Today in London religious history, 1971: protests against the reactionary christian Festival of Light continue

Just over two weeks after the Gay Liberation Front, women’s liberationists and other activist from London’s underground had made a laughing stock of the reactionary Christian Festival of Light at Westminster Central Hall, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park.

The opposition got into gear again… An alternative ‘Festival of Life’ was called for Hyde Park.

Thanks to the continued presence of the GLFs infiltrator in the Festival office, maximum confusion was wreaked on the organisation in the run-up to the 25th. Fake parking plans were mailed out, sending delegations form other town and cities to park miles away; letters were sent out a couple of days before announcing false time changes, and claiming the Trafalgar Square event had been cancelled.

In the Square, ‘old men in dark suits who carried signs that said, “Fear God” and “The Wicked Shall Be Turned Into Hell,” and young people, many more young ones than old, holding up the regulation Festival of Light poster, a map of the British Isles blazing brightly against a blue background. Young girls walked with rings of Jesus buttons pasted on their foreheads and in a circle on their hair. They wore T-shirts embroidered with buttons in the shape of a J that ran between their breasts, and the slogan “Smile, Jesus loves you” scrawled on the back. Even the Blackstone lions that guarded Nelson’s column had orange Jesus buttons glued into their eye holes.’

A number of GLF and feminist activists tried to disrupt the event in Trafalgar Square:

‘Michael [James] was a lady schoolteacher with a cane; Nicholas Bramble was the Spirit of Porn, Paul Theobald and Carla and others were dressed as riot police carrying the coffin of freedom, Mary McIntosh and others as choirboys, Michael Redding, Chris Blaby and Douglas MacDougall as nuns, me as Mary Whtehouse. We all met in Covent Garden, in Henrietta Street because we knew there would be heavy security hearer the Square, and we changed into our costumes in shop doorways. We got as far as the steps of St Martins, where I conducted the choir in ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’. We had planned to join the crowd and process to the rally in Hyde Park but we got as far as the south of the Square and we were blocked by the police.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was in the choir singing at Trafalgar Square. We knew the bit about the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate… that may have been the only verse we sung. We had to repeat it over and over.’ (Mary McIntosh)

‘I was part of a little Street theatre and we all organised ourselves into heterosexual couples and were chained together as heterosexual couples. There was a sort of sex symbol and a business man and I think I was a downtrodden housewife, and we had discussion with the people around us. So we formed this straggling little procession and we did manage to get to the base of the column… it was a pretty effective protest because people couldn’t quite suss whether we were hostile or not. We came up the back of the plinth and generally infiltrated into the crowd and the mass of Christians were basically confused as to whether this was just some odd it of the entertainment or not.’ (Sarah Grimes)

‘Richard Dipple was carrying a cross and there were thousands in Trafalgar Square, it was jammed to the gills. There was another group singing hymns and carols, I never knew who they were. Stuart stopped to conduct them. Then there were Womens Lib, they had a demo with prams and dolls and things. They were going across the top of the Square in front of the National Gallery. We slipped down by South Africa House and sidled up to the back of the column, no problem. I was a schoolteacher and I had all my kids in school costume, roped together and I was the oppressive schoolmarm with the cane and an earphone type wig. We had no intention of disturbing the rally itself at all. We were grossly outnumbered. What we were going to do was march with them or beside them. Mary Whitehouse and people were at the front. The police got freaked out – we were outside the railings on the pavement away from the Square itself, looking down towards Whitehall and they told us to stand there and we said, ‘We want to stand here, we’re not going anywhere else’, and this police inspector or sergeant or something freaked out and they started pushing us and pushing us until they hemmed us in to that little space between two of the lions. Well we had nowhere to go but up, because they were getting heavy, so up we went and we were quite happy there…’ (Michael James)

Mary Whitehouse took the podium. A former schoolteacher, her name was synonymous in Britain for opposition to publications like Oz, sex on the telly and dirty words on the wireless. She’d appeared on a panel show with Mick Jagger once and attacked him for “living in sin” with a woman. She is 61. “The eyes of the world are on what’s happening in Britain at this time,” she said, as a women’s lib banner began circling the crowd. It read “All God’s Children Got Nipples.”

‘They invaded the rostrum and the fake Mary Whitehouse, Stuart, was up there with the proper one. There were several Mary Whitehouses and very funny they looked.’ (John Chesterman)

‘We were gathering a crowd at the back, we had no microphones, so we were quite happy to have our little discourse. But then of course the police got up and of course we could only go higher and they got very rough and grabbed hold of me by the arms and legs and I was hauled down to the ground. I was terrified I was going to be thrown down another six feet from the plinth.’ (Michael James)

There were police chasing transvestites in all directions, smoke bombs going off… it looked like a revolution.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I saw this police inspector who’d started it all coming towards me. I was laying down with one leg free and I just gathered that leg up and shot for his balls. And I hit him, right in the balls. But he never knew it was me, because there were so many people there, all around us. But I got him. Then the next thing I knew, I was being see-sawed off the edge of the plinth. Then they dropped to the ground and I was being carried by the arms and legs, looking up through all these Christians who’d started marching off. They were screaming ‘Hang him! Birch him!’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly where you’re at now, isn’t that exactly it.’ I felt quite good about that, ‘I’ve dug you out, you’ve said what you really believe. We’ve got the truth.’ Once you get that, you know what you’re dealing with.’ (Michael James)

‘They accused us of being the Angry Brigade, that was what some Assistant Chief Constable said to us. As were pushed back against Nelson’s Column and our only way of escape was to get up on it, so we did. The ‘choirboys’ were at the bottom of the plinth, so we all started singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ again. The police were chasing us all over the plinth and they arrested some people And on the north side of the plinth were Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, Cliff Richard and Malcolm Muggeridge and so on. Michael Redding was accused of waving a cucumber obscenely while dressed as a nun. Some people escaped and made it to Hyde Park, but the police swooped on them and arrested them there.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘I was the only GLF woman arrested in the Square. Mary O’Shea heard a senior officer point at me and say ‘Get that one.’ Richard (Dipple), who was Jesus, took off his robe and crown and disappeared into the crowd. I was taken to Bow Street and put into a cell with the women from Women’s Street theatre who’d come as the nuclear family. Michele Roberts was dressed as the vicar’s wife, Alison Fell was the vicar’s son. They had come as a family and chained themselves together, so when the police picked up one of them they got the lot.’ (Carla Toney)

‘A few of us decided to use the occasion to try to expose the perverse morality of the Festival organisers. On the one hand they condemned lesbian and gay people for victimless consenting relationships, yet on the other hand they were totally silent about the war in Bangladesh which was resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. We got some collecting tins from the organisation that was fundraising to help refugees in Bangladesh and went amongst the crowd in Trafalgar Square, soliciting donations. We challenged them over their apparent disinterest in the starvation and murder of people in Bangladesh. It very successfully put them on the spot over their distorted sense of moral priorities. They found it very embarrassing.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘I was slung into the van. They’d got Michael Redding previously because he was a nun. I don’t know how they’d managed to get him. Douglas MacDougall was also a nun. I think there were three nuns. And I think one of them escaped. Whoever got into the green van – the women were already there, they’d already picked the women up from the top and they’d done nothing. So it was clear that we were not going to be allowed to express our opinions at all. We were taken down to Cannon Row police station, just by Old Scotland Yard and there were more women there when we arrived, they’d got the singers and the dykes, they’d picked them off first. They knew what to look for, they knew who to look for. We were eventually bailed about nine or ten o’clock that night.’ (Michael James)

The Festival continued on its way to Hyde Park, harassed by activists, among them the GLF Youth Group. Several hundred demonstrators (mainly straight hippies, apparently), gathered at Marble Arch, pelted the marchers with stink bombs and jeered…

‘In detachments a block long, the marchers streamed out of the square to Hyde Park. They marched behind a wooden cross with the band booming… At Hyde Park, the sound of the band brought freaks running from all over the park across open green fields, swirling through fallen leaves and vaulting over a high spiked fence to join others already wheeling up Park Lane. Surrounding the band on all sides, a raggle-taggle army with right hands outstretched in a Hitler salute, chanting “Sieg Heil.” Freaks reading madly from the Bible with no one listening as they marched, freaks carrying little children in their arms, freaks carrying signs that read “Go To Hell — It’s More Fun” and wearing jackets that said “God Speeds.” ‘

In the park, huge numbers of police were arresting any protestors on any pretext. ‘The most beautiful of the GLF banners, with three interlocking circles, in red, purple and white, was confiscated by police as an offensive weapon and never returned, it is thought to have been destroyed at a later date.’

‘Sweeping into the park like a conquering army with the band playing for them, laughing people with long hair and open faces, goose-stepping along on the green grass singing “Lloyd George knew my father … father knew Lloyd George” in perfect time to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Oh, do be quiet,” folksinger Judy Mc Kenzie scolded from the stage. “Praise God. Now I’m going to sing, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He’s got the whole world …” she began.

“Between his legs,” the crowd screamed.

“He’s got the whole world …” she repeated.

“In his pants,” the crowd howled.’

As at Central Hall, Tony Salvis was dressed a vicar again, lecturing to a large crowd… So, this time around was ‘Father Fuck of Tooting’:

‘We always have younger cannabis in the Church of Aphrodite at Elmbourne Road in Tooting… we keep it in the Chalice on the altar. We… said that our church’s contribution in the Festival of Light will be a sacrificial cake baked in the shape of a phallus with half an ounce of cannabis as one of the ingredients, that we’ll take it to Hyde Park and share it with the people as the sacraments of the church… three of us took it to Hyde Park… I got up on our sacrificial altar and a crowd of about 100 heads gathered round me.

I told my listeners that the prick is the symbol of our Church because the prick with a lovely pair of ball is the symbol of life and the cross is the symbol of death. The heads were saying ‘Lets have the sacrament now’… I performed the religious ceremony: I broke off the knob of the prick, crushed it in my fingers and as the crumbs were falling to the ground I was praying aloud For Peace, For Love, For Freedom. Having thus prayed I broke off another piece of it for myself and handed the rest to the people to be shared as the sacrament of our Church.

Man, you’ve never seen a faster castration of the prick. It just disappeared in ten seconds… great happiness all round!… Later I got a bit closer to the Jesus people, put up our altar, got on it and started to indoctrinate my listeners… about 100 people were listening to me, some Jesus people, some heads… I was grabbed by a bobby and about six of them started to drag me to the waiting police van… A girl, a psychologist, walks beside us and keeps asking the policeman ‘Why are you arresting this man?’… she too is pulled into the van. Then they drive us to Hyde Park police station. A bobby says to me ‘What’s your occupation?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘Occupation?’ ‘Minister of religion’ says I. ‘Will you sign for bail?’ ‘Yes’ says I. ‘In what name?’ ‘Reverend Father Fuck’ says I. ‘I can’t accept that name’ says he and they lock me up in the cell till Monday.’ (Father Fuck)

[NB: Father Fuck, aka Paul Pawlowski, was later one of the organisers of the somewhat abortive Windsor Free Festival in 1972. The Church of Aphrodite was apparently dedicated to ‘psychedelia and shagging’.]

‘Cliff Richard, once Britain’s Elvis and now a convert to Christ, came out and plugged in.

“Ooooh, it’s Cliff,” a GLFer moaned, swooning, “Oh, Cliff.”

“If we get honest with ourselves …” Cliff is saying on stage.

“Be honest, Cliff,” someone shouted. “Admit you’re a homosexual. … Come out, Cliff.” ‘

[2018 Note: he never has yet!]

‘Everyone was charged with breach of the peace and put in the cells, but Nicholas Bramble got charged with assault, which was much more serious. I was opposite him in the line when they charged him and all it was, was that a policeman had cut his little finger on Nicholas Bramble’s diamante bracelet while arresting him. Nicholas was a trained dancer and when the policeman had grabbed him, he’d locked his arms and the policeman’s hand had slipped. He ended up having a separate trial from the rest of us, but he was found not guilty. We went to court in the drag we were arrested in. I was Mary Whitehouse, in the dock with Paul Theobald and Chris Blaby. We used friends as Mackenzie lawyers and a Catholic Worker priest gave evidence to say that he hadn’t been offended, but wherever nuns appeared they were found guilty even though the rest of us weren’t. Nicholas Bramble felt that there was very little support within GLF for the people who’d been arrested and he said so at a meeting…’ (Stuart Feather)

‘We came up at Bow Street and we all had Mackenzie lawyers, defending ourselves. Michael Redding appeared first, in a frock I think, he was done for being a nun, they accused him of masturbating with a cucumber. I had big floppy trousers, a wrapover dress and a long maxi-coat and an Indian headscarf wound round. I don’t think I was wearing make-up. My nails were painted though. Michael was found guilty. I went in and the magistrate screamed at me straight away, ‘Take that hat off!’ I thought, what on earth’s he talking about? He said ‘You take that hat off’ and I said ‘but I’m not wearing a hat.’ I wasn’t, I was wearing a scarf, not a hat. He said ‘Take that thing off your head’ and I said ‘Excuse me, I’m coming here to be tried on a charge, what I wear is entirely up to me, it’s not up to you, you don’t buy my clothes, you’ve got no say over what I wear.’ ‘I’ll also charge you with contempt of court.’ I said ‘I’m not in contempt of court, I’m in contempt of you.’ ‘Get out of here and don’t come back while you’ve got the hat on!’ So I’m led from the well of the court by two detectives, but just as I’m leaving Douglas (MacDougall) is coming in with a full circle skirt and a broderie anglaise blouse. And I thought, go on girl, you deal with that now.

Douglas came out and I was called back into court and the magistrate said to me ‘I see you still intend to remain contemptuous of this court’ and I said ‘I’m not contemptuous, but as I pointed out to you, you do not buy my clothes and you’ve got o right to tell me what to wear. This is a free country.’ He went ‘Hmph! Let’s get on with it then.’ So we got on with the case and the policeman who arrested me was lying his head off and I cross-examined him. He accused me of shouting this obscene rhyme, it was very bad and I thought ‘what!’ and said something very dismissive like ‘If I’m going to make up rhymes I’m sure I can do better than that.’ I said ‘That was made up in a police canteen and it sounds like it.’ We hadn’t been shouting anything obscene at all, not as far as I was aware.

The dock was actually about a foot away from the magistrate, I could reach over and touch him. He said ‘Tell me what happened’ and I said ‘Can I start from the beginning?’ I went into the background of the demonstration and my part in it. He said ‘What were you?’ and I explained I was meant to represent a repressive schoolmarm. He said ‘Did you have button boots?’ and I said ‘Oh yes, I did.’ And he said ‘I think I’ll dismiss this case’ and he did. Obviously a shoe fetishist.’ (Michael James)

‘The elements of camp and theatricality gave a lot of the actions a strong humorous edge which police officers often found hard to deal with. They were used to responding to belligerent macho left-wing demonstrations, but because GLF didn’t fit that traditional pattern they found it a bit unnerving. If we had followed the orthodox leftist way of doing things with the clenched fist, all very serious and quite threatening, the police would have come down on us heavier and quicker. Because some officers could see the amusing side to what we were doing it was psychologically disarming for them… The GLF style of protest was political jujitsu – we threw the police off balance by not conforming to their expectations.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘…we were being festive. We had a lot of debate about the Festival, how it was moral rearmament and fundamentalist. We did see it as very dangerous. It might have developed as something rather unpleasant and I think it was one of those rare events that [the opposition] succeeded in tis objectives. Everyone loved putting energy into doing it, it was a target made for us.’ (Sarah Grimes)

The Festival organisers’ predictions for the mass turnouts expected at the final rallies turned out to be grossly exaggerated – about 35,000 turned up, rather than the forecasted 100,000. The protests helped to deflect the plans the Christians had to step up their movement, which never won the mass public support they had aimed for.

Sarah Grimes’ conclusion, that the GLF-inspired disruptions had effectively crippled the Festival of Light’s grandiose plans, seems to be borne out by some of the organisers’ own hindsight. John Capon, the official historian of the Festival, concluded that the press coverage of the main events and the opposition had reduced the whole movement to ridicule. This was summed up by the response of a man in the street to an interviewer asking what they knew about the Festival: ‘Isn’t it something about mice and nuns?’

This post was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’.

and some came from here

Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

The National Festival of Light was founded in 1971. The original founding impulse had come from two christian missionaries, Peter and Janet Hill, on their return to England after spreading the word of god to the benighted – whether the benighted wanted it or not.

After four years as evangelical Baptist missionaries in India, the Hills experienced a sense of culture shock when they discovered that sexually explicit content was more prevalent in the mass media than when they had left. Getting in touch with vocal figures in the media, the couple helped launch the National Festival of Light in May 1971, to oppose “pornography and moral pollution”.

Journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, “clean-up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, Labour cabinet member Lord Longford, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston soon became the faces of the Festival, which vowed to campaign against what they saw as the growing trends in the mass media for the explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes and for the restoration of conservative Christian morality in the UK. Pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan were key supporters of the NFOL; many evangelical churches supported the movement, including the repulsive Salvation Army. The Festival quickly gained support among rightwingers, reactionaries and neo-fascist throwbacks of various stripes…  Signs of impending apocalypse many of the Festival supporters included the growth of sex outside marriage, the proliferation of sex in films, homosexuality, the Oz trial

The movement had two expressed aims: to protest against “sexploitation” in the media and the arts, and to offer the teaching of Christ as the key to ‘recovering moral stability in the nation’. Some supporters naturally emphasised the first, and others the second. Plans were made for major public events, including the lighting of beacons on hilltops throughout the United Kingdom, and culminating in a massed march to a public rally in Trafalgar Square and an open-air concert of Christian music in Hyde Park.

The administrative task of enlisting the support of Christian churches and denominations throughout the UK was a colossal one, as indeed was the necessity for public relations with the press and the general public. The committee and many local volunteers were occupied with this throughout the first half of 1971.

From the start, its overtly Christian proselytising attracted the critical attention of the counter-culture, which saw the message of moral reform as code for sexual repression, censorship and a return to the puritanical social values of previous eras. Homosexuality and women’s liberation, the one having been decriminalised (for men over 21) only 4 years before, and the latter in its early days challenging centuries of patriarchal domination, were both viewed dimly by many of the Festival’s supporters. These movements were not slow to rise to challenge the evangelicals’ attempt to return Britain to the dark ages…

It was the Gay Liberation Front who took the initiative in opposing it. They sent an undercover volunteer to infiltrate its headquarters and report back on its plans.

The Festival was scheduled to launch officially with a huge prestigious rally on September 9th 1971 in Westminster Central Hall; the organisers saw this as their chance to get publicity for the campaign in the media. The GLF, women’s liberation movement and other underground groups set their sights on disrupting this rally and making it a disaster. As a result, the day became what the Festival themselves admitted was a total laughing stock…

‘The Festival of Light was put to us in the middle of the summer and we were told it was this group of League of Empire Loyalists and all sorts of strange people and anti-gay. All the information was got for us by people from the Monty Python team and it was funded by Graham Chapman and others via Denis Lemon. Janet went to work in the Festival office and she got tickets and things so that more could be forged.’ (Michael James)

The GLF had been founded the previous October, and was then at its most active and creative. It was holding meetings of 400-500 every week, bursting with energy and pushing at the boundaries in almost every direction it could explode.

‘We would spend whole weekends talking about ways of furthering gay liberation and countering our opponents. John Chesterman had the kind of mind that could work out plans like kidnapping a statue or subverting a book. The festival action was much more than just Street Theatre people. They were there from other hippie groups and from the underground press.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘ ‘Networking’ as a word didn’t really exist then but its what we did over the Festival of Light. We started to put word out through the underground press. I persuaded Janet to volunteer for the Festival, in their main office, so we had access to all the literature and even the mailing list. Ae sent out fake mailings on it. For the big final rally, we sent out false parking plans for the coaches, which gave people real hassle.’ (John Chesterman)

The action to disrupt the September 9th rally became known as Operation Rupert. A number of groups were organised, each acting independently, who would kick off inside the rally in turn…

‘John Chesterman… asked us in advance to think of ideas for something to do, but not to tell anyone what our idea was. We met in the office, identified who our groups were and he gave us a number each. I was number seven and I knew who number six was. He said that once number six was finished, you won’t know what they’re doing, but you then take off from there in your own time.’ (Michael James)

‘John handed round a note: Festival of Blight – opening ceremony… Enter the hall in small groups. Ones or twos. Act unobtrusively. Dress conservatively. Act cool. Make no sign of protest until it is your turn. Do not speak to each other. Sit as close to the centre of your row as possible. Let the previous demonstration finish completely before you start yours. Let everyone settle down and the speeches start again. Part of the purpose is to slow down and delay proceedings. Stick to the agreed form of protest and/or slogans and do so clearly and loudly. Offer passive resistance only. Do not fight back. A general brawl will only confuse he media image. If there is any aggression, let them look like the villains in the press reports. Do not carry anything that could be construed as an offensive weapon. Do not carry dope or anything else illegal. You may be arrested so make arrangements… beforehand. Make no statements to the police until you have legal assistance. They can not force you to do so. Do not speak to the press or TV.

The Festival of Light demonstration was the most enjoyable one because it was perfectly orchestrated. All the libertarian left groups collaborated and nobody leaked it, which was amazing…’ (Tim Clark)

As a number of GLF members discovered a prodigious talent for forgery, there were more than enough tickets to the Festival for all who wanted to get involved in the disruption…

‘We all met at Cleopatra’s Needle beforehand. Underneath a suit I had a beige lace dre4ss with pearl buttons all the way down the front, long sleeves and a full circle lace skirt. I don’t know how I’d managed to crush it all up and get it into my trousers, but they weren’t looking for things like that. Peter Flannery and I chose this space right at the back of the Central Hall… It has this incredibly steep rake, so we sat against the back wall in the middle of the row. Gradually the hall filled up and we saw various people sitting around the hall in various spots.’ (Michael James)

Many of those who had infiltrated the hall were unaware of the scope of the plans, so tight had security been kept.

‘At Central Hall, I was with a group of people from the Youth Group who were in the balcony… it was left to everybody’s common sense and judgment about when to erupt and what to do. All we did have worked out was that different people were assigned different things… the group I was with was assigned to erupt and express same-sex affection at a relevant moment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘It had taken just over ten days to organise. Fifteen independently operating but coordinated groups. GLF, Womens Lib, IT, Oz, Frendz, and others. But mainly GLF. Phone calls; meetings; leaflets to be written, printed and distributed; costumes; banners; all the last minute panic, hustle and briefings. About 150 people from almost all the radical groups in London. That was probably the most important thing of all. NCCL came along as observers. Many individuals came on their own and stood on their own in that huge audience.’ (John Chesterman).

The Festival organisers had possibly got some wind of the likelihood that disruption could expected; but had no idea of what they would face:

‘To cope with any disruptive tactics or opposition within the hall a strong body of marshals was recruited. It could hardly have been visualised how necessary they were going to be… Stewards had noticed several members of the audience who, to say the least, looked unlikely to be supporters of the Festival. Among the characters regarded with suspicion were half a dozen young ‘nuns’. Stewards quickly spotted that some of the were young men in disguise. To minimise trouble a steward was stationed behind each ‘nun’ in the audience!’ (And Then There Was Light, John Capon – the official history of the Festival of Light)

‘Janet and I had the white mice and Mary Whitehouse recognised Janet. She said, ‘Don’t I know you?’ but she couldn’t quite make the connections, and when the disruption was at its height she turned and gave Janet a very hard look. People did see us release the mice and this woman started hitting me over the head in a frenzied manner with her handbag, yelling ‘Jesus loves you’ again and again.’ (Jane Winter)

‘I can remember a woman coming up to Tony Salvis, who was dressed as a bishop. She made some remark about how we were living in a very sinful world, none of us is without sin. Tony turned to her and said ‘Don’t worry sister, keep right on sinning.’ The woman just stood there frozen for several seconds with her mouth ajar and looked Tony up and down and just walked off in utter bewilderment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘Where the hell were the others? Had they got past the heavies on the door? The faces more than fifteen feet away ran into a blur. Nuns. There should be nuns. One group, yes, two, three. Were they ours? They looked too genuine. Jesus, they were actually praying. Damn this sweat. The stewards at the end of the row were looking this way. The one with the glasses had been down on the Embankment when we were assembling. Cameras, microphones, choirs, people. Hundreds, thousands of them. All the galleries full and more coming in. Somewhere out there were the groups. They had to be. Waiting for the signal. Had they got the right positions? How many of the props had they got in? Stop trembling, it must be a dead giveaway. Smile. Suddenly, a couple of yards away, a small white mouse ran like slow clockwork across the aisle. They were there.’ (John Chesterman’s notes).

‘The choir was up on stage in plum velvet cloaks. The first thing that happened was the applause – we just went on applauding, loud and slow, which has a certain menace.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘Things started and there was clapping going on too long – I think that was John Chesterman – and so they asked him to leave.’ (Michael James)

‘I didn’t get slung out because I wasn’t disruptive. One of the things I thought was impressive about it was that when Trevor Huddleston spoke, nobody interrupted him because we did all respect him and we thought he’d made a mistake. Michael Brown and I wrote him a letter with our awareness group, asking him not to be part of it and he actually went and met with this group and eventually withdrew from the Festival of Light. And I think that’s partially because we didn’t just abuse him. Because we knew in a way that he was misguided. I remember various folk groups and then people coming and talking sodomy and unchristian marriage and abortion, those were the kind of people who got interrupted.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘We got everyone spaced around the hall and then I noticed that opposite the front row where I was sitting there was a row of plugs. I managed to pull out two but it wasn’t enough. I kept going back in after being thrown out. The trouble was pacing people; everybody wanted to do their bit straight away.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I remember all the mice being released. Two elderly women holding on to each other suddenly unfurled a banner from the balcony saying ‘Cliff for Queen’. It became total mayhem as he incidents started to pile up into each other. We deposited fake religious literature around which had religious covers, so they would be picked up and taken away to be read – only inside it was porn.’ (Tim Clark)

Danish evangelist Johannus Facius lectured the audience of the terrible fate of his home country after it had liberalised censorship laws – only to be nearly drowned out by the saboteurs in the crowd. The organisers tried to out-noise the protest with loud hymns…

‘What was most bewildering to the Festival goers was the range of tactics used and the layers of reality abused. People were blowing bubbles peacefully alongside displays of same-sex affection, suddenly disrupted by respectable-looking people erupting into obscenity or arguing with the speakers while mice scuttled around the hall. Talcum powder and pornography inside christian texts showered down from the balcony. Worst of all, you couldn’t even trust the church.

‘Tony Salvis was going round (as a vicar) going ‘Bless you, my son.’ He did look absolutely right for the part. All these Christians were coming up very worried about these dreadful homosexuals and then eventually he revealed himself in some way and it was ‘Oh no, not another one!’ Because he looked so respectable.’ (Nettie Pollard).

‘And then Malcolm Muggeridge came forward to speak. Because of his thorough recantation of his earlier liberal views he, like Cliff Richard, was a particular target for the demonstrators and he compounded their feelings almost immediately. ‘Malcolm Muggeridge was vile. He was the one who said he disliked homosexuals or something like that.’ (Nettie Pollard)

When Muggeridge made a statement about hating gays, that was when our youth group got up and started kissing. Lesbian couples and gay couples started kissing. We got jeered and abused by the Festival of Light people in the seats around us. Some of them tried to push and shove us out of the way but we just carried on kissing for about ten minutes.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘When Malcom Muggeridge started to attack homosexuals, Simon (Benson) stood p a few rows in front of him and said, ‘If hat is so, you must really dislike someone who is both homosexual AND Jewish.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Malcolm Muggeridge was so badly heckled that the choir was brought back on to sing ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’  – wheeling the choir on seems to have been the standard response to disruption – while attempts were made to restore order by the stewards.

