How Rock Against Racism organised against the Nazis — and won

March 8, 2021
The Clash fans the flames of anti-fascism at the Rock Against Racism carnival in 1978
The Clash fans the flames of anti-fascism at the Rock Against Racism carnival in 1978

White Riot
Documentary film directed by Rubika Shah
In cinemas March 18

White Riot is the story of how, in the 1970s, a ramshackle group of do-it-yourself British leftists organised the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement, took on the fascist National Front (NF) and defeated it.

It was by no means an easy struggle, nor was it clear from the beginning what the outcome would be. This was a political/cultural, people-power mass movement that changed British society.

Britain hit the economic skids in the early 1970s, as part of the international economic crisis resulting from the declining post-WWII profit boom colliding with US deficit spending that financed its Vietnam War adventure.

In the midst of a powerful wave of strikes in 1976, the Labour government was forced to beg the International Monetary Fund to bail out the economy. That shock to the national psyche, combined with Labour’s betrayal of its traditional program, gave an opening for fascists to get a hearing.

Fascist ideology was infamously fanned in 1968 by ultra-right Tory MP Enoch Powell in his “River of Blood” speech, attacking the presence of Black immigrants. In an era of mass unemployment with no hope in sight, the NF started staging colourful marches and attracting youthful members, mostly skinheads.

There is plenty of archival footage in White Riot showing just how scary the period was.

All this was bad enough, but then in August 1976, Eric Clapton told a concert audience that he supported Powell and wanted to “keep Britain white”.

"Get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out,” he said.

Other loud pro-Nazis were David Bowie and Rod Stewart.

A small group of left-wing cultural activists — Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford and Pete Bruno — took action. They penned a letter protesting Clapton’s statement and calling for an anti-racist musical movement.

The nationwide music magazine New Musical Express (NME) published the letter and the group was overwhelmed by the response. People asking if there was an RAR group in their area were simply told that they were now the organiser of it.

Simple instructions were sent out telling activists how to pull together concerts, how to get council permission, how to attract bands, how to assemble a PA system and how to protect a stage against Nazi attack.

RAR was organised around the fanzine Temporary Hoarding, which combined punk imagery, music reporting and political education. Concerts with Black and white bands sharing the stage gave working class youth the experience of sharing the love of music together.

RAR intersected perfectly with the rising punk music scene that articulated youth alienation. Another strand was the popularity of Jamaican reggae and ska music, even among right-wing youth.

The film includes many of the era’s top bands: The Clash, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, X Ray Specs, Tom Robinson Band and Sham 69. The political evolution of Sham 69’s singer, Jimmy Pursey, is a narrative thread in the film.

Along the way, RAR coordinated activities with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). The ANL provided security for RAR events and RAR provided entertainment for mass demonstrations.

Together with other anti-Nazis, they participated in the spectacular August 1977 street battle in Lewisham, when the NF staged a provocative march under police protection.

There were many more gigs and street clashes before the NF were finally smashed.

White Riot climaxes with the highly successful 1978 Victoria Park concert, when 100,000 people marched 11 kilometres from Trafalgar Square to East London, demonstrating their rejection of Nazism in a carnival of unity.

One of the central RAR slogans was “Black and white unite and fight”. White Riot is a great celebration of that ethos.

[The cinema trailer for White Riot can be seen here. The Clash (featuring Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey) performing their song White Riot at the Victoria Park carnival is here. Look out for Jeremy Corbyn speaking at 1 minute 26 seconds. Green Left’s review of the book about anti-Nazi graphic artist, David King, who designed imagery for RAR and ANL is here.]

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