A tale of two towns

The Black Lives Matter movement that is spreading around the globe is full of potential for positive change. But of course the establishment are looking for every chance to reassert the status quo and the far right is calling for repressive measures to squash the movement – the state must ‘dominate’ it, in Donald Trump’s words. Colin Revolting looks back at a previous response to police violence in a moment of capitalist crisis.

On 4 August 2011 Mark Duggan was murdered by police in Tottenham. Locals gathered at the police station looking for answers and accountability. Receiving nothing but contempt the anger of the protest grew – and erupted. The flames rose quickly and over the next two days spread across London and then the country.

I was camping at the time, in the middle of nowhere, and completely unaware of what was happening. The same had happened 34 summers earlier when many of Lewisham’s youth – mainly black – had joined with the young left – mainly white – to push the fascist National Front off the streets. As usual the police defended the fascists and attacked the protesters, turning the day into a near-riot.

I returned from camping on 9 August with a coach full of young Woodcraft Folk, who told me about the riots that were occurring across the country and wanted to learn about similar events in the past.

Deptford

What I didn’t know was that near my home in Deptford discussion amongst people who had gathered on the corner of the High Street was heating up. The rage and pain at Mark Duggan’s murder was present but so was a feeling that burning shops was not necessarily the only choice. The government and media were trying to divert attention towards the actions of the young people who were reacting to the killing. At what one of the participants told me turned into ‘a spontaneous street meeting’ there was visceral anger at the bankers who had caused the 2008 stock market crash and at the Tories who bailed out the banks and then turned on the rest of us with the war of austerity. It was already four days since the murder and the government and the media were calling for people to clean up their neighbourhood, with images of high streets full of people with brooms.

At that street meeting the two independent socialists present called for a march against the government and demanded the local council reverse the cuts made in the name of austerity. The word went out through the local left and anti-racist networks, especially the recently formed Lewisham Anti Cuts Alliance (LACA).

The following night when I arrived home I received a text about the march and went down to Deptford High Street, not knowing what to expect. A couple of hundred people, mainly young, had gathered. There was a handful of older socialists and local activists I recognised but in the main this was a crowd of student or ex-student activists. (Remember this was the year after the huge anti-fee movement of students, when they had become expert at wildcat marches around London and even a mini riot at the Tory headquarters at Millbank).

But without the usual banners or placards declaring our purpose what would the march look like to locals?

One of the two socialists had a megaphone and got the march chanting. But what should we chant?

Some one suggested, ‘NHS not for sale, put the bankers into jail’. But it needed to be more precise.

‘Our kids’ futures not for sale, put the bankers into jail.’

The chant was taken up by some of the crowd as we set off.

People came out of their houses to see us. The kids skating and riding BMX bikes in a park stopped and watched. We kept chanting. As we moved on the intrigued kids followed alongside on their skates and bikes.

We kept chanting and raised our voices.

‘OUR KIDS’ FUTURES NOT FOR SALE, PUT THE BANKERS INTO JAIL!’

Deptford to Lewisham march against cuts, racism and austerity, 10 August 2011 (3 minutes)

We reached Lewisham and as we marched towards the huge police station (known as the Dark Star by cab drivers) we got louder. We could and probably should have stopped at the station but the agreed destination was the town hall.

The police numbers increased and attempted to block us from going down the main road. In doing so they pushed the black kids on skates and bikes into the march. That was the moment when the kids joined us, and stayed.

‘Black and white, unite and fight!’ we chanted as we kept moving. Through the largely shuttered shopping street and on towards Catford, where the town hall is. The skaters and cyclists were amongst us now and the march better represented Lewisham. Others who had been on the sidelines joined us, some going straight onto the megaphone at the front, joining in our chants and shouting out new ones.

Then we saw a fracas ahead. There was a crowd outside the mosque. Was it being attacked? Had the rumours of racists coming to disrupt us proved true? We raised our voices louder and slowed our pace. The crowd of Asian people outside the mosque appeared to be shouting – at us.

Amina, who was near the front, saw what was happening and raised a new chant: ‘Free Palestine!’

There was a moment of tension. The crowd outside the mosque was looking at us and the march was looking back at them. Some police in between stood around, doing nothing.

We cheered and they applauded. Amina and others spoke to the people outside the mosque and an explanation passed around the march. At least one of the guys from the mosque thought we were a racist march and had picked up a brick ready to defend it! Luckily others worked out why we were marching and calmed the situation.

Those fears were real. What we didn’t know was what was happening in the neighbouring borough and a similar high street just three miles down the road.

