White Riot – an article by Bill Brewster


Photo: Syd Shelton

We’re teaming up with our regular collaborators Everyman Cinema and Reclaim The Frame to welcome a brand new documentary released this Friday – White Riot – a telling of the Rock Against Racism story.

We’re delighted to bring three huge talents to the table – DJ and author Bill Brewster, UK reggae phenomenon and member of The Slits Hollie Cook and the legendary photographer Dennis Morris.

In addition to his mix, Bill Brewster has supplied us with his memories of the time, posted below:

“August 13th, 1977. Memorable for a few reasons, chief among them was my 18th birthday. It was also the first time I’d be on a demonstration. I’d only moved to London two months before and everything was strange and bewildering. The London A-Z was my constant companion.

Lewisham? Never heard of it. Took me hours to get there and when I did it was utter chaos. I’d seen lots of fighting on the streets in the 1970s, mainly after football matches, but I’d never seen a police presence on the street like that day. They were everywhere. My other memory is the almost total absence of the National Front that day. They’d obviously been shielded by the police, but the confrontation they wanted – there had been a strong vote for far right parties in that area at a recent council by-election – never materialised.

Outside of demonstrations, the threat from the Front and British Movement was still ever-present on the streets of London, then. They may not have been a mass movement, but they managed to spread themselves in a fairly frightening manner. The worst of this came at Sham 69’s farewell show at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park in 1979. It was said to be revenge for Jimmy Pursey’s alignment with Rock Against Racism. The BM were out in force and they were randomly attacking anyone in the downstairs part of the venue. Within a short period, the whole of the downstairs was controlled by the BM, while we all stood bewildered in the circle. The show was disrupted and eventually abandoned, despite Pursey’s valiant efforts.

Although it’s forgotten about now another band with a far-right presence did very little deter it: Madness. I remember a gig at the Lyceum with plenty of Nazi salutes, which they were clearly embarrassed about (and obviously didn’t endorse) but did nothing to deflect. This was in stark contrast to another group who rode that same wave. I saw the Specials play in the same venue, shortly after their debut single, Gangsters, was released. They were low on a bill that was comprised of arty Leeds bands (Delta 5, The Mekons, Gang Of Four), but brought a formidable travelling army from Coventry. It was needed, too, because again the BM and NF made their presence felt as the stiff-armed morons did their poisonous best to disrupt. The Specials weren’t having it and dived into the audience to confront them.

It’s ironic that the thing that finally did for their presence as a street menace in London and elsewhere was the election of Margaret Thatcher: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” She pulled the rug from under the NF and far-right and although the problem of racism is far from over, the British fascist organisations have been completely unable to shake off their association with football hooliganism – as well as giving lager a bad name.”

Bill Brewster, June 2020

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