Thursday, February 27, 2014

White Panthers in SE2 - Abbey Wood and the 1970s counter culture

The White Panther Party was a radical and anti-racist organisation originally established in the Detroit area in 1968 with the aim of bringing together white radicals to act alongside the Black Panther Party. It had its roots in the counter-culture, with one of its founders being John Sinclair - manager of the proto-punk band the MC5. Its ten point programme declared:

  1. Full endorsement and support of the Black Panther Party's 10-point program and platform.
  2. Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and f***ing in the streets.
  3. Free exchange of energy and materials—we demand the end of money!
  4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care—everything free for every body!
  5. Free access to information media—free the technology from the greed creeps!
  6. Free time & space for all humans—dissolve all unnatural boundaries!
  7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule—turn the buildings over to the people at once!
  8. Free all prisoners everywhere—they are our comrades!
  9. Free all soldiers at once—no more conscripted armies!
  10. Free the people from their phony "leaders"—everyone must be a leader—freedom means free every one! All Power to the People!'

Inspired by this example, Mick Farren and others established The White Panther Party UK. Some of its exploits were featured in the International Times, now available in a great online archive. Interestingly, its 'Central Co-ordination Chapter' was based in Abbey Wood, with the address given as 1 Conference Road, SE2. As well as the Abbey Wood chapter (which later became the Greenwich chapter), there were South London groups in Croydon and Bromley.

International Times, 1972

In March 1972, they staged a protest in Woolwich, as reported in IT (24 March 1972): 'On Saturday 11 March approximately 40 members of the White Panther Party- from Abbey Wood, Ilford, West London and Croydon and Bromley Chapters - took to the streets of Woolwich in SE London. The reason was to protest about the distortion and lies that appear in a local paper, the Kentish Independent. Incidents of the day were the surrounding of a police car by angry Panthers, forcing the pig to freak and drive away at high speed, and a visit to the local police station by brothers and sisters where all were ejected by the pigs within five minutes. During the rest of the afternoon the Panthers were followed by plain-clothes pigs. Copies of a handbill distributed on the day—"This paper is an enemy of
the people"—are-available from Abbey Wood Chapter, White Panther Party'

The Abbey Wood group was involved in squatting and ran a food programme, activities that seem to have led plenty of conflict with the police. IT reported on 6 April 1972:

'One of the main functions of the Party is to awaken the people and to teach them strategic methods of resisting the power structure, this has caused Party members/Chapters to come into conflict with the pigs, the principle confrontations being in Glasgow and Abbey Wood (South East London). In Glasgow the Panthers have been hassled by the pigs continuously, mainly due to the effectiveness of their legal-aid programme, which brought legal-aid to the kids on the streets. (Glasgow CID have the Party's 10-Point Programme on their office wall). In Abbey Wood most of the confrontation occurred during a series of squats last year, where on a number of occasions brothers and sisters were violently assaulted and threatened by the pigs. The Party has also done a good deal of community work—trying to provide viable alternatives to the present pig system. Chapters have their own local programmes: in West London, Abbey Wood and (soon) Glasgow, free food programmes operate; Glasgow Panthers have many of the street gangs as members and they recently got a rent strike together in Easterhouse; most Chapters have as part of their local programmes, drug education- pro life drugs like marijuana, hashish, peyote, pure LSD and mescalin, and anti death drugs like phony THC, downers, speed and smack that threaten our nation like a plague'.

A report by John Carding in International Times, issue 142, 17 November 1972, gave further details: 'The White Panther Party is committed individually and organisationally to the struggle of ALL people for liberation and self-determination, by any means necessary, and is prepared to accept whatever consequences that commitment brings… The main thing to be said is that essentially the Party is composed of freaks off the street like anybody else in the community, without any experience of political work except that gained from plunging ahead the best way possible...

Greenwich Branch (ex-Abbey Wood). Weekly free food programme is still operating after two years. Members are involved in local community TV station, Cablevision, and in the formation of a 24 hour Advice Centre in the near future. Croydon and Bromley Branch: Involved mainly with squatting activity at the moment, which has brought them into conflict with the local pigs. All of the London Branches have been participating in the formation of a self-defence programme'.

I have come across one issue of 'Chapter?', a magazine produced by the Abbey Wood White Panthers, seemingly in 1971. It's a remarkable 60 page zine with articles on a wide range of movements including the Gay Liberation Front, People not Psychiatry, the Black Unity and Freedom Party, the Schools Action Union and more. 

