A short history of rocking against racism

On 5 August 1976, the guitarist Eric Clapton performed at the Birmingham Odeon. Midway through the gig, he turned to address the crowd.

‘Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs,’ Clapton told them. ‘Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch [Powell] will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking [indecipherable] don’t belong here, we don’t want them here…. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!’

Clapton’s outburst followed David Bowie’s much-publicised announcement that he believed ‘very strongly in fascism’. More importantly, it came with the fascist National Front was growing at a frightening rate, winning forty per cent of the vote in local elections and consciously trying to recruit young people.

That’s why a bunch of music fans launched what became eventually Rock Against Racism: initially a series of gigs, and then a fanzine, and finally a huge carnival at which The Clash played for 80,000 people at an event co-hosted with the Anti-Nazi League.

It seems worth thinking about that history, particularly given the sudden proliferation of commentators urging for a very different strategy.

On Tuesday night’s episode of The Project, Waleed Aly responded to Sonia Kruger’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration by urging viewers to ‘send forgiveness viral’.

If nothing else, the incident showed just how normalised Islamophobia has become in Australia. Had Kruger called to ban Jewish immigration, her TV career would (quite rightly) have come to an abrupt end – and no mainstream broadcaster would have dared pipe up on her behalf.

But Aly’s intervention was especially odd given that Kruger had shown no sign of wanting forgiveness. Yes, she was upset that people were mad at her – but that’s something altogether different. She hadn’t apologised; she hadn’t changed her views.

Furthermore, her comments were neither a gaffe nor a piece of naiveté. Kruger was responding to a column by Andrew Bolt (‘the more Muslims we import, the more danger we are in’), the star commentator in Australia’s biggest selling newspaper. After Krugergate, Bolt kicked his Islamophobia up another notch. ‘God knows how soon non-Muslim vigilantes will themselves take up arms,’ he explained. ‘Who could blame them …’

(That passage, mind you, came only days before Bolt’s paper reported that ‘baseball bats are reportedly in short supply across Melbourne’s west as frightened residents arm themselves’ against ‘youth crime gangs’.)

If we’re sending forgiveness to Kruger, should we also do the same to Andrew Bolt? Does anyone seriously think this is a good idea?

Aly’s insistence on forgiveness is merely one instance of a logic voiced, in recent weeks, by Margo Kingston, by Stan Grant, in a weird editorial in the Age, and no doubt elsewhere.

The argument takes shape as a response to those political insiders who think that Hanson and other racial populists can be somehow locked out of public life by executive fiat. It acknowledges, quite correctly, that racist demagogues exploit the frustrations and anxieties produced by free-market reform, at a time when great swathes of the populace no longer accept the political certainties of the old parties. Hanson voters are not necessarily hardened ideologues, we’re told: many are simply fearful, clinging to racial prejudice like a drowning man clutching a life raft.

So far, so good. But then it all goes wrong.

‘Yesterday [Kruger] admitted to not feeling safe,’ said Aly. ‘And how do you think she feels now? How do you expect her to react? It’s this cycle of legitimate fear that’s met with hostility or derision that’s led to more than 500,000 Australians voting for Pauline Hanson two weeks ago.’

Let’s leave aside the question of legitimacy of Kruger’s fears (again, would anyone use a similar wording in response to an anti-Semite fretting over ‘Jewish violence’)? Aly’s asserting – quite explicitly – that opponents of racism are themselves responsible for its spread. Their ‘hostility and derision’ contributes, he says, to ‘the cycle’ that led to Hanson’s vote.

That’s why, later in the speech, he suggests that those ‘angrily tweeting at someone who said something outrageous’ are acting as destructively as people calling for the incarceration of Muslims.

The same point – the suggesting that denouncing racists encourages racism – gets made, in slightly different ways, by both Grant and Kingston.

‘Little good comes from mocking or lampooning [Hanson],’ Grant tells us. ‘Those who attack her personally end up defining themselves.’

In its editorial, the Age goes further, specifically chiding Murrandoo Yanner for yelling at Pauline Hanson at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

The article notes that Hanson attended that event with a camera crew gathering footage for a TV program in which, presumably, she’ll express (once again) her views. Nevertheless, it reiterates The Age’s commitment to her freedom of speech – as if Indigenous leaders like Yanner (who never get on TV) were somehow preventing her accessing the airwaves.