‘Plainclothes men were practically carrying me down the corridor. ‘Think yourself bloody lucky. We want a word with you outside.’ Suddenly the corridor was blocked by a large bald-headed man wearing a bible. ‘You homosexuals are SCUM. You are nothing but BESTIAL FILTH’ He was breathing into my face, shaking with rage and hysteria. ‘Read this and find out what subversive MUCK you are.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘It was round this time that the nuns acted. I was just by them and I remember someone saying to them, ‘Pray for us, sisters’, and I couldn’t believe they honestly thought they were nuns. They were a mixture of men and women including Sue Gimore. As far as I remember, they started walking towards the front and then started running and whooping and about then the mice were released, I don’t know who did that. But they got right up the front and people were absolutely staggered, they couldn’t believe it. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that people would dress as nuns. They thought they were real nuns and they couldn’t cope – it was incomprehensible, these people had gone mad suddenly. It was the first time we had used nuns on a gay demonstration in Britain.’ (Nettie Pollard)

[Dressing as nuns however had been used previously by womens liberation groups to confuse the police on their demos…]

The GLF nuns had been part of a grander plan which had not come to fruition. According to John Chesterman, they were sitting around in the GLF office one day planning the action when Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stuck his head round the door.

‘He was always the sort of person who wouldn’t come right into the room, he just hovered in and out. He said ‘D’you want any camels?’ and there was a sort of stunned silence and someone said ‘yes’. The after a few seconds pause, someone else said, probably joking, ‘And nuns.’ Camels and nuns’ he said, ‘Okay’. But there were all sort of regulations and licences, we were supposed to find camel handlers, for God’s sake. So in the end we just had the nuns.

I was dressed up as an American evangelist’s wife with some bloke from round here, it drew in all sorts of people. We had football rattles and we were supposed to run up and down the aisle shouting. It was co-ordinated really well and so it was triggered. You could have mice and then stink bombs and snow and the football rattles. Anyway, we got thrown out and I went ‘Oh my God this is terrible. They’ve just thrown me out and I’m an innocent woman going to the toilet!’ Then this husband and I ran down the middle shouting ‘Fuck for Jesus’ in front of Cliff Richard. Anyhow we got thrown out again. Meanwhile the nuns came out, and all the audience was going ‘yes sisters!’ and then they turned round and started doing the cancan and people realised they were men.’ (Julia L)

‘The nuns took off in a flying phalanx, down the aisles towards the platform. A banner unravelled with a personal invitation to Cliff Richard to take over the monarchy. On the platform he had the grace to blush.’ (John Chesterman)

‘In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.’

‘A mouse, sailing through the air, landed on a lap full of hymn sheets. A section of the audience erupted. Peter (Bette Bourne), unstoppable, was loudly complaining of the atmosphere of violence, the disturbing vibrations and how could he concentrate on God? A woman turned around in front of him. ‘There you are’ he said, ‘I can see the violence in your eyes.’ ‘No, no, it’s the light of Jesus.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I was eventually thrown out, I was shouting out ‘There is violence in this room, there is violence’ and me and John Church, who were two trained actors, gave it lots of voce.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘My cue was Bette Bourne because I knew Bette. Bette was sat across the other side of the hall in the front row dressed as Colonel Blimp, tweeds and things. The demo previous had been a ‘Cliff for Queen’ banner which had suddenly been unfolded over the front of the balustrade. They had been hustled out with a great noise and pushing and shoving and ranting and raving. Bette started in this wonderful county voice, going ‘There is violence going on here, these men are being beaten up, there’s no reason for physical violence.’ He shocked everyone because it was quite true and it freaked the stewards, who were kicking people, to have it brought to everyone’s attention.

They sussed that Bette was part and parcel o the demo and he was asked to leave, but during this time I’d transformed myself from the three-piece suit, slipped out of that, given it to Peter next to me, who’d put it into a carrier bag, plumped out this lovely coffee lace dress, put the shoes and a little bit of eye shadow and lipstick on and a wig. Nobody noticed – we were at the very back of the hall and people were standing up to sing every time there was a demonstration and I was sat down getting ready behind them. The people next to me didn’t notice, they were too busy looking to see what was happening around the rest of the room.

It was in the middle of Malcolm Muggeridge’s speech. He must have paused and I shot up in the back of this row and screamed out ‘I’ve been saved! I believe! I see the Lord!’ just doing this terrible cod impression of a Southern belle who’s suddenly seen the light. Being where we were, in the middle of a row with that steep rake, they had to be very gentle getting us out. We didn’t fight, Peter and I came quietly but we made sure they came to us first. So they had to get everybody out the first half of the row and shuffle in disruption and I had this wonderful huge steep staircase to the exit in full view of everybody in the hall. I came down very slowly with this beautiful dress wafting the lace all over people’s heads and continuing on in the same vein ‘I believe! I’ve seen the Lord! I’ve been saved! Glory hallelujah!’ all the way down these stairs.’ (Michael James)

‘I remember when Michael [James] said ‘I’ve been saved!’ people went ‘Hallelujah!’ thinking that somebody really had found Christ. I think these Christians were extremely naïve, because I don’t think any of us looked right. I mean, this extra-ordinary over made-up man dressed as a woman… and he was right at the back, up against the wall and stood on his seat or something. I didn’t actually know who it was at the time, then gradually he was revealed as a man.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘He came down the steps in full drag with all these people cheering, they didn’t know whether to take it seriously. The meeting was totally disrupted, people were taking out the nuns and the elderly because they thought it was going to get violent, but it wasn’t violent at all, it was harmless apart from the stewards, but it was extremely powerful in term of disruption.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘As if all that was happening within the hall wasn’t enough, a small squad from the office collective, led by Martin Corbett, had managed to get into the basement below and interrupted part of the electricity, causing problems for people trying to film and adding to the air of general anarchy. ‘Mine was one of the last actions of the day. We just put on Ku Klux Klan drag and stood there demanding that perverts be burnt at the stake… we all got thrown out by stewards wearing crosses, who got quite a few thumps in to prove to us that they were the church militant, I suppose.’ (Stuart Feather)

John Capon, in his official history of the Festival of Light, claimed that after this the protest largely ended and the speakers were able to speak unhindered – however, most GLF memories suggest otherwise, and that small-scale protests and heckling continued.

‘Outside, a nearby pub was crowded with post-mortems and high spirits. Check leaflets for distribution. ‘Is someone outside to direct he groups in here? When does the audience come out? Hey, the BBC TV news cameras are out there.’ Tony being interviewed ‘Are you a Roman Catholic or Protestant?’ ‘I’m a priest of the liberation.’ Crowds sweeping out. Leaflets. ‘Read our side of the story.’ The leaflet with crosses on it is easiest to give away. They take them as a reflex action.

The bald-headed steward is there again. ‘Get out of here. You are ANIMALS. You are intruding on our privacy.’ ‘It’s a public meeting.’ ‘Only if you have tickets.’ I give him a handful. Eleven or twelve. He tears them in two and throws them on the floor.

‘Litter’ I remind him gently, and dodge.

(John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I don’t think anyone got arrested, which is fairly amazing. There was an attempt to arrest somebody outside for kissing a policeman, but it didn’t work. There was this enormous sea of lesbians and gay men suddenly around the policeman and I remember him looking around and thinking, I don’t think this is worth it, and he shuffled off. It was very, very funny indeed. You often saw police at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to handle us. I remember there was a stall with Christian books and people from GLF started stealing them. I got one of Trevor Huddleston’s books that someone gave me and I said to Paul Theobald, ‘I don’t think we should be stealing these books’ and he said, ‘Of course we should.’ He believed it was tight but I’m not sure.

There was a definite decision to try and talk to people as they came out. It was a really nice atmosphere and I genuinely think that talking to some of those people did have an effect and they did think twice about whether or not they should be involved. Because they weren’t just being shouted at. Although we did such outrageous things we were real people prepared to talk with them. I went to the thing OutRage! disrupted in Brighton. The Christian Family thing about three years ago, and what happened there was that they rushed the stage and got thrown out and then as everybody was leaving they went through a cordon of angry lesbians and gay men shouting abuse at them. I just thought, what is the point of this? Because we’re neither preventing them from doing this nor are we making them think. All we’re doing is making them think we’re rabble.’ (Nettie Pollard)

The whole area of pavement outside the entrance is covered with arguing groups as a public discussion gets under way with the Children of God. Inside there is a confrontation with those of the organisers and speakers who are prepared to talk. The Jesus-freak, the beautiful one with the long blond hair and flowing beard, the one with the pale blue eyes, screams, ‘You people are an abomination!’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Press coverage of the Festival launch dwelt heavily upon the disruption, and some papers took the mick out of the christians. The Daily Mirror reported ‘five bogus nuns… fending off hefty stewards’. The Guardian reported about 150 protestors, making special mention of the nuns, the Southern belle and Bette Bourne’s Colonel Blimp. The publicity was a serious blow to the Festival; it fatally undermined their attempt to be taken seriously, and opened the gates for other protestors to take a potshot at them elsewhere. As local Festival rallies took place around the country, opposition began to mount up. At Rochdale, a Festival rally was disrupted by the White Panthers. The central plank of the Festival was the lighting of a series of beacons across the UK to symbolise the urgent warning against sin and the cleansing moral fire. One of the beacons was mysteriously burnt down the night before its scheduled date… Others were prevented by objections to local authorities…

Just over two weeks later, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park…

To be continued…

This was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: AN Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’. A very fine book…

There’s a short video here of some of the ex-GLF disruptors talking about their part in the protest.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1977: thousands blockade National Front march at the Battle of Lewisham

On 13 August 1977, the far-right National Front (NF) attempted to march from New Cross to Lewisham in South East London. Thousands of local people and anti-racists from all over London and beyond mobilised to oppose them, and the NF were humiliated as their march was disrupted and banners seized. Instead of the intended show of white supremacy, only a few hundred bedraggled NF activists made it through to a car park in Lewisham with the help of a huge police operation. The day became known as ‘The Battle of Lewisham’ and has been seen as a turning point in the fortunes of the NF and the 1970s anti-fascist movement as well as in policing – riot shields were used for the first time in England.

As capitalist austerity bites… producing poverty, rage and Brexit… the right will try to channel that anger into racism, division, fascist ‘solutions’. Anti-fascism remains as crucial as ever: organised racism must be challenged physically, on the streets, just as racist and fascist ideas must be confronted ideologically. It’s also vital to remember the history of resistance that has always sprung up, and often beaten the extreme right back, when they appear to be gaining strength. From Cable Street, to Brick Lane, to the Jewish partisans of World War 2, to Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage – They Shall Not Pass.

Below we have reproduced here accounts of the events that led up to the 13th August, a varied series of personal accounts of the day itself, and opinions on its historical significance. These were collected by a group who organised a commemoration of the events for the 30th anniversary in 2007, under the banner of ‘Lewisham ’77, including a history walk covering the route of the NF march and resistance, with speakers who had been present in 1977, and a one-day conference which discussed Lewisham events in context and related them to the development of fascism and racism, and opposition to them, in the decades that followed. Past Tense played a small part in that collective.

Much more can be found on the Lewisham ’77 blog

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In 1977, the National Front’s influence was growing; from their origins as a merger of three small far right groups in 1967, run by men with long histories in neo-nazi organising, the NF had played populist nationalism to the max. In an era where full employment and the hopes of the 60s were giving way to recession, unemployment and increased industrial action by workers, the NF whipped up fears that migrants were threatening the ‘British Way of Life’, taking white workers jobs etc. Ably abetted by tory and some Labour politicians and many a media front page… Refugees arriving in the UK, like the Ugandan Asians were hysterically held up as scapegoats; workers fighting for better wages and conditions were also painted as a threat to order.

Rightwing violence, racist attacks were on the rise. NF candidates were winning larger shares of the vote in elections. But many on the left were determined to oppose the Front. Already, in April ’77, there had been a sizeable anti-fascist response to an NF march through Wood Green in North London, where events panned out in many ways as a dress rehearsal for a larger confrontation on 13th August.

The build up

The Battle of Lewisham did not come out of nowhere; it was one moment in a longer history of racism and resistance in this part of South East London.

18 July 1949: racist mob besieges Carrington House in Brookmill Road, Deptford, the home of African seamen who have complained of racist treatment including being banned from pubs. ‘800 whites and 50 police battled outside… Unsurprisingly the frightened occupants armed themselves with knives, for which act they not the rioters were arrested’.

1954: Anglo-Caribbean Club in Greenwich threatened with attack by the fascist Union Movement

1958: the Robin Hood and Little John Pub in Deptford Church Street imposes ‘no drinks for coloureds’ rule. The landlady Mrs Sparkes told the Kentish Mercury: ‘We found that when coloured people walked in to the bar everything went quiet. We asked our regular customers if they minded coloured people drinking in the pub. They preferred it without them’. The paper also reports that the landlord feared ‘trouble from local hooligans who beat up coloured men in a recent racial flair-up in Tanners Hill’.

June 1959: Chicago After Midnight Club, Telfourd Road, Peckham, attacked by white men throwing three petrol bombs.

April 1962: British National Party holds torchlight parades in Deptford as it contested Council elections.

1965: Deptford Union Movement, followers of fascist leader Oswald Mosley, hold a public meeting in the area.

3 January 1971: three petrol bombs thrown into a black people’s party in a house in Sunderland Road, Ladywell, injuring 22l people, several of them seriously. Two white racists later jailed for the attack. In the week after the attack, eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party are arrested after being hassled by police on their way back from visiting the injured in Lewisham Hospital. This leads to a march by 150 people to Ladywell Police Station a few weeks later, and more arrests.

1975: Moonshot Club (also know at times as Pagnell Street Community Centre), a social centre for black youths in New Cross, is raided by police who damage sound system and make several arrests.

1976: National Front and the National Party achieve a combined vote of 44.5% in a Deptford Council by-election.

April 1977: Moonshot Club occupied by young people who accused youth workers of having prior knowledge of police raids on people’s homes.

May 1977: in the Greater London Council elections, the far right fail to sustain their share of the vote in Deptford compared with the previous year. The results are Labour 9336 votes, Conservative 7217, National Party (L.Dixon) 1496, National Front (R.Edmonds) 1463, Liberal 843.

May 30 1977: police stage dawn raids on 30 homes in New Cross and Lewisham and arrest 21 young black people accusing them of being involved in street robberies. (Times 31.5.77) The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee is set up to support those arrested, as well as three others arrested in a subsequent scuffle with police. The police refer leaflets produced by the Committee to the Director of Public Prosecutions, accusing them of libel (Kentish Mercury (KM), 16.6.77).

15 June 1977: Prince Charles visits Pagnell Street Centre in New Cross (‘The Moonshot’). The Defence Committee stages a demonstration outside with about 20 people and a banner saying ‘Defend Lewisham 24. Who will the police mug next?’ (KM 16.6.77)

Saturday 18 June 1977: fighting between National Front and Socialist Workers Party activists by the Clock Tower in Lewisham Town Centre, where both groups were selling papers. A socialist teacher from Deptford is knocked unconscious (KM 23.6.77).

Friday 24 June 1977: at a meeting of Lewisham Council for Community Relations, the police arrests of 21 youths are condemned by Sybil Phoenix (of Pagnell Street Centre) and Alderman Russell Profitt, the latter describing the raids as ‘scandalous and disgusting – a vicious attack on the black community’ (KM 30.6.77).

Saturday 25 June 1977: 70 socialists and 50 National Front supporters turn out for rival paper sales in Lewisham town centre but are kept apart by the police. 17 members of the National Party (another far-right faction) stage a pro-police demonstration at Lewisham police station (KM 30.6.77).

Saturday 2 July 1977: Lewisham 21 Defence Committee demonstration in New Cross in support of local black youths arrested in police operation: ‘300 demonstrators marched through Lewisham and New Cross’; more than 100 National Front supporters turn out to attack it: ‘Shoppers rushed for cover as racialists stormed down New Cross Road’ (KM 7.7.77). NF throw bottles, ‘rotten fruit and bags of caustic soda at marchers’ (South London Press [SLP] 5.7.77). More than 60 people, fascists and anti-fascists, are arrested in clashes in New Cross Road and Clifton Rise.

Monday 4 July 1977: Lewisham National Front organiser Richard Edmunds complains about police arrests of NF supporters at the weekend and announces plans for a National Front demonstration in Deptford in August, promising its ‘biggest-ever rally… Everybody will know that the Front is marching. Where we had a couple of hundred people in New Cross on Saturday, we will be talking of thousands for our march’ (SLP 5.7.77). The march is billed as a demonstration against ‘mugging’.

Monday 4 July and Tuesday 6 1977: 56 people appear at Camberwell Magistrates Court on charges relating to the clashes on the previous Saturday. 35 NF supporters and 17 anti-fascists are remanded on bail. A 29 year old mother of five from New Cross is given an absolute discharge after admitting ‘threatening behaviour’: she told the court ‘I was called a nigger lover in front of my children which I objected to’ (KM 7.7.77)

Week beginning 4 July 1977: All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) call for peaceful demonstration on same day as NF march. ALCARAF and the neighbouring SCARF (Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism) had been set up in the previous year in response to the rise of the far-right. Along with other London anti-fascist groups they were affiliated to the Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee.

15 July 1977: fire at headquarters of West Indian League, 36 Nunhead Lane, SE15, an organisation providing advice and activities for black youth. Fire brigade suggests that the fire may have been started by a petrol bomb (SLP).

23 or 24 July (?) 1977 – 600 people attend a public meeting in Lewisham Concert Hall called by Lewisham 21 Defence Committee. The meeting passes a motion calling ‘for a united mobilisation to stop the Nazis… We call for all black people, socialists, and trade unionists, to assemble at 1 pm on August 13 at Clifton Rise, New Cross, so that ‘They shall not pass” (KM 28.7.77).

Lewisham Council turns down NF request to use the Lewisham Concert Hall on August 13th. The Council’s Amenities chair, Gareth Hughes, states: ‘The NF is a racialist organisation, and the hall belongs to the community which is multi-racial’ (KM 28.7.77).

Saturday 23 July 1977 – Lewisham 21 Defence Committee march from Lewisham railway station to Catford (SLP 29.7.77).

Friday 29 July: A deputation of eight local church leaders hand in a 1500 strong petition to Police Commissioner David McNee calling for the NF march to be banned. The leader of the deputation, Rev. Barry Naylor (St John’s, Catford and also a leading member of ALCARAF) meets McNee who tells him there will be no ban (SLP 2.8.77).

Week beginning 1 August: members of the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee take over an empty shop in New Cross Road, to be used as a campaign headquarters in preparation for the anti-NF mobilisation (KM 4.8.77). The shop is at 318 New Cross Road (now the Alcohol Recovery Project), next to the New Cross House (now the Goldsmiths Tavern).

Monday 1 August: The August 13 Ad Hoc Organising Committee issues statement calling for a ‘They Shall Not Pass’ rally to assemble at Clifton Rise in New Cross at 12 on the day of the NF demonstration (the NF were planning to assemble at Clifton Rise at 2 pm). The statement also ‘welcomed the decision of the ALCARAF to route their march to reach New Cross by 1 pm. We urge that full support be given to that march and call on everyone to stay on to occupy Clifton Rise to prevent the Nazis occupying there’. The Committee spokesperson is Ted Parker, South East London Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SLP 5.8.77).

Tuesday 2 August: Lewisham police chiefs meet with National Front organisers to discuss plans for march. Martin Webster, NF national organiser, tells press: ‘The Reds have had it all their own way and the only way you can fight Communism is to confront it. We believe that the multi-racial society is wrong, is evil and we want to destroy it’ (SLP 5.8.1977).

Tuesday 9 August: Lewisham Mayor, Councillor Roger Godsiff, and 3 other Labour councillors hand in resolution to Home Secretary calling for NF march to be banned. Metropolitan Police commissioner David McNee issues statement opposing ban, saying that it ‘would not only defer to mob rule but encourage it’ (SLP 12.8.77).

The ALCARAF leadership on the day – From left to right there is Roger Godsiff, Mayor of Lewisham (with chain), Mike Power (ALCARAF/Communist Party of Great Britain – with stewards armband), Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, Martin Savitt (Board of Deputies of British Jews – with glasses).

Wednesday 10 August: ALCARAF press conference announces policy that ‘if the police cordon off the road from Algernon Road to Clifton Rise, then the marchers will disperse. But if there is no police opposition the march will continue to Clifton Rise’ (SLP 12.8.77).

Thursday 11 August 1977: High Court Judge Slynn rejects a request by Lewisham Council to issues a ‘writ of mandamus’ compelling the Police Commissioner to ban all marches in the borough for three months. Lewisham are represented in court by John Mortimer QC. NF organiser Richard Edmunds tells the press that ‘We are deliberately going into the black areas of Deptford because these are also the areas where we have a lot of support’ (SLP 12.8.77).

Friday 12 August 1977: final plans for demonstration: ‘At least 2000 police will be in the borough… and in reserve the police will have about 200 shields and helmets… Lewisham council has moved old and disabled people away from potential trouble spots, and public buildings, shops and public houses on the routes have been closed or boarded up’ (Times, 13.8.77).

Saturday 13th August 1977

3 am – two bricks thrown through the bedroom window of Mike Power, Chief Steward for ALCARAF, at his home in Ardgowan Road, Hither Green. He said that ‘It was quite clearly an attempt by the National Front to intimidate me’ (KM 18.8.77).

11:00 am: 200 police arrive at Clifton Rise. First anti-fascists also start to gather there.

11:30 am – All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) demonstration gathers in the rain in Ladywell Fields. ‘Over 5000 people from more than 80 organisations congregate in Ladywell Fields to hear speeches by the Mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark, the exiled Bishop of Namibia and others’ (South London Press 16.8.1977).

11:55 am: ALCARAF march sets off down Ladywell Road and into Lewisham High Street, taking at least half an hour to leave the park. ‘Those taking part in the ALCARAF march included members of the Young Liberals, Lewisham Councillors, Young Socialists, Communists and Young Communists, and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality’ plus ‘banners from GEC Elliot’s factory, the Electrical Trades Union, Christian Aid, the Indian Workers Association and many more’. The march is led by a lorry ‘with the Steel and Skin playing’ (KM 16.8.77).

12:10: First clash between police and anti-fascists in New Cross: ‘The SWP were occupying the derelict shop next to the New Cross House pub. Police broke down a door and evicted the squatters, arresting 7 and taking a quantity of propaganda and banners’ (KM, 18.8.1977). ‘The first clash came… when police ousted Socialist Workers Party members from the New Cross Road shop they were squatting in, overlooking Clifton Rise’ (SLP 16.8.77).

12:45: A wall of police prevent ALCARAF march reaching New Cross. ‘Police block the way to New Cross at the junction of Loampit Hill and Algernon Road. As the lorry leading the march turns in Algernon Road, march stewards try and stop it. Commander Randall shouts ‘Keep that lorry on the move’ (SLP 16.8.1977). The police want marchers ‘to go along Algernon Road back to Ladywell’. The Mayor of Lewisham, Councillor Roger Godsiff, formally appeals to police Commander Douglas Randall to ‘allow the march to go on the original route that was agreed’ (i.e. on to New Cross) – this is refused.

1:00: Mike Power of ALCARAF tells the crowd ‘ALCARAF is not prepared to be directed away from Deptford’ and appeals ‘for the march to disband peacefully there and then’ (KM 16.8.77). Although the march as such is halted, many of the demonstrators managed to get to New Cross via other routes. ‘The order is given to disperse [the ALCARAF march]. The police allow hundreds of people to pass on to New Cross’ (SLP 16.8.77).

1:30: National Front begin to assemble behind police lines in Achilles Street. New Cross Road is closed with at thousands of anti-NF protestors in Clifton Rise and New Cross Road (KM 18.8.77). Estimates of anti-NF crowd vary from 2000 (KM) to up to 4000 (Times).

2:00 pm ‘Police in two wedges – one from Clifton Rise the other from New Cross Road – moved into the crowd to eject them from Clifton Rise’. Two orange smoke bombs are thrown, and a tin of red paint. Clifton Rise and New Cross Road ‘became a seething mass of demonstrators and police. Police helmets were knocked off as arrests were made’ (KM 18.8.77).

2:00 pm: As fighting rages in New Cross, the Bishop of Southwark leads a church service against racism and for peace at St Stephens Church, Lewisham High Street. 200 people attend, with a banner outside with the words ‘Justice, love and peace’ (SLP 16.8.77)

2:06 pm ’10 mounted police moved into the crowd from New Cross Road to be greeted by a sustained bombardment of bottles, cans, and attacks with poles. The ferocity of the attack drove the horsemen back. Youths began to gather bricks from a builders yard in Laurie Grove and pelt police’ (KM 18.8.77). ‘Running battles broke out at the top of Clifton Rise and, after, a smoke bomb exploded, mounted police moved in to drive the crowd back into New Cross Road’ (SLP 16.8.77). Two mounted police are dragged from their horses.

2:10 pm ‘The police line on foot at Clifton Rise broke, but reformed. A youth attacked a policeman with a stick’ (KM 18.8.77).

2:20 pm: ‘Police drew truncheons and used them against the crowd. Most of Clifton Rise and New Cross Road was cleared of demonstrators. The battle for control of Clifton Rise was over. A man lay unmoving outside the New Cross Inn and was taken off in an ambulance. Another stretcher case lay in New Cross Road’ (KM 18.8.77).

3:00 pm – Police escort National Front marchers out of Achilles Street, up Pagnell Street and into New Cross Road, behind a large ‘Stop the Muggers’ banner. Estimates of NF marchers range from 600 (SLP) to 1000 (KM). ‘Suddenly the air was filled with orange smoke, and a hail of bricks, bottles and pieces of wood fell onto the Front from demonstrators and householders leaning out of their windows… At one point the Front marchers stopped. Half the marchers remained in Pagnell Street, afraid to walk into the hail of missiles’ (KM 18.8.77).

Anti-fascists break through police lines and attack back of NF march, ‘separating them from the main body’ (SLP 16.8.77). There is hand to hand fighting in New Cross Road, and NF marchers are forced off the road onto the pavement.

‘One young man, perhaps 16 years old, rushed into the Front ranks and grabbed a flagpole from one of them, broke it in half and held the pieces up while the crowd cheered. Others hurled dustbins and fence stakes into the Front column from close range’ (KM 18.8.77). ‘The protestors then burnt captured NF banners’ (SLP 16.8.77).

Police separate NF and anti-fascists, and mounted police clear a path through crowd attempting to block progress of march towards Deptford Broadway. For part of the route the NF are forced off the road onto the pavement.

Police lead the march ‘through deserted streets of Lewisham’ with crowds held back by ‘by road blocks over the whole area’ (KM). Marchers are flanked by three deep police on either side, with 24 mounted police in front. The march route goes down Deptford Broadway/Blackheath Road, Lewisham Road and Cressingham Road, where ‘more missiles were hurled at the marchers’ (SLP 16.8.77).

While small groups attack the march from side streets, large numbers of anti-fascists head East along Lewisham Way. They reach Lewisham Town Centre and block the High Street.

The NF approach the town centre. ‘The fighting intensified as the Front members were escorted from Cressingham Road to their rally in Conington Road’ (SLP 16.8.77).

Unable to meet in the town centre proper, the NF hold a short rally in a car park in Conington Road, addressed by NF Chairman John Tyndall, police usher NF ‘through a tunnel in Granville Park and then into Lewisham station, where trains were waiting to take them away’ (Times, 15.8.77).

Clashes continue between the police and crowd, the latter largely unaware that the NF have already left the area. Anti-fascists occupy the area by the Clock Tower. ‘A road barrier was dragged across the High Street by demonstrators’ (KM, 18.8.77).

Police bring out riot shields for the first time in England, and attempt to disperse crowd south down Lewisham High Street towards Catford. Bricks and bottles are thrown. ‘On the corner of Molesworth Street, mounted police prepared to charge. Beside them were police on foot, truncheons drawn. Police came racing down the street. One officer shouted ‘get out of the way’ and as he ran a man was hit. The officer then apparently collided with an elderly woman. She went sprawling on the pavement’ (KM, 18.8.77).

