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Who shot the Sheriff? A History of Rock Against Racism
 
By Matt
 

“Who Shot the Sheriff?” is a new film by firefighter and part time documentary film-maker, Alan Miles, operating through his Mad Inertia Productions unit, that covers the history of the Rock Against Racism movement and the wider political fight against the National Front. As well as covering the history, the film sets out to connect the RAR heyday of the late 70s to its new incarnation as Love Music, Hate Racism.  It’s a worthwhile attempt to inject some impetus into the current fight against the BNP by reflecting on past glories but, in so doing, it also makes some interesting comparisons with some of today’s efforts.  But we’ll come on to that.

 

The film does a good job of charting both the political and musical development of the movement.  Starting with the rise of the NF in the late 60s, on the back of Enoch Powell’s hysterical rants, it describes how this process snowballed as disillusionment with successive Labour governments and the failure of mass industrial militancy in the early 70s combined with the country’s slide into post-oil crisis recession.  That the failure of left(ish) parties in government leads to the escalation of support for opportunist right wing extremists among working class communities is a central assertion made here. 

 

This is handy in explaining the rise of the BNP in, say, the Becontree estate in Dagenham, less useful in explaining why the prosperous citizens of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire returned fascist councilors.  Middle class racism always seems to avoid the scrutiny that fixes on the working class variety.  The skinhead and the football thug have always been the currency of this debate. Trade unions have a proud tradition of fighting fascism and racism yet the image that endures in the public realm is the dockers striking for Enoch. And while ‘it doesn’t make it all right’, losing your job and living on a shit forgotten estate seems to me a better reason to get narky about immigrants than living in a paranoid suburban bubble of fear created by nothing more than a gullible hunger for Daily Mail scare stories. 

 

RAR was pretty much founded when Tom Robinson read a letter in the NME from Roger Huddle and Red Saunders forcefully slating Eric Clapton for his infamous rantings at a gig in Birmingham .  Robinson, always a very political artist, claims a moment of clarity occurred and he set out to build a movement to fight the rise of racism in the political sphere while simultaneously galvanizing the new wave of young bands to react against bloated, reactionary pricks of Clapton’s generation in the music scene.  Building on the energies unleashed by punk and the occasional links with British reggae artists, Robinson, Huddle and Saunders went about putting on gigs around London under the banner Rock Against Racism.

 

Things developed quickly and festivals (of varying quality, it would seem) sprang up all over the shop, culminating in the two big events that came to define the era, the Anti-Nazi League counter-demonstration to prevent the NF marching through Lewisham and the huge march and gig headlined by The Clash at Victoria Park. 

 

The film makes good use of the excellent but limited amount of footage and photos, combined with well edited interviews with the likes of Don Letts, Mick Jones, Darcus Howe and others that give you a real picture of the times.  You’re obviously spoilt for choice for a half-decent soundtrack and they don’t  miss much of a trick with this either.

 

As said before, the film attempts to update the story with the current Love Music, Hate Racism campaign.  In doing so, the demise of RAR in its original form is skirted over, or at least attributed to the virtual annihilation of British fascism as a credible political movement for most of the 80s.  The emergence of the BNP in the mid-90s and, specifically, the election of Derek Beacon to a seat on the council of Tower Hamlets in East London led to re-activation of the anti-fascist movement.  The film skirts over this slice of the history, we’re left with a shift to 2004 and The Libertines taking the stage with Mick Jones in tow.  There’s less explanation on how we got to this situation, why fascism was back on the agenda and who and what happened to get Love Music, Hate Racism back on track.  But the film is just 60 minutes long and its main focus is supposed to be on the history of RAR, so you can forgive the odd short cut.

 

Basically, the film works well at what it does.  Its entertaining and evocative, there’s stirring stuff in here and Alan’s emphasis on using archive footage, interviews with people who were properly involved and straight-forward edits is a refreshing change in a documentary these days.  It’s a good story, told well and one that we can learn from.

 

So what, infact, can we learn from this film about then and now?

