Who can say with any certainty what exactly they were doing 40 years ago? I can today. It is the evening of 30th April 2018 . Forty years ago, on this day, and at this time, I was feeling so tired but so exhilarated. Several hours earlier I had been one of tens of thousands of anti-fascists filling Trafalgar Square and the streets around, holding lollypop-style placards with ‘Anti-Nazi League’ (ANL) and an arrow printed in black and red on a yellow background, or on punk-pink Rock Against Racism stars. I was 20-years-old but already a seasoned marcher who had trailed from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park or the other way around several times waving our placards and banners, shouting our slogans, mostly towards bemused West End tourists. But this day was different. We were heading out of the centre and going five miles east to Victoria Park, on the Hackney/Tower Hamlets border, where a stage had been set up by ‘Rock Against Racism’. Many of the new wave artists who had shaken the music scene – the Clash, X-Ray Specs, Tom Robinson – were going to be there to show their followers that their allegiance was to the cause of anti-racism and anti-fascism.
As we got close to the park we were walking through streets where I had walked in fear on an anti-fascist demonstration just a few months earlier, when we were easily outnumbered by waves of fascists crowding on to the streets from the estates we walked through, pouring out of the pubs, sieg-heiling, spitting and shouting. There was no doubt these streets belonged to them. They were the community and we were interlopers making a temporary incursion on their territory .As our Jewish Socialist banner passed, they paid us special attention, screaming that we were “going to the gas ovens”. The National Front (NF) was at its peak, claiming 20,000 members. Like Mosley’s movement before it, its London heartland was in the decaying, deprived areas of East London.
But today, on 30th April it was our turn. By the time we reached Victoria Park, the crowd had swollen to 80,000. The streets in which we had been so abused and terrified a few months earlier, were ours on that day. The march was so dense that we filled the whole road and both pavements.
On almost every anti-fascist demonstrations I had been on up to that point, we had shouted “Black and White – Unite and Fight”, but the marches had been predominantly white. This one was different. Especially when we were in the park it was clear that this was a black and white demonstration. We were physically expressing our demand for equal rights for all. Our unity across ethnicity and also sexuality was reflected on the stage too where Steel Pulse’s reggae riffs and the Clash’s punk/new wave sounds combined beautifully, and the whole crowd rocked to Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be Gay’, and joined in the chorus.
I was there with other Jews… but not without a fight. Our ‘leaders’, the Board of Deputies, had pulled out all the stops to try to prevent Jews from supporting the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation in Britain since the 1930s. Why? They claimed that the ANL’s leading figures were anti-Zionists and therefore the Jewish community should have nothing to do with them. Effectively they were saying that it was more important to keep out of range of comments someone might say about a conflict 2,000 miles away in the Middle-East than to unite here and now with communities that were bearing the brunt of racist attacks, having their homes firebombed, being beaten up on the streets, by the same forces that were daubing swastikas on Jewish gravestones. It seemed a callous and narrow attitude, then, as well as a self-defeating one.
For several weeks the letters pages of the Jewish Chronicle were filled with argument and counter-argument about this issue. When the ANL held a public meeting in the Jewish heartland of Golders Green, and with Jewish speakers on the platform, it was forced to hold it in a Unitarian church because the Board had told synagogues not to let their premises to the ANL. I remember Aubrey Lewis, who cut his political teeth in street battles against fascism and campaigns against poverty in Manchester in the 1930s, and was one of the founders of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, telling us that the Board were not really worried about young Jews becoming enticed by anti-Zionism, they wanted, above all, to keep young Jews away from the Left.
Like the East End Jews of the 1930s before them, lots of suburbanised young Jews from Ilford, Southgate, Hendon and Finchley ignored the Board. When we arrived in Trafalgar square on that day, some of the first people we encountered were other Jewish youths from left-Zionist groups – Mapam and Habonim – who knew exactly why they were there.
That day was a crucial step on a political journey for many people. Some of those young Zionists will have pondered on the contradiction of a Zionist movement that told them that you can only escape from antisemitism, not fight it, while they marched within a huge multi-racial crowd, that was optimistic that it could defeat racism and fascism and build a truly equal multi-cultural society, as they chanted: “Here to stay, here to fight!”
There were non-political youngsters who went to the carnival to see their favourite bands only to find these bands, in this context, had strong political messages too, messages that may have conflicted with the ideas and sentiments these young people heard at home from their parents and neighbours. Their heroes were imploring them to make a choice, to take a stand. It opened my eyes – and ears – to the crucial need for politics and culture to mix and strengthen each other. Yet, looking back now, we were still in the early days. That day the stage had white bands, it had black bands, following each other, but they still hadn’t caught up with their audience, who were already uniting with and embracing each other. It was a year later, and 100 miles away from Victoria Park – in the Midlands – that two-tone music burst on the scene with bands with both black and white members such as the Selecter, the Specials, the Beat.
So how did I mark the day 40 years on? I joined a protest and spoke on a multi-racial
platform outside parliament in support of the Windrush generation. I brought greetings to the demonstration from the Jewish Socialists’ Group and Jewish Voice for Labour, remarking that minority communities know the importance of supporting each other, but adding that, “What is really striking over the last two or three weeks, and what is really unnerving Theresa May and her government, is the solidarity shown by the majority of society for the Windrush generation.”
And I know that one of the reasons I was there tonight was because of where I had been and what I had been doing 40 years earlier. Later tonight I will put on some music, from the late ’70s, and hear the rebellious voices of Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson on my favourite Selecter Album, Too Much Pressure, and hoping those words also mean something for Theresa May and her disdainful and heartless band of racists, nationalists, and imperialists on local election day this Thursday.