A police Special Patrol Group van is surrounded and its windows smashed, and part of the crowd attempts to surround Lewisham Police Station in Ladywell Road. A press photographer’s BMW motorbike is set on fire near Ladywell Baths. Several shop windows are smashed in Lewisham High Street, including Currys (no.131), Kendall & Co. (no.256) and Caesars’ fancy goods (no.230).

4:40 pm; ‘the riot in Lewisham High Street had been quashed, but there were continuing outbreaks in side streets. It was not until after 5 pm that the fighting ceased and an uneasy calm settled over Lewisham’ (SLP 16.8.77). 214 people have been arrested and at least 111 injured (Times, 15.8.77).

First hand accounts and personal recollections:

Posting these accounts does not imply endorsement of the past, or present, politics of any of the following (especially Peter Hain)… 

Martin Lux: Anti-fascist

An account of the Battle of Lewisham, written by Martin Lux and taken from his book Anti-Fascist. Martin spoke at the Lewisham 77 commemorative conference in 2007.

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.”

Anti-fascists show how great they are at ‘Capture the Flag’

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.

Other personal recollections

Here are some personal recollections sent to the Lewisham ’77 collective. You can look at our map to get a picture of where this is happening. 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 little 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 separated 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
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…

”

Mick Woods: “I was present at the first part of the “Battle of Lewisham” and remember it as one of the really significant events of the 1970s. I was an active member of Workers’ Action at that time and was working on the railways in Sheffield. WA had called a national mobilisation for the demo, as had many other left groups. I must’ve been on day-shift or taken the day off because I came down to Bow early Friday evening to stop with some comrades at their squat, and probably had an evening in the pub first.

Next day a small group of us made our way to New Cross via London Bridge Station (I think), there were a large group of NF in the buffet which outnumbered us- we avoided them. Getting to Clifton Rise there was already a big crowd assembled and people making speeches. We found our friends and comrades in the crowd and got into groups with people we knew and trusted. Happily one of my group had a half bottle of rum with him which we shared. I’m sure the bottle was also used to good effect later.

I’d been on plenty of anti-fascist demos before but there were both the numbers and the mood for something a bit more decisive than the usual pushing and name-calling. I’d not been totally following the situation in Lewisham but was aware that it was ugly with an escalating pattern of racial attacks and police harassment of black youth. Many of the crowd were Black and Asian youth, more than usual on such dos and you could feel the tension. I remember Phil Piratin the former Communist MP spoke and really whipped the crowd up- no soggy pacifism from him! At some point a load of people joined us from the “official” march- there was a deal of applause and a great sense of unity and determination. Of course we chanted, “The workers united will never be defeated!” which was also the favourite slogan at Grunwick.

Suddenly the IS’er with the microphone (Paul Holborrow or Jerry Fitzgerald?) yelled out that the fascists were moving- I looked down the hill and could just about make out a few Union Jacks in the distance. The crowd surged down the hill, some off us had our arms linked, straight into and through a very thin police cordon given the situation. I was in amongst the back of the NF march.

The order of what happened in the next 5-10 minutes is a bit vague in my recollection, probably a mixture of adrenalin and Captain Morgan’s- either I was grabbed by a cop from behind who I shook off and then grabbed and burnt an NF banner (their Epsom branch if I recall correctly) or vice-versa. I think it was in that order…. What I can clearly remember is that initially very few of us seemed to be in amongst the NF, that there was a hail of missiles landing in the area, many of the NF were bleeding from head wounds and all were clearly terrified. They made no attempt to defend themselves at all. I think the hail of missiles also encouraged the cop to let go of me.

The next clear memory was we had taken the road and were burning NF banners, celebrating etc, trouble was we didn’t seem to be so many anymore and then the police sent a mounted charge down the road from the direction of Lewisham. A group of us ducked into the gardens of some derelict houses on our right (south-side of the road) and chucked a few missiles at them which had little effect.

It was clear to me by then that our little group had gotten cut-off as the majority of the demonstration followed the march. There seemed to be little chance of rejoining the rest and we seemed too few to achieve much where we were. I also didn’t know the area and was with nobody I knew. Time to call it a day!

I successfully “retired without further loss” and went to visit family- it was only later that evening when I watched the news that I discovered how big the NF’s defeat had been. They were never able to mobilise the same kind of numbers again on the streets, from then on they could only get their hardcore and skinhead elements out.

To end on a question I’ve asked myself again and again since, “Why the hell did the met bring the NF out so close to us when they were patently incapable of defending them and maintaining “public order”?” There are 3 possibilities I can see;

A) They set them up for a kicking because they were getting sick of defending their provocative marches.
B) They overestimated their own capacities or underestimated us.
C) They suffered a catastrophic collapse of “command and control” on the day.”

Darcus Howe in the New Statesman:

“The crowd, black and white, pounced on this vanguard of racism and inflicted on those reactionaries a merciless hiding. And how they ran away!

Early on Sunday morning, 14 October, the writer Farrukh Dhondy, my friend of more than three and a half decades, phoned and invited me to turn to page 75 of the Sunday Times Magazine. Tucked away at the bottom of the page was a photo of a group of young black people assembled as part of a mighty throng. It was part of a six-page spread taken by the photojournalist Don McCullin, described in the piece as “the Charles Dickens of photography”.

The caption of the photograph read: “New Cross 1977: anti-fascists address the crowd at the battle of Lewisham in south London.” “They were excited because they realised that they’d defeated the National Front,” McCullin notes.

Only one person on the platform was holding a loudhailer. It was me. I cannot remember being excited that August afternoon in 1977. Passionate? Yes. Pleasantly victorious? That, too.”

That was 30 years ago…”

You can read the piece on McCullin here, unfortunately without the photos. Here’s the bit that mentions Lewisham:

Of course, McCullin being McCullin, among his photographs of England are scenes of conflict and strife. He witnessed the posturing of Sir Oswald Mosley and his supporters in the 1960s, and saw right-wing extremism rear its head again at the Battle of Lewisham on Saturday, August 13, 1977, when the National Front took a battering from its opponents in south London. “I went right into the lion’s jaw that day,” he remembers, “which suited me fine. I always used to like photographing confrontation. If I didn’t do it in somebody else’s country, I’d look forward to doing it here.”

Jenny Bourne

Jenny Bourne’s account of Lewisham 77 is reproduced from the Institute of Race Relations website:

“The decision by the National Front (NF) to hold a march through Lewisham in August 1977 divided the opposition as to tactics, like no other issue had done to date. Lewisham was an area in which many Black people lived, the NF had been campaigning there on the basis of high levels of black crime the police had recently carried out raids on homes of supposed street criminals and arrested twenty-one people. A demonstration in support of the Lewisham 21 had been attacked by the NF and a prominent Black activist had been chased and beaten up by racists in a public lavatory just weeks before.

After the NF’s march through Wood Green in April 1977, which was met by a large but disorganised mass opposition, local anti-racist/anti-fascist groups had become established across London and affiliated to one All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC). In addition to locally-based groups, there were also groups formed on the basis of being gay and being women – Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF, of which I was a member).

All these groups were essentially broad fronts opposed to racism and fascism which drew their members from a whole cross section of local organisations – from trades councils and tenants associations to local churches and even, on occasion, the local police. In that sense, the local groups had to adopt strategies and tactics which could command the support of the majority – despite political and other allegiances. Some groups were more militant than others. When it came to the Lewisham NF march, the local group, All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, decided on its tactics. Basically, it did not want a showdown with the fascists, it simply wanted to publicly demonstrate its opposition. Guided by the police, who also did not want a street confrontation, the local group decided to hold a protest march on the morning off the NF’s afternoon march, taking a different route, though still in Lewisham. This march would be led by dignitaries such as the mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark and prominent politicians. On the other hand, left groups, especially the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), took a different view. The fascists must not be allowed to march, they had to be confronted.

ARAFCC decided to support both events. In the morning to march shoulder to shoulder with one of its twenty-three affiliates and then (though this was not publicly declared) to regroup in New Cross to try to stop the National Front, which was to assemble behind Clifton Rise, from being able to march.

Because of the many unknowns on the day – the tactics of the police and what they would and
would not let us do, the plans of the SWP and the tactics of the NF – all the groups in ARAFCC prepared thoroughly. Each affiliated group had appointed its own stewards and we had two chief stewards to make decision for the whole committee on the day. WARF, hundreds of us and many more women turned up for this event than were actually members, met up at London Bridge to take the train to Ladywell. I remember the atmosphere – slightly nervous, slightly hysterical, lots of bravado and showing off as to who was wearing the hardest boots. (I was as apprehensive as the rest. I have to admit doing something I had never done before or since. I had gone to Lewisham the previous night, just to work out where everything was. Up till then all our protests and marches had been in east and north London, Lewisham felt like an unknown quantity. And as stewards we had the job of getting our contingent from the morning protest, down the hill, to the afternoon one with the knowledge that the police would be out to stop us.)

It has to be remembered that the march in Lewisham had been part of press speculation for days. Some people, especially Lewisham councillors, had called for a ban on the NF march, but this was refused by the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Commissioner. From then on, fascists and anti-fascists were depicted as trouble-makers – equally. Both sets were deemed to be disturbing British peace. A plague on both your houses was the media message. Lewisham was deemed a no-go area for the normal world. Police leave had been cancelled. Businesses and shops were warned to board up for the maniacs were coming. If we were a little hyped-up that day, it was nothing compared with the media hysteria.

The morning passed as planned. We, some 2,000 members of anti-racist, anti-fascist groups, assembled at Ladywell Fields where we all had our allotted places. We marched, WARF chanting its own slogans, ‘The Women united will never be defeated’, and ‘the women’s army is marching …’ (already honed on the Grunwick support pickets). And then it was a mad scramble to move everyone from ARAFCC up Loampit Hill to New Cross. I do not remember any attempts to stop us. But when we got there, the area was already heaving with anti-fascists and local young Black people.

It may look a bit invidious to make the last distinction. But it is important. Though the ‘professional’ anti-fascists tried to claim the local youth as their supporters, as it were, the truth of the matter was that these Black youths – mostly male – would never have stood for having white racists on their patch in any event and, they hated the police. Now there were 5,000 of them on their doorstep. And they weren’t in cars, but on the streets. The reaction was to be something similar to what had happened in Notting Hill at the carnival a year before.

Maybe because we had the largest contingent, maybe because we were well stewarded and therefore our troops were biddable, maybe it was just bad luck. But the WARF group was asked to sit down in New Cross Road blocking the way from Clifton Rise where the NF were assembling. That’s what we did. The police tried to get through on foot, to clear a path for the fascists. They could not. So they sent in mounted police, who from horseback, with long batons drawn, rained down blows on head after head – scattering us, beating us as they went, drawing blood and creating mayhem. The NF, with hundreds of police shielding them on either side, were escorted down Pagnell Street and through the anti-fascist ranks.

We got separated from our mates – no mobiles in those days – no one quite knew what to do, some were so upset by the police tactics they decided to get out while they could, and went home. Suddenly the cry went up to get down the hill, get to Lewisham before the NF and stop their rally. The next thing I remember is being part of a band being told by Kim Gordon (of SWP’s Flame) to hold hands fast across the road – as the police charged from the other direction.
Now the police were panicking. With thousands of anti-fascists loose on the roads, no longer in marching formation, but hell-bent on finding the fascists, with belligerent Black youths finding bricks, stones, paving slabs, anything to lob into police ranks, and the fascists themselves, whom they were there to protect, trying to leave a car park where they had been forced to hold the
most fleeting of impromptu rallies.

The NF have gone, we were told. But no one believed the police. And then, absolute chaos. Someone senior somewhere must have given the order to clear the streets. The huge transparent riots shields came out – this was the first time they and the long batons were used in mainland Britain. Police were charging us with the shields. As I stopped to help someone on the pavement who was injured, I felt myself being lifted by a shield, thrown through the air and come cracking down on the pavement kerb. We were being ordered to leave the area, but whichever way we went, we were met by more officers, also in charge mode. I sought refuge in a shop doorway, only to find myself joined by a Guardian reporter, also fleeing the random violence.

It was a weird sensation to be somewhere that was totally unfamiliar, with no sane people on the street that one could ask help from. We found that all the local stations had been closed – for security. We had no idea how we could actually leave. Eventually a group of us, all women, got together and someone decided to phone a friend for a lift. But all the phone boxes were vandalised. We went to Lewisham hospital to use the phone. The hospital was ringed by police, we were forbidden entry. Eventually someone stopped and gave us a lift to central London – a car-full of shell-shocked women.

At home, I got straight in the bath to find that I could not sit; it was absolute agony – the base of my spine had been hurt when I hit the pavement. The phone rang, it was my friend to say that she was being violently sick. She thought it was from that blow to the head from the baton. The most frightening thing on that Saturday was not the NF, but a police force completely out of control. That level of violence was unknown outside Northern Ireland. But it was to be surpassed just two years later in Southall and with more devastating consequences.

On the Monday, when I read the Guardian, I could not believe my eyes. That same journalist who had cowered with me in the shop doorway had filed a story in which all anti-fascists were depicted as violent extremists and the rout of the NF as a riot in which police had suffered heavy casualties. I rang her to remonstrate, to remind her of what she had witnessed. But she was adamant, the Left was to blame, it was all the fault of outsiders who had descended on Lewisham to play out their own political agendas.

Incensed, we put out a press statement from ARAFCC, stressing the broad nature of support for the anti-racist and anti-fascist cause, emphasising just how many local people and groups from all over the country, which were not affiliated to the SWP, had felt strongly enough about the NF to take to south London’s streets. But to no avail.

The media had a field-day. Anti-fascism was vilified – with NF supporters and their opponents equated as thugs who wanted no part of democracy. That anti-racism and anti-fascism were essential moral (if not political) positions never got aired in the discussion.
We might have won the battle of Lewisham, but we lost the propaganda war.”

Jim Kelly’s account

Jim Kelly’s account of Lewisham ’77 comes from a pamphlet called Anti Nazi League: A Critical Examination published by the Colin Roach Centre in 1995:

“The NF strategy was to create an illusion of political respectability, whilst their activists attempted to take control of the streets by smashing any political opposition. In Bethnal Green and Lewisham they began to attack socialist paper sales and meetings. They also attacked individuals, once attempting to smash in the front door of a prominent SWP member’s flat in Broadway Market, with sledgehammers. Fortunately the door held up…

The first major setback for the NF came at Lewisham in Southeast London. The SWP had been systematically attacked on their paper sales. John Deason, a SWP Central Committee member, organised stewards groups to defend local activities. This led to a partial retreat by the NF. This was the beginning of the infamous “squads”.”Squadists”, as they were to be affectionately known, were groups of party members organised to protect SWP activities. The success of this specialisation was later to become one of the most controversial issues within the Party.

The acknowledged leader within Inner East London was a PE teacher from Hackney John W. Mickey Fenn, a TGWU shop steward from the Royal Group of Docks led the Outer East London squad, whose core was a group of fellow dockers. Mickey Fenn stood out, he was an excellent organiser and a wonderful public speaker totally committed to the struggle. I first met him shortly after joining the Party. A decision was made to paint out NF graffiti on the Railway Bridge by Bow Road station. The problem was that the bridge was only a few yards away from the local police station. As we held a comrade over the side we not only had to worry about the passing trains but we also had to keep an eye on the police, who were sitting at the Police Station window, within spitting distance.

The NF tried to retake the initiative by organising an “anti-black muggers” march from New Cross to Lewisham. The SWP put all it’s energy into organising a counter demo. The East London district of the SWP was to be the spearhead of the counter demo. This was seen as a real opportunity to stop the fascists from intimidating working class areas. I can still remember the mixture of tension and determination that comrades felt that Saturday morning, there was a growing feeling within East London SWP that events were beginning to move in our favour.

Lewisham was to become the largest violent political event in many years. Many thousands of people had turned out to oppose the fascists. This was despite an earlier march that took people away from the fascists assembly point. The CP was part of that march, as were the official labour movement. However the SWP were able to lead a significant part of the march to Clifton Rise, the starting point for the NF march.

Large numbers of police were mobilised to protect the march. As the march turned out of Clifton Rise a hail of bricks and bottles met it, but it still managed to continue on its route. There’s no doubt in my mind that, despite the artillery raining down on them, the police were still in control and disciplined enough to drag the cowering nazi’s to their destination.

It was at this point that the whole situation was transformed by one act of individual courage by Peter Chapel, a leading member of the ‘George Davis is innocent’ campaign. Peter, I believe, had recently joined the SWP. He launched himself into the front of the march. The sight of the Union Jacks shooting into the air and Nazi’s scattering broke the impasse. Chapel was quickly followed by a group of his friends and counter demonstrators.

Within seconds our group of SWP members linked arms (a form of ritual left wing bonding much loved by the generation influenced by the events in Paris in 1968), and moved across the road. The march was breached just behind the so-called ‘Honour Guard’, a phalanx of nazi thugs. This was followed by a few minutes of vicious fighting, not with arms still linked I hasten to add. The Nazi’s were physically hammered. Many were clearly terrified of what had just taken place. The NF march disintegrated, with fascists running around in blind panic. Most ran away, a few stood their ground and got overwhelmed by the sheer weight of anti-fascists, including many local Afro-Caribbean residents who had turned out.

This victory changed the momentum of the struggle at both local and national level and it produced a tremendous feeling of elation on the part of the anti-fascists involved. The NF strategy was to win control of the streets, this was to be their first major setback.”

Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks

After Lewisham ’77 organisers speculated publicly that Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod was present in Lewisham in 1977, (as he mentions it in his novel The Cassini Division), Ken confirmed that he was and kindly sent his recollection of the day:

“I went to Lewisham in the back of a big van rented for the day by the local branch of the left group I was in at the time. That group had decided to send one lot of members to Clifton Rise and the other to the march, with the intention of encouraging as many marchers as possible to go to Clifton Rise after the march officially ended – which they did. Our little squad went to Clifton Rise. Not all of us were in the left group but we all knew each other very well and had a good natural leader, an experienced bloke called Joe.

When we got there I was surprised by the size of the crowd. There was a fair while of standing around, and then the fascist march came up the road, the sticks and stones started flying, and the police rode horses into the crowd. I remember quite vividly the fury and fear and the sense that it was a case of fight or be trampled. After that I remember a sort of running battle, pushing up against lines of police, and seeing the fascists cowering under the pelting. After we had them on the run I urged people around me not to go chasing after them and getting into fights with the police.

A belated salute to Joe, who managed to keep us together all through the riot and got us safely home.”

Ken also confirmed that he came down to Lewisham with his friend, the late Iain Banks (Wasp Factory, Crow Road, the science fiction ‘Culture’ series etc.): ‘I remember Iain Banks turning up at the place where I lived with a bunch of other lefties in Hayes, Middx. He’d come down specifically for the demo and went there with us in a big van’.

Iain Banks also recalled:

“I was there, though all I can recall is the general feeling of prevailing unexpectedly, the sight of the fascists squeezed into a corridor going round a street corridor with half bricks and bits of car exhausts raining down on them and the cops protecting them and the motorbike on fire (which later turned out to belong to the Sunday Times photographer).”

Ken MacLeod’s blog, Early Days of a Better Nation, is a good read and includes a recent post on his time as a member of the International Marxist Group in the 1970s.

Ted Parker

Ted Parker, later the principal of Barking College, was one of the activists involved in the anti-fascist mobilisation). Here, he gives his account of the events and their significance:

“Lewisham 1977 has to go down as one of the decisive political battles of post-war Britain – and one which, for once, was won by the right side.

The late 60’s and early 70’s were characterised by bitter trade union struggles, perhaps best represented by dockers and miners, fighting for trade union rights and the survival of their industries, often in large hard-fought clashes with the police.

This movement by organised trade unionists was countered by right wing racists, notably Enoch Powell whose inflammatory speeches succeeded in mobilising large numbers of dockers and meat porters among others in 1968. Racism was given organised political expression by the National Front (NF) which grew steadily during the 1970’s with provocative marches, violent attacks on ethnic minorities and anti-racists and increasing votes in local and national elections.

These were classic Nazi tactics and by 1976 and 1977 things were reaching alarming proportions. In June and July 1977 NF attacks on socialist newspaper sellers in Lewisham were a weekly occurrence and in July the NF launched a violent attack on a local anti-racist march.

The NF then called a demonstration for August 13 1977 to show that they could march with impunity (protected by the police as usual, of course) from New Cross with its sizeable black community, through Lewisham town centre and on to Catford town centre, which they liked to think of as something of an NF stronghold with its nearby largely white low rise council estates.

In the event, it was the anti-racists, involving for the first time large numbers of the local black youth, who came out on top in a day of bitter street fighting. The NF march was partially blocked at New Cross when it set off in the early afternoon, only getting through after repeated police charges against the anti-racist demonstrators. The battered remnants of the NF were then shepherded by the police towards Deptford, marching north of the New Cross-Lewisham railway line. They were then led towards Lewisham town centre, only to find it completely blocked by thousands of anti-racists, many of whom had moved rapidly from New Cross to Lewisham by the more direct route down Lewisham Way, south of the railway line, sweeping aside the occasional police cordon as they did so.

At this point the police diverted the NF under a railway bridge towards an isolated section of Blackheath Common to which the NF coaches has been redirected prior to a speedy and ignominious departure. Sometime later in the afternoon the police used riot shields for the first time in mainland Britain to disperse the anti-racists from Lewisham High Street and then to press them back into a network of sidestreets. Hand to hand fighting continued for some hours as young black people and anti-racist demonstrators sought to extricate themselves in some kind of order from what had, by then, become a confused and bitter battle.

Thereafter the NF never again posed a serious political threat. Lewisham led directly to the formation of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which, together with Rock Against Racism (RAR) mobilised hundreds of thousands in collective expressions of solidarity between those of differing cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Organised racism was marginalised for the next quarter of a century. It is therefore correct to call Lewisham a decisive battle – though in a war that remains far from won.”

No Retreat – Steve Tilzey’s account

The following account of Lewisham ’77 comes from the book No Retreat by Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey, describing their involvement in militant anti-fascism. According to Tilzey, he had originally been planning to come down to London that day to watch Manchester United play in the Charity Shield, but had inadvertently got caught up in an anti-fascist attack on a coach booked to bring National Front supporters to London. Travelling on to London, he ended up in New Cross:

“The police obviously wanted to break up the gathering and moved in to disperse the crowd. There was a lot of confusion and the police seemed to lose it. Quite a few people got hurt and a number of arrests were made. The police backed off, then made another charge, this time with horses, causing all sorts of injuries and mayhem. All this and not a single NF supporter in sight.

…along with the other anti-racists, I pushed and shoved against the police lines. I was not actually doing much more than that when I got whacked on the shoulder with a truncheon. I went down on my knees, the wind completely knocked out of me. A couple of the lads dragged me up and took me over to a shop doorway to get my breath back. The police were attempting to clear a path for the NF march but were struggling against huge numbers of counter-demonstrators, and had begun to lash out with their truncheons. Some of the demon­strators were also trying to break through police lines in an attempt to get to where the NF were assembling. I managed to get my breath back, and although my shoulder was still very painful, I wasn’t at all put off, and threw myself back into the middle of the action.

The NF had gathered and under heavy police protection were readying themselves to march up Clifton Rise. Some people had managed to break through the police lines and as the march started the NF came under a hail of bricks and bottles. At the head of the march, I could see about twenty-five very heavy-looking guys. These, I later learned, were the NF’s Honour Guard, essentially a hand-picked protection squad for the Front’s leader, John Tyndall. A few yards behind them were the Colour Party, which consisted of about fifteen blokes carrying Union Jacks on metal-tipped flagpoles. The Colour Party marched in front of the main body of the NF supporters, which was surrounded by hundreds of policemen.

Several attempts were made to attack the march, which slowed its progress as the police struggled to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators. I threw a few bricks and stones at them, and also aimed a few kicks at one group who had broken away from the march to attack the anti-nazis. This lot were pummelled to the ground by fists and boots as superior numbers of counter-demonstrators piled into them. All along the route of the march the NF were getting serious problems as fighting and skirmishing broke out between the two sides. At one point the march was smashed completely in half as hundreds of anti-nazis broke through the ranks of police and engaged the Front in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.

On Lewisham Way, anti-racists and local people attacked the front of the march, and waded into the Honour Guard and Colour Party. The NF were now getting it from all sides…The Front did put up some resistance, and gave a good account of themselves at times, but they were completely outnumbered, and didn’t have the weapons to hand that we did. Fighting was still going on in several areas, with a lot of the NF supporters now looking the worse for wear, but even with police protection the march was eventually stopped on Lewisham High Street. Fronters were running around in a blind panic, and the march just seemed to disintegrate as wave after wave of attacks hit them from all sides. Shortly afterwards the police put them on coaches and trains in a bid to stop all the violence. However, small-scale skirmishing continued. NF coaches were bricked as they left the area and the police again attacked the counter-demonstrators. Fighting went on under the clock tower for quite a while after the NF had left Lewisham, with the police now armed with riot shields. I found out later that this was the first time that they had been used in England.”

Lewisham ’77 in literature (2): Tony Parsons

Writer Tony Parsons took part in the anti-National Front demonstrations in Lewisham in 1977. In his semi-autobiographical novel Stories We Could Tell (2005), Parsons tells the story of three young music journalists working in the summer of 1977 on The Paper ­– a music paper not unlike the New Musical Express which the young Tony Parsons worked on in this period. The Battle of Lewisham features heavily in the opening chapter, with one of the main characters (Leon Peck) taking part:

“And then – finally! – at the bottom of page 11, jostled into a corner by a massive ad for Aerosmith at Reading and a world exclusive on the break-up of Steeleye Span, there were a few brief paragraphs that held Leon’s interest and made his heart start pumping. The piece had his by-line.

The National Front plan to parade through a black neigh­bourhood this coming weekend. Hiding their racist views behind an anti-mugging campaign and countless Union Jacks, the NF plan to leave from Clifton Rise, New Cross. Their route and the time of the march remain undisclosed. A peaceful counter demonstration planned by local umbrella group the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) will assemble in Ladywell Fields, next to the British Rail Ladywell Station, at 11 a. m. Be there or be square.

The magazine had appeared on newsstands nationwide the previous Thursday, and in London as far back as last Wednesday. A lifetime away, thought Leon. Because last Saturday the march and the counter demonstration had combined to produce the biggest riot London had seen since the war. And Leon Peck had been there.

I was there, he thought, touching the bruise on his cheekbone where he had been clipped by the knee of a policeman on horse­back. I saw it happen. While many of his peers were dreaming of seeing Aerosmith at Reading, Leon had been in the middle of the riot at Lewisham, crushed in with the protesters being forced back by the police and their horses, and he had felt as if the world was ending.

Flags waving, bricks flying, policemen on horses riding into the crowds, the battle lines ebbing and flowing – screaming, righteous chaos all around. Orange smoke bombs on Lewisham High Street, the air full of masonry, dustbins, bottles and screams, taunts, chanting. The sound of plate-glass windows collapsing.

What he remembered most was the physical sensation of the riot, the way he experienced it in his blood and bones. His legs turning to water with terror as the air filled with missiles and the police spurred their horses into the crowd, his heart pumping at the sight of the loathing on the faces of the marchers, and the raging anger he felt at the sight of these bigots parading their racist views through a neighbourhood where almost everyone was black. He had never felt so scared in his life. And yet there was never a place where he was so glad to be…

Later that sunny Saturday, just when the riot was starting to feel like one of those visions he’d had when he was dropping acid in the lecture halls of the London School of Economics, Leon had stopped outside an electrical shop on Oxford Street and watched the news on a dozen different TV sets. The riot was the first story. The only story. A quarter of the Metropolitan Police Force had been there, and they couldn’t stop it…

The memory of Lewisham still made him shake with fear. The rocks showering down on the marchers. The faces twisted with hatred. The police lashing out with truncheon, boot or knee. The sudden eruption of hand-to-hand fighting as marcher or demonstrator broke through the police lines, fists and feet flying. And the horses, shitting themselves with terror as they were driven into the protesters. Lean knew how those horses felt. Lewisham had been the first violence that he had been involved in since a fight in the playground at junior school. And he lost that one. Mind you, Leon thought, she was a very big girl for nine…

It seemed to Leon that everyone he knew was living in some old Sixties dream. The people he worked with at The Paper, all of the readers, his father – especially his father,- a man who had belonged to CND for a few years but who now belonged to a golf club. What was wrong with them? Didn’t they realise it was time to take a stand? What did they think the National Front was doing marching in South London? He touched the bruise on his cheek again, and wished it could stay there for ever.

