THE MURDER of Stephen Lawrence in April in south-east London was the fourth such racial murder in the area in three years. This was the area where the fascist British National Party (BNP) had their headquarters.
Stephen’s murder in Eltham – he was stabbed twice: once through the shoulder and then through the heart – was completely unprovoked.
In 1992, 16-year old Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in the same road where Stephen Lawrence was killed. Between August 1990, and May 1991, 863 incidents of racist attacks and harassment were reported to the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks. Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) demanded the closure of the BNP’s “bookshop”, effectively its headquarters.
The emphasis which Militant gave to the YRE came from below, with John Bulaitus, London Militant organiser, particularly in favour of this initiative. The YRE initiated the call for a mass demonstration on 8 May, the aim of which was to close the fascist headquarters. This demand was aimed in particular at the Tory Bexley council which had refused to accede to the pressure that had been exerted against them prior to Lawrence’s murder.
The 8 May demonstration was the largest anti-racist mobilisation for a decade – more than 8,000 marched. Significantly, it mobilised a wide layer of black youth who marched together with white workers and youth against the fascist headquarters. The police assaulted the demonstrators, attempting to create the impression of a riotous, uncontrolled “mob”.
The demonstration was, however, very well disciplined and effectively stewarded by the YRE. It was this which prevented serious injuries, possibly including death, being inflicted by the police who ran riot. This was a ploy to prevent big demonstrations against the BNP.
The Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) refused to participate in a joint demonstration in Welling, preferring to march on the same day, totally ineffectively, through central London. The Anti-Nazi League, controlled by the SWP, also refused to join in a united non-sectarian demonstration.
They held a demonstration one week after the massive and successful 8 May demonstration. It attracted no more than 2,000 people with just a sprinkling of blacks.
Militant Labour was also to the fore in the campaign for the release of Winston Silcott, falsely convicted following the Tottenham riots. It was estimated that up to 700 people may be locked away for crimes they did not commit.
One of these was 22-year old Oliver Campbell was serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. This was one of the most blatant examples of the perversion of so-called “British justice”. Others included the M25 Three, who were serving life sentences for murders that they did not, and could not have committed.
In all three cases, the victims were black. This was just one of the aspects of racism in Britain which had assumed heightened importance in the course of 1993.
Despite the magnificent 8,000 strong demonstration on 8 May outside the BNP’s headquarters in Welling, it had not yet closed. An unprecedented degree of pressure had been exerted on councillors – a Liberal councillor reported receiving 100 letters and phone calls from local people who wanted to get rid of the BNP.
The Bexley Tory council, however, remained unmoved. Therefore, the idea of another demonstration to be organised late in 1993 had begun to gain support. To discuss the next steps all the anti-racist organisations – the YRE, ARA, the ANL, together with organisations like the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) – had been brought together under the banner of the Stephen Lawrence family to discuss the next stage of the campaign.
At the first meeting of this committee, the YRE representatives proposed a national unity demo to pass the BNP headquarters on 16 October. In response to this ARA representatives proposed a march through central London instead, which was later supported by the ANL representative.
The YRE had no intention of organising a demo in competition to one organised by ARA and Stephen Lawrence’s family. In the interests of unity, the YRE proposed organising a Bexley demo at a later date to avoid conflict with ARA’s central London initiative. This was despite the fact that the YRE believed that a demonstration through central London would be seen as missing the target. However, at the campaign’s next meeting, the ANL did a complete somersault.
Without any discussion or consultation, their representatives announced they would be marching to the BNP HQ on the 16 October. Leaflets and posters had been produced and transport already booked. The YRE argued for unity. They asked ARA to reconsider and met with the ANL and tried to persuade them to change the date of their demo. Both groups refused to change their minds. We declared:
In announcing its demo as a virtual fait accompli, the ANL and its Socialist Workers’ Party backers have yet again acted in their own interests and not for the unity of the anti-racist movement. Faced with the flat refusal to reorganise their demo on a later date and given that the key task is to close down the BNP, Militant Labour believes anti-racists and anti-fascists should mobilise for a mass turnout on the Bexley demo.(1)
Beackon elected in Millwall
In September the fascist British National Party (BNP) secured a by-election victory in the Millwall ward in Tower Hamlets. This acted like a crack of thunder to waken youth and workers into action.
Even Transport and General Workers’ Union leader Bill Morris called for the TUC to organise a demonstration against racism and fascism. The victory of the BNP resulted from years of neglect by right-wing Labour in the area, a refusal to follow the Liverpool and Lambeth road and not carry out Tory cuts.
Racism had then been fuelled by the scandalous actions of the Liberal-dominated Tower Hamlets council, which had blatantly issued racist leaflets as a means of holding on to control in the area. A few days before Beackon’s election there was the cowardly racist attack on a young Asian, Quddus Ali, in Tower Hamlets.
