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REVIEW: White Riot – Why We Need a New Rock Against Racism

To celebrate this evening’s digital screening of White Riot, Chris Sullivan recalls the formation of the anti-Nazi movement and explores its continuing relevance.

Paul Simonon, The Clash at Rock Against Racism concert, Victoria Park, 1978. Credit: Syd Shelton.
White Riot
Why We Need a New
Rock Against Racism

To celebrate this evening’s digital screening of White Riot, Chris Sullivan recalls the formation of the anti-Nazi movement and explores its continuing relevance.

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Named after the anti-racist anthem by The Clash, White Riot tells of the Rock Against Racism initiative that, begun in 1976 and used music, especially Punk and Reggae to fight against the UK’s rising tide of racism.

This was the time of the Neo-Nazi National Front party and when daily physical attacks against immigrants were common.  “My first encounter with the National Front was when I was about 16 or 17,” activist Iqbal Khan told t Socialist Worker in 2009. “We heard six white guys shouting, ‘Get the Pakis!’ Then we realised they meant us. They chased us and beat us up. I saw them carve National Front on my cousin’s back.”

Such attacks were not uncommon. Often swastikas were daubed on Pakistani shop fronts, faeces smeared on synagogues and windows of Indian restaurants were smashed.

Racist Statements by Musicians

Much of the establishment including well known musicians thought nothing of making racist statements.

‘I think Enoch Powell is the man”, proclaimed Rod Stewart. “I’m all for him. This country is overcrowded. The immigrants should be sent home.”

When Eric Clapton told an audience in Birmingham that Britain had become overcrowded, and espoused his admiration for Powell by saying that a vote for the Tory extremist would stop the UK from developing into “a black colony” it encouraged Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford and Pete Bruno to create Rock Against Racism.

Special  ‘ROCK AGAINST RACISM’ anniversary  TODAY

Digital screening and online Q&A event

Thursday 30 APRIL 2020Film starts at 6:30pm-Live Event from 8pm.

Following this preview event, WHITE RIOT will see a further series of digital preview screening events take place across the summer, Streamed exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema and supported by LOVE MUSIC HATE RACISM the event will be available till midnight on  Sunday night.

For info:

Saunders and company wrote a letter to New Musical Express (NME), which immediately printed it. Their letter voiced their opposition to Clapton’s remarks highlighting that his first hit was a cover of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ written by Bob Marley. The letter concluded with a request for people to join their crusade, Rock Against Racism.

The letter caused a real stir and they received hundreds of replies from people willing and able to participate. Their first gig was in November 1976, at a pub in the East End with Matumbi and Carol Grimes, that culminated in a multi-cultural jam session after which they published a fanzine called, Temporary Hoarding.

By 1977, Rock Against Racism was an international entity with 200 branches across the UK as well as others all over Europe and some in US major cities. They were even represented in South Africa and Australia.

Popularity Grows

By 30 April 1978, it had grown so popular that 100,000 people crowd met up at Trafalgar Square and then marched 6 miles to Victoria Park led by the reggae outfit, Misty In Roots, playing on the back of a lorry.  At the park, The Clash, Steel Pulse, X- Ray Spex, Jimmy Pursey and Tom Robinson, played live.

The concert was a milestone. Steel Pulse smashed it to bits with tunes such as,  Ku Klux Klan and  X- Ray Spex fronted by Poly Styrene were phenomenal with their then unreleased Germ Free Adolescents. Next came The Clash who, with their passion, integrity and ferocity, ruled the world for that afternoon.  Famously, an anti-Nazi League hippy pulled the plug on the band mid-song because they over ran. Not the best move as the crowd went totally doolally. Luckily, Paul Simonon plugged his bass back in, the band followed and they steamed right in with their anthem, White Riot, which, inspired by race riots in West London, made everyone realise why they were there, what this was all about and the day was saved.

From then on ‘The Clash’ became synonymous with the movement.  “Rock Against Racism was very important for us as we grew up in a city full of different races,” remembers Paul Simonon of The Clash. “ I grew up in Brixton, my dad was a left- winger. The first music I was really into was reggae, my schools were really mixed, we all listened to the same music and hung out. It was a good thing for us to do as it clarified our positions and showed where out flag was flying’


Back in the seventies marching for what you believed in was a regular occurrence. There seemed to be a march a month at least some of which turned rather violent. I was also at the Rock Against Racism concert at Brockwell Park in South London in September 1978. Some consider the climax of the day was when Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 – who’d backed out of the line up because of death threats – rushed on stage and shouted: “No one can tell me what to do. I ‘m here because I support Rock Against Racism.”  

The highlight for me was when a gang of National Front skinheads roared into the park and attacked the crowd. Unfortunately, for them a large mob of tough South Wales Working Revolutionary Party (many of whom were miners) met the mainly skinhead fascist bully boys and soon there were bruised skin-heads running away. One Welsh pal of mine uttered, “Skinheads my arse! Bloody Hopeless! All mouth and tight trouser!”

The National Front, was formed in 1967 by outspoken anti-Semite and white supremacist, South African born AK Chesterton and fronted by John Tindall,

At the time in terms of vote share the NF was the UK’s fourth-largest party. The difference then was that the ruling party did not try to romance National Front supporters to their side with an EU referendum. They did not ally themselves with the NF and did not condone their actions.

Relevance today

Since the first Brexit vote, the UK has seen a marked rise in racist attacks and insults. It seems that now the vote has given your average cowardly xenophobe the cojones to get out of the closet and onto the podium. Towns like Ebbw Vale in South Wales voted heavily for Brexit when there is hardly an immigrant in the town. I’ve heard folk demanding Brexit because, believing false news spread on social that millions of Turks are to invade the UK en masse, they are afraid of losing their livelihood. If they had checked they’d have seen that Turkey is not even in the EU.

But of course, the biggest irony now is that, with the current pandemic, this country is being held together by many people who have immigrated or their parents and grandparents have immigrated to this country. BAME health and social care workers have given their lives on the frontline, not to mention all the other essential workers.

The xenophobic Brexit vote also prompted more than 10,000 EU nationals to leave the NHS (11,600 EU staff including 4,783 nurses). Even in 2019, the Nursing and Midwifery Council found the number of nurses arriving from the EU had dropped by 87% from 6,382 in 2016-17 to 805 in 2017-18. Accordingly, nine out of 10 hospital chiefs in England voiced fears that the acute shortfall in staff could harm patients’ even before COVID-19. The costs of xenophobia and racism have never been higher.

“Racism was and is and always has been stupid, ignorant and disgusting,” declared Clash DJ Don Letts in interview with me a few years ago. ‘ We obviously supported Rock Again Racism as, it wasn’t only the RIGHT thing to do for us, racism shouldn’t exist in a so-called civilised society. It’s just WRONG!”

Methinks we need to Rock Against Racism once again.

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