This wasn’t about some little style option – the choice between long hair or spiky, flared trousers or straight, Elvis or Johnny Rotten. It was about a more fundamental choice – not between the NF and the SWP, who were daubing their rival slogans all over the city, like the Sharks and Jets of political extremism – but the choice between evil, hatred, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and every­thing that was their opposite.” 

The Women’s Contingent

David Landau, who was present on the 13th August 1977, sent this to the Lewisham ’77 collective regarding a large women’s section of the anti-fascist mobilisation:

“I am surprised that there is no mention so far of the huge Women’s Contingent. Yes there was a big Lesbian and Gay contingent of a couple of hundred which is featured on the blog, but this stayed close to a specifically women’s contingent of about a thousand strong. This leads to my abiding memory from the day.

There was a contingent of Militant supporters on the corner of the high road and one of the side streets. A steward from the Women’s Contingent shouted “Women this way”. One of the Militant ‘comrades’ responded, “Really, can I have one”. There was a moment of silence and apprehension when a thousand women turned to the Militant contingent, thinking as one woman I imagine, whether to set upon the Militants. The moment was probably only half-a-second, but it seemed much longer. Then a number of women shouted things like “Later for you” and they moved off to form to take up their positions for the battle against the NF and the Police protecting them. Later, John Tyndale, then Fuhrer of the National Front, wrote about this contingent referring to them as having ‘rocks in their lead lined hand bags’.”

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The aftermath

According to the police:

– 2500 police were deployed on Saturday 13th August 1977;
– 270 police officers were injured, with 57 receiving hospital treatment;
– 57 members of the public were treated for injuries (the number of people injured but not receiving hospital treatment is unknown);
– seven police coaches were damaged (mostly with smashed windows);
– 214 people were arrested, of whom 202 were charged.

Source: Times 15.8.77 and 20.8.77.

The following day, Sunday 14th August 1977 : there were clashes near Speedwell House in Deptford (NB: This was a large council block, then run down and largely squatted; it was demolished a few years later).

Monday 15th August: 14 people appear in Court in Greenwich and Camberwell on charges arising from Saturday’s events, the first of 202 people charged. Three are remanded in custody accused of causing grievous bodily harm to policemen.

Of course racist and fascist activity continued in the area, as did resistance: just a few events that mark that:

On 18 December 1977: the Moonshot youth Club was gutted in a firebomb attack, shortly after a newspaper reports that burning down the Club was discussed at a National Front meeting.

14 July 1978: Fire at the Albany centre in Deptford (then at 47 Creek Road), which had hosted Rock Against Racism gigs. A note was pushed through the door the following day saying ‘Got you’.

18 January 1981: 13 young black people, aged between 15 and 20, are killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road. Police reported initially that fire was caused by a fire bomb, leading many to believe that it was a racist attack.

25 January 1981: mass meeting at the rebuilt Moonshot Club, followed by a demonstration of over 1000 people to the scene of the fire, blocking New Cross Road for several hours.

2 March 1981: Black People’s Day of Action called by New Cross Massacre Action Committee, 20,000 people march from Fordham Park in New Cross to Hyde Park with slogans including ’13 dead and nothing said’.

Sources: Kentish Mercury (KM), South London Press (SLP), Times.

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 former Anti-Nazi League founder Peter Hain (later of course a Labour MP and 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, volume two, edited by Peter Hain (London: John Calder, 1980), p.184-187 .

The Lewisham 77 walk on film

Paolo Cardullo, who edited a film of the 2007 Lewisham 77 walk, has embedded the video on his website here. The film features Red Saunders, Hari Kunzru, Balwinder Rana, Amina Mangara, Neil Transpontine, and many others.

John Lockwood on the significance of the Battle of Lewisham

John Lockwood was one of the speakers at the Lewisham ’77 commemorative event. at Goldsmiths in November 2007 (see below). He was active in the local anti-racist movement while a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths in the late 1970s. Here we print his personal reflections on the politics of the Battle of Lewisham.

“The events of Lewisham were a great victory for the myriad forces of anti racism in Britain. This was an historic victory in the sense that it changed the balance of forces between the left / liberal masses and the fascist / racist alliance that had underpinned the N.F. project and in the end…changed the course of history.

On both sides of this divide there were “broad churches”. The hardcore nazis were, then as now, very few in number, perhaps a few hundred. They needed to deploy the tens of thousands of young, poor and disaffected white youth who, whilst being violently racist were not (or not yet) fully fledged fascists. Drawing on the teachings of their master, Adolf Hitler, they sought to deliver

“great demonstrations and mass rallies [through which] we instil in the minds of the little man that although he is a worm he is part of a mighty dragon.”

On our side of the divide there was a broad alliance between socialists (revolutionary and other) and “small l” liberals. Broadly speaking the socialists, informed by the above rationale, and inspired by recent successes at Wood Lane, wanted to physically confront and, by force of numbers, prevent the nazi march.. The liberals wanted to avoid any confrontation and simply display their condemnation of racism and fascism.

Personally, I never doubted the anti-racist conviction of the liberal camp but between us there was a massive gulf. We believed that if we could win the majority of non-aligned anti-racists to our position, we could break the back of the National Front. If, however, we failed to win that argument and Lewisham had been just another in the long line of anti fascist skirmishes, then nothing would have been put in the way of the fastest growing political force in Europe.

It is perhaps ironic that the most vociferous voices in the “liberal” camp were those of the C.P.G.B [Communist Party of Great Britain] whilst others who might have been expected to be card carrying (small l) liberals defied expectations… At a key stage in the bitter debates within A.L.C.R.A.F., the Communist Party proposed (as an alternative to the counter demo) an anti-racist music and poetry event involving socialist folk songs and Christian hymns, humanist poetry and prayer… but it wasn’t the far left who demolished this idea. It was a priest who declared:

“prayers: what the hell is the point of that… we need to be in Clifton Rise [the N.F. assembly point]”

…although we are frequently accused of such manoeuvres, I swear he was not a Trotskyist entryist within the clergy.

A second major contention dividing socialist and liberal ideas concerned the absolute right to free speech… many decent ant-racist people felt very troubled by the call to deny the streets to Nazis citing free speech rights. The events following the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall (1976) illustrate the absurdity of this position.

Following this murder, N.F. chairman, John Kingsley Reed, declared

“that’s one down, one million to go”

…this incitement to mass murder was contrary to new race laws… He was charged and brought to court but rather than finding himself banged up he was told by the judge:

“I wish you well in your project”

…the judge didn’t clarify if the project in question was that of genocide.

After this fiasco the absolute right of free speech seemed indefensible. If John Kingsley Reed’s freedom to campaign for genocide is absolute. And if the right of black people to walk our streets unmolested is absolute. And if these two absolute freedoms are mutually exclusive then are we not entitled to pose the question: Which of these two freedoms is the higher freedom? No sane person could be troubled by this choice.

As history records, August 13 1977, was not just another in a long list of anti-fascist skirmishes, it was the day that the Nazis were dealt a blow from which they have never, to this day, recovered.”

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The November 10 Lewisham ’77 event at Goldsmiths

The following report of this event is extracted from an article that appeared in the CUCR magazine Street Signs in early 2008.

In November 2007, around 140 people came to an event at Goldsmiths about the Battle of Lewisham. We opened the day by screening the Rock Against Racism documentary, I Shot the Sheriff.  Both Lewisham ’77 and the local branch of Unite Against Fascism brought exhibitions on the story of racism locally.

The first session explored different memories of 1977. Ted Parker, then an SWP organiser and now principal of Barking College, told the story of the organisation of the anti-fascist mobilisation, powerfully evoking the extraordinary passion and commitment of rank and file leftists. Balwinder Rana, still an SWP activist, told the story of the routine attacks by the National Front in the 1970s in Kent and South London on Asian and leftist targets, and of the defence organised by the Asian Youth Movement and SWP. The anarchist Martin Lux contextualised the events of 1977 against a longer story of mounting conflict between fascists and anti-fascists through the 1970s. Lez Henry, formerly of Goldsmiths Sociology, described the routine harassment of black youth in the area by white adults influenced by the NF, and by the police. He also described how resistance to this was informed by mounting political consciousness, exemplified by the black history teaching black youth organised locally. John Lockwood, a teacher who was imprisoned and banned from teaching South of the river for his participation in the Battle of Lewisham, told the story of the Deptford Anti-Racist Committee (DARC) and its involvement in the planning of the August 13 demonstrations. The session was concluded by chair Malcolm Ball, who reflected on the way that the events of that day changed the lives of so many of the local people.

This session was followed by a screening of five films commissioned for Lewisham ’77. Local collaborative film-making project Deptford.TV have agreed to help film and archive the Lewisham ’77 process. A number of Deptford TV film-makers filmed the September walk, which CUCR PhD student Paulo Cardullo edited into a ten-minute film. Students from the Goldsmiths Screen Documentary MA made a number of short films with veterans of 1977.

A second session moved from commemorating the day to thinking through its contemporary significance. Paul Gilroy, formerly of CUCR and Goldsmiths Sociology, gave a powerful list of some of the things that stood out about that day in 1977 (such as the “masculinism” and “smashism” of much of the left, but also the presence of large contingents of women there as women), and some of the things that have changed today (such as the presence of guns on the streets of South London now). Les Back of Goldsmiths Sociology made a moving and thoughtful intervention, reflecting on the parasitical nature of racist ideology – which now speaks a language of “identity” co-opted from multiculturalism – and of the “nervous system” of today’s fear-driven and security-obsessed racist imaginary. Dave Landau of No One is Illegal made a strong case for the relationship of far right organising and state anti-immigration laws, and made a plea for the anti-racist movement to seriously reckon with the politics of immigration. Finally, Jarman Parmar of the Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group, made the connection to the on-going struggle against racism locally.

The day confirmed the central principle of the Lewisham ’77 project: that there is no single correct version of history, but instead history is something to be contested and discussed. Rather than simply romanticising the events of 1977 (although it is right to see them as heroic), the event made it clear that there are a number of competing narratives into which it fits. Exemplified by a disagreement over whether the soundtrack to the event – blasted out of the window of a flat on Clifton Rise from speakers set up between pots of geraniums – was Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” or Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” – no single memory can claim a monopoly. Was the Anti-Nazi League, which arose out of the day, the culmination of a vibrant tradition of militant anti-fascism, or a diversion away from it? Which was more significant, the presence of the “white” left or of local black youth? Was the black presence in the confrontation the result of spontaneous anger at racism, or part of a conscious and sophisticated analysis of the political situation?

A second point of contention was over to what extent the Battle of Lewisham model can be imposed today. This was exemplified by the heated debate over whether calling the NF then (and particularly the BNP now) “Nazis” is an effective anti-racist strategy or whether it plays into a Little England patriotic WWII narrative. It was also exemplified by the debate over the continued relevance of the “no platform for fascists” policy and, for example, whether it should be applied to the handful of NF hands who then marched through Bermondsey every year.

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PS: In memory of Paul Hendrich

The lovely Paul Hendrich played a central part in the Lewisham ’77 collective and was crucial to the commemoration passing off with what we generally thought as relative success. Only a few months later, Paul was tragically killed in a bicycle accident in New Cross, on Wednesday 16th January.

A colleague wrote at the time of his death: “Paul was a very special person with some extremely rare qualities. His life was committed to engaging an everyday struggle against racism. His dissertation for the MA Applied Anthropology and Community and Youth Work, ‘Charting a new course for Deptford Town Hall’ (2006), developed through a campaign he initiated with the student union and led to further work
commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, including the Sankofa Reconciliation Walk in chains to Deptford Town Hall that he organised. He was then part of a
group that hosted a conference at Goldsmiths to commemorate the Battle of Lewisham. Just before he died, he began a refugee health drop-in service in South London. Paul held a passionate belief that anthropology could and should be used for, and rethought through, the struggle against racism and
it is this that guided his engagement with academia and his commitment to youth work. He deeply touched the lives of the staff and students at Goldsmiths as well as community activists by his commitment to this cause through campaigns, talks and conferences that he organised and participated in.

Paul completed his Masters with a distinction, a fact that he was quietly proud of, especially since he was the first person in his family to go to university. His brilliant dissertation will be published in the April
issue of Anthropology Matters with an editorial from Alpa Shah. Goldsmiths Anthropology was particularly fortunate that Paul decided to pursue a PhD with us. At the time of his death, he was preparing to sail
to Arizona, USA to research the various forms of activism that have taken shape around undocumented cross-border migration of Mexicans into the US.

Paul’s enthusiasm, generosity, kindness and inclusiveness drew everyone he met into the broader issues that he was thinking about and working on and those who were fortunate to know him could appreciate what a great youth worker he was and what a great field researcher he would have been. Paul’s research would have continued to make us rethink the theoretical and practical issues of engaging anthropology as praxis, and his death will be deeply mourned throughout Goldsmiths.

Paul was 36 years old; he was married to Sasha and had a one-year old daughter, Agatha, at the time of his death.

Rest In Power, Paul.

Today in London healthcare history, 1978: Bethnal Green Hospital staff launch Work-in

The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. Hospital staff at Bethnal Green were told in October 1977 that the local Area Health Authority wanted to reduce services at the hospital to just care of the elderly. A campaign was mounted to safeguard its future.

In the early-mid 1970s, with pressures on the NHS mounting as life expectancy became longer, but global economic meltdown having a sharp effect on resources, successive UK governments made decisions which would have a long term effect on hospital building and closures. This would have a particular impact in London, considered to have a disproportionately high number of acute hospital services compare to the rest of the country, especially the north of England. The Labour government elected in 1974 adopted a policy of relocation of resources from the southeast to the north of Britain; in NHS terms this was focused through the Resource Allocation Working Party, set up in July 1975.

In reality, however, RAWP represented not a massive increase in resources to other regions of the UK – in the context of the recession, it meant merely that these areas were being cut slightly less severely than in London.

And cuts in London were to become very harsh.

The Bethnal Green Infirmary in London’s East End opened in 1900, built on land purchased from the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.  The 4.5 acre site had previously contained a chapel – the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel – and had been known as Palestine Place.  The clock from the demolished Chapel was installed on the tower of the administration block.

The three-storey red brick building was designed to accommodate 669 patients and was intended mainly for the chronically ill (by 1901 it had 619 in-patients) and this remained so until WW1.

In 1915 civilian in-patients were moved to St George-in-the-East Hospital or to the workhouse in Waterloo Road and the military authorities took over the building for wounded soldiers – it became the Bethnal Green Military Hospital under the London District Command.  It had 709 beds for wounded and sick servicemen.  During this time a pathology laboratory was installed.

Only in 1920 did all the patients and staff return.  A wider range of services were added, including an Orthopaedic Clinic, established at the request of the Ministry of Pensions, to provide treatment for ex-servicemen with damaged joints. By 1929 Casualty and X-ray Departments and admission wards had been opened and an operating theatre was being constructed.  There was also a VD clinic (which closed in 1952).

The LCC took control of the administration in 1930, when the Hospital had 650 beds, of which 551 were occupied.

During WW2 the Hospital suffered minor bomb damage. In 1948 it joined the NHS as the Bethnal Green Hospital and came under the control of the Central Group of the North East Metropolitan Region.  By this time it had considerably fewer beds, just over 300.

In 1953 there were 313 beds, with an average occupancy of 260.

A geriatric unit was established in 1954.  In the same year the Group Pathology Laboratory was sited here and served the Central Group hospitals – Mile End Hospital, St Leonard’s Hospital, East End Maternity Hospital, St Matthew’s Hospital, Mildmay Mission Hospital, the London Jewish Hospital and the Metropolitan Hospital(all of which have now also closed).

During the 1960s a new dental hospital, a pathology institute and a School of Nursing and Midwifery were established.  In 1966 the Postgraduate Medical Education Centre opened.  In the same year the Central Group was dissolved and the Hospital joined the East London Group.

The Obstetrics Department closed in 1972.  In yet another NHS reorganisation in 1974, during the first wave of cutbacks in the NHS, the Hospital passed to the control of Tower Hamlets District, under the auspices of the City & East London Area Health Authority.  In the same year the Gynaecology department closed.

From 1977 the role of the Hospital changed from acute to geriatric care, with 167 acute beds closing and being replaced by 120 geriatric beds for the patients transferred from St Matthew’s Hospital.

When plans to heavily cut the hospital services were announced in 1977, a campaign to defend them and try to overturn the decision was launched. The hospital was still working to capacity, and its patients would have nowhere to go if its facilities were withdrawn, except to extend already over-long waiting lists.

As socialist doctor David Widgery noted, the cuts took “no account of social deprivation or incidence of disease in awarding resources, relying simply on out-of-date mortality rates. The result is a geographical interpretation rather than a class one, generating the lunacy of designating areas like Tower Hamlets, hackney and Brent as possessing more than their fare share of resources, which are therefore deemed suitable for siphoning off to East Anglia.” Widgery, a junior casualty officer in the hospital, was elected hair of the Save Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign.

A Tower Hamlets Action Committee was established with over 700 people attending the first meeting held on 24th November 1977. The campaign included support from GPs, regular picketing of the hospital, huge meetings and strikes and stoppages across East London…

On the 28th January 1978 over 500 attended a march from Weavers Field to the London Hospital to protest at the closures.

In March it was agreed that a regular picketing of the hospital should take place to highlight the plight of the hospital

On the 16th March 1978 at another huge meeting Bethnal Green Hospital was declared unanimously a “protected hospital”

A planned march against hospital closures in East London arranged by Plaistow Hospital campaign on 18th March was banned by the police due to events at the anti-fascist protest in Lewisham in August 1977.

10th March a 2 hour stoppage was staged in five East London hospital’s in opposition to the health cuts

30th March 1978: East London Hospital unions called strike action in nine hospitals for between six and twenty four hours, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals stop all routine work for 24 hours. Strikes had spread to local brewery workers, posties and printers. 800 campaigners marched to the Health Authority headquarters to protest.

102 East End GPs had signed a letter objecting to the cuts.

Meanwhile, the staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital.

On 1st July 1978 at 8pm, the time of the official closure, the hospital staff, applauded by a large crowd of local people and filmed by the News at Ten (ITV) put up a notice announcing the occupation of the casualty unit at Bethnal Green hospital. Detailed arrangements are made with medical staff, GP’s , the Emergency Bed Service (EBS) to guarantee admissions and safety. The first hospital casualty work-in in history began, with patients arriving at 8:02.

The only people to move out of the hospital were the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, locals continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls.

While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.

On the 30th July managers arrived at the hospital threatening staff with legal action, nursing staff instruct under threat of dismissal to move, medical staff who refuse to do so were “harangued” and threatened. The Bethnal Green Hospital work-in was called off on 30th July 1978 having treated over one thousand local patients.

An account of the campaign written shortly after the smashing of the occupation:

“The Green is a medium sized general hospital in a part of East London with notoriouly high incidence of illness and a community health service which is only now emerging from decades of neglect. It has about 280 in-patient beds and sees nearly 48,000 cases each year in its casualty and outpatient clinics.

It is no medical derelict; from the specialist hip replacement unit, its patients’ kitchens, reputed to be the best in East London to its excellent postgraduate Medical Centre it’s a busy working hospital with high medical standards and unusually good relations with general practitioners.

But, Enter The Cuts. The Tower Hamlets District not only have the national nil-growth ceiling now strictly enforced by the cash limit which was introduced as part of the IMF’s loan terms. It also has the RAWP (Regional Allocation Working Party) tax to pay.

RAWP is a classical social-democratic cock-up; designed to level up the regionally uneven levels of medical spending noted by socialist critics in the 1960s. Now in the 1970s it has become a formula for rationalising cuts. RAWP shifts still more money out of the Thames regions, long overdue fireproofing and internally financed pay increases for junior doctors further reduce the Tower Hamlets District coffers already ravaged by the rocketing supply costs, especially of drugs.

It’s a national story but East London is feeling the full impact first and hardest. The Tower Hamlets Health District are attempting to ‘save’ £2 million or 300 beds (beds aren’t strictly the things with mattresses on but a unit of medical currency). This abolishes at a stroke, 1 in every 3 acute bed in the district although last winter the existing beds were frequently chock-a-bloc.

The scheme was to smother the Green quietly, under the guise of a conversion, labelled temporary but likely to be permanent, to an all geriatric ghetto. This would achieve the rquired acute beds cut without involving the other better organised hospitals and care.

But the plan blew up in their face and the battle to save the Green has achieved the widest working class action against the cuts so far in London this year.

An increasingly vicious management succeeded in smashing the 24-hour casualty work-in which had run throughout July on 1 August by withdrawing staff and threatening senior medical staff involved with legal action. But it has proved a Pyrrhic victory and at the Council, the Community Health Council, the hospital and general unions against them and the East London public in angry mood.

There is now no chance of conversion to the all-geriatric unit unless at least some of the demands of the Campaign – retention of medical beds, open X-ray services, the Postgraduate Centre, a 9-5 Casualty Station – are met.

What is important to realise is the very slender basis from which the campaign was nursed. The Green has an unhappy trade union past and was clearly seen by management as a push over, especially since the all-geriatric future gave the impression that jobs would be safe.

For months a tiny committee of staff who wanted to make a stand, and local people, did careful groundwork, sat through visiting know-alls who would monopolise a meeting and not be seen again, petitioned GPs, tried to change the pessimistic mood inside the hospital. Only two years ago when the Metropolitan, a Hackney hospital opened in 1886, was closed, its secretary said, ‘The staff have been incredibly loyal and have steadfastly refused to strike and now it is us who face the chop’. The Green could easily have had the same obituary.

Carefully argued critiques of the plans were put into the complicated ritual of paper shifting called ‘consultation’ but at the same time Green campaigners knocked, wrote, and implored the entire local trade union movement to rise to the issue.

After two highly successful public meetings, the biggest the York Hall could recall, the Campaign called its first two hours stoppage on 10 March and in much trepidation. Myrna Shaw, NALGO shop steward remembers:

‘We stepped out of this hospital yesterday to give two hours to the community and in the true spirit of the East End we found the community waiting for us.

‘Anyone who could not be stirred by the sight must be dead. There were the massed banners of the trades councils and the trade unions. The Ambulance men were there and the Tenants’ Associations. St. Bartholomew’s turned up and St. Leonards, St. Mathew’s and St. Clement’s.

‘We picked up contingents from Mile End Hospital and The London on the way. Hospital chaplains marched – so did doctors, nurses, social workers, town hall staff, GLC staff, people from the breweries, local industries and teachers. Apologies to anyone left out.

‘If you lost your place in the procession it was hard to find anyone you knew when you went back. Best of all our own staff marched – from every Department in the Hospital’.

Behind that unity lay careful groundwork. 103 local GPs had been canvassed and stated that the closure was ‘a disastrous mistake’. The local community nurses stated ‘it would be difficult for us to cope with a large increase in our work load even if our staffing levels were increased’.

The social workers stated ‘The hospital has greatly enhanced the service we are able to give, its loss would greatly diminish it’. But the 1974 re-organisation scheme has established a pattern of medical autocracy which is virtually impossible to dent with reason and damned hard to affect with force.

After a three month reprieve which was clearly designed to defuse rather than encourage the supporters, instructions were issued for closure of the Casualty, the first step in the change of use, on 1 August at 8.00 p.m.

Once a closure date had been stated, down to the hour the phoney war was over. A Joint Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee elected by the East London Health Shop Stewards had been arguing out the implications of the Green’s closure for the general patterns of cuts in East London and tightening up its own organisation and communications.

When it called strike action, even at notice of days rather than weeks, the response was splendid. The day before the attempted closure nine local hospitals stopped simultaneous, St Barts and The London were solid for 24 hours, and many industrial supporters came out spontaneously too. 300 locals were outside the hospital gates as 8.00 p.m. arrived and at 8.01 a sign went up ‘Casualty OPEN under staff control’. Within minutes, long planned agreements with the ambulance and emergency bed service unions went into action.

Over the next few weeks, the Casualty, which the administration still insisted was closed, saw and treated more patients than in the same month the previous year. And the pickets outside the hospital now really had something to defend. The six point motion moved by Mrs Henrietta Cox of NUPE had done its work in each respect:

The staff of Bethnal Green Hospital declare that the Casualty Department will stay open. We declare we have no confidence in the DMT. We resolve to elect a committee representing all the staff to make sure casualty runs as usual. We call on ambulance staff, the BBS and local GPs to support us. We call on workers in other London hospitals to take any action necessary to support us. We call on our unions to organise supportative action. We ask the people of East London to support us!

It took the management a full month to break the Casualty work in. After early attempts to withdraw staff and victimise the other hospitals and ambulance men who defied their official instruction that the Green was closed, direct and legal pressure was put on the rebel consultants and nursing staff forcibly transferred within the district.

It is important to realise that a work-in is not a universal panacea. Its remarkable success at the EGA depends on the special cases of consultants in the very specialised women-treating-women field, for which no real equivalent alternative can be offered. But in most hospitals, consultants can be only too easily bought off with promises of new, perhaps better, facilities in other hospitals in the districts.

And such is the independent power of the consultant in the NHS structure that medical work simply cannot continue without their approval, even though they are are only on the premises for a small part of the time. Management, too, are learning from the EGA, especially in finding ways to pressurise nursing staff who are most vulnerable to hospital discipline.

The Bethnal Green work-in could never have worked without the very remarkable devotion of a consultant physician John Thomason and the hospital’s casualty officer, Kutty Divakaran.

But the Health Authority still hold the trump card: the ability to transfer staff. Short of running an alternative private health service, paid for by collection, within the hospital there was little to do but protest when an ‘Invisible Hounslow’ took place.

There was further strike and public protest on the day of the final forced closure. But the battle has now moved into a second phase, to prevent the conversion to the all-geriatric dumping ground so many staff and locals oppose because its notorious effect on morale and nursing and medical standards by insisting the remaining medical, postgraduate, X-ray, ECG and outpatient services stay put.

This time round it will be that much more simple to convince the Community Health Council, the Council and the statutory bodies who found the initial package plausible, of the real intent of the management; quite savage cuts in a area which is crying out for more resources. And to prevent the destruction of an excellent community-based hospital with no planned alternative.

Already there are ‘lessons’ galore. DMPs all over the country are finding increasing resistance to their attempts to enforce cuts. Not only are older community hospitals like St Nicks and The Green (which do need change but, with imagination, could find an important inner city role) being forced into closure, but completed new hospitals are unstaffed, and long promised and long needed facilities, such at Hemel Hempstead are postponed. 30 threatened hospitals joined a torchlit vigil on the 30th Birthday of the NHS in London alone.

Despite the BMA and Ennals, medical staff and unions are finding common cause and using sophisticated types of industrial action to force their case – at a time when the rest of the labour movement has its fists firmly in the pocket. Occupations live, it seems, in the NHS, if they have been forgotten in Clydeside. For the Bethnal Green battle and that of the EGA and Hounslow before it, will have to be repeated all over Britain as we descend further, further down the course established by Ennals, who is to British hospitals what Henry the Eighth was to British monasteries.

Here in East London the particular emotional significance of the hospital, and the genuine gratitude felt to the NHS, has given the campaign a moral pungency and unity which have done something to revive the flagging fortunes of East London labour whose greatest days seemed all to be in the Museum. With the steadfastness of the young Bengalis in Brick Lane, the limbering up of the docks unofficial committee and the fightback on the hospital cuts, the sleeping lion of East London labour is stirring.

If hospital workers just plead for passive support, it’s simply a case of wishing them well. But once the hospital unions take strike action or mount a work-in, the question becomes active. We are doing something, what are you going to do? Suddenly the all powerful authorities can look extremely isolated.

