Today in London radical history, 1962: nazi meetings in the East End scattered by anti-fascists

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his comeback, but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his Union Movement alive.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

From the late Fifties, the far right, while still harping on about Jews, began to target the emerging Black and Asian migrant communities. Local anti-immigration sentiment in areas like Notting Hill led to xenophobic attacks, rioting and racist murders, which the fascists encouraged and attempted to cash in on.

A splintered scene of minuscule fascist groups began to coalesce into more active movements. Fascist activities were most notable in London.

But London also saw the most effective anti-fascist resistance. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group). During the 1950s there had been very little open fascist activity and correspondingly there had been very little anti-fascist activity, but when the Nazis began reviving, so too did opposition to them.

The 62 Group was largely made up of various left-wingers including people from the Communist Party, Jews and some Black migrants. For around 5 years from the early 1960s, the 62 Group set out to physically confront the fascists whenever they showed their faces. The success of the anti-fascists in disrupting the campaigns of the various fascist groups in the early and mid-60s prevented the Far Right from exploiting the growing racism and forced them to rethink their strategy.

The re-animated nazi corpse attempted to revive their favoured tactic, used before and after WW2, of trying to hold street meetings, often in areas where they had previously attempted to gain an audience or provoke local communities. One of these areas was in Ridley Road Market, Dalston, long at the heart of one of Hackney’s largest Jewish communities.

Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement had been battered in Ridley Road by the 43 group a number of times in the late 1940s.

Mosley’s reception was not to improve over a decade later…

The Union Movement had tried to hold a street meeting in Ridley Road on 31 July, 1962. The recently formed 62 Group and other opponents made sure they had a warm reception, and the rally had ended in fighting with anti-fascists and 54 arrests.

The Mosleyites and other far right groups seemed determined to push back against this robust local response. Two nazi rallies were announced in East London for the same day, September 3rd.

Thousands of angry East Enders turned out to prevent the Fascists from meetings and to physically prevent them from speaking. Meetings at Hertford Road, Dalston, and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, were broken up or drowned out.

The Jewish Yellow Star Movement had occupied the pitch the small far-right British National Party had planned to speak at in Ridley Road, holding an all-day marathon meeting with 136 speakers.

An attempt had been made to speak at Ridley Road by a few fascists, who had (according to a letter in the Gazette published a few days later) been beaten up: “by Yellow Star members, who were said to have outnumbered them by about a hundred to one”. Whether the letter is accurate about the Yellow Star being involved in any agro is debateable. The Yellow Star was as an organisation avowedly non-violent. However, many anti-fascists were not; the 62 Group espoused the old 43 Group tactic of physically attacking nazis. The opposition to the attempt of the far right to rise again was broad and diverse, ranging from Liberals to communists and beyond; the fash however were keen to portray all their opponents as being basically the same. In fact tactical differences on how to oppose fascism were, as ever, divisive and led to splits and rows.

The BNP meeting was instead held in Hertford Road, a few streets away (just south of Balls Pond Road):

“At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon filibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalston, which lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold [its] meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

According to an anti-fascist eyewitness account:

“East London anti-fascists had taken the Ridley Road meeting pitch where the British National Party had planned to speak. A large crowd was enjoying the sunshine but there was an air of expectancy among them. News was coming in of a much larger crowd of anti-fascists waiting a few miles away at Victoria Park Square for Mosley’s gang to arrive.
Early in the afternoon the anti-fascists’ chief steward was quietly asked to go with two men and sit on the floor of a taxi. In the next few minutes he was briefed to find 200 people who would be prepared to help jump the BNP. Slowly, in twos and threes, hand-picked people were moved out to the assembly point. Here the Field lo Commander of the 62 Group, Cyril Paskin, told us that in ten minutes we would split into three attack groups and get the nazis who would be in Balls Pond Road. He said if anybody here is not a fighter or does not like violence, that is no shame. but please just go away, we do not need an audience.
The BNP leaders, Andrew Fountaine and John Bean,  and two minders were at the local police station trying to negotiate another venue for their meeting. They had a very lucky escape as around 400 anti-fascists led by the 62 Group section leaders mounted a running attack at
the nazis. It was all over within five minutes. Nearly every nazi present needed hospital treatment, including  some of their professional boxers from Leeds.
I looked around and saw Bobby Sulkin, a former East End boxer, hit a nazi so hard that his feet left the ground. The nazi had been a pro boxer and nazi bully boy for had
years. Now he was in the gutter where he belonged.”

Meanwhile around 3000 anti-fascists had gathered in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, where Mosley was planning to speak. The activists who had attacked the BNP crowd now made it over to Bethnal Green to join them:

“As quick as the first strike was over, the organisers were shifting nearly a thousand people to join the 3,000 anti-fascists in Bethnal Green. Cars were stopped and drivers asked politely, and sometimes not so politely, to take three or four passengers to the second front.”

At least one of these cars nearly ended up delivering its passengers accidentally into the wrong crowd:

“I was in a car driven by a former veteran of the International Brigade who was now fighting the fascists where he worked on the railway at King’s Cross station. We made a wrong turn and a line of police opened up to show us the way to within feet of the fascist lorry being used as a platform. We made a rapid withdrawal, scattering a number of fascists on the way out.”

A huge police presence saved the Mosleyites from getting the same treatment as the BNP but the fighting was very fierce. The fascists were chased out, there were many arrests on both sides, but anti-fascists felt the day was successful.

“Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supporte[r]s. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosley!” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his supporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

One 62 Group member recalled: “I remember seeing the retreating Mosleyites giving Nazi salutes on the back of their lorry. I picked up a heavy object and hurled it into the middle of them. It certainly took the smirks off their faces.” 

Later, at the junction outside the ‘Salmon and Ball’ pub (0n the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road) “a lorry loaded with Mosley supporters, mostly young boys, came under a bombardment of pennies, the result of which might well have been that several lost their eyes.” (Letter to Hackney Gazette, 11/9/62)

Another fascist attempt to hold a meeting seems to have been held a few days later – with similar results:

“Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.[]into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, among them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day[-]long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti- fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 20 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge, chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supporters left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62)

Sustained anti-fascist activity had its effect. Constant attacks on fascists from the Union Movement forced Mosley to suspend conventional political activity in 1963. The 62 Group and other anti-fascist groups also harassed the British National Party, and the smaller Greater Britain Movement and National Socialist Movement, their meetings were occupied, HQs targeted, and membership lists stolen… A number of fascists turned to arson against Jewish targets when open meetings became too risky; infiltration by the 62 Groups helped uncover some of the arsonists.

Despite this, a number of far right groups came together in 1966-67 to form the National Front, to become the largest and most effective fascist organisation to date. The BF’s concentration on attacking Black and Asian migration rather than Jewish communities would win them a populist support in the 1970s: and a new generation of anti-fascists would arise to oppose them…

Some film of September 3rd 1962:

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1985: Anti Fascist Action founded, ‘to fight fascism physically & politically’

Anti-Fascist Action was an important organisation that took a position of fighting the far right on the streets as well as combatting their ideas politically wherever they arose. Founded in 1985, AFA effectively ceased to exist around 2000-2001.

Here’s an account of Anti-Fascist Action in their own words, published in 1999, as the organisation was in effect winding up – or as they saw it, moving on to other arenas of the struggle against fascism…
Some thoughts in AFA and their winding up follow their text.

