pigs. This time success. The windscreen shattered as several bricks landed simultaneously. The van drew to a halt, the driver’s head buried in the steering wheel, out for the count, setting off the hooter in a long, continuous wail amplified under the bridge. The SPG didn’t jump out to attack us as they usually did. They couldn’t as the hail of bricks and stones smashed the windows, denting the bodywork. The back door of the van was yanked open, revealing a heap of semi-conscious pigs. Lucky for them we hadn’t graduated to petrol bombs yet. We all pulled back, leaving the bridge and wreckage. None of us knew the exact location of the police station, but we felt it was close.
At the base of a steep hill there stood a crowd of black kids. Beside them a heap of bricks and stones from a road works and a small barricade of traffic cones and planks. We waved over to them, “Where’s the police station? We’re gonna burn it down!”
“Over there,” they gestured, “Keep going.”
As if by magic, a group of cops appeared, yelling their heads off. Batons drawn, they ran down the hill to the barricade. From where I was standing they looked quite young, maybe hurried in straight from Hendon. They also appeared leaderless, no portly sergeant or pinch-faced inspector. The kids didn’t bottle it, lobbing bricks with great determination. The police charge halted as rapidly as it had materialised, the cowardly bastards turning on their trotters and fleeing back up the hill. Morale it seemed, had collapsed, along with their coordination. But not everywhere. More shouts went up. “Watch out! They’re coming through in a convoy of buses!” Sure enough, in the distance, a phalanx of vans spread across the road, creeping forwards, no doubt jam-packed with angry SPG, just aching to wreak vengeance after they’d discovered the carnage under the bridge. Rumours flashed. Some nutter had gained entry to the trashed van, stabbing coppers to death. We were getting thin on the ground and with the massed vans advancing, we melted away, not wishing to be overwhelmed, trapped. We’d have been up for a right old battering and worse, with heavy charges to boot. No point persisting once you’ve lost momentum. We were miles ahead and it was time to quit.
So we drifted to the nearest train station, whence we hoped we’d find some übermenschen. Waiting around for the customary age we were still animated, finest day ever, the universal sentiment. Didn’t know what was best, the nazis or the police getting a hiding.
Our noses glued to the windows, the train departed for the centre of town, the streets below seeming deserted, quite unlike the scenes as we pulled into the next station. Knots of people were slugging it out on the embankments, tracks and adjacent waste ground. Great cheers arose as some of our fellow passengers disembarked, eager to rejoin the fun and games. The next station was entirely populated with battered Fronters who didn’t dare board the train. So aside from some shouting and catcalls between carriage and platform, and a few half-hearted missiles bouncing off the side of the train, that was the end of the day’s dramatic events. As the train pulled out, we jeered, reminding them one last time of their comprehensive defeat. “And your mates, the pigs got what was coming to ‘em n'all!”
Back at Charing Cross, hyped to the nth degree I bade farewell to the Lewisham veterans, convinced we’d given more than a minor jolt to the smug, complacent British body politic. Hopefully we’d set a precedent for the future. Anything would be better than the apathetic crap we’d had to endure up till then. Alighting from the train, an overwhelming racket swamped my senses. I fully expected to be walking into another riot, but instead it was the usual bustle of thousands of shoppers and day-trippers.
The next day’s papers were full of the usual hysterical garbage. The pigs, of course, were heroes, hundreds of them having been injured by the mob. So fucking what! A few days later in the centre of Birmingham, the Front held an election meeting. It came as no great surprise when the good citizens of Brum took a leaf out of our book, pelting the police protection with bricks and bottles. Having no riot shields themselves, the police were forced to deploy hastily issued army numbers. Certainly the introduction of riot shields proved we’d raised the stakes a notch or two. Who knew where things could go from here? Much further I hoped.
Thanks to Grant Munro.
Friday, 14 May 2010
Friday, 7 May 2010
Friday, 12 March 2010
Thursday 18 MarchBonus link: Watch the Deptford.TV film about Cafe Crema.
Who shot the sheriff? The Battle of Lewisham 1977 and the Battle of Cable Street short films looking at the fight against fascism from the 1930s to today with Q and A with film makers and Unite Against Fascism
Who shot the sheriff? - the history of Rock Against Racism and Love Music Hate Racism inspiring and mobilising young people to stop the fascists by bringing together music and politics-from the 1970’s to today.
