THE death of a civil rights marcher in Charlottesville, Virginia raises the question of whether such a right-wing protest could get similarly out of hand here. My answer to that recalls what became known as the Battle of Lewisham.
This story from 40 years ago takes me back to my student stomping ground and, more importantly, to my years on the South East London Mercury.
The editor, Roger Norman, made a name for himself as a champion of multiculturalism, although I don’t recall if he ever used the word.
Roger – or RN, as he was known – died in 2006, aged 65, his end perhaps hastened by a liking for cigars, wine and stout. An obituary in the Guardian, written by my former colleagues Pete Cordwell and Pat Greenwood, remembered “his wise, principled direction”.
Pete and Pat also wrote: “His door always open, he was a leader who always listened to problems. So laid back as to be almost horizontal – especially if there was a good wine or a milky-topped stout, a slim cigar, or exhilarating company.”
The 1970s and 1980s were crucial decades for the Afro-Caribbean community in Lewisham, at a time when the National Front was making a nasty nuisance of itself.
In 1974, the Front wanted to march through Roger’s New Cross patch and he ran a front-page lead spelling out in words and pictures what they stood for, under the headline: “You’d Better Believe Us!”
He also put the energy he barely seemed to have – it was all below the surface somehow – into fostering harmony and a sense of live and let live. His beliefs lay partly in personal circumstance, as his wife, Emily, was black, and through what you might call humanitarian politics (he wasn’t party political, as I recall). Roger was awarded the MBE for his services to community journalism in 1996.
The year after that march, I started at Goldsmiths College in New Cross, and sometime after graduating, joined the Mercury. Roger used to waft around the office, smoking small cigars, stroking his goatee beard and gently putting people down with an understated “Yeah?” if he disagreed with what they were saying.
Three years after that noted front page, in the August of 1977, the area was again braced for trouble when the National Front wanted to march along Lewisham High Street.
This turned into an hour-long running battle between protesters and National Front marchers. The march had long been a cause of anxiety and the local council was at odds with the Metropolitan Commission of Police, David McNee, and with the Home Office.
As a newspaper report said afterwards: “It is not known whether the police expected the violence which, for example, the Lewisham councillors were grimly sure would occur.”
The police appeared to be expecting a large demonstration against the march, which in the event drew around 500 people, fewer than many had anticipated. A quarter of the Metropolitan police were on duty that day, with more horses that was said to be normal for a demonstration. They also had riot shields at the ready. These were used later in the day for the first time on the British mainland, having previously been used by troops in Northern Ireland.
What lessons can we draw from those distant days? One is to be forever vigilant against the rise of the nasty right. For if it can happen in the US, fostered in part by the words of candidate Trump, then it could happen here.
The other – and it is almost too late to worry about this – is to remember what a good local newspaper can do for its community. People often disparage newspapers these days, either because they represent the “mainstream media”, that new enemy of the moment to left and right; or because, in the case of local newspapers, they are not all that good any more.
This criticism of local newspapers is all too often true, however hard the remaining journalists work. But a strong paper with a good editor can be a force for good. The Mercury, by the way, no longer exists, having been swallowed by the South London Press years ago. And I don’t think that paper is in great shape, either.
As for Trump, his initial unwillingness fully to condemn the alt-right marchers showed his true colours. A later condemnation, produced after much prodding, didn’t do much to repair the damage already done.