Rocking Against Racism and other irrational ideologies

The first Rock Against Racism carnival took place forty years ago, on April 30 1978. It inspired Colin Revolting to spend the following years fighting against the nazis and marching against unemployment, whilst taking his first reluctant steps into the world of work, all in the shadow of the coming Thatcher government.

Tom Robinson in Victoria Park, 1978. Image (c) Syd Shelton.

April 1978: In the middle of 70,000 young people who’ve come to rock against racism, me and two school friends join everyone around us singing, “Sing if you’re glad to be gay…” If we dared utter these words at school we’d be beaten up – which is what happened to two lads caught kissing in the bushes. There’s no sense of threat in this crowd today, singing along with Britain’s first openly gay pop star Tom Robinson. We’ve marched five miles from Trafalgar Square waving Anti-Nazi League (ANL) lollipop placards to be part of this Carnival Against the Nazis and we will be leaving having expressed our solidarity with gay people. What an amazing day.

Leaving the area is not so much fun. As hundreds of coaches pull away from Victoria Park handfuls of racists crawl out of pubs to heckle the thousands leaving. They are hardly brave to shout at departing vehicles, but the three of us have lost our gang of school friends so we slip past the racists searching for a bus home to South East London. Meanwhile skinheads in a pub in Deptford make one of the local punk bands play Happy Birthday for Adolf Hitler. The majority of Deptford voters put their cross against anti-immigrant Nazi parties in the 1976 local elections. People are divided.

May: Our Sixth Form is 98% white. Racism is not as bad as it was in lower years, but there’s fear and ignorance about immigration.

Inspired by the carnival, me and some school friends agree to leaflet Eltham High Street against the NF (National Front). We meet outside the library and an ANL man arrives on a motorbike with a pile of leaflets. As we hand them out some people are hostile, some welcome the leaflets and most don’t react at all. One bloke sees the swastika on the leaflet which states National Front is a Nazi Front and sees red. “I fought against the Nazis in the war,” he spits. “We’re Anti-Nazis,” we say. “I don’t care what kind of Nazis you are, bugger off!” We manage to clear up the confusion and he tells us about chalking slogans on the streets in the 1930s against Mosley’s Blackshirts and sticking posters on the backs of buses.

June: Despite being busy with exams, me and my mate Neal go to a gig at the Albany in Deptford. It’s a Rock Against Racism (RAR) gig, raising money for local black kids arrested under the SUS stop and search laws, and we’ve come for punk band Alternative TV. Also on the bill is reggae act Misty in Roots, from Southall. Reggae is too slow for us but there’s a toughness to Misty’s music, “See them ah come, but we naa run.” The Albany is a good venue and home to the local music scene which is growing under the jokey slogan ‘Today the Albany, Tomorrow the World!’

July: I finish my exams and, without any plans of college or career, sign on the dole. There’s a real fear of unemployment amongst kids at school. The far right have been using this fact to blame immigrants and now Margaret Thatcher, new leader of the opposition, makes a speech about people feeling “swamped by an alien culture.”

Racism is moving right into the main stream. The Sex Pistols sing of No Future… I wonder what ours will be. The Albany is fire bombed on 14 July. The next morning a note is pushed through the door of the gutted building which reads, “GOT YOU.” Within days the Albany fly-post all around Deptford a poster showing the burnt out dance floor where we’d enjoyed the gig two weeks ago. ‘Today the Albany’, the poster says above the image and below it, ‘Tomorrow the World?’ It’s no longer a joke.

August: My 19 year old brother, Stuart, has joined the Socialist Workers Party and encourages me to go to a Rebel weekend of talks and workshops for young people. In the Polytechnic of Central London, there’s about 40 or 50 teenagers and students in their twenties. Stand out speaker is a little old man with wild hair and an almost impossible accent – he’s full of energy and even funny at times. The discussion about fighting the fascists is a mix of bravado and paranoia. I have a go at the dismissive tone one of the students takes towards my brother, but my brother takes the guy’s side. That confuses me. When I get home my A level results are waiting – D and E. Lucky I have no plans to go to college.

September: At the Rebel weekend I heard about a five day march for the Right to Work (RTW). Work? Who needs it? My ambitions lie in my punk band. My brother argues, “Without the right to work you’ll never have the right not to work.” I join the RTW march from Bethnal Green Hospital occupied by staff against cuts, heading towards the TUC conference in Brighton, calling on the trade unions to save jobs, stop cuts and fight unemployment. The march is like the 1930s Hunger march of the unemployed from Jarrow, this time the lead banner reads ‘Anger on the March’. Following the reggae band Misty on the back of a lorry, four hundred teenagers and twenty-something’s from Lancashire and Glasgow and south Wales pound a path across London dressed like a rag-tag army in bright orange jackets. RAR provide bands and discos in the evenings and everyone sleeps in huge circus marquees. One night the tents are pitched together and a stirring speaker whips up a storm like a old-time religious preacher. After five years of betrayal by the Labour government most people present are well aware that Labour will not solve their problems, instead he argues the way to defeat unemployment, racism and sexism is socialist revolution. A debate ensues but I’m exhausted and fall asleep. On the last night before reaching Brighton Tom Robinson arrives and under a huge oak tree gets everyone singing his radical rock songs. During Glad to be Gay joyous kissing breaks out amongst the marchers. This is a very long way from school and I’m glad I’m here.

The next morning all four hundred of us pour down the hill into Brighton in our orange jackets like a stream of red hot lava. Anger on the March. The sense of solidarity is now so strong that when the police harass us we respond as one – and the cops get much more than they bargained for. But they punish us with arrests.  We refuse to leave town – until they release the detainees. They do. I return home to find a letter confirming I have been successful in my job application as Computer Operator for Lewisham council – yet I have never touched a computer in my life. Looking at the letter I remember the saying, “If you liked school, you’ll love work.”

