Friday, June 27, 2014

Sham 69/Lewisham 77 - punk and (anti) fascism

The riotous anti-National Front demonstration in New Cross and Lewisham in August 1977 has been covered here before (see this chronology of the events). Jon Savage's classic book 'England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock' notes that an image from that day taken by rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky featured on the sleeve of a punk record released in the following month - 'No I Don't Wanna' by Sham 69 (the band's name sadly refers to Hersham in Surrey, not Lewisham). The single - the band's first - was released on Step Forward records, Sham having been signed by Deptford punk Mark Perry (of ATV and Sniffin' Glue zine fame).

Sham went on to have a number of hits including 'If the Kids are United' and 'Hersham Boys'. They had quite a skinhead following, including for a time some racists, and there were fights at their gigs as a result. The band played for 'Rock Against Racism' to try and distance themselves from this.

Savage suggests that the fight against the National Front was a turning point for Punk, in the early stages of which there were some flirtation with swastikas as part of a mostly apolitical shock the elders strategy. In this context, he sees the August '77 events as a watershed: 'The events at Lewisham also helped to break Punk apart under the weight of its own contradictions. In superseding Punk's rhetoric with reality, it showed the apparent lie behind the antinomian heresy: freedom was not in the mind or the imagination, but to be fought for here and now'.

'England's Dreaming' includes an account of the events by Angus McKinnon of the NME, who took part in the anti-fascist mobilisation. He recalls that the fighting started in New Cross, where the NF were assembling to march to Lewisham: 'We were contained up by the New Cross area. The Front was a small march: there must have been about a hundred and fifty of them, all ages... They were eventually escorted onto the man street which goes towards Greenwich, and as they came out, there were mounted police, and things started to get vary scary very quickly. People started picking up bricks and stones. Some of the NF has sticks already, they threw bricks back at us. Someone close by went down with a brick in their face, the police horses came towards us. Police horses are very frightening indeed, the crowd was surging forward and back. Basically the police were saying, you have to clear away, these people are going to march. The crowd got very angry and there was a lot of brick-throwing'.

Later many of the marchers headed to Lewisham town centre. McKinnon remembers that 'There were baton charges, orange smoke everywhere. People throwing things through shop windows... Marchers and police up and down Lewisham High Street, and all over it was this enormous pall of orange smoke, very thick, acrid and very unpleasant. I slipped down the side of the High Street to get away, and then we were stuck, seven or eight of us in a cul de sac at the back of a supermarket by the delivery bay, huddled in absolute terror. Right down the end of the High Street, we were rounded up and put by a police bus to be shunted off. We weren't, only because someone started throwing stones and bricks at the police bus, which withdrew. We were denied the dubious pleasure of being detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for rioting'.

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