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From the day Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was founded fourteen years ago, we have always been best known for the use of physical force against fascists on the streets. While being rightly proud of this record the present situation requires that militant anti-fascists develop a political strategy that is just as effective as the physical one has been in the past.

There has never been a blueprint for militant anti-fascism, either political or physical, and AFA has had to develop its own strategies. As the general political situation changes anti-fascists need to move with the times. In Britain, where the main fascist threat comes from the British National Party (BNP) who have withdrawn from ‘street activities’, there is a danger that if anti-fascists don’t follow the fascists in to the political mainstream then we will be outflanked.

Some anti-fascists think that adopting a political strategy means the physical side of the struggle has been abandoned, but the key to AFA’s future success lies in our original founding statement which commits the organisation to “physical and ideological opposition to the fascists”. The physical side of the strategy has been implemented so successfully that the fascists were forced to withdraw from the streets in 1994 – now is the time to develop and implement a political strategy with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
To understand the position we are now in it is helpful to look at the history of AFA as it has developed over the years.

1977 – 1985 The beginnings…

Although AFA was formed in the summer of 1985 the roots of the organisation can be traced back to the anti-fascist squads in the late 1970s. The squads were the physical force wing of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which had been launched in 1977 to counter the growing threat of the National Front (NF).

The NF had made inroads into the white working class, and in 1974 they set up the NF Trade Unionists Association and were actively involved in a number of industrial disputes. This growing support among the white working class led to increased opposition from the Left and the Trade Union movement and when the National Party (a split from the NF) won two council seats in Blackburn, in May 1976, it was clearly time to turn the growing anti-fascist protests into something more dynamic.

By 1977 organised opposition to the NF reached new heights, in particular at Lewisham in south London where an NF march came under heavy and sustained physical attack from several thousand anti-fascists.

Shortly after this the Anti Nazi League was formed by the SWP arid every fascist activity was now opposed.

The ANL strategy combined imaginative propaganda and physical opposition. Popular bands, sporting celebrities and other individuals with a high profile were used to endorse the anti-fascist message, making sure it had a wider appeal than the usual left-wing campaign. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were dished out, badges sold, stickers and posters put up. The message was simple but effective; the NF=Nazis.

In the 70s this message was still effective, bearing in mind that the Second World War had only ended 30 years previously, and Britain was very much out of step with the rest of Europe where the Far Right were small and isolated and could only dream of reaching the level of support that the NF had. Indeed the French FN sent activists over to Britain to study the methods of the NF which they have subsequently put to good use.

The propaganda on its own would never have been enough, and the ANL squads provided the necessary physical opposition. The previous years had seen the NF pursue a traditional fascist strategy of trying to control the streets. Left-wing paper sales were attacked, public meetings smashed up and demonstrations harassed.

Between 1977 and the general election in 1979 the ANL squads systematically turned the situation around – attacking fascist paper sales, meetings and marches. The damage that was done to the NF at Lewisham was methodically reproduced around the country. The middle classes would no longer turn out in public, women and old people found it increasingly dangerous to attend activities and anti-fascist successes in the street battles drove away many more. The tide had turned and the fascists were starting to become isolated.

Many original members of AFA learnt their ‘trade’ during this period and saw how the effective combination of mass propaganda, carnivals, stunts, and physical confrontation could be However the political situation was about to change dramatically as the Tories won the 1979 general election, playing the race card as Thatcher talked about understanding people’s fears of being “swamped” by an alien culture; the NF vote collapsed.

The NF split into 3 smaller organisations and entered a period of reorganisation, but anti-fascists remained active. The first problem to be dealt with was the closing down of the ANL, the only active anti-fascist organisation. The ANL’s main sponsors, the SWP, had themselves entered a period of reorganisation and started to close down all the campaigns they had launched which had succeeded in drawing in significant numbers of working class people, like the ANL.

With regard to the ANL, the SWP’s argument was that now that the NF vote had collapsed and the organisation disintegrated, the Tories were the real enemy. The squads were to be disbanded and the organisers, many of them SWP full-timers, were withdrawn. The only problem was that many of the activists refused to go. Although the NF was in decline the fascists were still active, and now that their electoral prospects had disappeared there was a new intensity to their violent attacks on the ‘opposition’. Apart from attacking political opponents they also maintained high profile paper sales at places like Brick Lane and Chapel Market (in London), held demonstrations, recruited among the disillusioned young working class at football grounds and around the punk/Oi/ska music scene. As well as maintaining this high level of activity they provided the political justification and motivation for the rapidly increasing level of racist attacks.

This provided the ‘squadists’ with the necessary reasons for keeping up the momentum that had been built in the anti-fascist movement. The fascist gangs could be confronted and beaten and the squads were able to attract working class support. The importance of challenging the racists and fascists in working class areas should not be underestimated, and when the middle class leadership of the ANL/SWP, with absolutely no understanding of the situation on the ground, decided to expel the `squadists’ in 1981, the future became much clearer. The so-called ‘squadists’ were never just `streetfighters’ and had always had wider political ambitions – and becoming independent of the conservative Left started the process of challenging the traditional left-wing blueprint of how to achieve progressive social change which now sees AFA in the forefront of a new attempt to build a genuine, independent working class movement.

The early 1980s was a period of intense anti-fascist activity, without the media coverage of the late 70s and involving smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the battle for the streets was still being fought. The ANL still existed in name up to 1982, but the occasional activity they called would simply be a protest march on the other side of town from the fascists. While this sort of non-confrontational activity had no effect on the fascists, it also failed to attract anyone else to the anti-fascist movement.

Increasingly, independent groups of anti-fascists were taking the initiative, with solid bases in Manchester, Hatfield and London. In Manchester eight anti-fascists were jailed in 1981 for taking a firm line on fascist intimidation while in London a year-long campaign saw the NF driven off their prestigious sales pitch at Chapel Market. Hatfield, a small town north of London, was an example of how anti-fascists, based in the community, could win popular support for their views and when the ska band Madness played there in 1980 a large contingent of fascist skinheads who had travelled up from London were severely beaten by the locals who turned out in force.

At this time there were also high profile campaigns in support of young Asians in Bradford and Newham who had been arrested for defending themselves and their communities from racist attacks. Although there was no national co-ordination there was militant opposition to the racists and fascists. This increased level of militancy inevitably led to growing police interest in those responsible, causing further problems for anti-fascists who were in danger of being isolated and picked off.

While militant anti-fascists were having increased success on the streets there was no political strategy running along-side that would have allowed them to fill the political vacuum that was being created with the removal of the fascists. Getting rid of the fascists seemed sufficient. After the ‘squadists’ were expelled from the SWP in 1981 a decision was taken to form a new organisation in order to stay politically active. This group was Red Action and was the link between the anti-fascist activists in Manchester, London and Hatfield. Militant anti-fascism was consistently promoted in the Red Action paper and not surprisingly it was Red Action who, out of practical necessity, were soon to initiate the launching of a new, national anti-fascist organisation.

1985 – 1989 AFA’s Early Years

As the fascists started to reorganise (the British National Party was launched in 1982) and with racist attacks increasing, it became clear that anti-fascism needed to be put back on a wider agenda and a new national organisation was required. One incident in particular led to its formation.

