Sunday, 27 April 2008

Just like '78

For a moment it could have been 1978 and I was pushing six-month-old Rachel through the park gates in her battered, red and white striped pushchair with the handle held together with gaffer tape and the ‘Babies Against the Nazis’ placard above her head. There were punks and goths and rastas and rude boys, and there were trade unionists in their suits and paper sellers with their buckets, and I’d got a knot in my stomach and a tear in my eye at the sight of so many people from so many different backgrounds coming together to say no to racism to the sound of the music of a generation that had grown up together and was prepared to stand together now.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by the Love Music Hate Racism carnival today at Victoria Park, in Hackney, east London. I’d feared that it would be a shadow of the big anti-racist events of the 1970s; that it might not draw the same numbers, that it might feel old and tired, populated by too many people like me, old soldiers recalling past campaigns, who’d never be convinced that anything could compare with Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League and the Clash.

I knew I was wrong from the moment I saw the people who were approaching the park. Young and determined, with an energy and a fire that needed no one to pass on old torches to inflame them. Diverse and committed, queuing up (queuing, for Joe Strummer’s sake!) to buy t-shirts and badges. Confident and proud, as certain as we were 30 years ago that the future belonged to them, not to some narrow, bigoted bunch of no-marks who believe that the colour of your skin, or the names you give your gods, matter more than the strength of your character or the nature of your principles.

The family of Blair Peach, murdered by the police at an anti-racist protest in Southall in 1979, were there. So was the daughter of David Widgery, a one-time Hackney doctor, committed socialist and anti-racist fighter, who was one of the finest people (and best writers) to emerge from the revolutionary movements of 1968, and who died desperately young in 1992, aged 45. And so, of course, were the bands and the musicians and the MCs and the DJs who, for an afternoon at least, were mixing some politics in with the beats. I even thought Amy Winehouse was singing from one stage (why wasn’t she?) before getting close enough to hear that it was just a recording of her to fill in time before the Paddingtons.

Despite everything, I don’t expect Love Music Hate Racism to have the same profound effect that the ANL and RAR had in 1977-79. One of my abiding memories of the 1978 carnival was of the small gangs of National Front supporters who had gathered at a handful of locations along the route of the march to Victoria Park from central London. Anti-NF protests were dangerous things at the time, with real prospects of violence. At the very least, the NF fans expected to have a good time abusing and putting the frighteners on their opponents as they passed by.

I remember, in particular, watching a group of NF thugs outside a pub in Hackney as the march came past. It went on and on and on, a seemingly never-ending parade of people, tens of thousands of them, who were opposed to everything the NF stood for. The cockiness and self-assertion of the racists visibly drained from them that day as they were confronted by the inescapable fact that it was they who were the minority - and a tiny one at that.

From a situation in which it was racists who could intimidate those who opposed them into silence, things were transformed almost overnight. Now every racist statement or other manifestation of their hatred began to be challenged, to carry with it a burden of ostracism and shame. It seemed as if almost everyone in London began to wear ANL badges, on buses, on the tube, in the pubs, in the street. Suddenly, a burgeoning fascist movement looked pathetic, wormlike and small, along with the people who had backed it.

The modern-day racists will not be so dramatically deflated by today's carnival. For a start, they have built bases for themselves that will not easily be swept aside. They have, to some extent, avoided the Nazi tag that was so successfully laid upon them in the 1970s. Remember that in 1978, most people – including, still, a considerable proportion of the working population – had a direct personal memory of the war against fascism. The idea of supporting a party whose leaders associated themselves with the beliefs and principles of the Nazis was anathema even to most of those who perhaps shared some of the NF’s views on race and immigration. Today’s leaders of the far right have recognised the importance of distancing themselves from their Nazi antecedents, downplaying the thuggery and the violence, even avoiding open confrontation and the marches they loved to organise into multiracial territory.

In 1978, moreover, the left – including in the Labour Party and the trade unions – was much more numerous, more active, more organised and, crucially, more connected to the white working class than it is today. It represented a more credible alternative than it does now. Disillusion and disengagement was not so intense.

On the positive side, though, Britain has changed massively culturally – and for the better – since 1978. Certain key anti-racist principles are deeply entrenched in our social psyche, as well as legally and institutionally. There are many battles yet to be fought, of course, but today’s festival has given me hope and confidence beyond what I ever imagined that they will not only be fought – but won.


tracy said...

excellent report, u have inspired me luv trace x

Nick Lowles said...

Let's vote to defeat the BNP

Today is polling day so make sure you vote.

Watch the Kooks, Hard Fi and others on our Get Out and Vote video at:

Anonymous said...

Nice article, it was a fantastic day.

RD said...

Roll Deep Racist People vid is here

Anonymous said...

NME backstage carnival video on YouTube

Love Music Hate Racism said...

Racists Don't Represent London -
Protest Against BNP Fascist on London Assembly

Protest Against BNP fascist Richard Barnbrook's presence on the London Assembly.

6pm, Tuesday 6th May 2008
City Hall (the GLA building), Queens Walk, London SE1
(nr Tower Bridge - see
Called by Love Music Hate Racism. Bring banners, whistles, horns, music - make some noise against racism and fascism, no Nazis on the GLA.