As for the politics of the situation, the weakness of the Communist Party is quite startling. Even ten years ago they would have delivered a formidable industrial punch but now their support is well-meaning, inexperienced and a bit airy fairy.

The left of the Labour Party, especially ousted councillors, have been excellent but must face the fact that it is a Labour minister, Roland Moyle who gave the Green the Ministerial Kick in the teeth. Even Mikardo, who has taken up The Green like the fighter he is, may oppose cuts in his constituency but voted for the package nationally. On the ground it has been independent trade union activists, local socialist feminist groups and the SWP who have run the campaign.

The lack of response from the hospital unions at a London level or nationally has been truly scandalous. Reviewing the annual conferences this year, it’s clear that the bureaucracy considers cuts were last year’s thing. It seems even possible that NUPE and the DHSS have an agreement, off the record, to let certain hospitals go without a fight.

Fisher has made not one visit to a hospital where his members are putting their necks on the block against the very cuts that he used to establish his own credibility as a campaigning union leader. The informal networks, Hospital Worker, and now the excellent Fightback co-ordinating committee based on the shell of Hounslow Hospital have been worth 100 times more than another Alan Fisher TV appearance.

The success of the cuts is not just a financial saving and a worse service. It is a code word for a social counter-revolution, a crueller, harsher Britain. The hospital service planned for us will consist of highly centralised (and incidentally absurdly expensive) units run more and more like factories to achieve maximum efficiency in ‘through-put’ and a few sub-hospitals for geriatrics and sub-normality practicing third world third-class custodial medicine. The sick who fall between those two stools will have to trust its luck to something called the community’ which is itself busy being destroyed.

It is this Dismal New World every cuts battles faces head on. And because of the degree to which the Labour Party has become the agent of financial capitalist orthodoxy, that even the most minor closure has to be fought up to cabinet level. The battle against the cuts, like the battle for the right to work, are part of a bigger battle to reshape the priorities of modern Britain. If it seems at times unrewarding, it is where real socialists should be building.

(taken from International Socialism, June 1977)

In the end, the surgical beds closed in 1978 and the remaining medical beds in 1979.

The Bethnal Green work-in may have been defeated in the most immediate terms. However, as the first occupation of a casualty ward, it received a huge amount of publicity, and encouraged a succession of hospital occupations and work-ins, from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson work-in onwards.

In 1990 the Hospital closed entirely.  Patients and staff were transferred to the newly opened Bancroft Unit for the Care of the Elderly at the Royal London Hospital (Mile End).

Here’s a short film on the later campaign to keep the rest of the Bethnal Green Hospital open, dating from 1984

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London workers’ history, 1972: Briant printing works occupied to prevent closure

Who needs bosses? Workers could take over running things themselves tomorrow without even a hiccup…

The firm of Briant Colour Printing was established in the 19th century, owned by the Kitson  family. In 1968 the firm moved to a brand new custom built factory at 651-87 Old Kent Road, (close to the junction of modern Hyndman Street).

Briant’s Workforce was unionised and highly organised: they had fought for, and won, some of the best pay and conditions going, including getting Mayday off as a paid holiday in the late 1960s. Apparently the workers staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies. They also had a long tradition of supporting other workers in struggle… including striking against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, and supporting striking miners and dockers in 1972.

Owner Timothy Kitson was a tory MP in 1970s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minster Ted Heath). The hardcore autonomy of the Bryant workers was not just irritating to the firm’s management, it was personally embarrassing for him… Shame.

The Kitsons sold Briant in early 1972, to Derek Syder, with James McNaughton, of paper merchants Robert Horne (Briant’s biggest creditor) installed as Managing Director.

On June 21 1972, 150 or so workers were told the firm was going into liquidation. At a mass meeting same day, the workers decided to fight the closure: they secured the place, threw out the liquidating directors & declared a work-in to save their jobs. (One manager caught inside was not allowed to leave till money owed to the social club from management was paid up!)

The Times (24 June 1972) reported: ‘About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food’.

The workers then ran the factory themselves, (until June 1973, when a new owner reopened it)  a going concern during the work-in, during which they attempted to pay themselves a wage (see below in the attached account for the limitations on this). During the occupation, they published their own paper, the BCP Workers News, on 24 hr rosters, with a 50 strong security crew on a 3 shift system. They managing the plant, sorted out supplies of paper and ink etc, organised liaison with clients… A Management committee was created from the workforce, also a procurement committee. They had local support – “A local militant OAP comes in to make the tea”. The work-in was reasonably successful: they had some problems paying bills, but no services were cut off.

The occupiers barred access to the plant to prospective buyers arranged by liquidators; any sale was therefore presented. Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

Under occupation, Bryant printed lots of material for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation… In July ’72, after the Pentonville 5 had just been jailed, they led first march to Pentonville Prison, diverting a march of their own to Clerkenwell Green. their staunch support of other workers was returned in kind with mass support for the work-in by other sectors.

The occupation was served with 1000s of writs and injunctions – all of which were burned outside the law courts on Bryant demos! A paper plant in Tower Bridge Road, owned by the Robert Horne group of companies was successfully picketed by the occupiers, for a month. Their logic was that Robert Horne – supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose drivers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times, 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972). These pickets led to the first deployment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.

There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control: ‘The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner’ (Times, 14.12.1972)

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Workers resumed normal capitalist operations on 3rd July 1973. But this was a false dawn – on 16 November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices (some turned up for work to find themselves locked out), and installing security guards and alsatians to keep workers out.

We’re not sure if that was the end of the story – transpontine came across a reference to ‘vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974’ (this could be an error in dating by the author, or suggesting workers carried on the struggle after the lockout).

However, even if the occupation thus eventually failed to fulfil its original goal, to save jobs, it was seen by its participants as a success, partly because in the short term it did save jobs, and partly, and more importantly, because the participants felt that their taking action was an important element in the wider struggle against redundancies as well as an exciting learning process for themselves..

In 2002 there was a 30-year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the name for a printing shop steward).

Thanks as ever to Transpontine, the top South East London blogzine, in which a brief description of the occupation can be found…

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The following account and analysis of the Briant Colour Printing occupation mainly rests on a 62 pages long chapter in a Danish book on strikes and factory occupations in Great Britain during the early 1970s (Knudsen and Sandahl, 1974), a chapter which primarily builds on nine interviews conducted with BCP workers in January 1973 and information obtained from ‘BCP News’, the newsletter that was published by the occupiers.

An outline of the occupation

When it was announced that BCP was to be closed the notice given to the 130 employees was extremely short. On 21 June 1972 the shop stewards (or fathers or mothers of the chapel as they were termed in accordance with traditions in the printing trade)) were called to a meeting at the management office at 1.45 pm. Here, they were told by the managing director and a person who presented himself as the liquidator that BCP was going into voluntary liquidation and was closing immediately so that all workers were dismissed and should not return to work. The worker representatives were told that the workers at a later stage would get as much as possible of the pay and holiday entitlement that the company owed them. The reasons given for the closure were that BCP had recently incurred heavy losses and that the main creditor, the paper wholesaler Robert Horne Group, was not willing to grant further credits or postponement of payment of debts.

After the meeting the shop stewards briefly discussed the situation with each other. They decided to call a meeting for the whole workforce and to put forward the proposal of an occupation. The idea of an occupation was not alien to them. They knew about the prolonged one that had taken place at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and others such as the ones at Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria, and they had themselves taken the initiative to a one-day sit-in in April 1971 against a management proposal to reduce staff. In the atmosphere of chock and anger that characterised the feelings among shop stewards as well as the entire workforce, the idea of an occupation appeared as the only alternative to going home without a job and without pay for work already done. The meeting unanimously decided to occupy the premises. It all happened very quickly. Bill Freeman, a shop steward who was to become the formal as well as de facto leader of the occupation, formulated it like this:

“At 3 o’clock we had the factory completely under our control. There were guards by all doors, all windows were barricaded, and nobody or nothing could get out of or into the factory without our consent. At 1.45 they had told us to get out; at 3 we had thrown them out.”

The decision to occupy was a spontaneous decision; it was triggered by what was perceived as an utterly unjust and irrational management decision, a decision that provoked a strong sense of anger and of having been conned and let down. BCP was a relatively modern and technologically up-to-date print shop. In 1967 the firm had established itself in new buildings and with modern machinery at the Old Kent Road. Due to economic recession and increased competition the years 1970 and 1971 had been difficult ones for BCP, with a turn-over that was well below the capacity of the establishment. In July 1971, apparently after pressure from the Robert Horne Group, a change in ownership took place. A Mr. Syder, who already was established with several firms in the printing industry, bought the establishment for merely £27,750. In May 1972 a new managing director was appointed. The post was given to a person who had formerly been a director at Hornes. At a meeting with the shop stewards, less than two months before the liquidation announcement was given, the new managing director promised a bright future for the BCP including increasing turn-over and substantial investments in new equipment. Actually, things did look bright at that time. Turn-over in April-May 1972 amounted to £117,000 as against £70,000 in the same months the year before, and the order book stood at £139,000 compared to £47,000 one year earlier.

Against this background management’s contention that BCP was running at a considerable loss sounded odd to the workers. A subsequent attempt by the occupiers to analyse the financial situation of BCP led the workers to the conclusion that the deficit was due to the fact that assets had been transferred to the owner and his other firms. They believed the Robert Horne Group was behind these transactions and, ultimately, the decision to close BCP, perhaps because the group wanted to take over the piece of land at which BCP was placed. What was the real story behind the closure never became known. However, the impression that emerged and stabilised itself among the workers was that the alleged losses were not due to any lack of efficiency and productivity in the print shop or among its workers. Rather, they saw themselves as victims of cold, financial speculations. This interpretation also gained strength due to a particular event at the beginning of the occupation. Whilst the workers thought they had evicted all management representatives (except for foremen who were invited to stay), it turned out that one person had remained in the offices at the first floor of the building. He was found the next day where it also became evident that his task had been to destroy as much as possible of the documents that could shed light on the financial situation of BCP.

After the decision to occupy had been taken the next step was to form an organisation that could govern the occupation. A joint chapel consisting of all workers at BCP was founded and designed as the occupation’s highest authority. It was to function through weekly plenary meetings. The joint chapel elected an action committee that should serve as the joint chapel’s executive body. The action committee had to carry out decisions taken at the plenary, handle contacts with the press, the trade unions and employers as well as act here and now if anything should come up between the weekly meetings. The committee consisted of 12 persons, namely the six shop stewards and their substitutes. One of the shop stewards, Bill Freeman, was elected as chairman of the committee. Later in the process this organisation structure was supplemented with several sub-committees dealing with issues such as production, security, public relations etc.

The first days and weeks of the occupation were full of activities aimed at organising and consolidating the occupation. Although it was decided to call the occupation a ‘work-in’ and continue working, the main concern was to defend the premises against possible attacks from the police. Rotas were organised to ensure that the entrances were guarded at all times, and during the first weeks demonstrations and mass meetings were organised to show that the occupiers were not alone. Thousands of workers showed up at these events to show their solidarity. Other activities were aimed at organising facilities that made it possible to stay at BCP all day and night round: food, beds etc.

However, at the same time the BCP workers continued to work and use their skills as graphical workers. The work was of three types. Firstly, work went into making PR-material for their own action, mainly in the form of a newsletter that was printed in 80,000 copies at certain intervals. Secondly, work was freely supplied to other workers engaged in industrial action. As an example, they supported actions staged by the dock workers, not only by being active in the demonstrations and picketing organised by the dockers, but also by printing posters and leaflets in support of five dock workers who were jailed in Pentonville prison in July 1972 due to allegedly unlawful industrial action. Another example was the printing of a ‘victory bulletin’ for the UCS workers. Thirdly, production on a business basis to some extent continued. Orders that were being carried out at the time of the liquidation were completed, and customers were urged to place new orders. Some existing customers did so, and at the same time new customers, mainly trade unions and left wing organisations, appeared. However, the turn-over, amounting to less than £30,000 for the first six months of the occupation, was only a small fraction of full production.

For this reason, a further important task was to raise incomes that could sustain the occupiers. Two sources were particularly important. One was the trade unions to which the BCP workers belonged, the most important ones being the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). They all decided to declare the action staged by the BCP workers official and consequently paid out strike support. The other one was contributions from people who sympathised with the action, whether they came from  print workers in Fleet Street who had signed up for a weekly levy, or from people gathered at trade union meetings, tenants’ meetings, students’ meetings etc. Bill Freeman was enthusiastic about the support:

“Money has come from so to speak everywhere, from all parts of the country, from abroad, from people on the shop floor, shop steward committees, factories, from voluntary collections, tenants’ organisations, political parties, churches, pensioners, even school children have given money, anybody.”

Nevertheless, the occupation was costly to the workers. They had been relatively well paid until the liquidation and now typically experienced a reduction of their income to half of what it was before. In relative terms, some were hit harder than others for the joint chapel took the decision that under the new conditions everybody should earn the same. Among the people who left during the occupation, some 45 out of 130, most probably did so for financial reasons; others left because they were, or became, dissatisfied with the way the occupation was run, including the fact that it continued for such a long time.

The BCP workers at several times discussed their aim: what would be the preferred result of their action? Forming a co-operative was seriously considered, but rejected, among other things because it was expected that many costumers would be unwilling to use a firm that had become known because of the militant act of occupying. This would make it extra difficult to survive in an industry characterised by strong competition. The preferred result therefore became to find a new employer, a person or firm that would buy BCP with the intention of continuing production.

On the basis of their theory that the Robert Horne Group was ultimately responsible for the liquidation the BCP workers attempted to put pressure on this company. Their main weapon was to picket the Robert Horne factory and store in Tower Bridge Road. This took place in the summer of 1972. It came to violent scenes one day when the Special Patrol Group of the police beat up a dozen of workers who were picketing. The news of this attack spread rapidly, and when the London dockers held a mass meeting the next day at Tower Hill they decided to go and take part in the picketing. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. The picketing went on for over a month and proved rather effective as it prevented lorries from entering the factory. It had the effect that Robert Horne took up negotiations with the BCP action committee. In order to get the picketing lifted Horne promised a) to help find a new buyer for BCP, b) to grant a new buyer extensive credits, and c) to persuade the present owner, Mr. Syder, to transfer a substantial amount of orders to the new owner. The BCP workers also considered to attempt to force the Robert Horne Group itself to become the new owner, but the idea was rejected because they did not trust that this would be a stable employer.

In the autumn of 1972 negotiations took place between BCP and union representatives on one side and a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, on the other. By December the unions announced that they had reached an agreement with Mr. Brockdorff, and they put pressure on the BCP workers to accept the deal, among other things by announcing that their financial support to the occupiers would now be withdrawn. The deal seemed to go some way to fulfil the demands of the BCP workers, among other things it envisaged a joint governance structure in which managers put in by the new owners should manage in cooperation with representatives from the three printing unions NATSOPA, SOGAT and NGA (Times, 14.12.1972). However, not all BCP workers were guaranteed employment, and mainly for this reason the deal was rejected by the workers. The negotiation process led to a strained relationship between the occupiers and the unions. As one of the workers put it:

“The unions want it ended as fast as possible, and I don’t think they worry much about what kind of pay and working conditions we get as long it is just gotten over with”.

By then the occupation had become more or less routine, and the days and weeks were increasingly experienced as waiting time, thus challenging the morale of the occupiers. One of the workers explained it in this way in January 1973:

“At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

In spite of a situation that could be felt like stalemate most workers decided to stay with the occupation. While the offensive to find a new employer had failed so far there was still a defence to put up. In February the liquidator achieved a court order against the members of the action committee for illegal occupation of the factory, with a demand that losses incurred by the factory due to the occupation should be compensated. The BCP workers decided that nobody should appear in court. Fearing that the committee would be arrested they elected a substitute committee, but first of all they reacted by printing and circulating a leaflet asking workers to take part in a demonstration outside the BCP premises on the day the committee was summoned to appear in court. On that day, 13 February, 3-4000 workers were gathered in defence of the BCP occupiers. Among those present were representatives from UCS, from the docks, car factories and from the newspaper print shops in Fleet Street as well many other places. UCS representatives pledged financial support from the UCS struggle fund, and electricians from Fleet Street promised that the newspapers would be totally paralysed if steps were taken to evict or arrest workers from BCP.
The legal system was applied again on 1 March when a new court order was issued, this time only addressed to Bill Freeman. Again the court order was ignored, and again the occupiers experienced that the police abstained from taking action against them.

In May the attempt to find a new owner finally made substantial progress. On 18 May the liquidator signed a contract stating that ownership of BCP was transferred to Peter Bentley. By the end of June an agreement was reached between Mr. Bentley and the chapels at BCP. The new owner offered employment to 58 of those 84 workers who had remained at BCP; the rest were offered jobs at other workplaces. Mr. Bentley promised that during a trial period of at least one year production would be maintained even if it would generate a loss. Under these conditions and under the slightly changed name Briant Colour Print, the print shop began to operate again on capitalist market conditions on 2 July 1973. The spirit was high among the workers. On their first working day they were heard singing and whistling at their jobs, thus celebrating that the long period of uncertainty and financial hardship was over.

However, once more the BCP workers were to experience that promises made by management cannot always be trusted. When at 10 pm on Friday the 16 November the evening shift had gone home from work the new owner sent in security guards who were instructed to make sure that the premises should not be occupied again. On the next day the BCP workers received a letter telling them that they had been dismissed.

After this long process of first uncertainty, then victory, and then defeat, the BCP workers were not prepared to begin a new collective struggle. For several months they continued to have a joint meeting every fortnight where they discussed their common experience and helped each other to find jobs elsewhere. In 2002 an invitation appeared on trade union sites on the internet in which Bill Freeman invited participants and friends of the occupation, including Tony Benn, to the 30th anniversary of the BCP occupation.

The motivation behind the occupation

In a recent article Gall (2010) attempts to explain why workers in some instances when faced with redundancies choose to occupy their workplace instead of behaving in the more mainstream way, i.e. to accept the redundancies while trying to get as much out of the situation as possible through negotiations over notice periods, redundancy payments etc. He identifies five characteristics that, if present in a given redundancy situation, push in the direction of occupation, namely:
–    collectivised nature of redundancy
–    immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy
–    loss of deferred wages and compensation
–    pre-existing collectivisation
–    positive demonstration effect (from other occupations)

In the BCP case all these conditions were highly present. First, as the entire workforce was made redundant they were all hit in the same way and were facing the same problem, thus it was obvious to interpret it as a collective problem. Second, the redundancies were not foreseen and they were to be implemented without any notice whatsoever. Third, management’s announcement that deferred wages and holiday entitlement would be paid out at a later state, to the extent it would be possible, appeared vague and rather unconvincing. The second and third factors together were active in creating the sense of chock and anger that was predominant among the workers when they took the decision to stage an occupation. Fourth, workers at BCP were unionised and had a fairly strong tradition of acting collectively through their shop stewards, mainly though negotiations with management but also with a preparedness to down tools, one example being the brief sit-in the year before the occupation. Fifth, the workers knew about the series of factory occupations that took or recently had taken place in Britain, notable the one at UCS which received a lot of attention in the media. A few of the workers, one of them being Bill Freeman, had been active in supporting some of the other occupations and were very much aware of the occupation as a weapon that can be applied against redundancies.

Yet, as also pointed out by Gall (2010) even if these favourable conditions apply, as they certainly did in the BCP case, in most cases workers do not decide to occupy their workplace when faced with redundancies or closure. One reason for this is that many people do not perceive an occupation as a legitimate act as it involves breaking the law when workers take control over and to some extent use property belonging to the owners. Workers thus usually have moral concerns that work against the rational, tactical arguments that can be articulated in favour of an occupation. It must be presumed, however, that such concerns are weighed against considerations regarding the morality displayed by the employer. In the BCP case such a comparison of moral standards on the two sides were clearly visible. One worker had this to say about the behaviour of the owner, Mr. Syder:

“We found bills here for the big party he threw when his new swimming pool was inaugurated. I think the bill for the booze alone was £3-4000, he rented a tent, £4000! He had a bill on his Aston Martin from his mechanic, how much? £800! That man is nothing but a simple thief, and still he gets away with it, because he is all the time doing it in the legal way. There is nothing you can do, you know….And he says to us that this firm has to close, because it has been so much run down, you know. It is these people you have to work for, and have to respect, they even think. I mean, I have no respect for that kind of people, you know.”

The decision to frame the occupation as a work-in was also influenced by moral considerations. Bill Freeman explained:

“The occupation is more important than the work-in. The important thing is that you control their property and that they cannot touch it. But we decided to have a work-in because we found that it would be relatively easy for us to run a work-in, contrary to for instance for workers in the heavy industry, and because we thought it would be good for people to have something to do while being here. Plus the fact that it wins the sympathy of the broad population…When we say we demand the right to work and proves it by working it helps psychologically to win the support of the broad population.”

It was clear from the interviews that the BCP occupiers felt strongly offended, felt they were being treated with disrespect (Honneth 1996) and found their own action morally superior to the type of employer behaviour they had been exposed to. Prior to the occupation, the great majority of workers at BCP held rather conventional views about society, politics, law and order. With the decision to occupy the workers went beyond their own norms regarding law and order. In this process, moral outrage served as a driving force just as much more ‘rational’ and interest-based factors of the type identified by Gall (2010).

To a minority among the workers politics also played a motivating role. Within the workforce there was a small group of persons who saw themselves as socialist activists and found it important not just to struggle for own interests, but also to engage in other workers’ struggles. They interpreted the BCP occupation as not just a struggle to defend their own jobs, but as part of a wider class struggle. Bill Freeman, a member of the Communist Party, belonged to this group and described the political motivation like this:

“…we try to show other workers that you can fight an employer, and if we can do it we hope to be part of…UCS has shown it, other people have shown it, and if enough people take this form of action, we should, in due time, be able to build a movement which can completely overthrow this system. I hope so; that is what it is all about”.

If such a revolutionary perspective had not been present among a small, but influential part of the workforce, things might have turned out differently, as witnessed by these reflections by one of the lay workers:

“…most likely we would have left the place after a couple of hours of discussion, but luckily Mr. Freeman had a bit of experience from… other people’s situation outside this industry…Mr. Freeman has been in the executive of the chapel and has always been interested in industrial relations, also outside this trade. He knew about what had happened earlier, and he knew what could be done, or what you can attempt to do to defend jobs.”

With Bill Freeman as leader it was central for the BCP occupation not just to fight for own jobs but to link with other struggles at the time. It appears that the majority of the workers, even if not sharing the revolutionary perspective, supported this active class struggle approach. For instance, several of the interviewed workers expressed their enthusiasm about the close cooperation that developed between the dockers and the BCP workers. One said:

“It was fantastic. It is the first time I have seen two trades so closely connected… It has amazed me how much we actually got involved with each other, while normally, if a trade union has a problem, it fights by itself, alone, you know. We had meetings and demonstrations where the dockers took part, and we took part when they had their problems in the docks and had some blokes put in Pentonville prison”.

To sum up: the motivation behind the occupation consisted in a complex mix of instrumental and moral and political elements. However, one thing is the motivation to occupy, another is how workers manage to sustain an occupation over time, or, in the BCP case, how could the occupation be kept alive for more than a year? This is the theme of next section.

Sustaining the occupation

In particular three aspects merit attention when this question is addressed: the material and moral support received from unions, other workers and sympathisers in general; the significance of conducting the occupation as a work-in; and the specific forms of organisation chosen to govern the occupation.

Regarding the first aspect, the BCP occupiers were themselves very active in attempting to raise support from their unions, other workers and the trade union movement at large. They circulated their newsletter and leaflets widely and travelled up and down the country to speak at solidarity meetings. As described above they were rather successful in promoting their case, and in this way sympathy action as well as fund-raising were stimulated, both vital for the survival of the occupation. Collections of money that could supplement the funds granted by the unions were necessary to guarantee the subsistence of the workers, and, if we are to understand why the occupiers were never confronted with attempts to evict them, the recurring mass demonstrations outside the factory gates were probably a decisive factor. An important part of the total support came from the unions in the printing industry. Although the BCP workers felt that the support from their unions was only lukewarm and that “they could have done a hell of a lot more”, they would of course have been in a much more difficult situation if the unions had failed to make their industrial action official and support it materially.

As a second aspect, the fact that the occupation was organised as a work-in played a significant role in sustaining the occupation. The motives for making it a work-in have already been mentioned. Apart from the publicity argument which helped to raise sympathy and support, the work-in was significant in the sense that it helped making it attractive for workers to stay with the occupation. While the hopes of finding a new employer were frustrated several times there was still something to do within the premises. It was not just the defence of the buildings; there was also work to do, and in this way the occupiers could maintain their identity as print workers. So, in spite of depressing moods among those guarding the buildings during long and cold winter nights most workers felt that it was worthwhile to stay. After the first six months of the occupation the figure of 130 employees had only shrunk to about 100, and when it ended after 12 months there were still 84 workers taking part in the collective action.

In the beginning work mainly consisted in printing posters, leaflets and newsletters for the BCP occupation itself or in support of other workers in struggle. However, BCP also continued to receive commercial orders, partly from old customers, partly from new ones. Although most of the old customers stopped placing orders at BCP some continued to do so. Especially firms that needed reprints of material that existed in print ready form at BCP came back as it would be considerably more costly to have the work done elsewhere. Out of the total production about 60 per cent was commercial work where BCP printed tickets, posters, books, advertisements etc. as they had done before. On top of this, there was work that fulfilled mainly politically motivated orders: from trade union organisations, tenants’ organisations, community groups etc. Prices varied from full market price if the customer was a private firm or an established trade union, to nothing if the customer was a group without resources that the BCP occupiers sympathised with. Bill Freeman explained:

“If it is people in struggle like ourselves, without any money, then we just use the resources of the firm, and that is that. If it is somebody who can pay a little bit, then they just pay for the materials, our labour is free”.

The BCP workers took pride in being able to help other workers by doing what they were good at: printing. At the same time the work-in gave them confidence in their ability to produce without being managed by an employer. In the words of one of the workers:

“…with a sit-in you just occupy the buildings, but with a work-in, like the one we have here, we have shown that we can run the factory, you know. Maybe not so efficiently, you know, but with a little training, with a little time, there is no doubt that we can do it.”

Work was organised differently than prior to the occupation. Together with a representative from the action committee those of the foremen who had stayed on formed a management committee. This committee planned and coordinated production and established manning and time schedules. Functions that before was carried out by office and management staff, such as sales and accounting, were taken over by print workers. Workers’ influence over their work greatly increased while discipline was very much left to the individual workers. The latter was a source to some tensions between workers, as not everyone was equally conscientious in relation to the tasks that had to be done within the new work organisation.

The experience of the work-in was accompanied by lengthy discussions at the joint meetings of the concept of workers’ control. Was workers’ control a desirable goal? How should it be practised? Can it be practised in a capitalist society or only within a different political-economical system? Opinions varied, also when it was discussed more specifically whether the workers should try to buy the firm and form a cooperative. In the end, arguments that are sceptical towards such a solution won the day. Fearing that a cooperative would be blacklisted by other firms, one worker commented that “we would have the whole system against us – it would simply be downhill all the time”. Bill Freeman explained his position – a position that no doubt heavily influenced the decision eventually taken by the collective:

“It is not because we think that any other employer will be much better than the old ones, all employers are alike, you know. Basically, we don’t want an employer at all, we want to change the system – some of us, not all of us, want to change the system. But at the same time it is just unrealistic to try to run this place as a kind of socialist island in a capitalist sea”.

A third factor that was influential in sustaining the occupation was its internal organisation. The three layered structure described above consisting of the weekly plenary meeting, the executive committee (the action committee) and the chairman of the action committee appears to have functioned well in the sense that the organisation managed to solve the many problems and challenges that the occupation was confronted with. It happened in a way in which concerns for democracy as well as efficiency were taken into consideration.

