Please excuse my pun on the Battle of Lewisham/Hastings Direct, I couldn’t resist.
Growing up in Lewisham and attending a university in Lewisham are two contrasting experiences. For a start, not a lot of Goldsmiths students know about the history of the borough of Lewisham, such as the Crystal Palace in the tip of the Lewisham Borough, and the Battle of Lewisham. However, I did not know about the Battle of Lewisham before I started attending Goldsmiths. Nor did I know about the New Cross Fire. It’s a part of local history that has been kept a secret from the children of the borough, but a history that needs to be celebrated. During the weekend of the 40th anniversary of the Battle, there was a huge celebration hosted by Goldsmiths and the Albany, with the community coming together. There were walks involved, movie screenings, exhibitions, and a plaque unveiled. The community reminisced and celebrated a day that had affected them severely.
The Battle of Lewisham was originally a counter-march against the National Front on the 13th of August in 1977. The NF planned to walk through New Cross and Lewisham, with the protection of the police, as the area was predominantly multicultural and multiethnic. There were 800 NF supporters against ‘vast crowds of counter-protesters’, adding up to 6000 of them from various groups such as All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee, and the Socialist Workers Party, and the end result was a clash between the police, many arrested and many injured.
How did this counter-protest against the National Front end up in a confrontation against the police? What was the role of the different groups in the counter-protest?
Firstly, the ALCARF decided that they would hold a demonstration in the morning of the NF’s afternoon march, to purely ‘publicly demonstrate its opposition’, in an attempt to prevent a ‘showdown with fascists’. This was led by the local people, churches, the Mayor of Lewisham, and other community groups. This peaceful demonstration was not what the SWP agreed with, they held the belief that the fascists had ‘confronted’. Already, this split in how the different organisations wanted to protest against the NF, is a sign of a failure on having a demonstration that avoids an encounter with the police. The peaceful protest had been successful, but it started to fall apart in the afternoon when the NF marched.
The threats of the SWP to confront the NF, and the NF being known for being violent, meant that there was press speculation about the march before it had even started. Already, ‘both sets were deemed to be disturbing British peace’ (from the same link), which went against the Common Values of Police Service, as the police had and have to keep the ‘Queen’s Peace’. The NF were known for being violent, and on video footage of the day there were counter protesters throwing things at the NF, with the counter protesters also starting to push against the police who were protecting the NF. This emergence of violence meant that the police had to attack back the counter protesters. However, this was the first time the police used riot shields to protect themselves against the SWP and others who had tagged along to fight against both the police and the NF. Kevin, who attended the march in ‘77, said that if the police didn’t, it ‘would’ve been another story’, perhaps suggesting that the protest may have been even more violent if the police weren’t protected . This coercive strategy from Porta and Herbert was used against the anti-fascist protesters. Jenny Bourne describes her experience of what the police did to the anti-fascist protesters, the police ‘charged us with the shields.’ and they were constantly in ‘charge mode’. Why did the police do this? Was it to protect the NF, or was it to remove any chance of a race riot? Why did the police only attack the anti-fascist protesters? Schweingruber wrote that violent police tactics were developed that ‘presumed behaviours and characteristics of protesters as defined by mob sociology’, and ‘not just in response to actual demonstrator’s behaviour’, meaning that the police had to act against the protesters in order to avoid further violence that may have continued if the police continued to remain peaceful.
The SWP, along with the NF, were further banned by the council from using their property to prevent further protest and violence.
Here are some photographs from the Battle of Lewisham.
40 years on, and the Battle of Lewisham today is regarded as a defeat against the NF and fascism. It put off the NF from going back to Lewisham, and united a community against a cause that would have harmed them. The celebrations on the weekend of the anniversary were one of remembrance and learning from the past, and using it as a way to move forward. The newly erected plaque on Clifton Rise consists a reminder to the community of what had happened that weekend, and the effect it had on the people of Lewisham, from both the NF side and the anti-fascist side.
all sources are hyper-linked