In 1984 the Greater London Council organised a large open-air rally and concert as part of their campaign against unemployment. Halfway through a group of 70 or 80 fascists appeared and attacked the audience and the bands on stage. Initially taken by surprise anti-fascists quickly reorganised and drove the fascists off. A retaliatory attack was launched on a fascist pub that evening to make up for the earlier lack of preparedness. The point was that the fascists were getting bolder, attacking large left-wing activities in broad daylight, and Red Action decided this had to be dealt with.

A leaflet was drawn up and circulated to anyone interested and as a result of this discussions took place with a variety of groups about launching a new anti-fascist organisation. A conference was called in the summer of 1985 and attended by 300 people representing a wide range of groups. The militants, represented by groups like Red Action and the East London Direct Action Movement, made a crucial mistake at this conference because although it was their initiative, acting on information received that the fascists would attack the meeting, they spent the whole meeting outside on stewarding duties. This meant that from the very outset the political orientation was being dictated by others.

Political naivety played a part as well, the militants wrongly assuming that regardless of what was decided in meetings everything could be rectified on the streets, and when the fascists were themselves ambushed after the meeting this seemed to underline the point. Despite this error, which wouldn’t be resolved until the relaunch in 1989, the new organisation quickly set about achieving some important results.

The first activity took place in November 1985 when AFA took over the assembly point for the annual NF Remembrance Day parade. These parades were an important part of the fascists’ activities attracting several thousand at their height, providing an annual focal point for their supporters and frequently gaining media coverage. On this occasion the fascist stewards were unable to remove AFA and the NF march had to assemble elsewhere and was delayed for an hour. Not that dramatic but a signal of intent for the future.

It is worth looking at the Remembrance Day marches over the next few years because they illustrate the differences within AFA. Although the larger left-wing organisations did not join AFA (eg. SWP, Militant, Communist Party, etc.) it was made up of some smaller socialist and anarchist groups, various groups active within the race relations lobby like the Newham Monitoring Project and the Refugee Forum, Searchlight, and non-aligned individuals. It ranged from militant anti-fascists who had seen the effect of physical confrontation on the fascists to groups who wanted to put pressure on the government to change various laws and fund particular projects.

Initially the contrasting agendas worked together and when AFA called a National Demonstration on Remembrance Day 1986 over 2,000 people responded, making it the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation since the 70s. It made the front page of the Daily Mail on the Monday morning which was a significant step in putting anti-fascism back on the agenda. The struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, fought on the streets around the country since the collapse of the ANL, had been almost completely ignored up to this point.

The following year another march was called, basically because the previous one had been so successful and after the NF march a large contingent of fascists would make their way to Trafalgar Square to attack the Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid picket outside South Africa House. The AFA march was a way of getting a large number of anti-fascists into the area to confront the NF, which was successfully achieved.

By 1988 there was an argument about a third march; around the question of what was the point of having the march. The march was getting smaller, the media had lost interest, and it was becoming an annual event with no discussion about its effectiveness. The militants were keen to oppose the NF on Remembrance Day but felt a march wasn’t the best way.in the interests of ‘unity’ the militants-went along with the march again, and scored another notable success against the fascists afterwards.

By 1989 the Remembrance Day march caused a split. The liberals called a march which attracted less than 300 (compared to 2,000 in 1986) while the militants took over the fascists’ assembly point and controlled much of the surrounding area. A number of fascists were prevented from reaching their march and the NF were seriously delayed. Such was the pressure they were under, coupled with the defeats they had suffered in Trafalgar Square over the previous 2 years, that for the first time the NF didn’t try to attack the anti-apartheid picket afterwards, presumably relieved just to get out of the area in one piece.

For the militants this episode highlighted a key component of anti-fascism – to be effective. There is no blueprint but any mobilisation must have a specific purpose. While the liberal agenda called for protests against fascist violence, for more police involvement, and for the State to deal with the problem of a growing Far Right, the militants were developing a strategy that would stop the fascists being able to operate openly and challenge them in the constituency they had most success in – the white working class. Rather than appealing to the victims of fascism the militant strategy was aimed at the potential recruits.

The first four years of AFA’s existence weren’t negative, the decline of the NF Remembrance Day parade being one example of AFA’s success. In 1986 an NF march in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was so thoroughly disrupted that the then NF leader Nick Griffin (now a senior BNP figure) actually stopped holding demonstrations altogether.

Another area of fascist activity was the NF’s White Noise Club, set up to promote fascist bands, but ‘financial mismanagement’ soon saw the bands break away from the NF to set up their own Blood and Honour organisation (B&H). By 1988 they had established themselves in London’s West End, getting two shops just off Carnaby Street to stock their merchandise and using local pubs as meeting places. At this time the European situation was changing rapidly with the Far Right gaining support in many countries. In Europe the fascist skinhead scene was an integral part of these moves and many European delegations arrived in Carnaby Street to meet Skrewdriver and B&H supremo Ian Stuart.

AFA set up Cable Street Beat (CSB) in 1988 to address the problem of B&H and of fascists attacking gigs by bands they considered a problem – the Pogues (Irish), Desmond Dekker (black) and the Upstarts (socialist). Some high profile gigs were organised and got national media coverage which allowed AFA/CSB to highlight the growing problem of fascism at home and abroad, and to promote a strategy to deal with it – no platform.

The key date in the campaign against B&H was 27th May 1989. The fascists had booked Camden Town Hall for a thousand strong rally, which at £10 a head would raise a fair bit of money. AFA discovered the venue and got it banned, despite opposition from Searchlight who wanted to monitor the event, and called a counter-demonstration at the fascists redirection point, Speakers Corner. Hundreds of fascists were attacked and chased off and never made it to the rearranged gig in Kent, and later that evening one of the fascist shops was attacked and ransacked. So on one day B&H’s boast of being in control was cruelly exposed to an international audience and the last of their shops was forced to close down. Shortly afterwards lan Stuart moved to the Midlands. Their efforts to operate openly and move into the mainstream had been defeated.-

The other important point about 27th May was the hundreds of anti-fascists who rallied to AFA’s call to confront the boneheads. This highlighted another internal problem which was having an organisation but no structure that could accommodate activists. AFA had been ‘run’ by individuals who represented only themselves. This meant that in London, for example, half a dozen individuals could outvote the two Red Action delegates who represented 100+ stewards!

Apart from the lack of democracy there were other hostile agendas at work, and at the very first national conference in 1986 a Searchlight-led anti-anarchist smear campaign was launched which led to Class War being suspended and all the other anarchist groups and Red Action walking out in solidarity. Red Action returned later to prevent the initiative being lost altogether. The following year there was an attempt to get Red Action expelled on a host of trumped up charges. These were defeated but clearly signalled that there was a fight on for the future direction and effectiveness of anti-fascism.

The 1987 conference also saw a proposed name change for the organisation, from AFA to Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action (ARAFA). The significance of this was that it was an attempt to change AFA from having a very practical, sometimes physical, strategy designed to fight fascism that was meeting with growing success to a more conservative lobbying group, grant-funded and establishment friendly. This strategy is still familiar today, one of putting race above class. This move was also defeated.

By 1989 these internal disagreements had come to a head over the Remembrance Day march and the good response to the May 27th mobilisation showed there was a receptive audience for militant anti-fascism.