Eltham

Eltham, where I grew up, has long had a reputation for being the home of racists and where Stephen Lawrence, Roland Adams and Rohit Duggal were murdered by racists within a couple of years of each other. The far-right had long tried to stir up conflict in the area, with the British National Party establishing its headquarters in neighbouring Welling. They saw the unrest and disturbances which followed the murder of Mark Duggan as an opportunity for them to organise. I neither remember nor care what banner they did it under, but they called for a gathering in Eltham High Street that very night.

Unaware of all this, we moved on, nearing Deptford town hall and the end of our march. More locals standing on the pavements watching. Some just curious, some more supportive and applauding.

At the town hall we filled the green outside and spilled out into the road and the busy traffic. Press photographers had got wind of our presence and were there in numbers, snapping away. This was a bigger demonstration in opposition to the council’s cuts than would have possibly happened in normal circumstances. Young people were encouraged to take the microphone and speak about why they were there, their experience of racism, and why we needed to come together and oppose the police.

As one of the instigators of the march wrote in an email the following day, ‘the march was only the first steps of the anti-cuts movement and of the left at sowing the seeds of resistance on what has become overnight fertile ground. At the final rally it was decided to build on this momentum by organising a public rally with an open platform in the heart of Lewisham [the following Saturday]… We aim to turn the area into an anti-cuts Speakers’ Corner of resistance. This may seen ambitious but given recent events people will be hungry for ideas and open discussion’.

We’d managed to turn some of the anger and frustration into political pressure, uniting the community and taking our anti-austerity demands to the council. Maybe we could have focused on Lewisham police station on the way – just as the 300 or so predominantly young people did on 6 June this year.

Meanwhile in Eltham a couple of hundred racists had turned up. Sadly anti-racists in the area were either unaware or knew they would be too greatly outnumbered and kept their distance. The TV media got wind of this gathering, maybe alerted by the far-right organisers, and that night on TV we watched in disgust as the racist crowd shouted at a couple of young black guys on a bus (who responded like they were ready to take the crowd on!). But the bus pulled off. As they tend to do, the TV made a much bigger deal of a small crowd of racists than a big march of anti-racists.

But what we’d achieved was to me put in stark contrast. The racism of the police and the state appals many but it has always been used by some elements to build a far-right and fascist presence. It was a great pity the established left in Eltham were not as quick-witted as the pair of independent socialists in Deptford. Their call for the march pulled the community together in a radical anti-austerity direction rather than let the Tory agenda assert itself or let the racists take centre stage and divide us.

The magnificent Black Lives Matter movement is challenging the bloody imperial history of this country. In doing so it calls into question some of the fundamental beliefs of the far-right, and they are organising and agitating in response. We have seen glimpses of this with the cleaning-up of Churchill’s statue on Whitehall and their claim to be coming this Saturday to central London to ‘protect’ memorials to this country’s colonial past. I suspect if they do muster on Saturday it will be with a police presence to protect them. This is why it’s crucial to get behind the Black Lives Matter movement in every locality. By doing so we can undercut the racist claims and their attempts to blame migration, multiculturalism and Muslims for the effects of austerity and the coming recession.

Black Lives Matter protests are happening around the country this weekend. Last weekend, there were protests in over 150 towns across the UK (see the list here), and more are planned this weekend.

Far-right networks have put it around that they will be mobilising in London on Saturday. Be there if you can to keep each other safe from cops and the far right. The BLM movement won’t be intimidated. Join the anti-fascist mobilisation in support of Black Lives Matter.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. “Is the argument here that the ‘riots’ had not brought any political pressure?”
    No.

    “contrasting ‘riots’ to a community march and saying that the first is ‘an expression of anger’ and only the second has the status of being ‘political’ is incorrect, it seems to me.”
    That is certainly not my intention.

    Look at USA now and see the many different actions that are growing out of the riots, protests and rebellion there.
    This account of real events was in that spirit.

  2. “We’d managed to turn some of the anger and frustration into political pressure.” Is the argument here that the ‘riots’ had not brought any political pressure? That would suggest a very narrow view of the political and also badly underestimates ‘riots’ as a way to force change. The state response of violence and mass arrests and fast-tracking prosecutions demonstrates that the ‘riots’ were a genuine challenge to the system. Of course there are questions about how you build pressure for key demands in the course of a movement, but contrasting ‘riots’ to a community march and saying that the first is ‘an expression of anger’ and only the second has the status of being ‘political’ is incorrect, it seems to me.

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