Lewisham 13th August 1977: The Forgotten Battle?

The UK’s annual national festival of the humanities, Being Human, drew to a close on the 22nd November but the memory of its many inspiring events lingers on. For me one of the highlights of the festival was the Goldsmith’s series of Radical New Cross events and more specifically a panel discussion coordinated and chaired by John Price on the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ and its creative consequences.

On 13th August 1977 between 500 and 600 members of the far-right National Front marched from New Cross to Lewisham in southeast London. They were confronted by a counter-demonstration of a coalition of anti-fascist and anti-racist groups numbering between 3000 and 5000 leading to violent clashes in which numerous people were injured and over 200 were arrested. These events, which were subsequently framed as the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ – in the tradition of the 1936 ‘Battle of Cable Street’ – were discussed by Nigel Copsey in his 1999 book Anti-fascism in Britain. In one part Copsey writes (1999: 129):

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The Goldsmiths event, which brought together Les Back (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths), Lez Henry (Lecturer in Criminology at University of West London), Balwinder Rana (National Asian Organiser for the Anti-Nazi League after its launch in 1977), Amina Mangera (Local activist and campaigner), David Michael (Retired Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector and the first black constable to be posted to the Borough of Lewisham in April 1973) and Paul Gilroy (Professor of American and English Literature at Kings College), diverged from the traditional historical treatment of the battle by instead asking its panellists to recount it through a material culture approach and the selection of an individual item.

The first two items chosen by Rana and Mangera, were the now iconic yellow ‘Stop the NF Nazis’ badge, which was widely distributed by the Anti-Nazi League following its formation in 1977, and the flare, used for only the second time by demonstrators on Lewisham’s streets (the battle also saw the first time the Police used riot shields on the UK mainland).

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 UntitledA flare is thrown at police during the Battle of Lewisham. Photo by Syd Shelton

Reflecting the continually growing significance of digital media for historical and mnemonic reconstruction others opted to talk digitised film and sound files. First, Michael showed a video of the battle from the Associated Press archive, then Henry played Culture’s 1977 hit, Two Sevens Clash, which predicted the apocalypse on 7th July 1977, and finally, Back played Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1979 Fite Dem Back. The last two had particular resonance insofar as Two Sevens Clash, as Henry explained, almost predicted the local situation in Lewisham and somehow cemented the belief that something was finally going to give after years of not just National Front presence but more significantly the state-endorsed racism of the Police. Fite Dem Back (released by Johnson six years after graduating from Goldsmiths) meanwhile displays the confidence of Lewisham’s black community in its ability to fight fascism after the battle – ‘Fashist an di attack – Noh baddah worry ’bout dat’.

These and the other racial dimensions of the battle’s consequence and its remembrance are interesting not least because Henry recalled that on the day itself much of the local black youth were happy to watch the mostly white demonstrators intervene in a situation of structural racism which they had faced on a daily basis for years. Henry’s comments echo Copley’s concerns for the exaggerated affect on the local community’s anti-fascist or anti-racist sentiment that the battle is often claimed to have had. Indeed many of the problems of the late 1970s, as Johnson highlights in the video above and as the panelists agreed, are still very relevant today.

This is why the memory of the Battle of Lewisham is important. When I later asked the panelists to what extent the counter-demonstration is remembered both locally and more broadly again they were in general agreement that it has been mostly forgotten. As I suspected, Price then revealed that part of the motivation behind the panel was to initiate plans to commemorate the battle’s fortieth anniversary with a public event that could raise awareness of the area’s radical heritage. Before I asked my question, Gilroy had already highlighted the multi-directionality of the event’s memory by referencing Clement Blair Peach, an Anti-Nazi league demonstrator killed by Police during a rally at Southall Town Hall on Monday 23rd April 1979 (to whom Johnson also dedicated a song in 1980) and the New Cross House Fire of 1981. At the same time he also noted the need to move beyond the ‘smashist tone of remembrance’ that predominantly characterised the panel’s proceedings and was perhaps most evident following the AP video when the majority of the audience and panelists (myself included) spontaneously cheered. If the Battle of Lewisham is to be commemorated on its fortieth anniversary understanding its nuance (including racial dimensions) and overcoming smashist memories without overly eroding its vitality and current resonance will be a necessity. A good starting point for such an effort, I suggest, is to look at how the battle has been and is currently remembered. It may seem to be forgotten for the most part, and local members of this event’s audience did express surprise that they were unaware of what had happened on their own streets, but this has not always been the case and is certainly not true for certain communities. For example, a blog, last updated in 2011, evidences the commemoration of the battle’s 30th anniversary in 2007, which also included an event at Goldsmiths involving Gilroy, Rana, Henry, and Back.

L77 flyer

Meanwhile grassroots anti-fascist groups seem, if the material culture of their stickers is anything to go by, also to be returning mnemonic significance to the battle. These stickers, which might also be claimed to exaggerate the racial composition of the counter-demonstration, further connect Lewisham in 1977 to Cable Street in 1936 not only rhetorically but also visually and it is worth noting that the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year in 2016.

Following the 13th August 1977 the two counter-demonstrations were quickly equated with one another. The Lewisham counter-demonstration was framed by its participants as a victory over fascism just as Cable Street had been (even though for the most part, and in both instances, the battles that took place were with the police rather then the far-right). Meanwhile the two were also compared in discussions about the history of Public Order legislation and also, as the passage of a letter to the editor of the Observer from 21st August 1977 below shows, in more moralistic and political registers. The two battles were again conjoined during the panel discussion not only indirectly through recourse to the Spanish Civil War rally cry of ‘No Pasaran’ but also more explicitly in a poster exhibition, loaned by the Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group, that had been originally designed for Cable Street’s 70th anniversary and was placed on display in the venue’s lobby.

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I wonder whether it is time to highlight the Battle of Lewisham’s significance in its own right. Perhaps in order to get at the counter-demonstration’s nuance it might, in fact, be necessary to unhinge it from its better-known predecessor and hold it to scrutiny within a local context and historical moment that, given current realities, is arguably less distant, not only chronologically but also politically, than 1936. Time will tell if such a suggestion is useful or indeed misguided, but I will certainly remember this panel as I move forward with my post-doctoral research on the mobilization of the past and  the translocal and digital memories of Europe’s far-left. Likewise I will look forward to, and hope to get involved with, the plans to mark the Battle of Lewisham’ 40th anniversary in two years time. A final thanks to all those who organised and participated in a great event!

 

 

 

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