London AFA called a conference and relaunched itself around the original founding statement with the additional point that we were not fighting fascism to maintain the status quo but from a pro-working class position. On this basis the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM) rejoined (after the Class War walkout) along with the Trotskyist Workers Power. The liberals withdrew.

So with Red Action, the DAM, Workers Power and non-aligned individuals AFA started to reorganise. Branches were set up to accommodate activists and a structure implemented that meant AFA was run from the bottom up; in other words controlled by the activists. AFA was now democratic and had an agreed strategy.

While the Left spent most of the 80s failing to ‘kick out the Tories’ the militants in AFA recognised that it was the Far Right who had the potential to recruit in the white working class. The first step in trying to build any progressive working class movement was to remove the fascist influence from these areas. Only then, once the space was created, could the Left fill the vacuum. The Left’s failure to prevent the fascists from physically dominating them meant that anti-fascism assumed a key role.

The early AFA years had succeeded in getting anti-fascism onto a wider agenda and as the Far Right started to grow in this country and especially Europe it was an important achievement. This period had also shown that it was not possible to have an effective anti-fascist organisation with two contradictory strategies. The liberal anti-fascist strategy is ‘Anyone But Fascists’ (ABF), as seen on the Isle of Dogs where a Labour council’s corruption and indifference to the local working class population led to the situation where the Far Right, in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative, was able to get a councillor elected in 1993 (the BNP’s Derek Beackon).

The ABF response was to campaign vigorously for the Labour Party in the next election, which succeeded in unseating the BNP, but leaves the situation unresolved with Labour back in power who were responsible for the problem in the first place. The militant strategy is more ambitious: create an independent working class alternative to Labour and the BNP.

Although this example is more recent, it summarises the contradictions that existed in the 1985-89 period. It is often wrongly assumed that the difference between liberals and militants is simply about the use of physical force, but in AFA’s case it was a political difference.

With three national organisations on board it was now planned to expand AFA’s field of operations. Although there were other AFA groups around the country the only group outside London organised around a militant strategy was in Manchester. Of the other groups the two best known were Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (funded by the local council) and Leeds, both active but following a Searchlight pro-State agenda.

1990 onwards

Almost as soon as AFA had been relaunched the BNP initiated their Rights Far Whites campaign (RFW) in 1990. Starting in London’s East End when a white boy was stabbed by Asians, it soon spread around the country and focused on the bad conditions experienced by an abandoned white working class. The BNP started to work in local areas, dealing with local issues, and by August 1990 they won 25% of the white vote in a local election in the East End. While the electoral strategy showed a level of support for the Far Right, because the BNP held public election rallies and meetings it allowed AFA to play havoc with their organisation on the ground.

In September 1990 3 AFA activists were jailed for a total of 11 years for an attack on a prominent fascist skinhead; clearly meant as a deterrent. The level of fascist violence against AFA was also increasing, with a bomb being thrown into an AFA public meeting in east London in November 1990. (No one was injured.)

The BNP had completely overtaken the NF as the dominant fascist party now and their activities started to cover the whole country. In Scotland they became active focusing on support for Ulster Loyalism rather than the traditional anti-black racism south of the border.

As the temperature increased it was obvious the rest of the Left would become involved. Left-wing paper sales, especially the SWP, were being regularly attacked throughout the country and as the fascists continued to pick up support the Left would suffer if AFA was seen to be the only organised opposition. Initially AFA’s attitude was to approach these groups with a view to co-operation. Although there was no intention of surrendering AFA’s independence or strategy it was felt the increased forces available to these groups could, if working to an agreed plan, increase the pressure on the fascists and help to stop the State picking off the militants. AFA’s approaches were rejected out of hand by the entire Left.

Despite this, 1991 saw AFA’s most ambitious campaign to date being launched in east London, which had been made a national priority by the BNP. 60,000 leaflets were distributed on the estates, work was done with schools and community groups, the Unity Carnival attracted 10,000 people, the fascist paper sale at Brick Lane was put under pressure, the BNP were forced out of local sympathetic pubs and in November 1991 a 4,000-strong AFA demonstration marched through Bethnal Green – the supposed BNP heartland – completely unopposed. Young white Eastenders had seen the ‘lefty’ stereotype challenged and the BNP turned over, and contact was made with groups of young Asians. As 1991 drew to a close the situation looked promising, but all that was about to change.

The Left did get involved, but not with AFA, and having withdrawn from anti-fascist politics since the 1970s they now launched their own anti-fascist [organisations]. Instead of filling the political vacuum they simply tried to duplicate what AFA was doing. The SWP relaunched the ANL, Militant set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), and the Labour Party, Communist Party and black careerists established the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).

April 1992 saw the national relaunching of AFA which was now vigorously pursuing the strategy particularly in Scotland and the North West. The BNP were very active around Rochdale, Oldham, and Burnley, towns just outside Manchester’s fascist – free zone. The success of AFA in disrupting the BNP’s efforts can be seen by the response of the police who arrested two AFA organisers the night before a planned activity in Rochdale. They were released without charge once the day was over.

The level of confrontation was very high during this period, which included the now famous Battle of Waterloo in September 1992. B&H and the BNP were working fairly closely together at this time and had hoped a successful gig (pre-gig interviews were arranged with the Press on Waterloo Station) would enable B&H to operate openly with all the political and financial advantages this would have created for the fascists. The anti-fascist victory once again put paid to their plans.

AFA had deliberately adopted the single issue approach because when it was relaunched in 1989 around a pro-working class position the political composition of the organisation ranged from Trotskyist to Anarchist, Stalinist to Social Democrat. To keep the necessary unity on the streets for the important battles at the time there had to be an agreement that AFA’s role was to create the space for a progressive working class organisation to fill; it wasn’t AFA’s job to fill it. By the time the BNP had won a council seat in 1993 it was becoming increasingly clear that no one was willing or able to fill the vacuum. This was underlined by the Left’s support for Labour in the subsequent election 6 months later which saw the fascists lose their seat. The wheel had turned full circle, the Left had capitulated.

Although the BNP lost their council seat they actually increased their vote by 30%. This continuing electoral success led to a radical change in policy by the BNP, and in April 1994 they called what in effect was a ‘cease-fire’. They issued a statement saying that there would be “no more meetings, marches, or punch ups.” They would now concentrate on a Euro-Nationalist electoral strategy, hoping to emulate the success of the French FN.

The intensity of this period proved too much for some of the groups in AFA. For some the physical demands proved to be too much, but politically it was becoming clear that AFA would have to break with the traditional Left and this also caused problems. It was Labour’s indifference to the white working class that allowed the BNP to appear as the radical alternative, and yet most of the Left wouldn’t break with Labour. Those that did had absolutely no credibility; to illustrate this point the Communist Party of Great Britain (formerly the Leninist) got 1/10th of the BNP’s vote when they stood in Tower Hamlets in the 1992 general election.

The situation in London was slightly different from the rest of the country, partly because the BNP felt they could build on the political base they already had without the public activities, and partly because AFA was more established. The battle on the streets continued elsewhere for about a year. After B&H got smashed in London on May 27th 1989, Ian Stuart moved to the Midlands to run the B&H operation from there because the fascists were relatively strong.

