THE BATTLE of Lewisham, which took place 25 years ago this month, was a decisive turning point in the fight against the Nazis in Britain. On 13 August 1977 over 10,000 people-black and white, old and young, women and men-joined together to physically confront the Nazis and stop them from marching. The battle showed how the Nazis could be driven off the streets and it marked the beginning of a mass campaign to smash the Nazis.
The Nazi National Front (NF) wanted to march through the racially mixed area of Lewisham in south London to demonstrate their power. In the 1970s the NF had grown from a tiny fascist organisation to threaten to overtake the Liberals as the third party in British politics. The Nazis were able to feed off people’s disillusionment with the then Labour government. Workers’ wages had been slashed by 7 percent and unemployment had reached what was then a record 1.6 million.
In 1976 in a by-election in West Bromwich the NF candidate Martin Webster had got 16.2 percent of the vote. In May 1977 the Nazis had gained 119,000 votes in the elections to the Greater London Council-more than the Liberals. In some areas the NF gained over a fifth of the vote.
The Nazis were given confidence by a vicious racist campaign by politicians and the media during 1976, against 250 Asians who had been kicked out of Malawi in Africa. This witch-hunt encouraged the Nazis. At least four Asians were murdered in east London by white gangs in the following two years. The Nazis wanted to harden up their electoral support and whip up a climate of fear against black and Asian people. In the weeks leading up to 13 August the Nazis attacked a series of black and left wing meetings.
They threw deadly weedkiller into a woman’s face as she attended a street meeting of the black defence group the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee. The group was set up after 21 black youths were arrested in what the police called Operation Police Nigger Hunt. On 13 August there were two counter-demonstrations against the NF march. The first was called by the Lewisham Campaign Against Racism. This included various dignitaries, trade union officials and the local bishop. The demonstration assembled two hours before the Nazis were due to meet, and on the other side of Lewisham.
The organisers agreed with police instructions to disband the march well away from the Nazis’ meeting point. Leaders of the Communist Party, then a much bigger force, also ordered their members to keep away from the Nazis’ assembly point. This would have left the Nazis free to march and to gain even more confidence for future attacks.
Socialist Workers Party members, along with the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee, argued that people should block the NF march. This strategy drew on the battles against the fascists in the 1930s that had culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. Then demonstrators physically prevented the Nazis from marching. The second demonstration assembled at Clifton Rise, where the Nazis were due to meet.
Some 5,000 people from outside the area united with a similar number of local people to confront the Nazis. Many of those on the first march came to join the confrontation. There were so many people blocking the streets that the NF marchers could not assemble in Clifton Rise. Instead they were forced into a miserable backstreet, protected by thousands of police.
The counter-demo was a wonderful example of black and white unity. Socialist writer Dave Widgery later described the scene: ‘As the police prepared their charge, an Afro-Caribbean woman who had been watching from the top floor of her home hoisted her hi-fi speaker onto her windowsill. It was playing Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. Almost directly opposite her a Cypriot woman replied with a clenched-fist salute from the first floor of her boarded-up kebab and chip shop. Two minutes later an officer with a megaphone read an order to disperse. No one did.’
The police defended the Nazis. They were allowed through police cordons if they showed their NF membership cards. By contrast the police tested new methods of crowd control by indiscriminately attacking and breaking up lines of anti-Nazi protesters. But instead of running away, anti-Nazi demonstrators fought back and threw sticks and smoke-bombs over the police and into the Nazi marchers. Protesters continually blocked the Nazis as they tried to march through the backstreets.
On at least two occasions protesters broke through police lines and seized and burned Nazi banners. The Nazis were routed. After crawling round the backstreets the NF eventually had to disperse with less than half their route completed. When this news reached the anti-Nazi protesters a huge cry of ‘We stopped the Front’ rang out.
‘THE NAZI Front got the hammering of their lives on Saturday. Black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14 year olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists-all joined in against the Nazis.
The leaders of the Nazis want to build a mass movement based on widespread racial prejudice so as to take command of the streets. They believe they would then be able to attack, burn out and murder black people and trade unionists at will. They have been foiled.’
SOCIALIST WORKER, 20 August 1977
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