One of the workers vividly explained how the joint chapel meeting, the weekly plenary, helped to integrate and to create a feeling of community:

“I have noticed that when you start a new week then Monday and Tuesday are ok, Wednesday is not so good, and on Thursday and Friday you start quarrelling a bit and everything begins to dissolve. Then on Monday there is a joint meeting and everything is picked up again. It is interesting, you know, everything is melted together again, and it is really very good…I would think that if two or three weeks passed without a meeting it would fall completely apart”.

He also stressed that the meetings appeared more important and exciting than prior chapel meetings. While chapel meetings were rather boring

“now everything is much more important, the joint meetings are interesting, we always get a report on the situation, about the financial situation, about how long we can continue and whether somebody has left the occupation. The meetings always succeed in becoming extremely interesting…Now everyone has something to say about how things should be run in these buildings…You are involved in much more, you are not just a number, you really have a real influence on everything”.

The next layer, the action committee met frequently, often on daily basis. The committee was in charge of implementing the decisions taken by the joint chapel. One of the shop stewards serving on the committee explained how the occupation had changed his daily work:

“I have not worked in the print shop at all during these six months. All my time has been devoted to contacting people, going out talking to people, and there is also a great deal of paperwork involved in it”.

Finally, the organisation consisted of a third layer, the chairman of the action committee who was the charismatic Bill Freeman. It is difficult to overestimate his role during the entire process. Although, as mentioned, his revolutionary views of society and the meaning of the BCP occupation were hardly shared by the majority of the workers, the interviews demonstrate that he was very much respected and looked up to by the workers. A worker, who presented himself as the oldest worker at BCP and as one who had been made redundant six times during his career in the printing industry, had this to say:

“…I have always tried to be an active trade unionist, but I mean Bill is somewhat different from the other shop stewards you meet, some of them don’t really care…When I came here five years ago and saw how the chapels were organised it warmed my heart, you know, really wonderful. Our chapter has always been a strong one. It made me feel really happy, right from when I started here”.

Another worker gave this description of Bill Freeman’s role in the occupation:

“…he is fantastic. He inspires people with so much self-confidence. Many times people have said: ‘We have lost, we are finished, nobody wants to buy us…and that’s it then’, and he says, ‘Well, if we can’t do that, then we will do this’. Never ever during the seven months have I heard him say we have lost. ‘If we stick together, one hundred per cent together, we cannot loose’, he says. It has been like that right from the start. He said, ‘We must win, and if we win, forget what we are doing for ourselves, it will be a victory for the entire people in this country, the entire working class…”.

Beyond success or failure: the occupation as a learning process

In instrumental terms the result of the occupation can hardly be described as a success, let alone victory. If we leave out of account the fact that some 80-100 workers had some kind of job and income during the one year of the occupation, and that some 50 jobs were maintained under the new employer for a period of four months after the occupation, the attempt to use the occupation as an instrument to save jobs failed in the long run.

However, this is not say that the struggle as such that BCP workers put up against redundancies can be categorised neatly as a failure. Saving jobs was the official, instrumental goal of the action, but it was not the only goal, and it was not the only thing that made the action meaningful for its participants. To many of the participants the occupation was first and foremost a protest, a piece of resistance demonstrating that the BCP workers simply would not accept being thrown out of work from one day to the next. Thus from this perspective the important thing was not the instrumental result of the action as such, but the fact that they were resisting. One of the workers, who, in the light of the conditions offered by Mr. Brockdorff, did not expect himself to maintain his job due his low seniority in the firm, put it like this:

“I think we won they day we started. That is my personal opinion. The day we rose up and did not walk out the door as sheep, I think we won then, you know”.

To people like Bill Freeman the sheer deed of putting up a fight against employers’ hegemony over work was also just as important as defending his own and his colleagues’ jobs. They saw the occupation as part of a wider movement that could eventually lead to fundamental changes in the country’s economic system. And even if such wider consequences should not materialise, the idea was that at least some employers might start reconsidering how they treated their workers. One of the not so militant workers felt that the occupation had already had a certain positive impact on industrial relations:

“…if we do not succeed the time has not been wasted, that is how I look at it. The time has not been wasted if we are going to be here for another six months and there is still no solution… Even if we have to walk out of here I am sure it must have done some good, somewhere, you know. Those in power cannot always win as easily as they would like.”

He continued to tell a story of how an officer in his union recently had been approached by an employer who said that he would have to sack some of his employees. He had then added that he did not want “to get another Briant Colour case” in his firm, and had asked the union officer how much he thought it would be necessary to pay on top of the normal redundancy payment to make sure that he could avoid trouble. Therefore:

“Well that’s fine, that’s what I like, that’s what I hope we achieve even if we loose here, do you see what I mean? As I said I am sure we have achieved something. Even if we loose here we have perhaps helped to save jobs in other companies because of this”.

BCP workers thus found themselves recognised and their action appreciated by other workers. In this sense they saw their action as a collective success. Another aspect concerned what taking part in the occupation had meant to them at a personal level. Many of the interviewed workers stressed that the occupation had been an important learning process for them. They had acquired new skills, new knowledge and a changed consciousness as to how industrial relations and society function. A shop steward told how the occupation had been “an education” for him in the sense that he was now much less naïve about how business people are prepared to treat workers. He also noted this about some of his fellow workers:

“People here at Briant, people I personally thought were untalented in the sense that they were only able to do their job, and only that job, they have surprised us by suddenly finding new talents. We have had people to do the accounts, you know, people who can go out and speak at meetings, you know. Things like that which we did not know existed at all in any of these people have sprung up. There are some people here now who feel that they would rather do something else than return to their old job”.

One worker, a middle aged bookbinder, also described how people had developed new skills, technically as well as regarding industrial relations:

“We have learned so much from it. These people up here in the offices have learned more during these six months than what they have learned since they left school…I mean I have learned a lot on the shop floor I must admit, but these people up here have literally learned more about so many things than they have ever learned in the trade. And of course this information can be passed on to any other workplace which finds itself in a similar situation”.

A young bookbinder gave this personal account of how his work life had changed during the occupation:

“Bill asked at one of the meetings if I would take minutes and then it developed from there. I began to usually take the minutes. In the beginning I still tended my old job on the shop floor, but gradually it became difficult to do both things, for there were many meetings at that time…Then I was more or less up here in the offices all the time, unless they really needed people downstairs. During the last two months I have helped with a number of different things up here. I have also gone out to a number of universities as a speaker, when they couldn’t find anybody else that could go. I have also helped with the mail and a couple of other small jobs…I could not really just sit down on the shop floor and wait for the things to happen…, I have to get involved”.

For some the occupation was a political education. Whether it was the oldest worker at BCP who said:

“This is the first work-in I have ever taken part in…, and I have learned a lot from it, a hell of a lot, about how people can stick together and things like that…I would do it again if I am made redundant again. I would not hesitate”

Or the young unskilled worker who stressed how more well known worker activists had inspired him:

“During the six months here I think I have learned more than during 13 years in the printing industry…I have met some fantastic people and I have heard some fantastic people speak at meetings…Like when they came down from UCS, they were fantastic. When they stood up and spoke you felt eight feet tall just by listening to them”.

Or the middle aged foreman who had rejected normal managerial attitudes:

“Let me put it like this: as a foremen you socialise with other foremen and managers, and if you do it long enough you get brainwashed into their politics, you tend to believe they are right regarding their conflicts with people on the shop floor…But in that respect I have definitely changed within the last three or four months. I have realised a lot about what is wrong with the system”.

The BCP workers all came out of the occupation with a changed biography. Not everyone may have learned so much and changed so much as described in the examples above. However, although uncertainty and hardships also formed part of the experience it was an exiting and inspiring event in the lives of all the participants.  A feature that was repeated again and again in the interviews was the pride with which they presented their action. It was their action, but at the same time they represented the mood of the time, a mood of liberation against forms of humiliation and oppression that were, and largely still are, part of working life in capitalist society. The occupation was influenced by that mood as well as it was reinforcing it. To use the expression of Malcolm Marks, an activist in the 1971 occupation at Fisher Bendix, it was “a mini-revolution” (Knudsen and Sandahl 1974, 12).

References

Honneth, A. (1996): The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, London, Polity Press.
http://transpont.blogspot.com/2009/08/briant-colour-printing-occupation-… (accessed 22.03.2011)
Knudsen, H. and Sandahl, J. (1974): Arbejdskamp i Storbritannien. Strejker og fabriksbesættelser i begyndelsen af 1970’erne, Aarhus, Modtryk.
Times, 14.12.1972.

This account was heisted from workerscontrol.net

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1974: the death of Kevin Gately, opposing National Front demo

On 15 June, 1974, Kevin Gately, an anti-fascist demonstrator and student at Warwick University, was killed during a demonstration in Red Lion Square, Holborn, London, in a clash between police and anti-fascist demonstrators opposing the National Front’s meeting at Conway Hall.
He was the first person to die in a public demonstration in mainland Britain for at least 55 years, (since the British Army shot two looters dead in Liverpool during the riots associated with a police strike in August 1919).

On June 15, 1974, the rightwing National Front had organised a march through London, ending at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. The Front’s influence was growing; from their origins as a merger of three far right splinter groups in 1967, run by men with long histories in neo-nazi organising, the NF had played populist nationalism to the max. In an era where full employment and the hopes of the 60s were giving way to recession, unemployment and increased industrial action by workers, the NF whipped up fears that migrants were threatening the ‘British Way of Life’, taking white workers jobs etc. Ably abetted by tory and some Labour politicians and many a media front page… Refugees like the Uganda and Kenyan Asians were hysterically held up as scapegoats; workers fighting for better wages and conditions were also painted as a threat to order.

At this point, in the early 1970s, the Front was concentrating on trying to win middle-class support, among traditional Conservative supporters disillusioned with tory policies from a rightwing perspective: a demographic nostalgic for empire and everyone knowing their place.

Rightwing violence, racist attacks were on the rise. NF candidates were winning larger shares of the vote in elections. But many on the left were determined to oppose the Front.

The National Front planned a march from Westminster Hall, handing in a petition as they passed Downing Street, to their meeting in Conway Hall. The Front had been using Conway Hall for meetings during the previous four years, but anti-fascist pickets began in October 1973. On 15 June 1974, they planned a meeting entitled “Stop immigration – start repatriation”.

Freedom of expression was Conway Hall’s mantra – coming from a long history of freethought – but should this be extended to fascists? If most on the left were prepared to demonstrate their opposition to fascism, but not to physically fight it, a growing minority had come round to the position of ‘No Platform’ for fascists; while in practice this was “about denying the NF venues to speak and was not interchangeable with the opposition on the streets”. “Essentially ‘no platform’ was an extension of the successful anti-fascist strategy that had been developed since the late 1940s. As well as physically combating fascist agitation in the streets, one of the major strategies was campaigning for local governments and other institutions to prevent fascists from using public places to speak or meet. Between 1972 and 1976, the ‘no platform’ concept dominated anti-fascist strategy, supported by the Communist Party, the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group (IMG), as well as becoming policy for the National Union of Students (NUS), which was considerably influenced by the IMG and the CPGB. The ‘no platform’ strategy was not limited to petitioning local councils and institutions to deny the NF access to meeting places, but included physical opposition to the NF organising in public.” (Evan Smith)

However, how ‘No Platform’ was interpreted varied among the different organisations…

Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) organised a counter-demonstration that was to end with a meeting outside the hall, which was supported by most of the larger groupings on the left – including the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialists (now the SWP), the International Marxist Group (IMG) and many other groups within the labour movement.

Liberation, not intending to try to prevent the NF meeting, booked a smaller room at Conway Hall for a separate meeting, to be preceded by a march along a route agreed in advance with the police, starting at the Thames Embankment to avoid the route of the National Front march. The police agreed that both marches could end at Red Lion Square. An open-air protest meeting was planned on the north side of the square, to the west of the National Front meeting in Conway Hall, with an address by Syd Bidwell, then Labour MP for Southall.

However while Liberation and others were content to march in protest,  the International Marxist Group planned to organise a mass picket at the main entrance of the hall, to deny the NF access.

When the Liberation demo of around 1,200 people came from the east, having marched westwards along Theobald’s Road and turned into Old North Street to enter Red Lion Square, a police cordon blocked the way to the left, east of Old North Street, to allow the National Front march to reach Conway Hall.

The NF march of around 900 people approached from the west, marching down Bloomsbury Way to the west side of Southampton Row, accompanied by an Orange Order fife and drum band. The march arrived at Southampton Row around at around 5:50 pm, where they were stopped by the police.

A group mainly composed of the IMG moved to block the doors of Conway Hall. The police, with what Lord Scarman later described as a ‘concern… with maintenance of public order’, attempted to disperse the IMG contingent. The IMG members refused to be dispersed and according to Lord Scarman’s report, ‘when the IMG assaulted the police cordon there began a riot, which it was the duty of the police to suppress, by force if necessary’. The cordon was reinforced by members of the Special Patrol Group and by mounted police, who eventually forced the demonstrators back and then cleared the square, with liberal use of police truncheons.

During this initial violent clash between police and militant anti-fascists, lasting for less than fifteen minutes, Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick University, was fatally injured. Gately died from a brain haemorrhage, resulting from a blow to the head.

The following description of the moment of his death was published in the Guardian two days later:

“Kevin Gately, the Warwick University student who died after the violence in Red Lion Square, London, on Saturday, was left prone and motionless on the ground as the police drove demonstrators back. We saw his body emerge, rather as a rugby ball comes slowly out of a scrum, as the police cordon gradually moved forward. He appeared to have fallen whilst being involved in a fracas near the front line of the demonstrators who clashed with the police. Above him the police were engaged in a pushing match with a mass of demonstrators.

Both sides were packed tightly together and it seems to us inconceivable that he was not at least trampled upon. He was lying on the ground amid a litter of broken placards, torn banners and lost shoes. Almost immediately he was carried away by policemen holding his outstretched limbs. He appeared to be unconscious. But last night there was no clear evidence of why he collapsed in the first place. A post-mortem examination at St Pancras mortuary was adjourned until today after proving inconclusive. Further tests are to be carried out but the indications are that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. The police maintained that there were no marks of physical injury but he must have been at the very least tightly crushed in the melee before he fell. And although we saw policemen making every effort to avoid standing on him as they struggled with the crowd he was carried by his arms and legs before being laid on a stretcher about 10 yards away. A bitter row over the police conduct at the demonstration started yesterday with demands for an inquiry and questions being tabled in the House. Mr Tony Gilbert, who organised the march for the Central Council of Liberation, said yesterday that Mr Gately, aged 21, had in effect been murdered by the police. “When you get police diving in with truncheons and horses and somebody is killed in circumstances like this I would call it murder.” Other Left-wing spokesmen accused the police of unwarranted brutality. Miss Jackie Stevens, a fellow student, said that she had been next to Mr Gately linking arms with him. Their line was the first in the march which turned into the police cordon by swinging left when they entered Red Lion square, instead of right. Organisers of the demonstration claimed that they had agreed with Scotland Yard to turn left and only found out at the last moment that they were being made to turn right. This was flatly denied by Scotland Yard. Miss Stevens claimed that the police had charged the marchers. “We tried to get through to Conway Hall. The police charged us and drew their batons. They charged into us with their horses. I fell. I was trodden on by a police horse and had my head kicked by a policeman.

“I find it very hard to believe that Kevin could not have been touched. There was blood all over the place, people screaming, and teeth all over the ground. It was horrific.” She said Mr Gately had never been on a demonstration before, and was not a member of any political group.”

There were other altercations nearby close to Southampton Row. Clashes between police and anti-fascist demonstrators went on for most of the day, with the end result being that ‘one person died, 46 policemen and at least 12 demonstrators were injured, 51 people arrested and the whole police operation had cost an estimated £15,000’. The CPGB and Liberation emphasised the peaceful nature of their march, quoting Gilbert as saying, ‘At least 99.9 per cent of the 2,000 people there were absolutely peaceful and they were attacked’.

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Kevin Gately was born in England to parents of Irish descent. He had red hair and was approximately 6′ 9″ tall; contemporary photos show him standing out above the crowd because of his exceptional height. He became a mathematics student at Warwick University, and was in his second year in June 1974, three months before his 21st birthday.

An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court later concluded that Gately’s death was caused by a brain haemorrhage resulting from a blow to the head from a blunt instrument.

In the days following the demo, there were calls for an inquiry into Gately’s death. NUS President John Randall said, ‘We now know that Kevin Gately died as a direct result of police violence’. By the end of the month, Lord Scarman had been placed in charge of a public inquiry, conducting a tribunal with witnesses throughout September 1974, eventually reporting in February 1975. Scarman’s report whitewashed the police actions and criticised the demonstrators, primarily putting the blame for the violence – and Kevin Gately’s death – on the IMG, and criticising the naivety of Liberation. The report was ‘unable to make any definition finding as to the specific cause of the fatal injury which Mr Kevin Gately suffered’.

The coroner’s inquest heard that the cause of his death was a subdural haemorrhage caused by a modest blow to his head, and the jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure on 12 July 1974 by a majority of 10-1. He was found to have a small oval bruise behind his left ear, and had collapsed shortly afterwards, only 10 feet from the edge of the police cordon. Possible causes for the injury were a blow from an implement, such as police truncheon, or from a projectile, or from being kicked after falling to the ground. His exceptional height led several newspapers of the time to allege that his death may have been the result of a blow from a mounted police truncheon. Neither a coroner’s inquest nor the Lord Justice Scarman inquiry were able to find evidence to prove or disprove this claim.

Gately was buried in Surbiton on Friday 21 June. The same day, 500 students marched through Coventry with black armbands. The following day, Saturday 22 June 1974, thousands joined a silent march retraced the route of the Liberation counter-demonstration from the embankment to Red Lion Square. The march was led by personal friends of Gately, followed by University of Warwick students and then by students from many other universities and colleges as well as contingents from many of the left wing groups that had taken part in the original march. This march also received widespread media coverage. There’s a very short snippet on youtube

The events of 15th June 1974 raised questions of how fascism was to be opposed – questions the Communist Party (CP) addressed by getting all the answers wrong. The CP had supported the counter-demonstration, claiming 5-600 who attended were CP members. In the Morning Star (the Communist Party newspaper) on 15 June, 1974, an article urged people to support the counter-demo, including an appeal by leading trade unionists, stating that the NF’s ‘poisonous ideas are a threat to all that is best in our society’. In the aftermath, the Morning Star declared that “blame for what occurred… must be placed where it belongs – on the authorities for permitting it, and the police for brutality”. The CP position was that the march by the NF was in violation of the Race Relations Act, and should have been banned. As London District Secretary Gerry Cohen wrote in the Morning Star, “The police, like the National Front, are on the side of the exploiting class. They operated on that side with thoroughness and with fury on Saturday in Red Lion Square. And Kevin Gately died”.

The CP’s stance – appealing to the repressive apparatus of the State, such as the police, the judiciary and the Home Office, to deal with fascists – showed some extreme naivety. Suggesting the police and the wider State could be persuaded to counter the NF, (despite long experience of the police’s hostility to the left, preparedness to use force against pickets, demonstrations etc, and growing evidence of police rank n file sympathy for NF politics), was a non-starter as anti-fascist strategy.

The logical extension of this liberal stance was that the CPGB also slagged off the IMG for aiming at confrontation with the NF. They took the view that the anti-fascist movement needed to appeal to the broader progressive and labour movements, “but what this small section of the march did was to make this more difficult”. Physical confrontation, they suggested, ‘played into the hands of all those in the key positions of establishment…aimed at destroying our basic democratic rights’. The CP seemed concerned to distance themselves from the physical opposition [As the CP hierarchy had also done organisationally on the 1930s in many cases, despite the widespread participation of CP members on the ground – check out Joe Jacobs book Out of the Ghetto for some of the conflicts within the CP in East London around this].

In a press release, the CP stated that, “At no time did our Party contemplate, nor did it take part in any discussions that contemplated of bringing about any physical confrontation with the police or anybody else at this demonstration’; tactics like the IMG’s blocking of the doors they called ‘the adventurist tactics of a minority’. According to the Party, there was ‘absolutely no reason why the police could not have contained the situation peacefully at all times’ and the police had ‘undoubtedly mishandled the situation”.

This blatantly ignored the reality of organising against fascism, whether in the 1930s, the 1970s, or today. It was physical confrontations that forced the British Union of Fascists onto the defensive at Cable Street and beyond; it was to be mass physical opposition later in the 70s that was to defeat the BF on the streets (if politically they were also undermined by the tories moving to the right under Thatcher). This analysis reflects the reality of later anti-fascist mobilising, in which the CP organisationally played little part. (In fact, the IMG would also not play as significant a role again, being eclipsed by other groups like the International Socialists, before declining and imploding…) Some parts of the state and the capitalist class will often happily allow fascist groups to grow, as a counter-weight to workers struggles, especially (as in 1974) when industrial struggles are rising and elements of the upper class feel a strong fascist movement can be used against the working class (or as possible footsoldiers in the event of a rightwing coup, which some were contemplating). In the event the NF were not necessary, as but that was not obvious in 1974. But given the widespread support for the NF among the police rank and file, and a more concealed preference for fash over commies at most levels of the British establishment, the CP’s demands were laughable.

Scarman’s report reflected the ‘nuanced’ establishment response – the police were ‘right not to ban the National Front demonstration’, but the Race Relations Act needed ‘radical amendment to make it an effective sanction’, the anti-fascists were ultimately responsible for the trouble and Kevin’s death, and the anti-fascist movement should ‘co-operate with the police’. The CP and Scarman had more in common than they disagreed on… Though the CPGB were critical of Scarman’s dismissal of the failure to ban the National Front march under the Race Relations Act, they also demanded that demonstrations that ‘conflict with the law…should be banned’. Yeah cause that’ll never be used against the workers, eh?

The CP seemed unable to see the contradiction between condemning the police’s actions and demanding that they be given more powers…

The NF’s electoral fortunes did not grow exponentially – their profile brought them “notoriety but no tangible gains”. In response the more street-oriented elements of the NF pushed the organisation towards more street marches and confrontation, and attempted to orient their politics more towards a working class audience. This NF campaign chimed with, and contributed to, an increase in violence against Britain’s black population, including racist attacks and murders. But this led to a broad culture of resistance to the Front, to the events of Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall; the Front were vastly outnumbered on the street.
In fact, in the aftermath of Red Lion Square, numbers at anti-fascist demonstrations increased dramatically and continued to rise throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. As Nigel Copsey wrote, ‘despite adverse publicity that the Red Lion Square disorder had generated for the left, more anti-fascists than fascists could be mobilised at street level’.

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At this time there were three Social Demonstration Squad undercover police spying inside the International Marxist Group, as well as at least 4, maybe 5, inside the International Socialists. That’s the ones that the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing has admitted to so far… More are to come, we would guess. Undoubtedly, the SDS were probably infiltrating the National Front too, though this has not yet been revealed, and may not be. How much information did the police have on the IMG’s intentions beforehand…? Were there also undercovers marching with the NF? A later anti-fascist demo (at Welling in October 1993) saw at least four undercovers, some marching with anti-racists, and one (at least) inside the bookshop of the British National Party. There have long been suggestions that the Welling march was set up by the police, to ensure rioting, to try to discredit the anti-racist movement… We’re not sure, and probably never will be. Wonder if similar questions could possibly be levelled at the events at Red Lion Square in June 1974?

In the end though it doesn’t change the necessity for opposing fascism physically and no platforming fascists wherever they raise their heads.

In memory of Kevin Gately
18 September 1953 – 15 June 1974

Lots of this post was nicked from here

And here is an interesting account of left groups and opposition to fascism in the 1970s, which covers the decline of the CP’s influence in antifascist organising…

Today in London’s anti-fascist history, 1977: 1000s battle the National Front, Wood Green

On 23 April 1977, a twelve hundred-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists, including delegations from Haringey Labour Party, trade unionists, the Indian Workers’ Association, local West Indians, members of Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. While Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent composed of more radical elements in the crowd broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit. Eighty-one people were arrested, including seventy-four anti-fascists.

The following account of the Battle of Wood Green was taken from the pamphlet The Battle of Wood Green, published in 2002 by Haringey Trades Council and the London Socialist Historians Group to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the demonstration (Republished in 2017.)

We should say, we do not entirely agree with some of the analysis of the rise and decline of the NF, especially Ian Birchall’s conclusion at the end. The role of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism needs some questioning. And the account relies heavily on the ‘labour movement’ and left groups as the backbone of the movement that faced down the NF, while downplaying the  – harder to pin down – part played by a wider counter-cultural milieu, by feminists, black communities organising autonomously… All of which was important in events at Lewisham later in 1977, in Brick Lane and the wider East End through this whole period, and in Southall in 1979…

The immediate background lay in the experience of a right-wing Labour government caught in a climate of global recession. The Labour party won the two 1974 elections on the back of a left-moving popular mood, and its manifesto was the most radical in the party’s history. Tony Benn and Michael Foot joined the Labour cabinet, while TUC left-wingers, including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, were brought into close contact with the government. But the hopes of transformation were squandered. Unemployment rose sharply. The government actually cut spending on public services, closing hospitals, and demoralising many of its most ardent supporters. Bitter struggles continued through the five years of Labour rule, but the overall result was to reduce the levels of militancy within society. Society shifted to the right, preparing the ground for the Tories’ victory in 1979.

The most important popular grievance against this Labour administration was the rise of unemployment under Wilson and then Callaghan. In January 1975, there were 678,000 people jobless. By the end of the year, this number had risen to 1,129,000. In September 1977, it stood as 1,609,000. The jobless rate was two times higher among blacks than whites. Such levels of unemployment had not been seen in Britain since the 1930s. Young workers were alienated from the system, and looked to more radical politics for a solution.

The National Front gained from the failure of the Labour government and the general disillusionment with the left. First set up in 1967, the NF grew in prominence though 1968. That year Enoch Powell gave his infamous and racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, calling for the repatriation of black workers. London dockers and Smithfield meat porters struck in support of his racism. Although out-manouevred in 1968 by Powell’s organisation within the Tory Party, the National Front was able to stand in ten constituencies in the 1970 election, reaching an average of 3.6 per cent of the vote. The NF grew under Heath’s government, and claimed 17,000 members in 1973, but only really took off under Labour. In 1976, the Front received 15,340 votes in Leicester. The following year, it achieved 19 per cent of the vote in Hackney South and Bethnal Green, and 200,000 votes nationally.

The leading cadre of the National Front were career fascists. The first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, a former ally of Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, who had been more recently the leader of the League of Empire Loyalists, a, imperialist entry-group within the Conservative Party. Many of the leading NF members had been active in the neo-nazi milieu o the 1950s: Andrew Fountaine in the National Labour Party, Colin Jordan in the National Socialist Movement, John Tyndall and Martin Webster in the Greater Britain Movement; and so on. These organisations were all small and all extremely violent. They acted as the open carrier of racist ideas in the inner cities. Partly as a result of NF activity, thirty-one black people were killed in racist murders between 1976 and 1981.

Racist anti-immigrant stories in the tabloid press assisted the Front’s growth. The anti-fascist newspaper Searchlight has estimated that the NF’s membership doubled between October 1972 and July 1973 following the arrival of refugees from Uganda. A similar impetus was provided in 1976 by the arrival of the Malawi Asians. The national press ran dozens of racist stories, with the Sun claiming that refugees were being put up in four-star hotels. The National Front recruited around 3000 new members. By winter 1976-7, the fascists could feel – with confidence – that their best time was to come.

But Labour’s declining hold over its core voters did not only benefit the far right. It also enabled the emergence of a radical left, which would not restrict itself to parliamentary opposition to fascism. The radicalisation of the 1960s was expressed in anti-Vietnam protests, ban the bomb, student struggles and by a growing willingness of younger workers to take militant forms of industrial action. This trend towards militancy was demonstrated in the 1972 strikes which broke Heath’s Tories. This process of radicalisation was to create many new political formations, and give a boost to the fortunes of existing revolutionaries. Tiny organisations including the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group mushroomed into sizeable organisations. The Labour and Communist Parties faced for the first time large forces to their left which were able to exploit the mood of popular anger.

