Rock Against Racism: forty years on

punk anti-racism
Rock Against Racism, 1978 | Sarah Wyld / WikiCommons

To live in Britain in the 1970s was to live surrounded racism. I was seven when Mrs Thatcher gave her St Francis of Assisi speech (‘Where there is discord…’) but racism broke in, even into that school environment. I remember the day that Jew became a verb: ‘Don’t Jew him,’ ‘Jew you.’ You could see it in the inkwell beside which pupils carved a swastika. It was the cough the other boys made as they jeered a racist insult. It was the shame on our maths teacher Mr Khan’s face as he fled from the room.

There were other signs as well, possible resources of hope, the punks who gathered to be photographed outside the Chelsea Drug Store, the bass-scale and patter-rhythm of an Ian Dury song (‘Sex an’ Drugs an’ Rock ‘n Roll’) blaring from a car radio, the graffiti I saw as our school bus drove past the Westway, ‘George Davis is Innocent, Justice for Blair Peach.’

If there was a year when racism was at its worst that would have to be 1976, when the Sun, the Mirror and the Express responded to the sight of two (yes, two), Asian families from Malawi being placed in a hotel in Sussex, by predicting that tens of thousands of people would inevitably follow them. Such was the fear and paranoia that the National Front stood 48 candidates in Leicester winning just under 20 percent of the vote. In a Parliamentary debate that July, the Conservative MPs rose in succession to say good things about the NF and to identify with its programme of repatriating black migrants. Robert Taylor said, ‘The area which I represent does not wish to be like Southall, which is synonymous with the Asian community.’ His colleague Nicholas Winterton demanded the termination of ‘all further immigration, from all sources, immediately.’ John Page MP went further, no further immigration should be allowed for a minimum of five years. Michael Shersby demanded that ‘all future illegal immigrants,’ irrespective of how or why they came to Britain, should in every case be deported.

Over the next three years of anti-racist campaigning, two moments stand out. One was the fighting at Lewisham in August 1977, when perhaps a thousand members of the National Front stewarded by Martin Webster attempted to march through South East London, only to have their march repeatedly attacked, broken up and dispersed, by a crowd of left-wingers and black youth who outnumbered the Front by four or five to one.

The other was Rock Against Racism (RAR) Carnival at Victoria Park on 30 April 1978. The organisers had hoped that twenty thousand people might show up. Instead five times that number marched from Trafalgar Square past the Front’s London base in Brick Lane, with a small NF contingent watching, despairing. X-Ray Spex played with singer Poly Styrene dressed in a tweed twinset, a black Margaret Thatcher, the effect subverted by an African headscarf and lurid coloured socks. Then the Clash, with the crowd ebbing and flowing and such was the pressure of the numbers against the stage that it seemed at any moment the scaffolding might give way. Steel Pulse sang Klu Klux Klan in white Klan-style hoods.

The cultural commentator Stuart Hall described RAR as ‘one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis.’ The New Left historian Raphael Samuel described Victoria Park as ‘the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.’

Forty years on, in the different context of Brexit and the new war against migrants including the Windrush generation, we need new cultural interventions. That can copy the confidence and style of past generations even while expressing them in different form.

David Renton is the author of A Few Fought Back: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982, to be published by Routledge in 2019.

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