[Details here. Read an interview with director Alan Miles here. We showed this on our Lewisham 77 commemorative day, and it went down well. If you like it, you may also like our short films about Rock Against Racism's Red Saunders: 1, 2.]
Lewisham 1977 about the Battle of Lewisham filmed in New Cross by Deptford TV volunteers.
[Not sure which of our films they are showing, presumably this one, filmed on our commemorative walk. More details of the film in this article. Our films were made by volunteers, including Goldsmiths MA Screen Documentary students, in collaboration with Deptford TV, a project which uses open source technologies to generate new forms of collaborative film-making to document changes in SE London.]
The Battle of Cable Street and The Legacy of Cable Street with film maker Yoav Segal
[More info here. Note: Cable Street features in our film about anti-fascist footsoldier Martin Lux.]
With Q and A with film maker and Unite Against Fascism - important lessons as the fascist BNP stand in the forthcoming elections.
Presented by the Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group and south-east London Unite Against Fascism in conjunction with Café Crema , New Cross email@example.com; www.naar.org.uk/larag www.uaf.org.uk/ also join face book ‘sel uaf see LARAG online exhibition with images and quotes about fighting fascism in London from 1930’s to 2010.
For all the films at Café Crema there is a charge of £6 which includes polenta meal or cake and drink ordered at 7.30 pm, film screening 8.15pm. Tickets available from the café in advance. To guarantee a place at this cosy venue. 306 New Cross Road. London SE14 6AF. 2 minutes from New Cross and New Cross Gate stations mob 07905 961 876/ 07905 552 571 http://www.cafecremaevents.co.uk/ for information. Pop in: book your seat!
What Follows the Street Fighting ?
Mike Power Chairperson of the ALCARAF Rally in Lewisham last month, looks at the long term effects of violent clashes on the Borough’s race relations
Morning Star 2 September 1977
THE EVENTS of Saturday, August 13, in Lewisham have had a profound effect throughout Great Britain. The impact of those events are likely, however, to be felt for much longer within this inner London borough. Tension underlies an apparent calm.
It will cost London’s ratepayers something over £150,000 to finance the police operation which defended the National Front marchers. Lewisham council itself spent £4,000 on clearing up and evacuating the elderly from the trouble-spots on the previous day.
Local shopkeepers are reporting losses in trading ‘of up to three-quarters and many face huge repair bills for their shop fronts.
The council has called for a public inquiry, a plea which has been strengthened by a local MP leading a weighty deputation to Merlyn Rees.
The Socialist Workers’ Party has been banned from the use of council premises along with the National Front for fear of further eruptions of violence and damage.
The anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations are now beginning to discuss what sort of campaign is needed as a follow-up.
In the month prior to the National Front demonstration there were extensive contacts and discussions between the local people and their organisations about how to counter the march. This was greatly assisted sellers and a crude use of threats and force during the GLC election campaign.
In all these cases the only long-term effective rebuff is to attempt to bring the police andthe courts into .play against the National Front, and so isolating the active racists and identifying them as fascists in their true violent nature. It is then possible to deny the racists their political links with the people and so help to undermine the hold that their ideas may have.
Socialists and Communists see the need to tackle the wider social, economic and political causes that allow fascists to exploit racist sentiments. But we see a clear need to act concurrently on the specific question of racism and build the broad movement which will work to detach people from racist ideas.
These are the forces that at present constitute the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Facism.
It is against this background that the tactics for Saturday, August 13, were considered. But, did the events of that afternoon achieve the aim of isolating the National Front as a lawless element? And, were more people won to be sympathetic to the anti-racist, anti-fascist cause?
The answer is no; ‘because the press and media were able to place blame on some anti-
fascists for violence, despite the provocation of the NF marching into an area where many black people live.
A concrete and realistic analysis of the situation in Deptford showed that the call: “They shall not pass” would receive scant support. Indeed, the Telegraph Hill neighbourhood council a key multi-racial organization with much weight and influence in the community, decided against supporting any such action.
The black population are, generally speaking, frightened and to some extent intimidated, though this is less true of the younger people.
At the same time there exists an underlying racial hostility among wide sections of the white population. This accounted for some 3,000 racist votes in Deptford last May. In fact, the number of actual local people involved in the afternoon events was quite small.
People were intimidated by the police and the media and kept well away. It was. therefore, crass adventurism on the part of the SWP to issue a call for when it was not possible to mobilize people in sufficient numbers to ensure success. The NF did "pass” and marched to Lewisham. It stopped short of Catford, since the council had banned it from using the town hall for a meeting.
