Sunday, 30 April 2017

1978 Rock against Racism Carnival against the Nazis.

39 years ago today, on the 30th April 1978, it was one of those days that changed everything.

In 1976 several things happened that were very disturbing; Eric Clapton interrupted one of his Birmingham concerts to endorse the racist Tory politician Enoch Powell. This was the Eric Clapton who made his living playing blues numbers composed by black people and singing 'I shot the sheriff' composed by Bob Marley.

Soon after, David Bowie returning from his stay in West Berlin endorsed Hitler and posed at the airport in an open top car as though he was a slightly emaciated dictator.

None of this would have mattered except that Britain's fascist parties were following a new, two track approach and it was working out very well for them.

The 'British Movement', with some help from the state were drilling and marching as a paramilitary organisation dedicated to attacking left wingers like me as well as intimidating black and Asian people.

Meanwhile the 'National Front' was pretending to be respectable and was standing in elections.....and winning worryingly large votes.

In response in1976, a small group of people set up 'Rock against Racism' to harness the new punk and reggae movements to counter the old racist dinosaurs like Clapton and Bowie.

I went along to a very early RAR concert in Slough, in late 1976 or early 1977 which was attacked and left one of the audience with an eye hanging out.

This wasn't the kind of thing that was ever going to put me off and I joined up. In 1977 I also joined the 'Anti Nazi League', a more straightforwardly political sister organisation.

Between the two groups, we were going to take on the Nazis and expose them. It involved me in all sorts of adventures ranging from leafleting tower blocks and estates throughout North and East London to some more direct involvement in anti fascist activities which I may tell you about another time.

All of which was a lot of fun and appeared to be slowly getting somewhere but in 1978, RAR announced that it would be holding it's first 'Rock against Racism Carnival' in Victoria Park in the middle of the East End.

Now back then, the East End was very deprived and the Nazis were attempting to shift the blame for years of neglect in housing and infrastructure like schools and roads onto the immigrants who also lived there.

Apart from standing in elections they tried to bring about a reign of terror so that black and Asian families would be scared of going out at night, for fear of being attacked by racist gangs.

There was going to be a protest march and a giant free concert but it was also likely to be an opportunity to have it out with the fascists once and for all - we were going to have to be prepared for trouble.

We were.

As the date got nearer, the line up got better and better. Tom Robinson signed up immediately as did Polystyrene and X-Ray Spex.

Steel Pulse, a reggae band from Handsworth in Birmingham were there and performed their biggest number 'Ku Klux Klan' protesting against racist violence.

Not on the poster but definitely playing were 'The Clash'.

Being naturally pessimistic I was sure that few people would come but we knew that with that line up there would at least be some people there.

There was a lot of leafleting and flyposting in the weeks leading up to the march and then on the Friday and Saturday nights I was up late into the night with a group of people stapling together endless ANL 'Lollypops' to be handed out on the march - we had a production line going;

On the Sunday I got more and more depressed - it was grey and miserable, I was sure that no one would be interested.

For goodness sake, the march was 7 miles long, snaking its way from Trafalgar Square all the way through The East End.

Who cared enough to do that?

I walked down the Charing Cross Road and as I got nearer the square I could hear a huge roar of voices.

The 'lollypops'  we'd made all got handed out before I got there and I never got one.

As you can see;

The official figure was about 80,000 but most of us felt it was a lot more than that.

We wound our way through Fleet Street and The City of London and out past the factories and old bombsites of the East End. We could see exploited people working in the sweatshops of the 'rag trade'.

A lot of people came out to applaud us.

What we didn't catch sight of were the massed ranks of the fascists who had promised to break up the march. Funnily enough, they were nowhere to be seen.

And then we got to the park and there were so many people there some of them had climbed up in the trees to see the bands.

I saw the full line up and a special treat were 'The Clash', joined for a while by Jimmy Pursey of 'Sham 69'.

I'm in the crowd here, somewhere!

The Carnival changed everything although not straight away.

Apart from anything else it showed that the Nazis didn't own the streets although it took a lot of struggles over the next few years to make sure they learnt the lesson.

For young people, black and white, it gave them the confidence to stand up against the racists.

It told them they were not alone.

Old people were reminded of which side they had fought on during the war and also of the battles against Moseley and his 'Blackshirts' in the 1930's.

There were still some very hard fights to come but on that Sunday in 1978 we started the fight back that continued through the 1990's and which continues today.

Both Rock against Racism and The Anti Nazi League were normally considered too extreme for the media but this documentary from Thames Television captures something of the mood of the times and how important that struggle was.

I particularly enjoyed the last part which interviews some youngsters from 'Skoolkids against the Nazis'.

How young we all were and how much fun it was to change the world. 

Here's the link;

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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1 comment:

  1. Wow, I keep saying you were quite the rebel back then.