By 1994 the tide had turned and both east and west Midlands were being fiercely contested with AFA setting its own agenda. In the North West the experienced BNP organiser ‘retired’ at the beginning of 1995 due to the continual pressure from AFA and later that year the BNP’s public activities ceased in Scotland and the Midlands. To some it may seem that the war had been won, but the reality was that the conflict was simply moving into a new arena.

The BNP’s change of strategy inevitably meant that AFA needed to adapt to the new situation, but the emergence of Combat 18 (C18) kept the prospect of street confrontation alive. Although it is now clear that C18 were set up by the State, primarily to examine links with Loyalist paramilitaries, there was also an attempt to divert AFA away from addressing the major political issue of the BNP’s growth by getting involved in ‘gang warfare’ with C18. Although they had previously existed as the BNP’s stewards group from the outset they were promoted by Searchlight and the media as something new and extremely dangerous.

Something didn’t add up. C18 published hit lists and bomb manuals that broke every law possible and yet they were allowed to continue. It was clear the State were pulling the strings and it was also clear that Searchlight and their supporters were heavily involved.

AFA helped discredit the myth of C18 on the ground, in particular by disrupting the Ian Stuart Memorial concert in 1994 and a UVF march in Central London in 1996, but the role of Searchlight in promoting them showed a greater allegiance to the State’s agenda than the anti-fascist movement.

As pressure on the street forced the BNP to make political adjustments, by 1994 AFA was also making changes. AFA recognised it was a three-cornered fight against the fascists, the State and the conservative Left. The damage that groups like the ANL did to anti-fascism has already been mentioned, but when they started claiming responsibility in their propaganda for AFA victories like Waterloo it was felt they must be publicly attacked. A 4-page leaflet called ‘Don’t believe the hype’ was produced to answer their lies and expose their strategy as being counterproductive.

From this point on AFA was quite prepared to attack the conservative Left. In the past AFA had been reluctant to get involved in what were seen as being internal arguments, but the result of this was that AFA was either written out of history or completely misrepresented. When John Tyndall (BNP leader) stood in an east London by-election in the summer of 1994 AFA produced a leaflet which took ‘anti-fascism’ as far as it could go. It described the BNP as being ultra-conservative and showed their policies as being to the right of the Tories.

In an area where people don’t vote Tory this was the best propaganda AFA could produce, and yet it was becoming increasingly clear that AFA was fighting the fascists with one hand tied behind its back. No progressive working class forces were moving in to fill the political vacuum that existed in working class areas aid just being ‘anti’ BNP was not enough. On top of that the police actually prevented AFA from distributing this leaflet while the BNP were allowed to canvass door to door. Militant anti-fascism was being criminalised.

As the BNP’s public activities petered out, where there were clashes the police came down hard on AFA. An AFA mobilisation in Kirkby in the Midlands (April 95) was attacked with extreme force by riot police, one activist’s leg being broken in 5 places. In Edinburgh shortly afterwards a plainclothes police squad attacked a small group of AFA activists and only revealed their identity when they started losing. Ten AFA members were arrested.

More recently public AFA activities have been subjected to heavy policing -suspected activists stopped in the street and photographed, special squads assigned to monitor AFA, coppers on the street armed with mugshots of suspected organisers, AFA groups surrounded on the street and held for hours.

Interestingly, an anti-fascist protest in Central London (May 98) called by the ANL but not supported by AFA, had a very low key police presence; precisely because AFA wasn’t there. So although there is very little public fascist activity, when there is, a great deal of time and money is spent by the State to prevent AFA from making an impact.

Politically AFA addressed the problems thrown up by the BNP election successes, particularly in east London, by developing a new strategy. ‘Filling The Vacuum’ was agreed in May 1995 and still remains the key to the future. Essentially `Filling The Vacuum’ recognises the limitations of only being ‘anti’ fascist and not being ‘for’ something else. Now it is up to the anti-fascists to take the initiative and fill the vacuum in the absence of anyone else. The alternative is to allow the fascists a free run.

The ‘single issue’ aspect of AFA, introduced in 1989 to maintain unity as we entered an intense period of street activity, has run its course. Although AFA will always maintain its independence, militant anti-fascists must now see it as their duty to ensure that the vacuum is filled. The election of a Labour government in 1997, with the Tories discredited and divided after 18 years in power, gives the BNP the opportunity to pose as the radical alternative.

The battle for the streets has been replaced by the battle for hearts and minds, and it is in the direct self-interest of militant anti-fascists to get involved. The ‘revolutionary programmes’ of the Left are not relevant to working class people and the fascists know this. An independent working class movement can fill the vacuum if it addresses the concerns of ordinary people as its priority.

In different parts of the country AFA activists have got involved with, or initiated, campaigns around working class issues. This is the territory that the BNP have chosen to work in, as the Front National has successfully done in France, and this is where the new chapter of anti-fascism begins.

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Some thoughts on AFA, and on the decision to effectively move on from AFA ‘s single issue stance.

It’s worth pointing out that the above article, while giving a good overview of Anti-Fascist Action as an organisation, its origins and development, was written at a very particular time – when dominant forces within the organisation had decided to move away from AFA’s ‘single-issue’ concentration on combatting organised far right activists, and towards a strategy of winning working class support away from rightwing ideas to a left wing class-based program. This led to the founding on the Independent Working Class Association. The push towards founding the IWCA came largely from red Action, who had been instrumental in founding AFA, and remained a dominant group within it throughout its existence. But some anarchists and other activists also joined the IWCA, which did attempt to organise within a number of working class communities for a number of years tough now seems largely defunct. Red Action had a vision of a clear strategy of departing from the practice of what saw as a leftwing scene paralysed by dead ideas, dominated by middle class activists, and identified in many working class minds with the problems they encountered in daily life. Despite many positive activities in some areas, the IWCA did not live up to this vision; though the rise of first the BNP in its electoral period (post-1993), the EDL, and subsequent far right activists and groups, have to some extent confirmed the fears that motivated its creation. To what extent is Brexit and current surge in rightwing, racist and British (English?) nationalism an outgrowth of the failure to challenge these ideas effectively from the left?

AFA and the IWCA were always going to struggle to challenge rightwing ideas in the working class across the board; despite the best intentions of groups of activists whoever they are, ideas are usually wider spread in general society than can be pinned down to the influence of fascists. AFA had an undeniable impact on keeping organised far right groups from gaining a foothold on the streets, but fascists swim in a sea, and the sea of racism was larger and more pervasive. The 1999 analysis that running around constantly after boneheads was not completely addressing the problem was not off the mark; but just as a few hundred anti-fascists cannot be the answer to rightwing organising, leftwing organisations generally are not going to be able to adequately tackle that whole mindset, which has a long history, tied up with British imperialism, the island mentality, a clever ruling elite that always played ‘native’ working class sensibilities against migrants. Where anti-fascism and/or left ideas have been most successful is where they have developed organically, evolved through struggle, grounded in people’s experience of daily life. If that made for a more collectively-self organised and self-conscious working class which resisted fascism because it identified its fundamental anti-working nature – those days have gone, and can’t be easily rebuilt, and not by small groups of lefties. No matter how (rightly) critical of other lefties they may be…

Some of us also who has involvement with Anti Fascist Action and anti-fascism in the 1980s-90s ended up with some criticisms with some AFA practices, and with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense.