‘The worst way to seek to win an argument,’ the paper scolds, ‘particularly a public one, is to be abusive. Being emotional and angry undermines one’s position and often creates sympathy for the opponent.’

Hanson’s a nice person (according to Kingston) and so is Sonia Kruger (according to Aly), and, in any case, attacking racist leaders (even labelling them ‘racist’) merely solidifies their support, motivating their aggrieved followers to leap to their defence.

So what, precisely, should we do?

The idea seems to be that, once we stop opposing the bigots, we’ll be in a better position to convince them to abandon their bigotry. Thus Kingston tells us to ‘go with [Hanson] to where her voters are and have a chat’, while Aly tells us to ‘show generosity in the face of their hostility’.

Then there’s this charming little fantasy from the Age:

The free market for ideas is the most important marketplace we have. Its currency is first principles – including fairness, equality of opportunity and the rule of law. It is a place where facts reign. It is not a place where ideology and baseless bias ultimately succeed. That is why Senator-elect Pauline Hanson – whose party’s very name, One Nation, is an anti-immigration dog-whistle – can be so readily combated. Her policy platform, which includes zero net immigration, does not stand scrutiny.

Whoever writes this stuff seems not to have heard of a certain Donald J Trump, whose extraordinary rise places, one might think, rather a question mark over the reign of facts. ‘Donald Trump is a serial liar,’ explains Salon, before adding, ‘more upsetting is that no one seems to care.’

Of course, Trump’s not alone.

In the presidential elections in Austria, the Freedom Party – an organisation founded by SS officers – recently polled 49.7 per cent. In the latest regional elections in France, the National Front scored something like 40 per cent of the vote. In Denmark, the People’s Party goes from strength to strength, as does the fascist Jobbik in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany seems set to be the first far-Right party to win parliamentary seats since the Second World War.

It’s in this context, with anti-immigration parties making gains almost everywhere, that The Age tells us blithely ‘One Nation’s baseless anti-immigration bias is its greatest weakness’.

The glibness of that passage reminds us that the liberal assertion that ‘the far Right will never grow’ very quickly gives way to the panicked announcement ‘the far Right can’t be stopped’.

That’s why it’s worth thinking about Rock Against Racism and the movement with which it was associated.

RAR began with an open letter to the music press and leftwing publications denouncing Clapton’s speech and reminding the blues guitarist, who had recently made a brief and hideous foray into reggae, of his personal dependence on the people he would deport.

‘Half your music is black,’ it read. ‘You’re rock music’s biggest colonist … Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’

In other words, RAR activists did not sit down for a chat with far Right demagogues and the musicians who supported them. They didn’t acknowledge the ‘legitimacy’ of their fears. Right from the start, they ridiculed and berated them. The slogan RAR made famous was ‘love music, hate racism’, not ‘love music, forgive Eric Clapton’.

The movement identified the National Front as an enemy to be smashed, an organisation whose mere existence made Britain dangerous – and sometimes lethal – for people of colour. But it also insisted on a collective response by ordinary people, rather than state intervention or a crackdown from above. On that basis, the Anti-Nazi League invited organisations and individuals to come together to prevent the NF from marching or organising or postering or doing much of anything else.

Because the NF mobilised brutal thugs, ANL rallies occasionally culminated in physical clashes with the fascists: the biggest demonstration, in Lewisham in 1977, led to the arrest of 200 people and substantial numbers of injuries.

Nor surprisingly, most of the press made arguments more or less identical to those we’re hearing today. Better not to hold such controversial marches, they said. The Left, with its slogans and demonstrations, was just as shrill and fanatical as the Right. Strident rhetoric would alienate people; confronting the racists would only bolster their support.

Of course, none of that was true. Rather than helping the NF grow, the aggressive approach of RAR and the ANL undercut their support.

