Remembering the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ 40 years on… by Michael Danby

bol-street-clash-horses
credit : Paul Trevor from Camerawork

Almost forty years ago the streets surrounding Goldsmiths witnessed ‘the Battle of Lewisham’, one of the most important events in the history of race relations in the UK. On August 13th 1977 the fascist National Front (NF) had planned a national demonstration to march through the streets of Lewisham. This was a deliberately provocative act to intimidate the large BME community. NF national organiser Martin Webster stated that ‘We believe that the multi-racial society is wrong, is evil and we want to destroy it’.

A racialised moral panic about street crime formed the background of these events where young black people were stigmatized. The NF played on this, marching behind the banner of ‘stop the muggers’.  Local groups had campaigned for the march to be banned on the grounds of public safety and inciting racial hatred. However, the Metropolitan Police refused to appeal to government and put some 5000 officers on the streets to escort the march, deploying riot shields for the first time on the British mainland.

Many thousands of people came together from different organisations to oppose the NF. In Ladywell Fields approximately 5000 people, hailing from over 80 different organisations including local anti-racist groups, churches and trade unions demonstrated against the Fascists.

Others went further and were determined to stop the march directly. Thousands gathered on Clifton Rise and Achilles Street where the NF planned to meet. Hundreds were injured in clashes with NF marchers and the Metropolitan police. Bricks, smoke flares and make-shift missiles were used to counter police batons and horse charges. The turnout of the NF membership was far smaller than predicted. Around 500 NF members, encircled by thousands of police, were eventually escorted through the streets of Lewisham with great difficulty. Anti-racists and local youth clashed with police throughout the day.

At last year’s Lewisham People’s Day festival Goldsmiths hosted an exhibition with information and photography about the Battle of Lewisham. Speaking about local people’s feedback from that day, Goldsmiths historian Dr John Price noted that whilst there was no fixed consensus about the event, for most people it was a coming together of people to stand up against something that they thought was wrong; standing up against an organisation that was spreading lies and racial hatred aimed particularly the local young black community.

He said “the unifying thing about responses from Lewisham People’s Day was the idea that this was about humanity, saying – first and foremost – we are humans and we’re all the same on some level and these people are trying to say we’re not, and we must stop them.”

Times when different people have come together to oppose racism should not only be celebrated, but analysed and learned from. Unlike the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – where thousands clashed with police to stop fascists marching through the Jewish area of the East End, there’s no mural or plaque to remember the historic events that took place on the streets surrounding the University; Nothing to indicate that these streets saw a huge mobilisation of anti-racists and anti-fascists.

There are many parallels between 1977 and contemporary Britain; the rise in far right organisations, xenophobia, anti-migrant sentiment and ongoing institutional racism, particularly within the police force. The way the NF played on people’s worries about housing, education, crime and employment, in times of austerity, and turned these into a racialized narrative has chilling similarities to the contemporary world.

To celebrate Black History Month, Goldsmiths is hosting a week-long series of interactive events in Lewisham Shopping centre from Monday 17th October to discuss with local people how to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Lewisham in August 2017. Looking back at the local history of Lewisham we might learn from those events, how best to oppose racism and other forms of oppression ad inequality in society.

Come on down to Lewisham Shopping centre to learn more about the Battle of Lewisham. Over the week there’ll be an ongoing exhibition with images and audio accounts from the 1977, live painting from Art student Ella Jones, banner making with local primary schools, creative poetry workshop with Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson, local history talks over tea and cake) and music and film screening with discussions hosted by Goldsmiths Historian Dr John Price and by Deptford Dub Club’s very own Soft Wax.

For full information and timetable follow visit – www.gold.ac.uk/calendar/?id=10196

Michael Danby

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