AFA at its most dogmatic saw itself as having the key to all problems with fascists; Red Action generally saw itself as the guiding spirit of AFA, and was intolerant of dissenting opinions. This led to a number of rifts within AFA ranks (later than the early disputes with liberal types detailed above) not mentioned in the above text. Many of these were with thoughtful, long term anti-fascists who came to view some of AFA’s practices critically and tried to discuss problems. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough. Some Red Action members responded to this with denunciation, threats and bullying. A leading irony of several of these disputes was that non-Red Action activists were often accused by RA cadres of wanting to water down AFA’s physical approach to the Nazis, of being liberals, of wanting to be the ANL – usually for basically suggesting a more political approach, in ways which in a number of cases pre-figured the direction RA too when launching the IWCA…

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members or those who were not hard or experienced streetfighters were often isolated within AFA or felt alienated from it.

AFA’s structure became increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 it had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, and Trotskyist group Workers Power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

AFA activity also tended to become all consuming; to the exclusion of other struggles. You couldn’t be part time. There was quite a lot of pressure to be committed full time to the exclusion of other political activity, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, and be considered lightweights.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, including information being kept tight to some people’s chests, and some areas being considered important to work in, not others. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people, on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

There were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies, admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the nazis were beatable on the street, and undermining their claim to be the hardest political thing in town. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but in reality, AFA ended up downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had been an attempt to construct a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… Though AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they came in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the 1980s-early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fascist efforts and preventing events from taking place: overall, AFA did have an important impact.

Some further info:

Links: Heroes or Villains gives a good intro to the history of anti-fascism in Britain.

For some AFA actions see Bash the Fash, by Kay Bullstreet

ANTI NAZI LEAGUE: A Critical Examination 1977-81/2 and 1992-95 is good on the ANL’s two periods of existence and AFA’s origins.

Anti-Fascist Archive generally is very useful

Some Books worth reading: Beating the Fascists, The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall

No Retreat: The Secret War Between Britain’s Anti-Fascists and the Far Right
by Dave Hann, Steve Tilzey

Anti-fascist action: an anarchist perspective, by an ex-Liverpool AFA member.

Some of this post duplicates (partly) a post we wrote about South London AFA’s opposition to the British National Party in Camberwell in 1991 and related matters.

Today in London’s anti-racist history, 1981: Southall youth burn down the Hamborough pub after racist skinhead provovations

On Friday 3 July 1981, several ‘Oi’ (streetpunk) bands were set to play a gig in Southall, an area of west London with a large South Asian population. The line up at Southall’s Hambrough Tavern included the 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. Oi may not itself have been a solely fascist movement, for sure, not all its bands and adherents were racist. It was quite distinct from the White Power music scene around bands like Skrewdriver. But gigs by Oi bands did often attract skinheads with neo-nazi sympathies, and their presence in an area like Southall was asking for trouble. (The 4-Skins in particular had close links to nazi groups like the British Movement).

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the Commonwealth: many were Sikhs from the Punjab.

This was an area where racists attacks had taken place: in 1976 a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, prompting the formation of the Southall Youth Movement. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. The widespread belief that the police were generally sympathetic to the National Front, and institutionally (and in many cases personally) racist, was heavily reinforced in April 1979, when 1000s of police swarmed the area to protect a National Front election meeting. 100s of the demonstrators who came to protest the NF provocation were battered by the Met’s paramilitary Special Patrol Group, and anti-racist teacher Blair Peach was killed when police hit him over head. After the killing, a whitewashed inquest covered up evidence of police involvement, and a report which found a wide range of racist and fascist sympathies among the SPG officers – and identified the officers suspected of killing Peach – was suppressed (until 2010).

Rage in Southall was matched only by the solidarity of youth in the area. They knew police would not defend them against racists. One incident which particularly angered young Asians in Southall was an attack on Satwinder Sondh, by three white racists who carved swastikas on his stomach. The police did not believe the victim and charged him with wasting police time. Racism had been institutionalised in Southall Police Station for years.

The Southall Youth Movement formed in 1976, emerging from a meeting at the Southall Dominion theatre the day after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, where various groups of local youth came together in anger.

For the background to the Asian youth’s anger against racism – watch Young Rebels – The Story of the Southall Youth Movement – a great film made by Southall young people more recently interviewing people involved in the events of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those who formed SYM had experienced ‘bussing’ in the early 1970s- Asian schoolchildren from Southall were transferred to schools across the borough of Ealing, dispersed after protests from white parents. Most were sent on coaches every day to school where they would be the only Asian child or one of a few, and all faced racist attacks and abuse on daily basis. School, police, authorities, did nothing. Many of their parents were keen to keep their heads down, not cause or attract trouble, to respect authority – a theme that emerges was youth feeling their parents had accepted racism and violence, but that they were not going to knuckle under…

The Southall youth organised self-defence and kept their memories sharp. So, when in early July ‘81, reports of racist incidents involving skinheads heading to the gig in the Hambrough spread through Southall, the youth quickly took to the streets.

The Hambrough landlord had helpfully warned shopkeepers near the venue that racist skins were coming and they might want to close up early. However, when one went to the police his warnings were ignored… Busloads of Skins on their way to the pub arrived in the area all day{ they harassed people, shouted NF slogans, smashed windows of Asian shops, abused an Asian shopkeeper, and kicked an Asian woman and threw a shopping trolley at her. This kind of racist provocation was routine in many areas with Black and Asian populations in the 1970s and early 80s. This time, though, the racists would not get it all their own way.

An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Hambrough. The police formed a cordon around the pub, protecting the skins (many of who  were sieg heiling and shouting abuse) and tried to disperse the ant-racist crowd by using truncheons on them. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was set on fire.

The police then herded the skins out towards Hayes, barricading the route behind them to prevent further attacks on them, but allowing many to fan out into the area and carry ut random attacks on Black and Asian people. Police also harassed and arrested passers-by.

A running fight between police and the angry local youth ensued. Cars and police vehicles were overturned, and a police coach was burnt out. Walls were demolished to provide bricks for ammunition. 61 policemen were injured and at least as many civilians; there were 70 arrests, 68 of black or asian people.

There’s some footage of the riot on youtube in the course of an old documentary about Oi

After the riot, police said they had no evidence that the white youths were members of the National Front, but locals begged to differ:

“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” said a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”

The police claimed later they had been tipped off that there would be racial violence in West London, but their informant sent them to Greenford instead, two miles away. (Wonder if the tip off was deliberately misleading? And who was the informant? A copper with NF links? An – as yet unexposed – Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer embedded in the nazis?) Conveniently leaving the area free for skins to rampage?

The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. “It became a shrine for the Asian community,” said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta…

The week of the Hambrough riot saw riots sweep across the UK, from Liverpool, to Brixton, Hackney, and many other parts of London and elsewhere… here’s a commentary on the 1981 riots written shortly afterwards: Like a Summer with 1000 Julys

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In the aftermath of the Hambrough incident, the Oi band the 4-Skins struggled to book gigs – understandably! – which contributed to their breakup in 1984. Some enlightening (?) debate can be read here on whether they were a racist band…

Here’s also a post linking to an article on the reggae and punk scene in Southall and its involvement in anti-racist movements.

