Today is the 40th anniversary of what is remembered in Britain as the Battle of Lewisham. On August 13th, 1977, anti-racist demonstrators, organized primarily by the Socialist Workers Party, faced down with the fascist National Front organization. The NF had been growing in influence and gaining votes by doing exactly what fascists do: exploit acute economic anxieties by pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color. On that day in the London Borough of Lewisham, they were organizing what they called an “anti-mugging rally,” claiming that Blacks and Caribbeans were responsible for a disproportionate number of muggings and assault. Lewisham, a majority Black and brown area, was chosen for the site as a deliberate provocation.
The National Front were thoroughly routed that day. Five hundred of them tried to march to the town center; they were met by 4000 counter-demonstrators. Many were members of left-wing and anti-racist groups, but they were primarily youth from the surrounding neighborhoods. Police attempted to protect the NF march, but the anti-racists broke through the line several times to chase them off. The fascists ended up having their final rally in a parking lot before being escorted to the train by police. The cops, furious at being humiliated, continued to attempt taking back the streets, but in the end it was the counter-demonstrators who won out.
Here’s David Widgery, writing in his book on Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The mood was justly euphoric. Not only because of the sense of achievement – they didn’t pass, not with dignity anyway, and the police completely lost the absolute control [Police Commissioner] McNee had boasted about – but also because, at last, we were all in it together.
In the end there was a lot that came of Lewisham. The Anti-Nazi League was formed, Rock Against Racism (formed a year earlier) gained greater exposure and momentum, and the NF were faced down several more times before drifting into the background of organized politics. Some anti-racists and Leftists were locked up. Others, like Misty in Roots singer Clarence Baker, sustained life-threatening injuries. Still others, Blair Peach for instance, were killed. But there were also moments like those described by Widgery, including (sometimes literal) carnivals of the oppressed. There were intense and beautiful moments of victory, of seeing an ugly racist threat pushed out of public space and giving way to multi-racial crowds becoming unavoidably aware of their own power, feeling a freedom that is all the more thrilling for it having been fought for. The movement didn’t end racism in Britain of course, but it created space for a multi-racial resistance that was able to push back its worst manifestations.
There is something breathtakingly eerie about this anniversary falling when it does. Calendars have no will of their own of course, but the commemorations they allow are what give us the ability to change the meaning of the past. To see where the unfinished business lies and perhaps identify the link that, if broken, might prevent future history from going in the same destructive circles. Present struggles unearth different meanings of past events that have been hidden under the rubble of ideology.
Historical parallels are imperfect things and severely limited in what they can teach us. Partially because there is a temptation for them to become inert and predetermined. But if we can step back and look at the possibilities of not just what did happen but what might have happened had participants chosen a different way, the dynamics of what is playing out now start to seem obvious. Watershed moments do not merely happen. Their meaning is shaped and reshaped over time by those who step into a breach.
National Front. Alt-right.
Thatcher’s fears of Britain “swamped by people with a different culture.” Trump’s ravings about “bad hombres.”
Blair Peach. Heather Heyer.
The raw organizational materials of the Anti-Nazi League. Those who marched and ultimately outnumbered the fascists yesterday.
There are plenty of open questions thrust upon us by the realities of notions like unity or, more pointedly, a united front. These questions are hard to answer when your own are in the hospital or in the morgue. But they also must be asked. History must be engaged. Not just as the past but as something currently unfolding. Possibility refuses to present itself unless we do.
This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.