White Riot: Black Lives Matter, 70s Punk Style

Photography by Syd Shelton

Rock Against Racism was the pioneering UK organisation that used music to take on the fascists of the National Front in the face of violence and establishment cowardice. A new documentary tells its story.

Cops brutalising people of colour and attacking lawful protesters. Far right thugs on the march, tolerated and even endorsed by politicians and media. Discriminatory, divisive policies enjoying democratic support at the ballot box.

For Minneapolis in 2020, read London in 1977. For Black Lives Matter, read Rock Against Racism. The depressing truth is that we’ve been here before, repeatedly. But as demonstrated in a trenchant new British documentary, people power can beat racist goons, particularly if it’s hitched to the musical and cultural forces of the day – and even if the methods at its disposal are, by today’s standards, distinctly analogue.

Think a letter-writing campaign, badges, leaflets, fanzines and some scrappy gigs can’t make a difference? Watch White Riot and think again.

The film, winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, tells the story of Rock Against Racism. Founded in London, the campaigning organisation was forged in the heat of both punk and racists-on-the-march in mid-Seventies Britain.

It was a grassroots, spit-and-sawdust group that used a cut-and-paste magazine, Temporary Hoarding, to spread the word. Autonomous chapters formed the length and breadth of the UK. Along the way it allied with likeminded organisations such as the Anti-Nazi League and School Kids Against The Nazis.

Two years of gig-based activism – militant entertainment” – ultimately rallied an estimated 100,000 marchers for April 1978’s Carnival Against Racism in east London’s Victoria Park. This triumphal, free mini-festival was purposefully held in a part of the capital that was a hotbed of racist agitation. Its cross-genre bill encompassed the biggest alternative bands of the day, notably The Clash, Steel Pulse, X‑Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band.

I watched the famous footage of The Clash, as probably lots of people have,” says director Rubikah Shah of the start of the creative process that led to her prize-winning first full-length feature. And it intrigued me: what is this free gig in Victoria Park? How did it happen? And as I dug deeper and deeper into it, I realised it was such a big story. And it was a story about young people coming together to do something positive about racism.”

The issue was pressing to say the least. In the Greater London Elections of 1977, the National Front took 19 per cent of the vote in Hackney South and Shoreditch, and 19.2 per cent in Bethnal Green and Bow. That’s one in five of the electorate voting for a violently racist party. That same year, one of Shah’s interviewees says, there were seven racist murders in and around Brick Lane. (The Face office, incidentally, is situated at the centre of those now proudly multicultural neighbourhoods.)

When I ask what surprised her most in her research into the period, Shah takes a beat.

The violence,” she finally replies. I’d heard stories about how violent it was at the time, but until you see the footage, it’s difficult to visualise what it was like.”

As we see in White Riot’s judicious narrative deployment of archive newsreel, this was a time of NF supporters and skinheads viciously terrorising non-whites (and non-skinheads) and openly calling for race war.

Photography by Syd Shelton

And also: the fact that people like Martin Webster, the National Front organiser, was given a mainstream telly platform,” she adds. Her film shows the career far rightist and all-round nasty piece of work being interviewed on chin-stroking chat shows of the day. What you see in the film is only the tip of the iceberg – there’s hours of footage of him on the BBC and ITV.”

Here’s what shocked me most watching her compelling doc: not the front page headlines in the newspapers of the day (“Tighter Quotas For Immigrants – Expulsion For Those We Think Are Undesirable?” – the London Evening Standard) but the opinions of some of the biggest artists of the day.

Britain is ready for a fascist leader,” David Bowie is quoted as telling Playboy in May 1976. This was around the time he arrived at London’s Victoria station and reportedly gave a Nazi salute to waiting fans (a gesture Bowie always denied making).

This country is overcrowded,” Rod Stewart told the music press. The immigrants should be sent home. That’s it.”

Onstage in Birmingham in August 1976, Eric Clapton encouraged his fans to support racist Conservative MP Enoch Powell (he of the Rivers of Blood speech abomination) and to get the w*gs out, get the c*ons out”; warned of Britain becoming a colony within 10 years”; and repeatedly shouted NF slogan Keep Britain White”.

How on earth could anyone think it was acceptable to not only hold but brazenly and publically state such views?

That’s what they felt – and thousands of people felt like that,” replies Shah with a palpable shrug. What were the media showing on TV? It wasn’t people of colour in a positive light. They’re showing them as statistics, flooding into the UK’. They’re not talked about as individual people with families making a contribution to Britain.”

Appalling, incomprehensible stuff, for sure, with the pitch-black added irony being that, as RAR co-founder Red Saunders memorably dubs the feted bluesman, Clapton was rock music’s biggest colonialist”.

Clapton’s drunken rant spurred Saunders, a Soho-based music photographer, to co-write a letter to NME decrying his comments while referencing the musician having a hit with a cover of one of Bob Marley’s greatest songs: Come on Eric… own up. Half your music is black… Who shot the sheriff? It sure as hell wasn’t you!”

The letter ended with a rallying call to music fans to form a new, anti-racist organisation. As Saunders says of RAR setting out to go toe-to-toe with the boot-boys of the NF: Our job was to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika.”

Photography by Syd Shelton

Temporary Hoarding was RAR’s social media, and White Riot focuses on the pioneering agit-journalism of the punk fanzine. It ran interviews with Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten (“I despise [the NF]. No one should have the right to tell anyone they can’t live here because of the colour of their skin”) and the groundbreaking writing of Lucy Toothpaste (aka Lucy Whitman). She linked heteronormative oppression with the oppression of non-whites.

Temporary Hoarding struck a chord with me and my co-writer Ed Gibbs right from the outset,” says London-based Shah, who hails from the West Midlands and started out working in the music industry.

It felt really current. They dealt with political issues and ideas like colonialism, which was actually quite a recent [conversation] in the late 70s. And intersectionality, which is something in common conversation nowadays. But then it really wasn’t talked about as much.”

She highlights, too, the underappreciated musical and political contribution of Asian punk band Alien Kulture.

I was like, where have these guys been?’” she marvels. So great. They were like urban poets in a way, using their words to communicate their anger at oppression. And Rock Against Racism helped give them a voice. It was putting white bands on with black bands and giving them equal billing, which created this sense of different cultures thinking: Yes, we can go out and do this, too.’”

All of which, in light of recent events, begs the question: when we finally emerge from lockdown into a world where mass music gatherings are deemed safe, is it time for another Rock – or Music – Against Racism? Yes, Love Music Hate Racism, a spin-off from RAR, is current and active. But, right here, right now(ish), could another large-scale Carnival Against Racism – perhaps even linked events in the US and UK – be important and vital?

Definitely,” states Shah, whose film is on tour” this summer at various online film festivals. More of that should happen, people getting together and swapping ideas. That was one of the great things about Rock Against Racism: they wanted people with different views to come together, because they wanted to be able to challenge those views and explain why racism is wrong.”

As White Riots end-credits point out: The National Front was defeated at the 1979 General Election.

But the fight is far from over.”

White Riot is screening this weekend as part of Glastonbury’s Cinemageddon Film Programme and Left Field Tent, 24th-28th June, with a live Q&A taking place on Friday 26th at 8pm. Host Jamz Supernova (BBC Radio 1Xtra) will be talking to Rubika Shah, Julien Temple (filmmaker and Glastonbury cinema curator), Billy Bragg (musician, activist and Glastonbury Left Field Tent curator) and Pervez Bilgrami (musician and member of Alien Kulture).

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