There’s some photos of anti-racist demos in Southall here

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1949: 43 Group disrupt Oswald Mosley rally, Kensington

Snapshots in London’s anti-fascist history, continued… 

After the second world war, Britain’s pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from wartime imprisonment, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in the 1930s. A core of Mosley’s former comrades in the former British Union of Fascists, joined by a number of younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.

But opposition was strong: London’s Jews refused to be intimidated and a substantial minority took up active – and physical – resistance to the fascist revival. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-army servicemen formed the 43 Group, with the intention of responding to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.

Constant disruption of fascist meetings forced Mosley and his cohorts onto the back foot…

Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them.

The more moderate Jewish Establishment, manifested through the Jewish Board of Deputies, was severely critical of the actions of the 43 Group. While happy to complain about the fascist resurgence, they were un-nerved by the physical resistance of the 43ers, by the suggestion of any anti-fascist links to socialism or the Communist Party, law-breaking, unrespectable violence in general… Various attempts were made to control or marginalise the Group’s activities by the Board and their associated organisations, but the Group’s direct action against the fascist threat was undoubtedly hugely effective (although other, less agro-heavy, anti-fascist activities from other Jewish groups also impacted on the fash).

By the end of 1948, though, the 43 Group was having trouble attracting audiences to their street meetings – happily, this was partly because the fascists, now grouped together in the Union Movement, had themselves lost much support and impetus. In an attempt to revive the fortunes of his would-be third reich, Mosley planned to stand candidates in the upcoming municipal elections, and booked Kensington Town Hall for a mass meeting. The Town Hall had a capacity of 700, and it looked like the UM could fill it. Mosley had already gambled on his grandiose nazi dreams, leasing large new HQ on Vauxhall bridge Road (much bigger than his dwindling party could use).

By now accustomed to the 43 Group’s tactics – infiltrating fascist meetings with forged tickets then disrupting them – the Kensington meeting’s organisers pulled out all the stops to prevent them breaking this one up. But in fact, the Group had decoded that they would get better publicity by holding a mass protest and wreath laying ceremony at the War memorial next to the hall, rather than attempt to disrupt the meeting, which was to be heavily protected by police. They hoped for a larger turnout than usual, including people who would not normally turn up for the Group’s more hands-on attacks on fascist rallies…

On the 31st January, more than 3000 joined the 43 Group at the memorial, holding anti-fascist banners, holding a minute’s silence for the laying of wreath, and listening to a variety of speakers. The turnout was described by ‘On Guard’ as representing the biggest and most dramatic anti-fascist demo since the 1930s.

Meanwhile at least 700 fascist sympathisers turned up to fill in Kensington Town Hall and listen to Mosley spouting the usual froth about international Jewish financiers; with – initially – no disruption from the nasty 43ers, thanks to the huge police guard.

The 43 Group’s plans aside, some elements associated with the Group were not prepared to let the fascist rally go by un-disrupted. After Mosley had been ranting for 15 minutes, however, someone let off a tear gas canister near the back of the audience, causing near panic inside, and a stampede as 100 people ran out of the hall; despite the crap fuhrer appealing for everyone to stand firm (well, he was far enough away from the gas, on the platform). Shortly after, part of the anti-fascist crowd attempted to storm the hall, and fought with mounted police determined to prevent them, riding into the crowd. As Mosley was driven away, fascists tried to attack the crowds, leading to some fighting. There were seven arrests, several of whom were 43 Group members.

The moderate Jewish establishment was – as usual – critical of the actions of the anti-fascists and Kensington, claiming that Mosley’s meeting would have received no publicity if it had not been violently opposed. However, the hype around the event in fact helped revive a wide opposition to the Union Movement among the Jewish community and further afield. A UM march from Ridley Road in Dalston to Tottenham a couple of months later was oppose by 5000 people, including groups who had shied away from anti-fascism in recent years for fear of being associated with the 43 Group’s actions…

After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. Frustrated once again, the shitest little fuhrer, Oswald Mosley, fucked off out of the country in a huff that Britain wasn’t ready for his message of hate. This was pretty much the end for Mosley’s serious political challenge, though he would return periodically to haunt the scene… But newer, madder Nazis would soon be springing up to sewage up the streets…

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1937: mass opposition prevents British Union of Fascists marching into Bermondsey

On October 3rd 1937, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) gathered at Millbank, Pimlico, to hold a march to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the BUF. It was a year almost to the day after the famous events of Cable Street, when a BUF march to the East End had been blocked in Whitechapel by thousands of local Jews, dockers, communists and many more…

And just as at Cable Street, the fascist march to Bermondsey was to be prevented from reaching its end point by barricades built by thousands of anti-fascists.

The BUF had in fact wanted to march through the East End, but was prohibited from doing so under the Public Order Act, 1936 (ostensibly passed to restrict the growth of the fascists, though also increasingly used against their opponents). After Cable Street, the BUF’s numbers had briefly risen, but then dropped. Now their stated aim was to invade ‘areas unconquered’.

Mass opposition had dogged Mosley’s men wherever they had gathered, from Hyde Park to the East End. Despite the BUF’s support among the upper classes, national newspapers, and a sizable working class population influenced by racist ideas which did sympathise with the BUF, working class resistance to both the ideas and presence on the streets was constant.

In July 1937 the BUF had made an application to hold a procession on 4 July from Limehouse to Trafalgar Square, which would pass through the same area fought over at Cable Street… The new Home Secretary, Sir Samuel

Hoare, banned political processions would be in effect for six weeks in this particular area in the East End of London, and the BUF subsequently organised a procession from Kentish Town to Trafalgar Square; well outside of the prohibited area. This BUF procession on 4 July 1937 passed without any serious disturbances: some 6,000 fascists had assembled but had to protected by 2,383 police, as they were ‘dwarfed by the crowd which collected in the locality.’

When the ban expired in August 1937, it was renewed for a further six weeks. In September, it was subsequently renewed for three months, the maximum duration under the Act. The three month ban on political marches in the specified area was continually renewed every three months until the proscription of the BUF in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B.

The BUF proposed march route for 3 October was thus not going to be authorised, so a new route was then decided on, which would take the fash through Bermondsey and South London.

Bermondsey had a strong left wing tradition, based on active local trade unionism among dockers and factory workers, linked to an active branch of the Independent Labour party; Bermondsey Borough’s local council was run by a leftwing Labour administration. This was doubtless partly why the fash had targeted the area. It was also to be reflected in the huge local turnout to oppose the blackshirts.

‘No Jew red mob has the power to daunt us’, proclaimed the Fascist newspaper, which also carried an advertisement for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a violently anti-semitic hoax tract used to incite racial hatred by both Hitler and Franco.

A deputation to the Home Secretary, led by Rotherhithe Labour MP Ben Smith, supported by Bermondsey Trades Council and religious leaders, asking him to prohibit the procession failed; justified on the grounds that while it was reasonable to ban anti-semitic marches through areas with a large Jewish population because of the fear and ‘sensitivities’ that would arise, to extend of the prohibition to every area that had a ‘strong feeling of opposition to a procession demonstrating some unpopular political creed would be contrary to the spirit of the Public Order Act…’

Bermondsey had a large catholic Irish population but few Jews, which by this criteria meant a fascist demo was not provocative. Mosley might have expected some support from Irish Catholics (a proportion of who did have some sympathy to fascism in areas like Stepney) but as at Cable Street, in fact, many from this community rallied to the opposition.