He was left critically ill and with brain damage. This naturally triggered outrage. A vigil was called outside London Hospital where Quddus was fighting for his life. It was attended by over 1,000 predominantly Asian youth. Unprovoked, the police attacked the demonstration, with one observer commenting:
I have been on picket lines at Wapping, the miners’ strike and the YRE demo in Welling this year, but I have never seen the police ‘wade in’ in such an indiscriminate way. (2)
Unfortunately, there had not been effective stewarding on the vigil. It was not the YRE but the ANL which had called this vigil. Council workers immediately walked out when the BNP victory was announced. Two hundred out of a total staff of 600 attended an emergency meeting convened by stewards the day after the election result.
Phil Maxwell, a Tower Hamlets Labour councillor, called for a complete boycott of Beackon, the new BNP councillor. The election results also galvanised the YRE into organising the youth against BNP paper sellers in Brick Lane. On Sunday 19 September, 100 YRE members occupied the space in Bethnal Green Road where the BNP usually sold. At about nine o’clock some six or seven fascists turned up and started baiting the anti-fascists. They waved a Union Jack and shouted fascist chants.
The police protected the Nazis, letting them take photos of anti-Nazis. The fascists attempted to provoke a confrontation. After about an hour 200-300 anti-fascists from the YRE, the ANL and other local people assembled. Then the so-called “toughs” of Combat 18 ran for their lives as the anti-fascists and anti-racists tore through the police lines to get at them. In a diversionary movement, YRE members took action:
to infiltrate the BNP… [we] started singing Rule Britannia and walked into their contingent of about 30. As we came in one fascist in a green shirt said: “Hello lads, well done.” The anti-racists across the road were chanting “Nazi scum” at us!
We were now in the middle of the contingent. We just screamed “yes” and only one Nazi stood his ground. Edmonds [the fascists’ deputy leader, subsequently jailed for “bottling” a young black worker] ran for his life, his lip quivering. His minder, a fat skinhead with tattoos on his forehead was running as well. (3)
The victory in Brick Lane gave a further spur to the campaign against the BNP. Over 1,000 demonstrators turned up on 26 September and the BNP never arrived in Brick Lane for their usual paper sale.
It was subsequently revealed that 50 Nazis were arrested on the way to the sale. The fact that the police intervened in this way was itself a reflection of the highly successful campaign launched by the anti-racists and anti-fascists. This campaign was reaching out to all layers of the community, including football supporters. After a Leyton Orient match, for instance, a Militant Labour member was threatened by a group of BNP fascists in a pub.
Determined action by the YRE locally, alongside other football clubs in London, put the racists and fascists on the defensive. On 3 October a 3,000 strong anti-racist anti-fascist demonstration, with a large and very vocal contingent from the local Asian community, marched through London’s East End. The demonstration had been initiated by Youth Connection representing Asian youth. The YRE took the issues of racism and fascism into all those arenas in which youth were active.
In October an album, By Any Means Necessary, was produced with a number of top bands donating tracks. The record had been initiated by YRE sympathisers and members in Liverpool where some of the top bands had played at a successful anti-racist festival on August Bank Holiday, attended by 20,000 young people.
16 October in Welling
All of this culminated, on 16 October, in the magnificent anti-racist demonstration of 50,000 which streamed through the streets of Welling in a determined attempt to shut down the Nazi headquarters. This action ranks alongside some of the great anti-fascist, anti-racist demonstrations of the past such as Cable Street, the march through Deptford in the 1970s and the earlier 8 May demonstration.
The demonstration was called under the banner of “Unity”, symbolising unified action by the main anti-racist, anti-fascist organisations. The demo was led by the “Unity” banner and behind it Leon Greenman, survivor of the Holocaust together with relatives of those murdered by the racists and fascists. But as the 50,000 demonstrators were assembling, the outline of future trouble was symbolised by the horses and riot police who lined the hills, “like a scene from a modern-day cowboy film. At every side road barriers, police vans and riot police fill the streets.”4
There had been intense discussion about the route between the organisers of the demonstration and the police in the days leading up to the demo. The YRE members in the meetings of stewards and the organising committee beforehand had warned that the police were likely to wade in. Therefore, measures had to be taken to safeguard the demonstration.
The YRE argued for proper stewarding, with organised and identifiable stewards and for a system of communications so that stewards could be in radio contact. The ANL/SWP leaders ridiculed this idea as a “Dad’s Army” tactic. Incredibly, they even argued that the stewards’ bibs and walkie-talkies looked militaristic and “intimidating”.
In opposition to police armed to the teeth, with riot shields and on horses, they argued for a sit-down and a policy of allowing the demo to “defend itself”. But for the enormous courage of the stewards, led by the YRE and joined by ordinary demonstrators and some courageous rank-and-file members of the SWP/ANL, disaster could have followed the predictable police attack.