 

The political anti-racist movement appeared to be a more multi-cultural, broad based and popular movement back then.  And it was a movement not afraid to flex its muscle when required.  Given the explicitly racist nature of the NF under Webster and Tyndall, it was perhaps a more straight-forward task to mobilize large sections of the community against them.  Likewise, given the thuggish nature of the NF, it was imperative that a forceful approach was taken.

 

It is quite clear when viewing the footage, for example, that in Lewisham the resident black community and leftist activists were present in similar numbers and that the NF were stopped by force.  Not force as in force of numbers, but force as in plenty of fascist and police getting a good shoeing off the combined mob of locals and protestors. 

 

Today’s movement in comparison appears to be largely confined to an overtly political and trade union sphere.  Black and Asian groups play a part too but the impact of activists from both sides within the communities is less profound.  Furthermore, the newer migrant communities and asylum seekers who form the main targets of the BNP these days are much harder constituencies to penetrate and mobilize.

 

In parallel to the political movement, the musical movement of RAR may also have had a more equal billing between black and white artists on their rostas.  The plethora of different live events with line ups like Sham 69 and Misty in Roots and Generation X and Dennis Bovell bears testament to this.  Jerry Dammers ascribes this legacy as the roots of the development of 2 Tone, for example.  The extent to which this led to a mix of black and white in the audience is less evident in the film but if Don Letts is to be believed, it seems that there was a genuine punky reggae party going on. 

 

Today’s Love Music, Hate Racism events also feature black artists alongside rock and pop acts and the change of name was an explicit attempt to rid the image of ‘Rock’ as an exclusively white genre.  Love Music, Hate Racism is deemed a more inclusive monicker for what is supposed to be a diverse musical movement.  But few of the events these days have black UK artists as top billing.  The event at the Scala in September, where the film was launched, featured Roll Deep but as the warm up act to both The Beat and headliners, Hard-Fi.  This seems to be the pattern for the LMHR gigs that I’ve seen.  What’s more, the virtually all white crowd of students and leftists seem a bit bemused by the Roll Deep performance, though not as bemused as Roll Deep themselves look on stage.  This may be harsh, perhaps the audiences were similar back in ’78 but I reckon that history will link the likes of Steel Pulse much more with RAR than Estelle or Roll Deep will resonate with this generation of activists. 

 

What this film also illustrates, on the music front, is that beyond the Kings Road and McClaren’s bullshit, punk was a genuine and inspirational movement to a massive section of youth across the country.  Its easy to forget that at times.  My soulboy ears and (relative) youth mean that punk in its narrow definition looks and sounds like an art school wankers fetish.  New Romantics with the amps turned up.  But this film places it back in its real context, a genuinely politicized (if not political) movement full of energy and positive anger.  For this reason, RAR is primarily viewed as a political movement and not a musical fad.

 

Its always easy to get lost in nostalgia.  So we should be cautious of making unfavourable comparisons between now and the heights of 1978.  Depicting today’s anti-fascist struggle as something more mundane and marginalized is a temptation but not something that the RAR/LMHR organizers fall into.  While leafletting for ‘Barking and Dagenham Together’ on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem half as sexy as Joe Strummer screaming ‘White Riot’ to 80,000 people at Victoria Park, it is probably true to say that the job in hand is more urgent than ever. 

 

Griffin might have taken the BNP away from the storm trooper tactics of Webster’s NF, but they are polling hundreds of thousands more votes.  While the last general election and assorted local council defeats have seen a recent dip in their electoral power, this could often be attributed to the re-emergence of overt racism within the Conservative Party and the relative strength of UKIP.  Racism in politics is as big in the mainstream now as it was in the mid-70s.  It looks blander, everything does in dumb Britain , but who was it who spoke about the mundanity of evil? 

 

The current anti-racist movement has its share of problems.  But on close inspection its encouraging to see that away from the pompous nonsense of Live 8 and the often confused nature of the anti-globalisation hippiedom, there are still people who are fired up and care enough to engage in real politics.  They belong to voluntary groups, trade unions, some of them even belong to the Labour Party.  They operate under the radar of our one-dimensional and brain dead press but, judging by the recent collapse of the BNP vote in Dagenham, they’re getting a job done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
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