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

Friday 12 March 2010

Lewisham 77 at Cafe Crema

From Lewisham, Peace, Justice and Solidarity:
Thursday 18 March
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; 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 for information. Pop in: book your seat!
Bonus link: Watch the Deptford.TV film about Cafe Crema.

Mike Power analyses the events

Sent to us by Michael Walker, this is the analysis written in the aftermath by the Communist Party's Mike Power, chair of ALCARAF, the local group which organised the peaceful protest, published in the Communist Morning Star. This downbeat account contrasts sharply with the triumphalist accounts from the Socialist Worker and with the celebrations of the violent or militant anti-fascist activity of many of the personal recollections we have published. (Note, here is Mike Power pleading for peace just before the march.)

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.

Some personal recollections

Here are some personal recollections sent to our e-mail address. You can look at our map to get a picture of where this is happening. I particularly like the way Stephen's story cuts across some of the triumphalist political accounts, and brings out the complexity of the local experience, especially for young people.

From Stephen:

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.

Great days....

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?

From Kevin:

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
 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

The Socialist Workers Party played a key role in the events of August 1977. Its newspaper, Socialist Worker, has re-published extracts from their original article about the event, as well as some recollections. Some extracts are below. The first article also includes some analysis in the aftermath by the late Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos and others.

Lewisham 1977: the day we turned the tide on the Nazi National Front
Fighting the fascists at the battle of Lewisham

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.

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.
Finally, this article recalls the founding of Rock Against Racism and concludes with Red Saunders' RAR Top 10. (For more Red Saunders, click here.)
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
Uploaded by mickeynold. - Explore more music videos.
•Junior Murvin – Police And Thieves

Junior Murvin - Police And Thieves -1977
Uploaded by LostPirate77. - Watch more music videos, in HD!
•Misty In Roots – Own Them Control Them

•Aswad – Live And Direct

•The Specials – Ghost Town

The Specials - Ghost Town- Watch more Videos at Vodpod.