Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The boots of history - an 'anti-sexist' response to the 'Battle of Lewisham' 1977

An interesting online archive has recently been assembled from the 1970s/early 80s libertarian Marxist group East London Big Flame. Feminism was a big influence on the group, including the men within it, some of whom were involved in establishing the magazine/group 'Achilles Heel: for a men's anti-sexist politics'. The site includes a special issue of the magazine (no.5) on the theme of 'masculinity and violence'. One of the articles in it is a personal account of the 1977 anti-National Front demonstration in New Cross, sometimes referred to as 'the Battle of Lewisham'

Published a little while after the events (the magazine isn't dated, but believe it was published in 1979/80), it's interesting because the author, Andy Metcalf, uses his experience to reflect on the wider issues of political violence and masculinity.

Thank God I Remembered my Boots! by Andy Metcalf (Achilles Heel, no.5)

I drove the car fast up the outside lane into New Cross, looking for a place to park. I was late for the demo, and it looked like being a big one. Up at the junction, nothing much had happened yet: the big crowd blocked the road causing a traffic jam; on the speakers’ stand, Darcus Howe was winding the temperature up . . . “The black community will not allow the National Front to mount these sort of provocative actions - make no mistake about that." As he finished, the chant roared out: “The National Front is a Nazi Front. Smash the National Front." I looked at the punters in their cars; they just wanted to get home for Grandstand, that's all. But this was our reality, not theirs, and for once they were trapped in it.

Near the crash barriers, where the road divides, I asked a black guy if he knew where the Front was. He didn't know but showed me his preparation - a long steel chain wound round his waist. There was going to be some heavy action going down this afternoon.  Later, much later, a man ran down New Cross Road, shouting, “They're lining up to march through.” I couldn't see a thing. Another false alarm probably. Suddenly a mass of police appeared a hundred yards away. “Block the road — form a line."

Christ, where is everyone? They look as if they've got the whole force out for this. Nobody's getting it together — who’s meant to be co-ordinating this anyway? They’re going to march them right through us. “Link arms." Who said that? Was that my voice? Shit, I'm in the front row . . . a woman to my left, man to my right. We look so small. Still, zip up the jacket, no loose clothes; check boot laces and hold on tight. One figure in blue advances:

“This is a lawful march. Disperse from obstructing the road at once. This is your last warning — if, you do not disperse, the police horses will he sent in.” The riders leant into their charges, shouldering them forward. The horses, high stepping all the way, accelerated as they came close to us. One moment it was link arms, the next I was knocked sideways by a horse breaking our line. Its massive chestnut thigh, rich with a thick gloss and wider than a man's frame, surged past my me; It was big, animal, and unpredictable. And I discovered, when I found myself on the pavement panting, it had just STOOD ON MY FOOT. The leather had a fresh gouge, the imprint of a hoof, taken out of it. Thank God l remembered to wear my boots.

Political violence is a serious issue; it's been at the heart of much debate between socialists for along time; reform or revolution, armed struggle or peaceful road, Allende or Ho Chi Minh. But the discussion has echoes beyond that of strategy. The gestures, the tones, the postures, all imply the choice is between milk and water suburban-safe reform and red-blooded steel-hearted revolution. If you’re man enough, revolution is the road for you. A host of masculine meanings attends the debate. But, like gate-crashers at a private function, they are acknowledged but never directly addressed. 

All too often, what has been lost in this little world, is the sense that whether you like it or not, politics is about violence.  At its core, a political practice revolves around the control and authority of ruling groups and the rebellion and revolt of subordinate ones. Oppression will always engender revolt. And those who have chosen the “peaceful road” may well find  themselves on a battlefield, with the rhetoric of violence, but with none of its tools. There is a photograph of Allende on the last day of his Presidency. All his efforts to appease the Chilean Military had come to nought. He had let the army crush dissent within its own ranks, disarm militant workers, and prepare for a coup, and still they wanted to overthrow him. He is entering the Moneda Palace for the last time, surrounded by a few young men - his bodyguards. On his head, a steel helmet, and strapped to his waist, a leather hand gun holster. Not really enough against tanks, artillery, Hunter jets, and a battalion or two of assault troops. But at least he died like a man. Precisely, exactly, like a man.

After the horses, in trooped the marchers, dwarfed by their police escort. And with the Front’s appearance came the rocks, half bricks and pieces of timber from the other side of the road. The marchers, crouching under this hail, holding bleeding heads, looked thin and rneanly fed. Terrified, they scuttled along, shying away from the brick throwers, so that they were only three or four yards away from us. All the while, the chanting poured down on them: “Fascist scum! Smash the National Front!”

Could this ragged crew be the principal threat to life, liberty, and multi-racialism? Next to rne a gangling white man had his own private message: “See, see, see how it feels." He screamed. “How do you like that, eh? Hurts, doesn’t it? How do you like a taste of your own medicine. Next time you go round beating up Asians, you'll know how it feels, won't you.” This was it. Vengeance is mine. I reached down for a brick. The NF were only spitting distance away.

It must have been 1969-70. The union meeting was packed eight or nine hundred people. I could hardly see her from the back. A small woman with black hair; the Representative of the People's Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. She spoke quietly and in Vietnamese, translated by a man. Outlining the present stage of the struggle and the PRG’s platform, her words absolutely lacked any rhetoric. The hall was quiet, but here and there little eddies of disquiet spun up, searching for some inspirational phrase to latch on to.

Against the pulp of my finger tips, the brick had a rough grainy feel. A scurry of movement caught my eye as three policemen banged through the crowd to pounce on a man a few yards away. Arm lock, knee in the nuts, and they were gone with him. Shitting hell — they’ve got snatch squads out. It's getting more like Belfast every day. My fingers held the brick, my eyes watched the Front, my mouth shouted, but my arm wouldn't throw. They were close, so close. I put it down. Picked it up after a moment, and then put it down again. OK. So I chickened out. I could have thrown it but I didn't. I was scared, sure. But couldn't overcome the fear. They were just too close. And a police horse had just trodden on my foot.

Zing sing, like ice along the veins, the stream of clarity poured out of his mouth. Our power, the hot beauty of its crystalline analysis. History in his hands. Hands pounding, fingers jabbing; he stood at the rostrum, denouncing police harassment, decrying a state within a slate. He pulled this thin thread of thought from clenched teeth and concluded: “comrades, we must never forget that the state will inevitably block the transition to socialism with all the violence at its disposal.” It stirred: it was right.

Outside, a big sky dwarfing the street, I felt confused. Riots may come and riots may go, but the labour movement remains silent. Demonstrations are met with bullets in Derry, but parade through London in ritual peace. The police intelligence computers whirl on untroubled by socialist activity. There was something missing . . . was it an AK47 machine gun under the stairs or a sense of myself?

In this confusion words take on different meanings. Political violence can never only be a question of political strategy. Between head and hand there can be an echoing void, that no amount of theoretical debate will fill. Into such hollows, the rhetoric of the left swirls and buffets, but leaves unmoved a strange gallery of scenes. Family tableaus of anger and authority; the corridor outside and duty master's office; father carves the Sunday joint, his sons finger their knives; the brotherhood of playground rites.

I've kept the boots. I'm very fond of them. You can still see the mark on the side of them. I'm convinced it's the mark of history.

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