As well as the socialist left, other forces were also involved in the conflict. Between 1948 and 1958, some 125,000 West Indians and 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis had come to Britain. The arrivals were British citizens. Many of whom had been educated to believe the myths which the British state had put out in its own defence. Yet on their arrival, Black and Asian people in Britain were received with contempt. Homes, hotels and pubs were barred to them. By the late 1970s, younger Blacks and Asians – the second generation – did not share their parents’ naïve sympathy with British democracy and the principles of British justice. Clashes between police and black youth at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival saw three hundred and twenty five police officers wounded, sixty people arrested and charged.

As 1976 continued, the clashes between the left and the NF grew ever more frequent. In February, 1500 anti-racists opposed a National Front march in Coventry. In April, two large marches confronted an NF demonstration through Manningham in Bradford, while in May there were large anti-racist marches in Birmingham, Portsmouth and Southall. In June, there were more protests in East London, Southall and Brixton. In Central London, 15,000 supported marches called by the two Indian Workers Associations in July. Four thousand people protested against the National Front and the National Party in Blackburn in September. In October, 250 people picketed the Front’s AGM, while a weekly confrontation began between NF paper-sellers and members of the International Socialists in Brick Lane. In November 25,000 joined a TUC march against racism, and another thousand demonstrated in support of Asian immigrants fleeing to Britain from Malawi.

The clashes spread into other spheres, including the music scene, which was still coming to terms with the angry nihilism of punk. In August 1976, Eric Clapton interrupted a gig to tell his audience ‘Vote for Enoch Powell, stop Britian becoming a Black colony, get the foreigners out…’ Following Clapton’s outburst, Red Saunders, Peter Bruno and David Widgery wrote to the press to launchRock Against Racism: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is Black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism. P.S. Who Shot the Sherriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’

All the time, then, the pollical temperature was rising. The National Front was growing, but so were the size and confidence of the anti-NF opposition. The scene was set for a number of set-piece conflicts between left and right. The largest was to take place at Lewisham in August 1977, but the fist important battle came at Wood Green that April.

What happened at Turnpike Lane?
Narrative: Keith Flett

The National Front demonstration in Wood Green on Saturday 23rd April 1977 was totemic. The confrontation which took place between fascists and anti-Nazis on that day, together with events at Lewisham on 12th August 1977 led to the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League and the marginalisation of the National Front as a political force.

Wood Green is also remembered as the first of a number of set piece confrontations, but one where the police, who were later, of-ten in huge numbers, to frustrate attempts by Anti-Nazis to stop fas-cist marches, had not yet developed tactics to deal with physical force against fascists. Hence there was a highly effective counter-demonstration at Wood Green which partly broke up the National Front march.

This confrontation did not happen spontaneously, although there were elements of spontaneity about it. It required both detailed organisational planning and extensive political argument and mobilisation before 23rd April.

Beforehand: considerable planning went into building the counter-demonstration both in terms of tactics and support. The Trades Council and Labour Party members both supported physical confrontation, not automatically, but after debate and argument in meetings. There was a planning committee for the anti-fascist mobilisation some of whose members still live in the area. From discussion it seems clear that much of the work of building the protest was a familiar routine to them and, indeed, would be familiar to anyone organising a demonstration today. Leaf-lets were handed out on high streets to members of the public and Turkish and Greek cafes on Green Lanes and West Green Road were leafleted and visited several times to mobilise this section of the community.

Organisationally, testing of red smoke flares tool place on Tottenham Marsh and quantities of flour, eggs and fruit were prepared. Some activists have suggested that the preparation had a degree of gender specificity to it, which would be much less usual in the labour movement 25 years on. For example, women were responsible for flour and eggs, while men did the testing of the smoke flares. However, members of the planning committee recall that the main aim was not to perfect military tactics but simply to get as many people there as possible. It was the mass mobilisation of local people not clever tactics that would defeat the fascists. Indeed, it appears that some of the tactics discussed would not have worked in the first place. One idea was to sabotage the traffic lights at the junction of Green Lanes, Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane until it was pointed out that the police were unlikely to stop the fascist march because a traffic signal was stuck at red.

On the morning of the march preparations were made at the house of a local activist. Bags of flour and rotten eggs and tomatoes were assembled ready to be handed to people in the crowd to throw at the fascist marchers.

On the day: attempts were made to smash the windows of NF coaches as they took fascists to the assembly point on Duckett’s Common. Not unusual in itself, this does however highlight an important point about the march and opposition to it. In general, the National Front marchers were not local people and there was a general resentment, summed up in the pages of the Hornsey Journal the following week, that fascists should not be allowed to bring their message to an area where it was not wanted and had little local support. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the anti-fascists at Turnpike Lane were entirely drawn from the immediate local area. The National Front march was seen as a challenge across North London. One person who had been on the planning team for the counter-demonstration recalls that, following an anti-racist demonstration in Islington on that Saturday morning, numbers had taken the tube to Turnpike Lane to join the anti-NF protest. One respondent mentions NFers and anti-fascists both directing people at Turnpike Lane tube. Fascists were directing people to Duckett’s Common at Turnpike Lane tube station, but they were out-numbered by anti-fascists directing people to the counter-demonstration.

A large number of Haringey Councillors, mostly Labour, but even the odd Tory, appeared on Duckett’s Common with a large banner opposing fascism. A picture of the Councillors and the banner appeared the following week in the local paper The Hornsey Journal, whose front page headline read: “Forty years on, the fear of fascism fouls our streets”. An editorial comment questioned why the police had allowed such a provocative march. One of the Labour Councillors at the time, and an organiser of the counter-demonstration, was Jeremy Corbyn, then a trade union official, now a Labour MP [where is he now?!- ed]. It was not just Labour Councillors who were there. Discussions with Leyland Grant, the brother of the late Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, suggest that local activists from the Workers Revolutionary Party were also present. The WRP at this time was noted for usually not appear-ing on broad based protests, often preferring to call its own. In a sense to even suggest divisions at a local level, between Labour lefts, the far left and others is wrong. Political disagreements there certainly were, but many of the activists knew each other socially and were prepared to work together.

As soon as the NF march moved into Wood Green High Road, counter-demonstrators attacked and the march was split, with some NF supporters scattering. Memories of the use of flour and eggs are very common. As the NF moved into Wood Green High Road they were bombarded with flour, eggs, tomatoes and the shoes from racks outside the front of a shop on the High Road. Whether the shoes were later collected up by the shop owner, or whether they were left there deliberately in sympathy with the march is not known. Carol Sykes recalls carrying some balloons filled with paint or inky water, and some marine flares in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, she notes “the old brown paper sort, not the plastic ones you get today”, and handing the bag over to someone at the corner of Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane. She then joined the main counter-demonstration.

The police then moved in behind the remainder of the march and tried to prevent counter-demonstrators from following. There were running scuffles as the police blocked the way of anti-fascist protesters. The police even stopped people walking along the pavement alongside the march. Remember, this was a busy North London shopping street at the height of Saturday shopping. John Robson recalls that “many of us were caught at the building works for the shopping city, where Boots now is. The police have let through the march, but we were kept from following.”

Robson argues that Tariq Ali led one group [the wrong way] down Alexandra Road back to Turnpike Lane and towards Hornsey and recalls telling him that the quickest way to Wood Green tube station was down Lymington Avenue. Robson says that “I got to the station for the passing of the march, but those who followed Ali never saw the march again as they got hopelessly lost”. Even so an account of the day published in the following week’s New Society does suggest that Tariq Ali did eventually man-age to lead a group of anti-fascists close to the NF meeting point. He is described as speaking “from a traffic-light junction box, with a loud-hailer.”

Some protesters were able, eventually, to follow the remains of the NF march to its destination. There were flights between fascists and anti-fascists in Broomfield Park and in Aldermans Hill, Palmers Green. Some of these may have been mobilised from Enfield and not been at the beginning of the march. A sizable number of anti-fascists did make it to near Arnos School in Wilmer Way where the NF held their rally. Significantly this was in Enfield, then Tory controlled, not Haringey. By this stage it was late afternoon.

Memory

Some people can’t remember anything that happened; others recall being there but that’s it. Nigel Fountain, who some participants recall being there, does not recall it himself, but has suggested a follow up volume on socialist amnesia. Tariq Ali has pointed out that this was a period of several years of such demonstrations and it is difficult if you participated in a number of them to be entirely sure whether you were at a specific event. This does suggest that this pamphlet has a very particular ‘take’ on events. Namely that most of the contributors were local participants, activists and leaders in 1977, and while they may have moved on politically and personally in the intervening 25 years, still either live in the area or have links with it. For them, 23rd April 1977 is not just a piece of political history but of personal history as well.

Sexism

One respondent felt that there was a clear, and sexist, division be-tween men and women on the counter-demo and hoped that we were not producing a hagiography [we’re not!]. Photos of the demo do in-deed suggest that the counter-demonstration was male dominated and this may have reflected the general profile of the left 25 years ago.

Fascists

Although we have not sought to discuss the events of 25th April 1977 with any fascists who were present on the NF march that day, the project has been widely publicised in North London and beyond. We had anticipated that one or two fascists, might at this distance have abandoned their dalliance with Nazism and have been prepared to come forward. However, none have. The only record we have therefore of the NF marchers is the New Society account published the week afterwards. This notes that “A striking feature of the NF supporters on Saturday was the number of teenage boys in the ranks”. Of the assembly of the fascist march on Duckett’s Common the report notes that “Groups of teenage lads wearing red roses on their denim jackets turned out of the Queen’s Head like guests at a skinhead wedding. Greasy-haired rockers with hunched leather shoulders, wore red roses. So did prim middle-aged couples, the wives in tweedy suits”. This last group, it may be suggested, were unprepared for what they were to meet as they turned into Wood Green High Road.

Hidden from History

Some felt that some of the things they did were personally or politically too embarrassing or awkward to appear in print even 25 years on. The Anti-Nazi League, for example, still exists and still has to mobilise regularly against Nazis. This pamphlet is a history of a local demonstration with some wider political implications, not a chapter in the history of the ANL. Such a history will need to be written one day, but not while the job of fighting fascism is on the agenda still.

Hence one activist, who was managing a socialist bookshop at the time, told us that he had been specifically asked not to go because of the danger of arrest and the implications this would have for the running of the bookshop. Others told us that they had been due to attend a delegate meeting of the International Socialists [now SWP] on the day and had been specifically told not to go, but had bunked off the meeting at lunch-time and gone to the demonstration. Another issue, perhaps the most puzzling to arise in the researching of this pamphlet is what route the fascist demonstration took when it left Wood Green tube station. The ‘common sense’ view amongst those that were there was that it continued straight on.

Down Green Lanes to the Cock at Palmers Green, took a left turn into Bowes Road and then turned right at the junction with Wilmer Way and the North Circular Road where the venue for the fascist rally was. However, for a variety of reasons – police blocking the way or a focus on the ambush at Turnpike Lane – very few anti-fascists made it past Wood Green tube to ac-company the Nazi march. One that did was Dave Morris, then a North London postman, later known as an anti-McDonalds activist and a member of Haringey Solidarity Group. A photo that he has of the march not only suggests that far more fascists were able to re-group after the Turnpike Lane ambush than previously supposed [certainly several hundred] but that the route was different. It appears that the march continued on past the Cock at the North Circular Road to Palmers Green triangle. Here Enfield Trades Council and some local Communist Party activists rallied in opposition to the fascists. The NF then continued down Powys Lane into Wilmer Way from the north, skirting the edge of Broomfield Park. At least one person who has contacted us has referred to fighting between fascists and anti—fascists in the park itself.

Even less well known is what happened at the fascist rally itself. A report in New Society [28 April 1977] by Gavin Weightman noted that “Two men in khaki anoraks came out of the school, one, a barrister, nursing a bloody nose. They had been allowed into the meeting as observers. Then they were turned on, called ‘commies’, kicked and punched. Some NF members out-side jeered and laughed when they saw blood”. We have obtained some rare testimony from one of the people involved in this incident which is printed below, together with details of a further previously unknown confrontation which took place after the end of the fascist meeting at Turnpike Lane tube.

Perceptions

One of the hardest tasks of the historian is to capture what it was actually like and how people saw things for the period we are covering. That we are looking at an event in relatively recent living memory does not necessarily make things much easier. However, while we may want to draw some political parallels and lessons from the events of 25 years ago, historically some things were different.

Wood Green was one moment in the rise of a fascist movement in 1970s Britain that culminated in 1979 and went into decline for a period thereafter. Yet the presence of fascists in North London had been felt for several years before 1977, they were an uncomfortable and unwanted part of the political landscape. The left of 1977 was much more engaged in fighting fascism than its counterpart 25 years later. Some of this is well captured in Nigel Fountain’s left-wing crime thriller novel Days Like These, published in 1985 which is set in North London and deals with the historic roots of British fascism. In 1977, unlike in 2002, socialists might well wonder if the people coming towards them in the street, or drinking at a nearby table in a pub were fascists. The threat of attack and confrontation never appeared far off, and did indeed, from time to time, actually happen. The shadow of fascism and fascists was ever present in the mind if not physically.

How the State reacted was different then too. Pictures of Wood Green show police shrinking back in the face of smoke bombs and missiles. They are pictured defending themselves with their helmets. There were no riot shields, visors or any of the semi-military equipment that later protesters were to find. But if the police were taken by surprise by the tactics of anti-fascists at Wood Green, so were the anti-fascists themselves. David Widgery in his book Beating Time estimates that even a year earlier protesters would not have attacked the fascist march. That they did was per-haps a semi-surprise to them as well, even though they had planned for it.

The testimony of these who were there, however, suggests that the National Front was now seen as a very serious threat to the left and that the violent tactics employed at Turnpike Lane were not only necessary but would need to be repeated.

How they saw it: memories and assessments from 23rd April 1977

From Beating Time, David Widgery et al, London 1987

P43: “The NF’s first big demonstration of 1977 was planned for April through a multi-cultural inner city suburb where long-standing Jewish and Irish citizens has been joined by post-war immigrants from the Caribbean, Cyprus, India and Pakistan – Wood Green. A loose alliance of political and ethnic groups including the local Labour and Communist parties united to oppose the Wood Green march. But there was considerable disagreement about tactics, with the leadership of the Labour Party and the Communist Party and the official ethnic bodies concentrating on pressure to get the march banned while they held a separate protest rally. The SWP led the argument for direct confrontation which was not, as a North London SWP organiser recalls, at all easy:

we were quite clearly the best organised. We always had the leaf-lets out first, we knew the terrain and we knew where we were going.

…while the worthies addressed a rather small audience in a local part the Front and their police protectors were faced with much more numerous better organised and determined opposition armed with smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles and planned ambushes. At Duckett’s Common where the pre-vious year the anti-NF forces would probably have been content to jeer there was a spontaneous move to block the road and physically attack the Front.

…A batch of dogged student lefties stoically chanting the NF is a Nazi Front were shocked into silence by the sight of a squad of black lads accurately hurling training shoes borrowed from Free-man, Hardy and Willis street display baskets. A smoke bomb bar-rage obliterated the honour guard’s spiked Union Jacks. For a moment the police line weakened and it looked as if they would not pass.”

John Robson, later trade union Chair of the London Underground Trains Council recalls that 25 years ago: “I was unemployed and re-member spending weeks prior to the march going around cafes and clubs in Green Lanes and West Green Road, delivering leaflets and post-ers. We visited hundreds of Greek and Turkish establishments and work-places to drum up support for the anti-Nazi counter-demonstration”.

Daniel Birchall, the son of a political activist, then aged six, recalls of the day that “I was taken off to Alan Watts’ house where everyone had gathered to put flour, tomatoes and eggs into brown paper bags. Some [people] were going to hide in the crowds and pretend to be passers-by rather than join the counter-demonstrations and then launch their attack on the NF from the sidelines. Some of the tomatoes and eggs might even have been rotten”.

Dave Morris, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group notes: “I was on the demo with some other anarchist colleagues. My memories are hazy but I recall being involved with a bit of a fracas in the High Road as police blocked public and protesters from walking down the pavement, alongside the march.

Somehow I got through, seemingly the only one who did at the time. For half an hour I walked alongside the fascist demonstration as it completely dominated the streets, protected by police who cleared away most of the public in general. It was eerie – chilling in fact. After getting increasingly funny looks from cops and marchers despite my innocent whistling and hum-ming and pretending to admire the cracks in the paving stones, I sloped off.

I resolved that I would help mobilise for, and take part in future efforts to physically confront and prevent fascist marches. I had tons of arguments with NF sympathisers where I worked as a postman in the Holloway sorting office. There was at the time a 100-strong NF postal workers branch in the main Islington sorting office, and fascism seemed to be a real and growing threat.

However, going to Lewisham later in the year was a real turning point for me – the fascist march there was successfully attacked and then shepherded away by cops to the middle of nowhere… then thousands of mainly black local residents, and many of the anti-fascists, tool over the streets in a show of force against the NF and the police that sent out an uncompromising message: ‘fascist activities will be crushed – the streets being to the people’.

The next day at work sympathy for the NF and overt racism seemed to have evaporated somewhat and gradually fell out of favour. Meanwhile postal workers all over London were taking solidarity action with the striking Asian women of Grunwicks, as company mail seemed to be continually getting diverted to New Zealand…”

David Bennie, one of the two anti-fascists mentioned in the New Society report has provided his diary entry for 23rd April 1977: “We walked to Turnpike Lane where the counter-demonstration was assembling in the presence of vast numbers of police. The rally had been banned but the local council yet was being attended by the vice mayor, the local Labour candidate Ted Knight [a fine battling leftist on Lambeth Council] and even a representative of the Tory opposition on Haringey Council. We met up with Steve and watched the Front march form up a hundred yards away, with plenty of verbal exchange between the two sides. It seemed incredible to me that the police could allow such an obviously explosive confrontation to occur.

The march started off and we were aiming to intercept. Soon I had lost Robin but managed to maintain contact with Steve. A little way along Wood Green High Road the march was attacked. Red smoke bombs filled the air and a battle was soon underway. Everything that could be thrown was thrown at the fascists in an attempt to stop the march. Police Horses appeared on the pavement, if shoppers got in the way that was their hard luck. I crossed the road to give myself more freedom of action. I picked up a policeman’s helmet and used it as my first missile of the day. I grabbed a Front flag, intending to throw it at them but others wanted to burn it. If they had man-aged to set it on fire I would have thrown it, the bastards should have been stopped. We didn’t stop the march but it was harassed every inch of the way.

Police horses separated the two groups some distance from the school where the Front was assembling and then a violent hailstorm dispersed the remnants of the counter-demo. We found ourselves walking past the school and I suggested that we try and go inside. The stewards at the ground’s entrance seemed amused at the idea and let us in. At this point Steve said we were crazy and left. There was some dispute at the door about whether to admit us but we finally got in and I heard a couple of minutes of the meeting. “If they’re black, send them back.” The atmosphere was one of rabid anti-intellectualism, clearly thought was a sign of weakness. Then somebody said, “they’re commies” and we were recognised as anti-fascists, which I thought was obvious anyway.

The mood was ugly so we made to leave but they weren’t able to re-strain themselves, we were jostled and pushed out. Robin, a yard behind me, received a number of blows and kicks until blood was coming from his nose. Some of this happened outside but police stood around nearby, ignoring it. As we left a guy writing for New Society interviewed us about what had happened.

We caught the tube at Arnos Grove but when it stopped at Turnpike Lane we heard shouts of “everybody off the train”. Soon the whole plat-form echoed to the chant of “The National Front is a Nazi Front, SMASH the National Front”. It seems that a few fascists had attacked a comrade with a bottle. I saw one large guy, barely able to stand, with blood running from his face and understood that two others were hurt. The fascists’ compartment was besieged; we were not prepared to let the train leave until the thugs were arrested for assault. Robin recognised one of them as one of our denouncers in the hall. They stood there, umbrellas in hand, trying to repulse us, with crazed looks on their faces, like bit part players from A Clockwork Orange until the police took them away. It was a marvellous experience of revolutionary solidarity against our most dangerous enemies.

It had been quite a day. I’d never been through a demonstration like it and left it determined that the National Front must be opposed with absolute ruthlessness wherever it dares to appear. Any illusions I may have had about non-violent means of opposing them were destroyed in that school”.

Conclusion
Ian Birchall

Early in 1977 a Guardian journalist, Martin Walker, published a book on The National Front (Fontana). Walker had no sympathy for the  NF, but was impressed by its achievements, and believed that the NF could grow electorally, and even ‘conceivably explode into power’. The perspective was not wholly unrealistic; economic crisis, unemployment, cuts and a deeply unpopular Labour Government offered the NF unprecedented opportunities. If the left had failed, the NF might well have entered the political mainstream, as its sister parties did in several European countries.

At Ducketts Common the NF had been wounded, but not incapacitated – a very dangerous situation. The summer of 1977 was marked by Nazi violence; in July racists fire-bombed a West Indian youth club in South East London [This was the Moonshot Club in New Cross – past tense note]; there was a wave of attacks on socialists in Leeds. The police often gave the impression of backing up the racists; in June Lewisham police launched a dawn raid, arresting around sixty black youth. Within police ranks the operation was called ‘Police Nigger Hunt’.

But after Ducketts Common the labour movement was responding to the challenge. The following week journalists on the Hackney Gazette struck for three days against the publication of an NF advertisement. The editor of the print union SOGAT journal told an anti‑racist conference: ‘If I see a disease-ridden rat crawl up from a sewer I don’t get down on my hands and knees and hold a discussion with it; I put the boot in.’ Most important of all, the summer saw a series of mass pickets at the Grunwicks factory in North London, where strikers – mainly Asian women – were demanding union rights. They got massive support from across the labour movement – the tide was now flowing towards working-class unity.

The NF faced a major problem. Though it aimed for electoral ‘respectability’, it was not simply another electoral party, but a fascist organisation. It proposed to make its voters into activists who could one day challenge the power of the working-class organisations. However, if every demonstration were to be confronted on the streets, then only the most thuggish and bone‑headed would continue to march.

In an attempt to reassert their control of the streets, the NF called a demonstration in Lewisham on 13 August. Despite ill-concealed support from the police and the foot-dragging of the ‘official’ left, they were confronted by a broad alliance such as had appeared at Ducketts Common – but bigger and more militant. In the words of Socialist Worker (20 August 1977) there were ‘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…’ The result: ‘The Nazis remained in the back-streets, cowering behind massive police lines, until they were finally forced to abandon their march before it was half completed.’

The NF did not roll over and die. In September racists made an arson attack on headquarters of the SWP – but resort to individual terrorism is a sign of weakness. If the first two confrontations of 1977 were high drama, the third was farce. The NF planned a march through Hyde, Manchester on 8 October. Tameside Council, fearing a rerun of Ducketts Common and Lewisham, banned it. NF leader Martin Webster staged a one-man protest – accompanied by 3000 police. And following what The Times called ‘a pact between the police and the National Front’, a handful of Nazis marched through Levenshulme. But though the location was secret, anti-racists pursued them across Greater Manchester, with help and encouragement from the local population. The whole shambles involved 9500 police and two helicopters, at a cost of £250,000.

Now the NF were on the defensive. In November the Anti-Nazi League was launched, involving leading Labour Party figures like Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain. If its most spectacular achievements were the big carnivals, organised with Rock Against Racism, it also won widespread trade‑union support, and created innumerable local groups which painted out Nazi graffiti and picketed every pub and school where the Nazis tried to meet.

The deep divisions within the NF, which had been glossed over in the period of success, now became increasingly visible. Margaret Thatcher made her notorious speech warning that British people might be ‘swamped’ by other cultures. Doubtless she drew back to the Tories some voters who preferred Cliff Richard, Trevor Bailey and pies and mash to Bob Marley, Viv Richards and kebabs. But the NF had already lost momentum; Thatcher was merely picking up the pieces.

In the 1979 General Election the NF got 191,267 votes (0.6%), as against  114,415 (0.4%) in October 1974, though they contested three times as many seats in 1979. They held on to their core vote, but completely failed to make the leap into the mainstream that so many had feared. In  Haringey the NF vote fell sharply as against 1974 – in Tottenham 8.3% to 2.9%, and in Wood Green 8.0% to 2.8%. By the early 1980s the NF had vanished from the scene. There were no fascist gangs to attack the striking miners or Wapping printworkers.

Racism survived, but primarily in the form of the institutionalised racism of the police. In Haringey it was the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid that provoked the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, and since then it is police racism, not that of the extreme right, which has been the main problem in Haringey, though the Nazis have attempted to regroup in the East End and Cheshunt.

Fascism will not disappear until the destruction of what it feeds on, the inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor housing and public services engendered by decaying capitalism. As the recent success of the British National Party in certain Northern towns shows, the threat endures. The lesson of Ducketts Common and 1977 – that Nazis must be confronted politically and physically wherever they appear – remains valid.

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Ian Birchall’s conclusion deserves a bit of scrutiny. As a former leading member of the SWP, (until he rightly resigned in 2013 in the wake of the rape allegations against ‘Comrade Delta’), his view follows the SWP line through most of the 80s – that the threat from organised fascism was low and thus anti-fascist organising was a ‘distraction’ from more important struggles. The SWP maintained this line until 1992, when all of a sudden the view was reversed, and the Anti-Nazi League was revived. Ironically the Birchall’s final line was written as this about turn was being performed.

Fascism didn’t disappear from the streets in the way he describes. Although fighting state racism was vital in the 1980s, for many communities targeted by Nazis, self-defence against street violence from British Movement, NF and BNP members remained necessary. That the police could always be expected to protect the fascists wherever they gathered, and to arrest anyone who fought back (especially if they were black) illustrated where the sympathies of many of the boys in blue lay. Anti-fascists whether black or white had few illusions that state racism was any less of a problem than bonehead racism –a continuous thread of influence, association and common cause could be drawn from the Nazis on the march through the rightwing of the Conservative Party to big business and elements within the state.

In contrast Anti-Fascist Action evolved from the section of the left and anarchist scenes that continued to physically opposed fascism and recognise the threat nazi organisation posed to black communities, workers’ struggles, trade unions and the left… AFA was not without its own issues (as we hope to discuss later in another post), but its presence on the streets helped to keep the myriad fascist sects from gaining much traction…

Read a more detailed and more nuanced view of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 70s-early 80s from a former ANL activist, as well as a summing up of the organisation’s 1990 ‘revival’…

This excellent critique of the ANL in both of its incarnations is worth paying attention to. The first ANL evolved in response to a real threat, and contained many committed activists, but foundered in the inability of the SWP leadership to cope with the realities of the daily struggle against racist violence, and its pursuit of high profile celebrity events… The revived version in the 1990s was a dilettante farce from the start, able to gather hundreds of students but generally standing on the sidelines when any serious confrontation had to be faced. ‘Here come the lollipops’ was a popular bitter remark at this time, inspired by the round ANL placards…

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Its worth remembering the street battles of the 1970s and 80s in the UK, as we see another of the periodic waves of rightwing organising on the rise. Brexit and austerity has helped fuel the swivel-eyed fires among reactionaries of all classes – the Brexit project itself is clearly partly born from the rosy-eyed imperial nostalgery of dislocated white working class, still eyeing ‘darkies’ and now eastern Europeans with an empty hate – handily supplying ground troops for the second of the UK ruling class which thinks richer pickings are to be had from operating outside the EU. The latter may benefit from Brexit – little will trickle down to the disgruntled UKIP voters or crap hooligans of the DFLA.

Join your local anti-fascist group – but keep your eyes on the rich too…

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London Brexit history, 1975: National Front march against EEC membership, Islington

This post won’t have the same resonance now, as Brexit Day has been postponed, but still… here goes…

In March 1975, the National Front marched through Islington, demonstrating against Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (the EEC, now transformed into the European Union). This was in the middle of the first referendum on British membership, two years after the UK had joined in 1973.

Nice to know THAT’s a dead issue eh?!

Whatever twisted path Brexit takes over the next few months and years, there’s no doubt the whole project has fed off and strengthened the far right, extending in a bit always distinguishable spectrum from the dregs of the Tory party through UKIP to fascist grouplets, alt-right blog-warriors and football hooligans…

It’s instructive to look back a little to the last UK. referendum in Europe, the vote over continuing EEC membership in 1975.