As an account in the Guardian explains:

Before RAR, the NF had staged intimidatory marches in areas with large immigrant communities, but once RAR began to demonstrate that they could put thousands on the street in opposition to them, the NF were forced to retreat. ‘We isolated them at work and we isolated them at the colleges,’ claims Roger Huddle, ‘and by the end of it they were a spent force mentally and politically. I don’t want to overstate what we did, but I am sick to death of understating it.’

Britain in 1976 is not Australia in 2016. The NF was a fascist group and Hanson’s One Nation is not; the activist and trade union milieu looks very different today. It would be fatuous to suggest that the strategies that worked then could simply be replicated under the circumstances that we now face.

Nonetheless, the history of RAR does make clear that denouncing racism is not counterposed to eroding the support base upon which racist organisations depend. On the contrary, the two things go together – or, if you like, one is the flip side of the other.

By calling out racist leaders – and, in particular, by mobilising as many people as possible against racist groups – you create an atmosphere in which bigotry no longer seems a viable response to economic crisis, thus turning casual racists away from the organisations that might otherwise attract them.

The very success of RAR obscures the extent of its achievement since, today, we instinctively identify punk with social rebellion. But that linkage wasn’t preordained. This was, after all, a Britain in which anti-black bigotry and other racism was nearly as acceptable as casual Islamophobia today. The Black and White Minstrel Show was still screening on television; the tabloids happily campaigned on behalf of a man who offered his house for sale to ‘an English family only’. With people like Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious briefly sporting swastikas, there seemed, for a while, a genuine possibility that the Nazi punks whom Jello Biafra later told to fuck off might establish a real musical genre of their own.

The NF intended its rallies and meetings to offer unemployed youth and other potential recruits a sense of meaning and purpose in racial hatred. But that became much harder with its members outnumbered and humiliated by multiethnic protesters who were themselves creating a much more attractive culture of resistance.

‘Before RAR,’ recalled the filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, ‘there was no sense that it wasn’t OK to be racist. But with RAR, we got to see that there were others willing to speak out against racism and talk about a different kind of Britain.’

As the music historian John Street says, because RAR presented black bands playing alongside white bands, it forced fans and musicians to mix and interact. Anti-racism became cool, just as, for an entire generation, racism suddenly appeared both morally bereft and culturally bankrupt.

‘Because we had all these bands backing us,’ remembered Roger Huddle, one of the campaign’s founders, ‘we could say that the Nazis are against our music, they want us only to listen to marching bands and Strauss.’

In that Guardian piece, Chadha recalls her excitement of sneaking away from her parents to hear The Clash play at the RAR carnival.

‘It was an incredibly emotional moment,’ she recalled, ‘because, for the first time, I felt surrounded by people on my side. That was when I thought that something had changed in Britain for ever.’

RAR reached people who might have been drawn to racism and changed their minds – and yet it did so via strategies almost diametrically opposed to those being promulgated by the liberal intelligentsia today.

Again, we can’t simply recreate that moment. But we should be confident to assert the fairly obvious point that defeating racism begins with a determination to fight it; that isolating racist leaders helps win back their wavering supporters; and that the struggle against bigotry can itself help generate a culture in which bigotry no longer has a place.


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Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. A very interesting piece on how we can use the history of RAR/ANL is future anti-racist activism. My only point would be that the ANL was formed after the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977. While the Socialist Workers Party believed that the street-fighting at Lewisham had shown the National Front that there was going to be stiff anti-racist resistance to them, the ANL was formed to mobilise people who were not going to be involved in these kind of confrontations with fascists and the police.

  2. Great piece Jeff. The ‘forgiveness’ trope being peddled by Aly, Kingston, Grant etc, staggered me at first. But really, it should have been no surprise. In one of his recent posts somewhere, Richard Seymour writes – paraphrasing Freud – of the current travails in UK Labour being partly about the Labour Right feeling intolerably persecuted by Corbyn’s reminder that the Left has ideals and should stand up for them.

    The ‘forgiveness’ brigade are something of an expression of that I think. It is a political capitulation; a refusal to think about politics in any depth and face the very real threats that are overwhelming us. It is also a buy-in to a particular Christian idea of ‘forgiveness; kind of mushy and delimited, rather than a more robust, politicised idea of ‘forgiveness’ as an avoidance of malice and revenge, but a retention of the knowledge that the person who has wronged you needs some kind of effective, direct, informed and steadfast response. I might not intend any malice against the person who trashed my house, but I’d be a fucking idiot to invite them back, and foolish not to seek justice, warn others and seek some understanding of the causes.