In terms of local activities they were clearly very busy. An article on the free food programmes describes twice weekly deliveries to 60 old people on Abbey Wood and Thamesmead estates, as well as a Christmas visit to Bexley Psychiatric Hospital. The article was written by Stephen Lemanowicz, grandly titled 'Minister of Welfare, Abbey Wood Chapter'.

Other Abbey Wood committee members included John Carding (Co-ordinator), Bob Brown, Ray Carne and Tom X. At this time there address was 18 Openshaw Road, SE2

They had arts and drama/street theatre groups that met at St Michael's Church Hall in Abbey Wood Road. They were involved in organising a Schools Liberation Front with pupils from Abbey Wood, Roan Boys, Crown Woods, Bloomfield and Picardy Schools, and their squatting activities included briefly occupying an empty building at 55 Raglan Road in Woolwich - reported in local press as 'hippies struggle with police in Plumsted eviction scene'. Several member were also arrested fly posting the footbridge on Bostal Manor Way.

Their social HQ seems to have been the (now demolished) Harrow Inn in Abbey Wood 'where yer local Panthers hang out'. There was a Deja Vu club there with 'live groups every Friday' and 'Head Disco Show' on Sundays.

The Harrow Inn was where the White Panthers put on some benefit gigs, including underground legends Hawkwind and Pink Fairies on 12 February 1971 - packed with 700 people - and Clarke/Hutchinson and Mighty Baby in April 1971

This sympathetic report of one of the gigs at Harrow Inn (seemingly from local paper, but can't find details) mentions that Clark/Hutchison were also supported by The Blackheath Foot and Death Men, 'a crowd of Hells Angels and Hippies from the Blackheath area' who enjoyed morris dancing and drinking. They still exist today as the Blackheath Morris Men.

Image below comes from article about White Panthers in International Times no.127, 6 April 1972 - it seems to have been taken on Plumstead High Street, corner of Riverdale Road - compare with picture below of scene today, police station has been rebuilt but houses opposite largely unchanged. John Carding, who wrote this article in IT, is the guy with round glasses.

Further update, 8 October 2021:

Courtesy of Richard Alexander on facebook we now have some images from issue number two of Chapter! (now with exclamation mark rather than question mark), seemingly from early 1972. The fine front cover photo shows members of the group with the Viet Cong flag flying outside their squat. Inside there is a detailed account of their squatting which states that they had a White Panther commune at 1 Conduit Street, Woolwich/Plumstead SE18 'with about 15 sister and brothers'. Running out of space they opened a second commune house at Griffen Road, Plumstead before moving on to Ennis Road and then a squattted 'mansion' in Burrage Road, and on to Plum Lane with various eviction dramas along the way. A quick google maps search shows that the cover photo was taken at Conduit Road SE18, the house still standing.

Left to right: Sean O'Brien, Keith Bailey, Ray Carne, Rob Wilton and John Carding

Conduit Road today

From Chapter no. 2 (1972) - thanks to various bands for playing benefits for White Panthers, in addition to those mentioned above this includes Steve Peregrine Took (founder member of T.Rex with Marc Bolan), Brinsley Schwarz (who played at the Harrow Inn) and the White Panther Street Band.

Would love to hear any memories/stories about this scene...

(interestingly Pink Floyd played a free concert in Abbey Wood park in 1967)




. said...

I know, interesting to see where they operated - we are so used to a geography of radical politics centred around inner London (Brixton, Hackney), unusual for a group to be have its main branches in places like Abbey Wood and Ilford,maybe they really did have a different social composition to usual. I still pretty much subscribe to the ten point programme!

Unknown said...

Hi - Hope you don't mind me contacting you again about this article. Do you have a clearer image of the Kentish Independent leaflet? I'd like to find the articles in the Bexley newspaper archive that they reference but I can't read the dates in the image clearly - thanks

. said...

Sorry Nick, I don't have a better image, I found that low-res image online- think someone was selling it. I think it's a parody of local paper, so would be surprized if its Bexley archive. But you might found some contemporary reports from checking dates around time of IT archives. Would love to know more about this episode.

Ruinist said...
Chapter, mag of Abbey Wood White Panthers

Unknown said...

That image looks like outside the old Plumstead Police Station which is on the site of the now much larger Police Station.