The UK had joined the European Economic Community, popularly known as the Common Market, two years earlier. The drivers of the move then were Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in alliance with the leading tories (including new leader Margaret Thatcher, later scourge of Europe and hero to all Brexiteers – who during the 1975 campaign wore a fetching wooly jumper knitted with all the flags of the EEC!), largely supported by big business which demanded access to the euro markets… Opposed were the far right, as usual – but more vocally, most of the left outside of the Labour centre and leadership. Tony Benn and other prominent Labour leftwingers, and the Trotskyist left, all denounced the EEC as a capitalist project, while fascists, Enoch Powell and assorted imperialist-yearning wonkos denounced the UK’s membership as anti-British. Not dissimilar to 2016, though with relative strengths reversed: today’s Lexiteers are definitely the poor relation to the more rampant fash leavers.
Much of the press were also broadly pro-Europe then – the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express all heavily promoted a vote to remain; the Guardian, however, was a leading anti-EEC voice.

The National Front march through Islington wasn’t targeting the North London metropolitan elite back then – Islington in those days was yet to become a byword for trendy middle class leftyism. It was a working class area, run down and somewhat depressed: an area the NF were very active in, where they had a large branch in the south of the borough, had won some support and aimed at picking up more.

March 25th saw about 400 National Front supporters join the anti-EEC demo, beating drums and chanting, flanked by 2,000 cops. Although the EEC was nominally against Europe, the Fronters focussed on one of their other bugbears, chanting ‘we’re gonna get the reds’, throughout the march. Extra police had been drafted in amid fears of violence, after anti-fascist resistance to previous NF marches, most notoriously in Red Lion Square in Holborn, in June the year before, when Kevin Gately had been killed by police while blocking an NF march to Conway Hall.

Although 300 anti-fascist protesters gathered opposite Islington Town Hall, shouting at the march, there was no fighting. Islington’s Labour Council had refused to allow the National Front to hold a rally at the Town Hall. Police led the National Front march to Exmouth Market, a mile south of the Angel, where the fash held their rally in a deserted street…

The NF march took place in the context of the Front’s being excluded from the official anti-EEC campaign (and the resulting campaign funding). These tensions were to boil over on April 12th, when, furious at being denied a platform at an anti-EEC meeting in Conway Hall, NF demonstrators tried to derail the rally. The next morning’s Observer reported:
“Young supporters of the Front wrestled with speakers on the platform, the microphone was seized, leaflets rained down from the gallery and up to 200 National Front members, mainly young men, stood, clapped and stamped, shouting ‘Free speech for the National Front’.”

This was, however, largely an irrelevant sideshow to the main referendum, which eventually saw a two-thirds vote to remain within the EEC.

Interestingly, the second world war was invoked a lot in the 1975 campaign, but mainly in support of the pro-Euro vote – 30 years after the end of the war, the idea that the EEC was a guarantee for peace gained some traction. A substantial proportion of the voters remembered the war, and this may have jacked up the yes vote. Unlike 2016, when the war, Churchill and so on was repeatedly hauled into service on the leave side, igniting the ‘memories’ of millions who HADN’T lived through it but felt invigorated by ‘our’ glorious solo victory over Hitler into rejecting Jerry, cheese eating surrender monkeys and other jolly stereotypes; in favour of – well what, exactly? Dreams of an imperial past? A return to the early 70s – a whiter, shiter, less gay Britain where women knew their place?

Not to cheerlead for the EU… It really is a capitalist club, just a bigger one, more in tune with the realities of global trade and finance. Which has set its own vicious borders (like the killing waters of the Mediterranean) and has no issues with imposing financial constraints to choke Greece or their own populations.

But Brexit really is part of a worldwide slowburn insurgency by dark forces – nationalism, fascism, ideologies determined to roll back gains made over decades… As usual tunes played by wealthy and powerful, blaming migrants and othering widely to enlist desperate and powerless people into believing they’re part of something – empire, nation, volk – bollocks the lot of it. British people have to come to terms with the toxic legacy of empire, slavery and capitalism, before working out who and what we really are in the world. But many would rather blindfold themselves and sign up for racism and little Englandism. Many might be horrified at the idea of marching with the NF or Tommy Robinson but buy into a watery version of the same tripe.

Of course lots of people voted for other reasons – poverty, industrial decline, lack of faith in politicians, feeling ignored, resentment at the economic imbalance of the southeast as against the north, midlands etc… But there never was sovereignty for working class people, before the EU and won’t be after – except where people take it for themselves in their own lives. Leaving the EU won’t bring that – it’ll enrich only the UK capitalists or the corporate wolves they’re in with. Remaining, realistically, wouldn’t bring it either, since a more sophisticated set of wolves run the EU. However, it is likely that Brexit will only bring collapse and hardship to the communities that voted for it. To some extent, the chickens will come home. Not that the Farages, Rees-Moggs and co will suffer – they’ll still be trying to whip up Poundland Crusades while the companies they shifted to Europe for tax reasons continue to cash in. While funding or enabling alt-right and goose-steppers to purge the land of the unpatriotic.

The pro-EU liberal gobshites on the other hand, who want free movement because it drives down wages… bah!

Borders are all made-up nonsense. Ideally we’d like to see free movement for workers but chains on the ankles of the rich; capitalists on both sides want the opposite, or free movement for people like them or the workers who can be fucked off when no longer needed. They lie and lie and lie to buy our support and will do so until we strangle them with their own guts. Fascists are their stooges and will also have to be dealt with – physically as well as politically, in the tradition of AFA (see below). Until we get busy strangling, these shitheads will only continue to flourish.

Fun times ahead.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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The NF may have failed to make much headway in the referendum, but they remained active in Islington, and routinely sold their papers and hung out around Chapel Market, Angel’s street market. Anti-fascists fought a long war to remove them, as detailed below (account taken from Fighting Talk, magazine of Anti Fascist Action, issue 19, published in 1998).

Chapel Market is a typical London street market, a stone’s throw from the now very fashionable Angel, Islington. Twenty years ago it was the scene of regular violent clashes between fascists and anti-fascists, the outcome of which dictated the successful development of militant anti-fascist politics in the capital for the next decade.

In the mid-70s members of the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front both held paper sales at Chapel Market, often resulting in clashes. At this time the NF was the biggest fascist party, winning 119,000 votes in the 1977 GLC elections and attracting thousands on to their demonstrations.

Against this background hundreds of independent anti-fascist committees were set up around the country and the SWP launched the Anti Nazi League. Major confrontations against the NF at Wood Green and Lewisham in 1977 put militant anti-fascism in the national spotlight, and the SWP organised ‘squads’ in the ANL to carry out the physical side of the strategy. This lasted until Thatcher, playing the race card, won the 1979 general election which led to the NF’s decline and the disbanding of the squads; the SWP argued that the Tories were now the ‘real’ enemy’. Physical opposition to the fascists was no longer acceptable.

Islington NF was one of the strongest branches in the whole country at this time, based mainly in the south of the borough where the white working class felt abandoned by the Labour council. Attacks on the SWP paper sale continued as fascist violence increased, a result of the electoral collapse of the NF.
The Young NF paper Bulldog was now printing hit-lists of opponents and in early 1981 in Islington a radical community centre was firebombed and a left-wing bookshop attacked. Regardless of this, the ANL would provide no support for the anti-fascist activists trying to maintain their pitch and challenge the fascists.

Support was provided though, from the remnants of the SWP squads who refused to disband and independent anti-fascists who saw the dangers of letting the fascists organise unopposed. The conflict at Chapel Market had lasted over 5 years before it entered its final phase in 1981.

The defining moment came one Sunday in July 1981 when, after several weeks of clashes, the usual NF turnout was supplemented by a 50 strong mob brought up from Brick Lane (the other big NF paper sale). The fascists managed to get into the area without being spotted and launched an attack. The anti-fascists, taken by surprise, were quickly overrun and forced to leave a bit sharpish – suffering two quite bad injuries in the process, one lad getting stabbed. If the NF had given chase the outcome would have been even worse, but anyway, the damage was done and it was obviously time for a serious rethink.

A number of activists met to discuss the situation and felt that as the NF had obviously decided to try and remove anti-fascists from Chapel Market by force, if the anti-fascists didn’t respond decisively the NF, encouraged by their victory the week before, would keep coming until the situation became impossible and the NF would win. Offence being the best form of defence, a plan was hatched.

At this time Brent NF was. an active branch and the organiser and several activists had taken part in the latest attack at Chapel Market. An activist from the time takes up the story:
“We heard reports that Brent NF had started a paper sale in Kingsbury (north-west London) on Saturday mornings so we decided to have a look with a view to attacking them in reply for the attack at Chapel. Plenty of familiar faces showed up at the Kingsbury sale so we organised a team to travel up there the next week. The point was made, five of them ended up in hospital!”

This was something new for the fascists who were more familiar with being the ones doing the attacking, and the incident at Kingsbury gave warning that the anti-fascists were going on the offensive. Many phones must have rung that night because 100 NF turned up at Chapel Market the next day, including a heavily bandaged Brent NF organiser.

There were several more smaller clashes over the next few weeks as the NF tried to re-establish their paper sale and the anti-fascists maintained their opposition. While Chapel Market was the focal point for activity, there were other incidents in the surrounding area. In October a small group of fascists were spotted at a local anti-fascist benefit gig and ran off when confronted. Outside one of the anti-fascists tripped and was stabbed in the chest as he was getting up. The blade narrowly missed his heart and he only survived due to the presence of a nurse with the anti-fascists. A prominent local anti-fascist organiser had her house attacked and her son, not involved in politics, was beaten up in the street. This only confirmed that there were some `unpleasant’ elements in the NF who, unless they were confronted physically, would control the streets and therefore dominate politically.

The next major incident was in November 1981 when an anti-racist conference was held at Archway, not far from Chapel Market. Anticipating a fascist attack the anti-fascists kept a low profile inside the hall, and sure enough, right on cue (i.e. Sunday afternoon closing time) 30 fascists were escorted up the road by the police. Led by prominent Islington NF members they confidently marched up to the door, unaware of the anti-fascist presence inside. The door flew open, and as the NF let off smoke bombs a large group of determined anti-fascists appeared through the ‘mist’ and caused considerable damage to the fascists.

For the rest of the winter and into 1982 the anti-fascists mobilised every Sunday morning. The victory at the Archway had given the anti-fascists the advantage and the regular, well stewarded attendance every week showed the fascists there was a new level of commitment and organisation which they couldn’t match.

In August 1982 the third major clash took place. One Sunday the anti-fascists arrived to find twenty NF already occupying the sales pitch. As the anti-fascists crossed the road towards them, Ian Anderson (now leader of the National Democrats, then a rising ‘star’ in the NF) shouted, “Get ’em, lads!” which was promptly met with a firm right-hander that knocked him flying. Another activist takes up the story:
“The fascists took a heavy beating, and Anderson, who was on the ground being beaten with lumps of concrete and a shoe, managed to break free and ran out into the busy street. At this point three ‘likely lads’ got off a bus over the road and were studying the commotion with a keen interest. While we immediately recognised three late-comers who would be severely chastised later for oversleeping, Anderson could only see three ‘white youths’ who would surely come to his aid. Running through the traffic and waving his arms wildly he approached the ‘aryan warriors’ only to discover his mistake too late – suffering his second bad beating of the morning.”

Unusually there were no uniformed police at Chapel Market that Sunday. It subsequently turned out that the area was being watched by plain clothes police and 14 anti-fascists were arrested leaving the area. Anderson pointed three people out to the police who were charged with GBH. All three were acquitted, largely because the fascists had no independent witnesses. The NF had been annoying local people for years, and although they had clearly been attacked, no-one was prepared to help them.

After this clash word got back that the NF were recruiting a ‘hit squad’ to deal with this group of anti-fascists who had inflicted so much damage on them. Eddy Morrison, a well known (drunken) fascist from Leeds who was ‘notorious’ for glassing a student in a pub, was the person in charge of the ‘contract’. Nothing ever came of this, but it does illustrate the effect the confrontational strategy was having on the fascists. Morrison did get to meet anti-fascists in London a year or so afterwards when his National Action Party tried to hold a meeting in Kensington – and yes, they got battered!

The clashes at Kingsbury, Archway and Chapel Market broke the back of the NF paper sale in Islington. The fascists were unable to maintain their presence and by the end of 1982 the sale had collapsed. The last time the fascists were seen in the area was shortly after the ‘Anderson affair’ when a surveillance team spotted Paul Nash (another NF organiser – and victim of Kingsbury) looking round a corner with a pair of binoculars to see if there were any anti-fascists in the area! It had taken just over a year but the wheel had turned full circle and the NF were beaten. To make things worse, eight members of Camden & Islington NF were sent down for armed robberies at this time and the branch collapsed. This victory didn’t just have a local impact, the collapse of the branch had a domino effect across north London with the NF ceasing to have any organised presence in what had been a strong area for them.

However the story doesn’t end here, because in 1983 nazi skinheads started drinking in a pub called The Agricultural on the corner of Chapel Market. The landlord was a fascist sympathiser and soon fascist skins from all over the country, and even overseas, would gather here on Saturday nights. By coincidence Red Action, the main group involved in the battle for Chapel Market, drank in a pub two hundred yards down the road. A low key campaign of harassment was launched against the pub, but escalation was inevitable. The fascists regularly attacked people in nearby streets – black people, gays, and anyone else they didn’t like the look of; but never anti-fascists. Then, finally, a Red Action member was attacked outside the pub.

The following week a pub on route from the tube station to The Agricultural was taken over and steps taken to try and draw the fascists out into the open. Fascists were attacked on their way to ‘The Aggy’ in full view of their ‘comrades’ outside the pub, in the hope that this would entice them out from the comparative safety of the pub. The fascists wouldn’t have it, so the anti-fascists marched up to their pub where they were met with a rousing chorus of an old nazi hymn – which ended abruptly under a hail of bricks and bottles.
The fascists scuttled inside and barricaded the doors (inevitably leaving some poor unfortunates outside!) while the anti-fascists withdrew and waited up the road. As more fascists arrived they ventured out and a large scale battle ensued on Liverpool Road for fifteen minutes. You don’t get a hundred people brawling in the street for quarter of an hour without police intervention – they had obviously decided to let it happen.

A few weeks after this, in June 1984, a large group of fascists attacked a GLC ‘Jobs for a Change’ festival in Jubilee Gardens. Both stages were attacked before anti-fascists got organised and drove them off. Shortly afterwards fascists waiting for medical attention in nearby St. Thomas’ Hospital were attacked, and a large group of anti-fascists then travelled to Islington, anticipating that other fascists would regroup at The Agricultural. They did come, and they were attacked, including a German fascist, who having just been attacked in the street by an Irish anti-fascist, ran into the ‘The Aggy’ shouting “Get them, they’re not English!”. Again the pub suffered further damage. A more intense campaign of pressure on the establishment was then instigated, and within a few months the landlord gave up and shut the pub. Finally, Chapel Market had seen the back of the fascists.

The key point about the battle for Chapel Market was that after July 1981 the anti-fascists set the agenda. At a time when the main organisations on the Left had abandoned anti-fascism, despite the increase in race attacks and fascist violence, anti-fascists showed that by going on the offensive, rather than just reacting, it was possible to win.

Today in radical herstory, 1971: London’s first modern International Women’s Day

If these days it seems like there’s no limits to how far feminism can be re-packaged and sold as a glossy commodity, profiting all sorts of scumbags who give not a toss about women’s liberation… We should always remember that International Women’s Day, 8th March, has its origins in the struggle of women workers. 15,000 women garment workers, including many migrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side on 5th March 1908,  to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.

The first US National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. Over the next few years the international socialist movement adopted Internationals Women’s Day, fixing it on 8th March in 1913. The following year, on 8 March 1914, the East London Federation of Suffragettes organised a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage.

International Women’s Day was revived in the early 1970s as the second wave of feminism grew in strength…

The first modern Women’s Liberation march in London took place on 6 March 1971, (the nearest Saturday to the 8th) a “cold and snowy day”.  The march, organised by the Women’s National Coordinating Committee, was the largest International Women’s Day event since the Suffragette era, and made a big media splash.

4000-5000 people, including lots of children and some men, marched from Speakers Corner through the West End, calling at 10 Downing Street to hand a petition in to Prime Minister Edward Heath, calling for the government to meet the four demands agreed at the first two Womens Liberation Conferences held in Oxford (1970) and Skegness (1971): Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand, and Free 24 hour Nurseries.

The demo highlighted contemporary feminists’ major concerns: contraception and abortion; women’s treatment as sex objects; their invisible oppression as housewives.

The demo was planned playfully and creatively: there was co-ordinated dancing and music, and carried along with the many banners were a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in a cage wearing a tiara, washing lines holding bras, bodices and corsets, while the Women’s Street Theatre Group acted out The First Period, featuring a massive sanitary towel. A cosmetics and slimming routine troupe who brought up the end of the march, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody of the Royal Shakespeare Company, danced along a wind up gramophone playing the 1950s hit “Keep Young and Beautiful/ It’s Your Duty to be Beautiful … If you Want to be Loved.”

You can watch videos and film reports of the march

here

and here

A film report:

 

Jill Tweedie reported on the march at the time for the Guardian:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes.

And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.

Because sex is all we really had in common. Odd to think, in the middle of Oxford Circus, that inside our over-coats, under our mufflers, coiled within our sweaters and vests is the same intricate reproductive system – fallopian tubes, uterii, vaginas, and breasts – and that that is why we’re here, on March 6, 1971, in the snow. When, since the beginning of time, have men ever marched because they shared a particular sexual apparatus? Ludicrous, shameful, ridiculous, perish the thought.

Goodness knows our outsides were various enough. Long and short and thin and fat, quiet, middle-aged ladies in careful make-up, bare-faced girls with voices loud as crows, Maoists, liberals, socialists, lesbians, students, professionals, manual workers, spinsters, wives, widows, mothers. One two three four we want a bloody damn sight more. Biology isn’t destiny. Equal pay now. Bed or wed, are you free to choose? I’m not just a delectable screwing machine. Capitalism breeds sexploitation. Freedom. There were even women so politically committed that the very sight of Downing Street submerged “24-hour Nurseries” with “Tories Out” and “Kill the Bill.”

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “if that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”

“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”
(Jill Tweedie)

May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s  Liberation activists, also marched and spoke from the platform.

Some pictures of the march:

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Support International Women’s Day events in London 2019:

Global Women’s Strike

Million Women Rise

 

Today in London secessionist history, 1970: ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on the Isle of Dogs

What with all this Brexit stuff going on… Seems likely at some point that different parts of this so-called nation will be moving in different directions… We started thinking about unilateral declarations of independence… At least two we know of took place in London (neither of them being in Pimlico!) – on the Isle of Dogs in 1970 and ‘Frestonia’, the squatted section of Latimer Road, North Kensington, in 1977… we’ll come back to the latter later in the year…

On 1st March 1970, some residents of the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s docklands, blockaded the roads that led onto the Island, and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Although theoretically inspired by the UDI not long before declared by the racist regime in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the isle of Dogs UDI was not a racist move – it was sparked by poverty, resentment at the lack of resources and infrastructure on the Island, and was seen as a propaganda action, to highlight the Islanders’ problems.

The anger and the resulting community organising that produced the ‘UDI’ had been developing since the war. Massive destruction of both industry and housing in the East End by German bombing during World War 2 left hundreds of thousands without housing; much of what remained was ageing, in poor condition, and overcrowded. Many East Enders were still living in homes that had been unfit to live in during Victorian times.

A major programme of house building was initiated, centred in cheaply and speedily built estates, which would rapidly transform the East End; large numbers of people were transplanted, both further out to the edges of East London, and within the East End itself. New estates were built on the Isle of Dogs; Eastenders were moved here from other areas, themselves being rebuilt.

But although ‘the Island’ in the late 1960s was busy with tens of thousands of men working in the docks and in factories along the river, sailors of all races in the pubs or streets – there was little else for the residents. Pubs – yes. But no secondary school, few shops, poor health care facilities… Long before the Limehouse Link and the DLR were built, it was separated by water and the docks: public transport was a single bus route to get you on and off the Island. What few amenities that existed were being put under increasing strain, as thousands of families from other parts of the newly created borough of Tower Hamlets, were moved into newly-built housing estates on the Island. Largely cut off from the rest of the borough, many on the Isle of Dogs felt ignored or forgotten. Every election, the Island dutifully returned its six Labour members to the Poplar Borough Council: members who, in the view of many Islanders, quickly forgot about their constituents as they were sucked into the Labour machine, bowing to the party, and taking their constituents for granted. Whip. Locals began to call the district ‘the forgotten Island’.

This began under the auspices of the old Borough of Poplar, but would worsen after the reorganisation of London’s boroughs in 1965, when Poplar and the island were merged in to the new larger borough of Tower Hamlets.

This feeling of abandonment and simmering anger boiled over in January 1959, when the Port of London Authority (PLA) decided to close the footbridge over Millwall Docks. The bridge had supposedly been erected as a temporary replacement for the road bridge destroyed in the war, and provided the quickest way to get between Cubitt Town and Millwall. Closing the bridge would’ve added a mile on the journey from home to work, forking out for extra bus fares… Islanders felt that they were being ignored … again.

The Bridge plan sparked the birth of a campaign: a 2000-name petition was collected, and the Millwall Residents’ Association (MRA) was formed, soon attracting hundreds of members. They managed to force the PLA to back down, but only the bridge was replaced by a raisable walkway (though the long-promised road link was not rebuilt). Poplar Council were accused of backing off from criticising the Port of London Authority.

When in 1960, the PLA and Poplar officials held a meeting presenting the proposal for the new walkway, 300 Islanders turned up to barracked them. One resident demanded ‘that for once the Councils show some guts’. Throughout 1960, Islanders packed the galleries at Council meetings, urging their councillors to ‘speak up for the residents’.

Enraged at the council’s vacillations over the Battle of the Bridge, at the next Council elections in 1962, an Island Tenants Association (ITA) contested and won all three seats, overturning Labour dominance on the Island.

Even when Labour won back the council seats, one of the councillors was to be a thorn in their side. This was Ted Johns, who had worked as a timber porter and wharf manager, and who was to one of the architects of the ‘UDI’.

Born in Poplar, Johns had only moved to the Island in the mid-1950s, when his previous home in the Bow Triangle was redeveloped out of existence. He inherited a radical family tradition: an ancestor had been notable in the Chartist movement, later family members had been active in the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and his father had fought against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Johns himself had been a national leader in the League of Labour Youth, and had helped found several campaigning Island groups.

Active in local politics, in 1965 Johns became a Labour councillor on Tower Hamlets Borough Council. However, he was frequently at odds with his own party:

“I was never popular on the Tower Hamlets council. I was always criticising. The local government had become complacent.”

Johns pressed for development and planning decisions that would preserve and enhance the quality of communal life for Island residents. He opposed additional housing estates, demanded preference for local residents when it came to new houses, and fought middle-class housing developments.  In the face of the clearly declining docks he proposed programmes to attract and retain industry.

When In the late 1960s, the Labour Council put up council rents, after having promised not to do so, Johns went on a personal rent-strike and his own council served an eviction order on him. For this he was also expelled from the Party.

Around this time, Ted met John Westfallen, a lighterman, who was living on the newly-built Samuda Estate, and had become involved in the estate’s tenants association. They became friends, and allies in the fight for improvements. Westfallen’s practical ability to get things done complemented Johns’ rebellious spirit.

From this friendship came the plan to block the bridge and the ‘declaration of independence’.

For two hours on 1st March 1970, they blocked West Ferry Rd on the west side of the Island, and the ‘Blue Bridge’ (the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks) on the east side. Not only did this make it impossible for road traffic to leave or enter the Island, at least one ship – the Swedish cargo ship Ursa – could not enter the docks to be unloaded because the Blue Bridge could not be raised. Despite repeated demands from the police, the barrier yielded just once … to let a hospital-bound vehicle through.

They called for better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in rates. They announced to the press:

We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council. We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.

John Westfallen, a fan of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (his in-laws had acted in the film), thought up some attention-grabbing elements to the action – he created and distributed ‘entry permits’ and joked about having proper Island passports. A second “Prime Minister”, stevedore Ray Paget of West Ferry Rd, manned the barricades on the west side of the Island.

A few days later, the activists set up a 30-strong ‘Citizen’s Council of the Isle of Dogs’ which met at the tenants’ hall on the Barkentine Estate. They demanded rent cuts, better transport, more schools and the election of the Island to borough status. The Citizens council threatened to withhold rates from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the GLC and spend it for the specific benefit of the Island. ‘Chairman Johns’ fired off a warning letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and MP Anthony Greenwood (Minister for Housing and Local Government).

The Declaration was never meant to be serious – it was a publicity stunt, meant to grab attention for the neglect the islanders complained of. It certainly did that – the press jumped at the story.

“It …catapulted the Isle of Dogs on to the front pages of the national press and elevated Johns to the status of ‘president’. Indeed, the foreign media, flocking to his council flat…and treated him as if he were the head of state of a small independent nation.” Johns later claimed he had never really called himself President: “Actually, I never called myself the President, I think someone made that up. It was all a bit of a joke.”

Ted Johns was a natural showman, comfortable in front of the TV camera, able to push the buttons that would get the press going…  Though he joked during one of his many news conferences that he also had to pay attention to more mundane matters:

“There is a danger that I might get the sack as I have been off work all week to deal with the situation.”

On 3rd March, Ted Johns was even briefly interviewed via satellite link by famous US CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, as “President of the Republic of the Isle of Dogs”.

However, not everyone locally supported the actions of the ‘provisional government’.

Local shopkeeper David Jordan denounced Johns’ “dictatorship” and said he was getting 400 signatures an hour on an anti-UDI petition. A group of demonstrators collected signatures outside the Skeggs House flat where Johns had set up his ‘government’, with one protester declaring “he’s got no right to do it” and another “it’s just plain stupid”.  There were surreal moments, one woman signed the anti-UDI petition, sighing with whimsical regret “I thought I was going to be a queen.”.

Ted Johns put this division about the protest down to differences between the longer-established Islanders and the more recent incomers:

“It was a difference between the old and new Island East Enders,’ he argued later. ‘The old Islanders were secure in their little cocoon. Those of us that came in realised we were facing a great danger because we could see our roots had gone. We were really fighting to ensure the new roots we set down here became permanent.”

The protest was followed by a few others, Ted Johns and John Westfallen also met with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing St. The wave of publicity finally needled Tower Hamlets Council into announcing some investment and improvements on the Island, they they naturally claimed they had planned to do this all along, and that the UDI protest had nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly the Island never got separate borough status, but things did start to change. Tower Hamlets Council announced a series of new housing projects for the Island; ILEA unveiled plans for new schools; and London Transport set to improving bus routes.

John Westfallen, who also spent many years providing facilities and clubs for Island kids, died unexpectedly in 1975. Ted Johns remained actively involved in local politics and community initiatives until his death in 2004.

However, worse was to come for the Islanders, in many ways of course. While the community struggles recounted above were taking place, the docks, at the centre of the working lives of most of the residents, were themselves in decline. Most of the docks closed in the 1970s. The dereliction this brought to the Island opened up opportunities for the developments of the 1980s, the glossy corporate take-over of Canary Wharf, the yuppie flats… Most of which offered nothing but an alien colonialism to the people already living there.

Ironically, John Westfallen’s son Tony has suggested that the UDI protest actually sparked this turn of events:

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the “catalyst” for the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who – as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invest millions.

Sadly, little of this investment was seen until after Johns’ death … the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the GLC, others became hijacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

But islanders would also resist the imposition of the new corporate Docklands…

Much of this post was shamelessly stolen from

The ‘Island History’ Blog

and East End History

There’s a news clip of some local reaction to the UDI – not all of it in favour…!

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Neglect and deprivation would also play a part in another area of London which declared independence in the 1970s – Frestonia. To which we will return later in the year…