Forty years ago, British fascism suffered a historic defeat, as several hundred members of the fascist National Front (NF) were successfully beaten back by thousands of socialists and local residents, despite a huge deployment of police in defence of the NF. The confrontation became known as the Battle of Lewisham. As racism and support for fascism undergo another rise across much of the Western world, two rs21 members who were present at Lewisham reflect on the day’s events and the broader social context surrounding them.
Sybil Gertraud Cock was at Lewisham as an anti-racist activist. Here she reflects on the broader climate of racism and intolerance gripping Britain in the late 1970s.
I was 25 in 1977 and in my first year of teaching at a London FE College – part-time and pretty precarious work. I had been a member of the International Socialists (IS) and then the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) since 1974, in the Tower Hamlets Branch. Before that, I’d been in Brighton, and had had quite a few run-ins with the Nazis, including several arrests in Hastings in 1973.
A bunch of us lived in squats in Whitechapel and Stepney, lots of printshop people among us. The squats were big mansion blocks, inhabited by people like me and an increasing number of Bangladeshi families. The buildings were safe for them – there was rampant racism in the streets. Attacks on Bengalis were common and we would defend people’s flats from stone throwers and worse. Bangladeshi families did not stand a chance of getting council housing, and the squatter movement provided an alternative. (The Tory-run Greater London Council (GLC) had planned to demolish the blocks but in the end we got GLC money to do them up really well, in the Ken Livingstone era. Sadly, they are all privatised now.)
Not all of the white squatters (there were probably 250 of us in the immediate area) were sympathetic, and there were endless issues around who would get which squat as the original occupants moved out. We were helped by the neighbouring squat known as ‘the East London Gay Centre’ and we organised minibuses to the Grunwick picket line once a week.
My memory of those days is very patchy. The media was full of racially charged talk about ‘muggers’ and I remember selling SWP pamphlets at work, and having fierce arguments with liberal colleagues. I can’t say if I raised these issues in the union (NATFHE) – I probably did, but the demo was during the holidays (I would have been signing on).
As to Lewisham itself, I went with a girlfriend (Sue Cockerill) and we stuck together, basically both terrified. I was impressed by the bravery of some of the other comrades, but I got nowhere near the front.
They were very scary days. I got hate mail from the National Front (NF) as the Spitalfields Anti-Nazi League secretary. My picture was published (as ‘degenerate of the month’) in NF news. We were constantly in court defending people who had been arrested.
Mitch Mitchell is a long-time activist and organiser who was involved in the conflict at Lewisham and subsequently served a prison sentence for his defensive actions.
In the 1970s, my wife and I (and after 1976, my son) lived on Sydenham Hill which is in the London Borough of Lewisham, although quite a long way from where the NF was planning to march.
However, partly because I had a Jewish mother and partly because I had spent many of my formative years in a place in Croydon called “The International Language Club” which provided a home for people from all over the world, many of whom had become my good friends, it felt natural to oppose Nazis and racists. Also, there were relatives of mine who I would never see because they perished in Hitler’s camps. (My mother’s family had escaped Tsarist pogroms in the 1880s and come to Britain from Lithuania).
I was not, at the time, a member of any political party or group. However, in 1968 I had ‘cut my political teeth’ at the anti-Vietnam War demo at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. There I had made several friends as we rolled marbles under the hooves of police horses.
A couple of these friends contacted me to see if I would join them against the Front. We first joined the ALCARAF (All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism) at Ladywell Fields to hear the great and the good making speeches. ALCARAF intended that their demonstration was to be peaceful and had agreed with the police not to physically confront the fascists. This march ended at Loampit Vale.
However, my friends and I then, at the behest of the stewards from the Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-Ordinating Committee (ARAFCO), cut through the back streets (away from the filth) to get to New Cross Road where the Nazis were planning to march from. The other contingent of demonstrators, who I found out at the time were from the SWP, had been kettled (in those days it was called ‘contained’) by the plods in Clifton Rise, which was very near the start of the Nazis’ planned route.
It should be mentioned here that ARAFCO had been largely instrumental in involving young people who lived locally, both black and white, and that this was one of the first (if not the first) times that an anti-fascist demo had not just been the preserve of the far left. Also, the demo came on top of a trial of 21 young black people, including a 24-year-old woman, for suspected muggings in the area. The cops made statements that “this ‘gang’ is responsible for 90% of street crime in Lewisham.”
When their cases came before Camberwell Magistrates’ Court in May 1977, some of the accused fought with the police while people in the public gallery tried to invade the court. Shortly afterwards, The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee (L21DC) was set up and heavily criticised the police and their tactics. The L21DC held a march and protest at which around 200 NF members turned up to jeer, throw rotten fruit, eggs and bags of caustic soda at the marchers.
In August, at the Lewisham showdown itself, we managed by sheer weight of numbers to break through the police’s protective line – as ever, the cops protected the Nazis – at the back of the march, and separated and ‘dealt with’ several of the racist scum. As they marched they were subjected to a hail of bricks, bits of wood and shit parcels. Eventually they made Lewisham Town Centre where many more anti-fascists had gathered.
The fascists were then escorted to Lewisham station and the fighting continued between anti-fascists, cops and those NF skinheads who lived in the area.
I was cutting back towards Ladywell where I had left my car when a group of 4 skinheads came rushing around the corner, shouting and pointing at me. I thought I was going to get slaughtered, so I picked up half a brick and smacked the nearest one full in the face whilst holding it. He went down and the others began yelling ‘You’ve fucking killed him.” (I hadn’t, but did make rather a mess of his nose).
Unknown to me, the one I hit was not an actual fascist, but an undercover cop who was trying to infiltrate them and ‘win his spurs’ by leading a charge against an anti-fascist (me). Also unknown to me, I was photographed by a cop with a Polaroid camera. Although I disappeared up the back streets, about a year later I was stopped by police who had set up a road block to check drivers’ licenses and insurance, and, as my bad luck would have it, one of the cops on this road block was the one who took the photograph. I was nicked and bailed, finally appearing in court on August 16, 1979, and sentenced to 21 months for Grievous Bodily Harm. Being the summer, the court they had intended to use (Old Bailey) was closed for redecoration and I was weighed off at the Royal Courts of Justice. The judge said that if I had just punched him, he might have accepted my mitigation of self-defence, but using a brick was, in his view ‘too much force’.
As people who know me will know, it didn’t stop me demonstrating, but I do avoid bricks now!