The artificial and mechanical transference of experience from Germany in the 1930s or from Cable Street in 1936 has become the divisive stock-in-trade of the SWP.
There were clear indications that the noble anti-fascist feelings of many people would in reality be channelled into a fight with the police. The left versus police confrontation was then staged and has enabled the press to identify the left with the fascists in the minds of people who oppose racism, leading to the view that both deserve to be banned as instigators of trouble and violence.
The right wing has also exploited the clash hoping to create an atmosphere in which reactionaries are calling for further limitations on civil rights and more power and sympathy for the police.
That sympathy will be largely misplaced when the history of the relations between the police and black people is considered.
There has been a long history of antagonism which culminated last May 30 with dawn raids on 21 young blacks’ homes. This was preceded by the use of surveillance by remote control video ‘by the police and was followed by charges of conspiracy and sus.
“Sus” ‘(suspicion) is a pretext which has been used by police to pick up any young black person seen in certain streets after 11 p.m. Even youngsters waiting for buses have been picked up in this way.
Such relations do not, however, follow a straight line and there has been tremendous efforts and years of hard, thank-less and patient work which has resulted in some improvement. In the past two months the police-black antagonism has ‘been intensified in Lewisham by the widespread and crude raids which led to the case of the Lewisham 21.
The SWP raised the slogan “The police are the real muggers” and organised a defence committee. Such blanket sloganising helped to ensure that in some cases it was the police who were as much the target on Saturday, August 13, as the NF.
This outcome was predictable long before the event; therefore the All Lewisham’ Campaign Against Racism and Fascism had called for a ban on the National Front provocation, a call which was widely taken up.
At the same time it was agreed to organise a counter-demonstration. The aim of the counter-demonstration was to present a positive alternative to Lewisham’s people (6,000 of whom voted NF in May) of a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society and for employment, homes and an improved environment.
This was to contrast the hatred and violence which the NF has perpetrated in the borough.
The Lewisham police commander agreed a route with ALCARAF which Commissioner McNee rejected and replaced with a non-negotiable alternative using as cover for his action against ALCARAF the call for a violent confrontation already issued by the SWP.
However, McNee stands condemned for causing the dispersal of 5,000 people in Lewisham when the demonstration was only half completed, thus creating a vacuum which he was warned could easily be filled by a violent reaction.
All anti-fascists need to soberly take stock of the present situation and consider the future.
A serious weakness in the anti-racist struggle at the moment is the relative immobility at all levels of the labour movement. Real pressure from the unions would have greatly helped to win a ban on the Front demonstration.
Not wishing to under-estimate the importance, of the actions of some Labour-controlled councils, or those of many individuals, but whatever happened to Labour’s campaign against racial-ism of last year? The Labour right-wing leaders remain unwilling to fight.
No transformation will take place without a genuine commitment being won at grass roots level. The focus of attention is now on Hyde in Manchester. A powerful call for a ban on the NF has been coupled with the North-West Region TUC call for at least 20,000 to stop it if the ban fails.
Those on the spot are best able to judge if those numbers are likely to turn out. Even then the level of local mobilisation is crucial; a sullen local population playing host to a demonstration of mainly outsiders is a dear weakness. The aim of the anti-fascists must also be to avoid the alienation of any positive section in the community.
We still have far to go in winning the necessary masses of people to active anti-racist thought and action. It is essential therefore to operate at two levels: First through the institutions via such organisations as the Community Relations Councils in order to undermine institutional racism. Secondly, through the broad-based campaigning bodies such as ALCARAF which take to the streets. A racially or politically violent atmosphere does not create the circumstances in which democratic political activity can take place. It is on this basis that diverse forces can be united to oppose the Front, not by initiating violence.
I stumbled onto your site having a half-drunken reminiscence - anyway I used to live in Elverson Road (Deptford / Lewisham border) and I was about 17 at the time. The Police set up a base camp at the top of Elverson Road (near where the Underground Station is now) arriving in a number of coaches. The NF actually marched down Elverson Road from the East end (Station) I guess from Conington Road, right past my house towards 'Liitle Elverson' headed for New Cross / Brockley.
The most bizarre thing was, at some stage in their journey (which was unopposed in our street at least) a liitle black boy had tagged onto the march and was skipping behind the 'racists' having a great time. Just about summed them up - too busy being scary racists to notice the black kid in their midst.