    There is a great moment at RAR – captured on film, and perhaps the pivotal moment – when the Clash go on stage and immediately launch into ‘London’s Burning’. The entire crowd of 80,000 goes nuts. And given the reason that everyone was there, you can see something happening right before your eyes; the racist Right being shafted. It’s a remarkable moment in time. The Left has fallen a long way since then I think.

  3. Yes, the whole forgiveness thing is very Christ-like: Father forgive them for they know not what they do etc.

  4. Aly is both smart and aware of his audience.
    Maybe his strategy is less about avoiding the issue and in fact more about avoiding the hardening of increasingly extreme positions that leave no space open in-between for discussion. Trump and Brexit have shown us the dangerous power of people feeling marginalised, whether or not they are ‘right’ to do so. It’s important that the left continue to unequivocally oppose racism (and we do, vocally and visibly). But I think this article is a cynical take on someone who—unlike Overland—bridges a gap between populist and progressive forums. Call his message mushy, but in fact he’s calling for mature debate. Australia definitely needs more of this, on all sides.

  5. “The ‘forgiveness’ brigade are something of an expression of that I think. It is a political capitulation; a refusal to think about politics in any depth and face the very real threats that are overwhelming us”.

    Geez. Really? That is patronising and a tad simplistic don’t you think? I think forgiveness and tolerance are exactly what is needed. I’m so fucking sick of the self-righteousness of so many of us on the left. It undermines the correctness of our position. A tolerant approach to people who hold revolting stances because they are fearful, disenfranchised, selfish, isolated people is the foundation from which we can speak back to their shit rhetoric with strength. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s the opposite.

  6. “… defeating racism begins with a determination to fight it; that isolating racist leaders helps win back their wavering supporters; and that the struggle against bigotry can itself help generate a culture in which bigotry no longer has a place.”

    The mother lode of racism in Australia has historically been the Australian State itself. The White Australia Policy, the extermination of the natives to make way for civilisation, the Yellow Peril, and recently the vilification and persecution of refugees, particularly Muslims, that began under the Keating Labor government and has been intensified under every government since. This sordid history is not an accident or the product of a few sick minds like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt, Gerry Hand or Paul Keating. It has been the stock in trade of the Australian state its ruling class to historically maintain the political loyalties of “real” Australians (by which we do not mean the natives) through a social compact that involves downward distribution of crumbs from the colonial and capitalist table in return for cross class solidarity of all “real” Australians against dangerous outsiders and interlopers.

    The dismantling of the (weak and insipid) Australian form of social democracy since the Hawke-Keating period resulted in a reduction of the quality and quantity of crumbs being redistributed downwards. Together with the involvement of the Australian state in vicious US led wars against the peoples of the Middle East under every government since Hawke, the end of social democracy means the Australian state and ruling class have to increasingly return to form by relying on their tried and true methods of social control, recalled for the benefit of the reader above.

    In other words, the Islamophobia expressed by Kruger, Bolt or Hanson today is not an outcome of bad moral, ethical or political choices on the part of these (admittedly vile) individuals. It is in fact part of the fabric of Australian politics and the Australian state, which owes much to the frontier, and has again come to the fore due to simultaneous dismantling of the social democracy that previously benefited “real” Australians, and the Australian state’s involvement in the 30 years war being waged against the peoples of the Middle East.

  7. I think there’s something missing in the response to Aly’s comments, and I think there’s a real risk of ignoring what he has to say.

    Aly himself has been on the end of racist abuse, including blatant dogwhistling rubbish from other broadcasters. There’s a significant amount of Australians with highly negative, and racialised views of him.

    What I think he’s going for there is the conciliatory tone, the MLK as opposed to the Malcolm X if you will (As far as stereotypes go at least). I think, as a visible Muslim, speaking out on progressive issues, he faces the pressure to set the best possible example. And I can’t imagine that’s an enviable position.