* * *

The first Carnival Against the Nazis was such a success that six months later there’s another one in South London. But this time the NF outwitted the anti-Nazis.

While thousands of us dance and march behind bands on the back of lorries all the way from Hyde Park to Brixton, the Nazis hold a rally in Whitechapel, the age-old immigrant area of London and where the fascist Black Shirts were stopped in Cable Street in 1936.

An admission of the mistake and apology is in the following week’s Socialist Worker.

October: My family are always out at meetings – my Dad often goes to more than one each evening. There’s no way I’d do that, but because of my love of music and hatred of racism I go to a RAR organising meeting in Lewisham – plus I’m hoping to get a gig for my punk band.

Sitting in a circle twenty people discuss bands, venues and PA hire companies. One of the punky kids has a clear plastic bag over his head for the first part of the meeting, everyone ignores him even as the bag steams up. Suddenly he tears a hole in the bag and speaks… “Some of the punks in Bromley where I live are Nazis like my cousin and some are anti-nazi like me and my sister. You should put on a concert there.” Despite some chuckles at the plastic bag, people agree to do the gig.

November: I start shifts working on the town hall’s computer. I join the union, which should be easy as my dad is the Branch Secretary. But I haven’t spoken to him for nearly a year.

The council’s social workers go on all-out strike. The rest of us council workers are not on strike, but the social workers set up picket lines to get solidarity from posties and other workers bringing in deliveries. Hoping to spread the action the Branch Secretary refuses to cross the picket lines and management threaten to suspend him.

A mass meeting of over a thousand members votes to take action unless the threat is lifted. Am I about to be on strike for the first time?

Management step back, which leaves the strikers fighting alone. They stay out for what is called the Winter of Discontent – the final bitter months of a Labour Government who were first elected when the Tories were beaten by the miners in 1974. After three months the social workers win a 30% pay rise and their conditions are transformed.

RAR carnival in Leeds, 1981. Image (c) Syd Shelton

February 1979: I hear talk that Rock Against Racism is considered by other anti-fascists to be the soft end of the movement. Our motley crew are drawn together because of our love of music more than our ability to physically confront Nazis, but each month we make ourselves a potential target for the local fascists by putting on gigs in the very places the Nazis are gaining a foothold.

A good example is the gig we set up in suburban Bromley’s Labour Club for the Punk In The Plastic Bag. The night includes a couple of Bromley punk bands alongside a reggae sound system from Deptford and luckily draws a big enough crowd of black and white youth to make the Nazis keep their distance. The Nazis hate seeing the white and black kids dancing together and the night helps to break down barriers and create unity.

April: Back in 1977 when the NF marched through Lewisham the anti-fascists were divided. Some argued for ‘peaceful protest’ while others called for physical confrontation with the Front’s march. In what became known as the Battle of Lewisham, the local black youth joined the militant lefties and knocked the NF off the street. Since then blocking and stopping the Front has been the accepted approach.

Leicester is where the National Front had one of their best results in the previous election and are hoping to secure their place as the third party of British politics. They plan to march through the town centre with flags flying and drums beating. Anti-fascists have other ideas.

Coaches from both sides pour into Leicester all morning. Thousands of our side take over the city centre and rain rocks down on the master race when the cops stupidly parade them past a building site. (“I got hit by a rock against racism,” moans a copper when he later catches us fly-posting for RAR).

Two nights later in Southall a protest outside an NF meeting sounds like it’ll be a quiet affair compared to our riot in Leicester, so I spend the evening printing pages for our new punk fanzine including our report from Leicester. But my mate Neal, and my brother Stuart, make the journey across London and feel like they’ve entered an occupied city, with police vans patrolling as local Anti-Nazis fill the streets in anticipation.

Cops at the Battle of Lewisham, 1977. Image (c) Syd Shelton

Stuart says, “That was a wild night. The police were like a conquering army, I got so fed up of the police transit vans trying to run me over, that I threw a can of paint across their windscreen. I was quite scared that night, we were getting the shit kicked out of us.”

Neal and Stuart got out just as the police’s Special Patrol Group were let off the leash.

I am asleep when my Mum bursts into my room the next morning – what is she doing? – she never comes into my teenage bedroom and anyway I am on the late shift at work.

“They killed one of us,” she says.

My Mum knew Blair Peach as a “nice gently spoken man” as they were both in the National Union of Teachers’ Rank and File group. She told me Blair taught ESN (‘Educationally Sub-Normal’) kids and that National Front members had pulled him off his bike whilst cycling to and from the school in East London.

Going on anti-fascist marches and protests has always been exhilarating and terrifying, adrenaline-fueled affairs – but from this day on they feel different again… It isn’t a game.

The general election is the first time I have the right to vote. On the candidate notice outside the polling station “NAZI SCUM” is scrawled helpfully against the name of the National Front candidate. That makes me smile, especially as I recognise my brother’s terrible handwriting.

In the polling booth, as I pick up the pencil tied to a piece of string, I remember Paul Foot saying at the Rebel weekend – “They say they are trusting you to choose who runs the country, but they don’t even trust you with the pencil.”

All the campaigning, marches, gigs, leafleting and protests has had an effect and the National Front get a knock back which they never recover from. But Thatcher wins the election and you probably know how that turns out…

 


Colin Revolting was in his first punk band in 1977 while still at school in London and joined the revolutionary socialist movement soon thereafter.


An event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the carnival is being held at the Migration Museum in London on Sunday 29 April.

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