By Dr Daniel Jones, Searchlight Archivist
A recent donation to the Searchlight Archive was a fascinating magazine that examines the photo journalism around the protests in Lewisham in August 1977. This was a timely donation, coming into the archive at the start of Black History Month. Produced by the Half Moon Photography Workshop as a special issue of their Camerawork magazine, Lewisham: What Are You Taking Pictures For? not only helps us understand the past but also why it is important that we not only study diverse history but also access diverse sources.
Dubbed the ‘Battle of Lewisham’, the events of 13 August 1977 hit national headlines after over 200 anti-fascist protestors were arrested after clashes with police. To put this into context, this is over double the number of people arrested at the infamous Battle of Cable Street in 1936, a foundational myth of anti-fascism that I have written about previously. So what was the Battle of Lewisham, and why is it important for us to study and remember it? How does its understanding, and the understanding of the coverage, help us?
The story of the Battle of Lewisham starts long before the events of that August. It is important to know that Lewisham was an area of strength for the National Front – it secured 1000 votes in February 1974’s election, increasing to over 1100 in the October. By 1976, in a by-election for the Borough’s Deptford ward, the nationalist parties were only denied a seat on the council due to the split of their vote between the National Front and its splinter National Party, who had together scored more votes than the winning Labour candidate. Their campaigns targeted the Black and Asian communities, urging repatriation of non-White residents and seeking to exclude these communities from the British identity. More than that, their campaigns through the late 1960s and 1970s, building on older claims, presented Black people in particular as a direct and physical threat to White society.
It was with this backdrop that, in May of 1977, police raided several homes and arrested 21 young Black people. All 21 were charged with involvement in recent muggings in the area, and the Metropolitan Police Service even went so far as to claim they were a gang responsible for a majority of street crime in South London for that year so far. Believing this to be a case of racial profiling, and citing allegations of police heavy handedness, the local community formed a defence committee to help fundraise and provide support to the Lewisham 21 – including organising protests to raise awareness of the case. These protests drew their own counter protests from the National Front, sparking conflict.
The National Front were keen to exploit these tensions and called a protest march for 13 August, to meet at New Cross and to march into Lewisham town centre. In response to this and to support the local Black community, anti-fascist groups called for counter protests, though many of the activists for this came in from outside the area. Around 500 National Front supporters answered the call to attend the march, opposed by several thousand anti-fascists. As the National Front arrived at their assembly point, carrying their banners of “Stop the Muggers”, they found it already the scene of clashes. Though the main counter-demonstration organisers had agreed to stop short of the assembly point, some elements of the protest disagreed and decided to try and occupy the assembly point and block the march. This led to clashes with police as they tried to force the protestors back.
Though the National Front was able to begin their march, anti-fascists again broke police lines and this time they managed to split the National Front in two. In response, the police diverted the march and began actively dispersing the anti-fascists, arresting those that resisted. As mentioned over 200 anti-fascists were arrested at the day, with around 40 of them – according to Nigel Copsey – being from the local community. This is one of the aspects of the Battle of Lewisham that is most interesting, that though the struggles of the local non-white communities against the National Front had been long running, it was only with the eruption of this into violence and the involvement of those outside the community that it pressed into public awareness.
It is on the representation of this violence that the recent donation, Lewisham: What are you taking pictures for? by Camerawork, focuses. It examines how newspaper coverage of Lewisham focused on the violence against the police, rather than on the causes of the demonstration or indeed violence between the demonstrators. While almost all newspapers carried pictures in the two days after Lewisham of injured policemen and half showed pictures of seized weapons, only four showed the demonstrators, only three showed injured bystanders and only one showed the National Front attacking the anti-fascist demonstrators.
The piece also shows other photos of the march that were not carried by the papers – of police horse charges into demonstrators, of black protestors being carried away by several policemen, and of police baton charges against the protestors while the National Front throw Nazi salutes in the foreground. Along with a failure of the national press to print Tyndall’s speech in full, which Camerawork did and which they said showed his racist and aggressive intent, it shows how traditional authoritative sources give a biased view of the coverage that strip away much of the context of the event.
The Battle of Lewisham is a fascinating piece of history, one which plays an important and often overlooked role in opposing racist politics. It came as the Socialist Workers Party, who were involved in many of the conflict points in Lewisham, brought together various groups to form the united front Anti-Nazi League organisation, working with the Trades Union movement and existing anti-fascist groups like magazine Searchlight. Lewisham also came at a time of widespread involvement of Black and Asian communities within the anti-fascist movement, with groups like the Anti-Racist and Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee collating the work done by local anti-racist groups across London and publishing its own journal, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism.
The coverage of events at Lewisham, and the lack of this wider context, show the importance of studying histories beyond the mainstream, and the need for us to be accessing, preserving and sharing material from Black and other diverse communities. The persecution of these communities by, and their struggle against, the National Front and the extreme right took place within a broader context, one which the established institutions had little interest in covering beyond those moments of conflict against state forces. It is only through a diversity of sources, through the use of radical and community material often overlooked and rarely collected at the time, that we can truly begin to understand these events in our history and how these created the Britain that we live in today. Without understanding the history of all communities, their successes and their struggles, that picture of modern Britain will always be incomplete.