The police’s tactics in the run-up to the demonstration were quite simple: “Predict trouble in advance and we’ll get away with anything on the day.” (5)
They claimed that 2,000 hardened “extremists” were hell-bent on violence. Stories about a small minority ready to attack the BNP headquarters and burn it down were disseminated by Condon, chief of police for the Met. As the march continued to the junction of Upper Wickham Lane and Lodge Hill, the marchers were confronted with an amazing situation.
Every road was blocked by police, riot police with shields and batons. No attempt was made to direct the march up Lodge Hill (the police’s preferred route). Instead, horses and police lined up facing the demo across the entrance to Lodge Hill. The road to the BNP bunker was full of riot police but unlike every other road there were no barriers.
It was clear that this was because the riot police on horseback would be able to charge the demonstrators without having to move steel barriers. As the demonstration halted, riot police charged into the crowd. One steward from Glasgow commented:
I came face to face with the police and many of them had ripped off the identification numbers on their arms. I soon saw why. The police charged the demonstration and many people were crushed up against the railings. People were running in panic away from the blows of the police.
One person fell, then another on top of them, then another. Soon there were piles of bodies on the floor. People were shouting: “Get us out” and “We can’t breathe”. I shouted at the police: “Get back. People are going to get killed here.”
They just waded in. We were pulling people out and passing them on to safety. Some of them were really close to asphyxiation – our stewards saved lives. While all this was going on, the police were still charging, batoning people, climbing over bodies to get to the people behind us.6
It was clear the police were following the script written by their Tory masters whose aim was to simply portray the march as “violent left-wing fascists”.
Eventually, YRE chief stewards managed to negotiate with the chief of the riot police to withdraw his troops 30-40 yards away to stop any more conflict.
All the stewards then linked arms to ensure the demo was defended. Many ANL members worked hand in hand with YRE stewards. Julie Waterson, the demo’s chief steward, was on the front line with YRE stewards until she got battoned by the police, but there were no ANL leaders to be seen after this.
It was left to the YRE stewards to attempt to defend the demonstration and negotiate with the police to withdraw their forces. The bulk of the demonstration was looking for a lead and it was only the YRE stewards who had any idea of how to diffuse the situation and to ensure the safety of those marching.
Only the heroism of the stewards, with the YRE giving the main lead, women as well as men, made it possible through tight organisational discipline to stop the police from going on a full-scale rampage. At the end of the demonstration, when the marchers were dispersed, then the police, particularly the riot police, attacked in a cowardly fashion from behind.
Many lessons were learnt on that day. It was clear that Militant Labour and YRE members were the only ones who had any serious idea of how to steward such demos.
Socialist Workers’ Party members had ridiculed their serious approach to stewarding and on the day stewards were harangued by SWP members because they were asked to take the “lollipops” (ANL placards) to the back by the Bengali youth who resented the approach of the ANL/SWP.
Nevertheless in the wake of the demonstration Militant called for a “united front of all anti-racist organisations with the trade union and labour movement involved.” This “would push the fascists back into the sewers.” At the same time anti-fascist activity needed to be linked with a programme on jobs, homes, education, etc. (7)
The 16 October demonstration represented a turning point. I was in South Africa at this time, in the house of an African worker in Soweto, when the scenes flashed onto the TV. The courage of the youth and the workers on the demonstration combatting racism had a powerful effect on the African workers engaged in a similar struggle to overthrow the last vestiges of the vicious, racist South African apartheid regime. The truth about the “police riot” of 16 October inevitably came out, even in the heavily censored reports that appeared in the capitalist press.
It also drove home to the ruling class the determination of the anti-racist forces to crush the BNP. It brought out into the public domain the real character of the BNP and prepared the ground for the discrediting and subsequent defeat of Beackon in 1994 and the successful closure of the BNP’s HQ in July 1995.
However, none of this would have been possible without the determined action and leadership provided by organisations like the YRE which, avoiding the sectarian pitfalls of the ANL/SWP, sought to build the widest possible movement of youth and workers against the racist and fascist threat.
This is clear, from both this movement and others, such as the struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill. The SWP’s method was to construct organisations which could initially attract those who were prepared to fight, but they made no serious attempt to build effective structures with full democracy and the right of members to control these organisations.
Their main concern was not how best to push forward the struggle on a particular issue but how to recruit, in the most rapid fashion possible, new members to their organisation. This “raiding party” tactic inevitably brought them into collision with those who wanted to pursue a more effective campaign and to build more durable forms of organisation.
Militant Labour supported the most effective tactic to take forward the struggles of workers. Of course, it was interested in building its own organisation as the means of carrying working-class movements through to a conclusion.
Without Militant, the struggle in Liverpool or the battle against the poll tax would not have been as successful as they were. But to counterpose the need to build your own organisation to the general interests of workers in struggle would be false and counter-productive.
This was, however, the approach of the SWP and continues to be so. Hence its “grasshopper” approach to issues. Despite the accumulated prejudice of the “left intelligentsia” against Militant even some of them were compelled to favourably compare the flexible and unifying approach of the YRE, under Militant Labour influence, to the narrow sectarian approach of the SWP/ANL.