When the attempt to get the march banned failed, the Executive Committee of London Labour Party then tried to dampen down local hostility, and urged local Labour branches to avoid organising a counter-demo, sending round a circular stating the fascism thrived on disorder and not to give them the publicity. However, Bermondsey Trades Council rejected this advice, calling for a massive counter-demo; they supported by the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party – although the CP in fact were not keen on militant opposition at this point, but were forced by the actions of the Trades Council and local feeling to back the call.

There was much preparation for the day, along similar lines to the local work done in the build-up to the battle of Cable Street – chalking up anti-fascist slogans, mass leaflettings, meetings held in advance of the day… The CP also managed to advertise where anti-fascists should meet without openly stating it, to get round the strict terms of the Public Order Act.

When October 3rd came, a column of 3400 fascists a mile long set off from Millbank, surrounded by 2500 police.

As at Cable Street, anti-fascists erected barricades: the BUF marchers were greeted in Long Lane by barriers formed from coster barrows, fencing and barbed wire, erected by the Jewish community, the Communists and many other groups whose anti fascist views poured out onto the streets. It is possible that numbers assembled he fascists surpassed those at Cable Street – some estimates run as high as 50,000 massed at Borough tube, though with true police numbering skills, Special Branch estimated around 12,000.

The barricades were repeatedly attacked and demolished by the police: but they and Mosley’s men were treated to a barrage of missiles – stones, eggs, bricks and bottles. Red flags waved, while a water tank was borrowed from a nearby factory and used as a barricade. Arrests and custodial sentences were even higher than they had been at Cable Street the year before. 111 people were nicked in total.

But Long Lane remained blocked, and BUF were forced to an alternative meeting point. Mosley addressed a rally briefly but was drowned out by the surrounding crowd beyond police cordon, chanting ‘They did not pass!” Mosley’s meeting place had already been occupied by Sally Schwartz and Tim Walsh of the ‘Federation of Democrats’, who staged a local talent show to entertain the crowd!

The event was reported in newspapers across the world from Montreal to Melbourne. ‘Wild scenes’ marked the day, and police on foot and horseback made repeated baton charges. The Times dramatically claimed ‘the scenes of disorder yesterday seem to have been quite as bad as those in the East End which induced Parliament to pass the Public Order Act.’ Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game attempted to use the fighting to bolster his position that the ban should be extended to the whole Metropolitan Police District, and to go further, advocating that new legislation should be considered that would make ‘processions of all kinds in the streets illegal once and for all’, stating that the Public Order Act “has had a positive effect on the conduct of political meetings and demonstrations but had not reduced their number. He recorded that out of the 11,804 meetings and processions that were policed in 1937, over 7,000 of these were either fascist or anti-fascist.”

Police remove barricades in Long Lane

There’s some silent film of the Bermondsey BUF demo here

Although less well known than Cable Street, the fighting at Bermondsey was just as bloody. But like Cable Street, attempts to paint this as the end of BUF marches, as has sometimes been suggested, is not accurate – seven months later, on May 1 1938, the BUF were able to march largely unopposed through Bermondsey and hold a rally, with Mosley speaking from the top of a van. There was on opposition because crowds had been directed to Hyde Park for an anti-fascist Spanish Civil War Mayday rally… Was this possibly arranged deliberately by the Communist Party etc to prevent another confrontation with the fash? The CP were now talking of defeating fascism ideologically not physically; in the East End they were concentrating on grassroots struggles to win the support of working class away from the BUF (notably housing struggles, which would lead to rent strikes); anti-fascist crowds were advised to hold meetings near to fash meetings and rallies, not disrupt and drown them out as had been previous policy. Dissident Stepney Communist Joe Jacobs would be suspended from the Party in 1938, and then expelled, for being one of the CP minority advocating taking a more confrontational line.

This backing down from physical resistance to fascism by the CP leadership – joining the Labour Party in advocating avoidance of confrontation – goes some way against the long-propagated myth of how the BUF were resisted in the 1930s in London. Even in the run up to Cable Street the Party had tried initially to prevent mass physical resistance, but were forced by pressure from below and the mass desire to block the path of Mosley. In the decades since, the carefully constructed image of the CP leading the fight has masked a more complex reality. Of course many Party members were central to resistance to Mosley, as in fact has been Labour Party members, locals of many political feelings and communities, forefront of course the Jews and the dockers, many of whom were catholic Irish.

Physical disruption and attacks on fascists trying to spread racist and anti-working class ideas would continue to be central to keeping the far right from growing, as the history of the 43 Group after the second world war, and later opposition to nazi groupsucules in the 1950s and ‘60s would illustrate. Raids, disruption of rallies were useful and effective.

The importance of physical opposition would be highlighted even morewith  rise of the National Front in the ‘70s, and events like Lewisham, Wood Green and Southall. And would continue, with the struggle against the British National Party and its influence in the 1990s.

That the CP hierarchy spent a lot of time in 1935-39 trying to prevent direct confrontation, though they have attempted to present a slightly different story later, is of course, not unique in UK anti-fascist/left history: compare this to the actions of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in luring people AWAY from direct occupation of Brick Lane in September 1978 to prevent a National Front paper sale.

The ANL spent a lot of energy over the next couple of years trying to divert anti-fascist efforts away from street-fighting, and shutting down branches and members who pushed for militant confrontation. Sound familiar? As with the dissident anti-fascists within the Communist Party like Joe Jacobs, stalwarts within the ANL who saw physical resistance to the National Front and other far-right groups as a continuing priority were marginalised and expelled from parties like the Socialist Workers Party. Some of these would go on to contribute to the founding of Anti-Fascist Action in 1985, which maintained the policy of combining physical and political opposition to fascism wherever it reared its head.

Although it’s always worth our celebrating and commemorating historical victories, we should also base our memories on what really happened and learn the lessons, and questioning the repetition of established myths. The battles of Cable Street and later of Bermondsey were important defeats for Mosley’s homegrown fascism, and physical opposition to far-right presence on the streets remains as vital now as then; from the BUF to the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ and Tommy Robinson, bopping them on the head is as crucial as arguing against their racist shite.

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There’s a detailed account of the political machinations around the 1936 Public Order Act, the BUF marches and opposition to them in the late 1930s here

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

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For a slightly contrasting more recent experience of fascism and anti-fascism relating to Bermondsey, check out an account of antI-fascist organising in South London in 1991.

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…

In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.

At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].

The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”

A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.

“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.

It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.

At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).

Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.

Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.

The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.

A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.

Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.

Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…

After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.

The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.

What we should have done?

There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…

Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.

However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.

In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.

There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.

Problems within AFA

Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…

There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.

AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and  Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…

Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.

Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

My parachute didn’t open

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP  rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.

Bermondsey Blues

Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.

Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.

As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking  culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.

In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.

There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.

AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.

In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.

The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…

As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.

This was a mistake…

The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.

We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.

Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.

The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.

We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.

AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.

We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.

The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.

The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.

There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.

Every day I learn lesson… less?

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.

Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.

It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.

In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.

If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.

Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles  which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…

The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.

Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?

Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.

Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.

Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.

Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of the disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.

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In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.

Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.

In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.

 

 

 

 

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 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.