I can recall the police sitting in a number of coaches parked on and near the little hill that ran up the side of the 'Ravensbourne Arms' (the old Victorian Pub - now unused & empty - incidentally it featured in one of the 'Courage Bitter' ads featuring Chas & Dave........) We saw them all eating their sandwiches and getting out flasks of coffee etc...... hours later they were armed with riot shields & batons. Just makes the whole charade seem just that little bit sillier now I reckon!
As I understand it the main body of the march was diverted from the original route, and thinking about it I reckon those who came up Elverson Road (East to West, away from the current underground Station) were just part of the march who may have been seperated from the others.... there wasn't a huge number as I recall. The little black kid is the most prominent memory I'm afraid
In my opinion these marches, as with the Brixton Riots in the 80's, were just part of growing-up in post-war London. Like all 'kids' we made friends and fell out more often than we care to remember, and tension between blacks & whites & English & Pakistanis & Indians & Sedgehill & Brockley County Grammar schools..... fluctuated throughout the 70's - One minute they were your sworn enemy, and the next day reggae was cool, and so life goes on. I'm sure its the same with the Asian / Oriental influence that has grown in SE London since I lived there. The kids, me included, could always cope with change, but it seems someone else always wanted to tell us how to feel about it - the NF are just a political party so what's so surprising about that?
Yes I was there, I was then 19 at the time, I saw it all, yes the police, had no protection, THE NAZI FRONT, as we called it, had Confederate Flags, I mean K.K.K flags. [We had] banners saying, “It’s a racist front”. We came out on Saturday. Even the school leavers. And the hiders as well, people who do any old work to get by). Police came under attack . Later I ended up at Ladywell. I went along this alley, ran past a policeman, I saw a Meat wagon get stoned with police on board. I saw smoke rising in the background. First I thought a car was set alight. Then I met up with about 12 others, who survived the demonstration. We went to Catford. We held a speech. Then I went back, I walked along the route, of that march. What I thought was a car, was in fact a journalist’s motorbike that had been set [alight].
Once I was back at I was asked, "What Happened at Lewisham". And I told them everything. I even showed a copy of Socialist Worker: "We Stopped The Nazis, They did not pass" was the heading. Also, while I was in Lewisham, at the time, every shop had a sign saying "Due to circumstances beyond our control, please do not come."
Also shields were used for the first time on the British mainland... Had we not done so, it would had been another story.
Sunday, 7 March 2010
Socialist Worker on the Battle of Lewisham: The story of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism
Thirty years ago this week the apparently unstoppable rise of the Nazi National Front (NF) met a serious challenge. On Saturday 13 August 1977 a Nazi march through Lewisham in south London faced a counter demonstration by thousands of anti-fascists. The fascists’ march was stopped. Though the confrontation was condemned in all the national media for violence, it lit the spark that would soon lead to the founding of the Anti Nazi League, and set back the fascists for a generation. Here we reprint excerpts from our coverage at the time.
They did not pass!
Socialist Worker, 27 August 1977
The Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives last Saturday.
Thousands of people responded to the Socialist Workers Party’s call to stop them marching.
Black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14 year olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists – all joined in a massive united action against the Nazis. [Read the rest.]
This article has recollections from Paul Holborow, Iqbal Khan and others. This is Paul Holoborow:
The huge confrontation at Lewisham in 1977 was a turning point. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the local black community came together to confront an NF march. Thousands of protesters took the streets and we gave the Nazis a good hiding.Finally, this article recalls the founding of Rock Against Racism and concludes with Red Saunders' RAR Top 10. (For more Red Saunders, click here.)
The next day I went into the SWP headquarters and the phone began to ring and ring.
There was a call from a Jewish guy in east London saying, “I don’t agree with the SWP over many things, but what you did to the Nazis on Saturday was bloody marvellous – what can I do to help?”
Calls like that were where the momentum came from to form a broader organisation – the ANL.
Red Saunders of RAR’s top ten:
•X-Ray Spex – Oh Bondage, Up Yours
•Sex Pistols – God Save The Queen
•The Clash – (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais
•Linton Kwesi Johnson – Reggae Fi Peach
•Tom Robinson Band – Glad To Be Gay
•Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution
Steel pulse - handsworth revolution
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•Junior Murvin – Police And Thieves
Junior Murvin - Police And Thieves -1977
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•Misty In Roots – Own Them Control Them
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