Build up to the Anti-Nazi League carnival 1978


I was at school with the son of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boss Len Murray and together with a mate of mine, Mark, and some other kids, we all went down to the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978. It now seems like an epoch ago but was an incredibly exciting day.

The extreme-Right National Front had been gaining ground on the streets and in terms of votes in London. Since the mid-70s, the economy had been on a downward slide, the mainstream parties were failing to inspire young people and racism was being fuelled by sections of the media. It was a perfect storm for the neo-Nazis.

Even in my school in the east London suburbs, there were individuals who felt empowered to be openly racist. One pupil, who had been a mate of mine a year or two earlier, joined the British Movement. The target of their hate, where we lived, were Jewish and Asian people.

This documentary from the time gives a real flavour of how a movement arose through the Labour Party, trade unions and pressure groups to push back against the NF and the purveyors of race hate.

The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978 – a story of racism in Tower Hamlets 40 years ago


In 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park.  The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.

Altab Ali Met Police AppealBut who exactly was Altab Ali?

Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall.  They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.

However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community.  Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.

If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End.  Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.

This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen.  To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.

It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which.  The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.

On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers.  What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans.  For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.

The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane.  Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance.  None came.  Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.

The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.

On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks.  Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries.  Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.

September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects.  The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.

In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers.  For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.

 

Fascist infiltration of schools in the late 70s – NF attempts to recruit children


There’s increasing concern about neo-fascist infiltration of school playgrounds today – so it’s worth having a quick glance back to what the situation was like in the late 70s and early 80s when neo-Nazis were very active among school pupils.

Football terraces were recruitment grounds for the extreme right but schools were another arena of activity.  In one report, there was a quote from a fascist group:

We welcome young people. We make or break them. Many are coming to us with the rise in unemployment. Skinheads are prime material – raw and aggressive. They need an identity. The whole point of getting children is to indoctrinate them. We are building a Nazi society through the youth of today.

Chilling stuff. The British Movement and National Front were particularly active. I recall one pupil from my school returning from a BM conference (from memory in Brussels in 1980) replete with skinhead cut and a perma-snarl. He walked up to me in the school library and informed me that I was a “pinko…leftie…etc”.

John Tyndall, chairman of the NF in the 70s said that “until children reach an age at which they are able to determine their own values, some sort of values have to be instilled into them”. According to the 1974 NF manifesto, schools were to be segregated on the basis of race and liberal studies – or “academic Marxism” as they called it – would be banned.

National Front
The NF campaigned against individual teachers

The NF’s youth wing took over the magazine Bulldog and that became its main recruiting tool in schools. It included a campaign to remove “red teachers” from the classroom.

They sometimes found themselves competing with other far right groups like Viking Youth, led by Paul Jarvis – who was also looking for recruits in the Scout movement! The BM produced a publication called Fact Finder, which included a “Lie Detector”. According to this, the heroes of the Nuremburg Trials were those on trial! Needless to say, holocaust denial featured highly.

Reported incidents in 1980/81 included:

  • May 1980 – black pupils at a Camden school attacked by skinheads from the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom
  • October 1980 – BM recruiting at schools in Dartford, Kent
  • October 1980 – Young National Front campaign against a teacher at a Dover school
  • February 1981 – Manchester school daubed with swastikas and NF symbols
  • March 1981 – 33 pupils, mostly Asian, leave a classroom at a Birmingham school before a fire-bomb explosion – racist attack suspected
National Front
Publications promoting multiculturalism were lambasted by the fascists – this from the NF magazine Spearhead

When Shoreditch was fascist territory


National Front leafletEven in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story.  Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.

National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti.  And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.

In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 40.

Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.

 

The police with dustbin lids and traffic cones versus rioters


In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s. The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. Looking back now – with our police having access to very sophisticated protection – it does look rather incongruous.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that prepared the ground for a police force with more riot equipment.

Battle of Lewisham

80s bands that toyed with Nazi-era references – but weren’t Nazis


hitler youth
Hitler Youth – not New Romantics

Punk and its aftermath was all about transgression – embracing things that shocked or violated normal codes of behaviour.

And just three to four decades after World War II, you could always rely on employing Nazi references to shock and disgust public opinion.

Whether it was Sid Vicious wandering around off his head with a Nazi emblem or bands adopting names that related to the Third Reich – anything to do with Hitler still touched a very raw nerve.

There was also an embarrassed fascination for Nazi style and art. Far from being seen as vulgar, philistine and oppressive – the fascist aesthetic was viewed as stirring and provocative by people whose political views might actually be quite liberal or left-wing.

So, you had the band Joy Division – naming itself after the sex slavery wing of Hitlerite concentration camps. Heavy metal bands were never shy about using the Iron Cross or stylised eagles. Artists might casually praise the buildings or films of that era. And David Bowie’s wave to fans was characterised by some as a fascist salute – vehemently denied by the man himself.

When one New Romantic band decided to call itself Spandau Ballet, that sent a journalist at the Record Mirror into a spin:

Unfortunately, the element of this project which I find disturbing, threatening and worthy of debate lies not in the music itself, but in the premise upon which our young warriors have erected their grandiose musical/lyrical edifice.

The journo went on to note that the album was white-on-white with a muscular naked form.  And the scribbler was rattled by a quote inside the record sleeve – “…the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes…stirring vision….journeys to glory…”

The Record Mirror fumed that this linked Spandau Ballet to an ‘Aryan Youth ideal’ reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.  The review then went on to make it clear there was no linkage to far right groups being suggested just a deep sense of unease.

The journalist suggested to readers that they play ‘Muscle Bound’ back to back with ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ from the movie Cabaret and observe how the ‘mood’ is the same.

“Tread very carefully for all our sakes,” the magazine warned the band.