    He’s not ignoring or justifying her comments, he’s saying that she’s making them out of fear, and that people should essentially pity the racists. Which is still making some noise, letting them know that they’ve been heard. I do think forgiveness can sound like the wrong word, but I think what he’s going for is the noted result that’s been found in social sciences, that prejudice against minority groups can be reduced by positive interaction with those groups. He’s trying to be their friend, and it’ll get harder and harder to hate muslims if they’re also your friends.

    Personally, I don’t agree with that strategy, but Aly isn’t covering for the racists here. And I think there’s a very real danger where we turn racism into this monster of such a scale that nobody can ever live up to it. I’m sure Kruger’s a relatively ok person. I’m sure someone out there can put up with Bolt. But they are racists. That’s what a racist looks like. Racists are regular every day people, who hold discrinatory and ugly views about their fellow humans. There’s a very real undercurrent of Islamophobia, casual racism, and violent xenophobia in Australia, but even these people don’t think they’re racists, because they think that a racist is some sort of monster that they could never be. Where anything can be normalised. Our nation has, as a matter of policy, with bipartisan support, state run concentration camps for refugees, and that is somehow normal and not an outrage. That’s somehow an issue that compromising on would be bad for the electoral result. It’s death by a thousand cuts, a movement of inches towards the intolerable. But the racists will still go, hey, I’m not Hitler, I’m not the KKK. That’s why if you ask them, they’ll talk about how “Islam is not a race”, before arguing for banning Muslim immigration, or justifying our treatment of Asylum Seekers.

    I think Aly’s being careful, and I think there might be good reason for that. Because racism is on the rise, as you pointed out. It’s easy to be vicious from a position of safety and privilege. But muslims, and their place in many Western states at the moment, are not safe. You can just say that the racists are dumb, but it’s starting to look more like the racists are in majority. They certainly own the government, and the likes of Lambi and Hanson earned seats, despite being terrible senators, only notable for being racists. If he’s aggressive, then he’s just going to be stereotyped and ignored, portrayed as an extremist or a terrorist by the racists. I don’t think it’s up to him to attack it. I think it’s up to white Australia. As a white Australian, I see a whole lot of people just like me, being racist, unconscionable monsters, and I think it’s my responsibility, and the responsibility of people like me, to reign in our fellows and tell them to pull their fucking heads in. Because they feel like they can ignore everyone else, they feel like it’s acceptable among other white Australians, and we need to tell them no. That racism isn’t welcome. Nazi punks fuck off.

  8. Cal – “He’s not ignoring or justifying her comments, he’s saying that she’s making them out of fear, and that people should essentially pity the racists.”

    I think there’s some truth in what you’ve written. I suspect Aly was trying to clear a space for conversation, and a space for the development of understanding, between the (post ‘Muslim ban’ comment) two poles of supporters and detractors of Sonya.

    But there are two questions I ask myself in considering Waleed’s suggestion for ‘sending forgiveness viral’. Firstly, is space and goodwill offered and available? Is whoever the person that Aly suggests should be forgiven, willing to engage positively with those who are directly affected by his/her public views? Or are they (for example) the sort to refuse/deflect offerings of a shared meal? If the answer to seeking well intentioned engagement is yes, then I think Aly’s suggestion has merit. The presumption is that people are capable of both making mistakes, as well as reforming their views. As a distinction, this is not the same as forgiving the views themselves.

    So if this is what Aly meant, then as a fellow Muslim I’d say (from an Islamic standpoint) he is correct – but only to a point.

    “And the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and his act brings about reformation, his reward is with Allah. Surely, He loves not the wrongdoers.” (Quran 42:41)

    If forgiveness does not bring about change, but instead emboldens or escalates the behaviour of the person being forgiven, then forgiveness is no longer appropriate.

    So, since I have no insight into whether Sonya is simply ignorant and fearful, or deliberately mean spirited, I’m willing to forgive her remark for now. But my forgiveness is based on an assumption. It’s up to her to confirm or dispel it.

    Twitter: RashidZSZ

  9. “As a white Australian, I see a whole lot of people just like me, being racist, unconscionable monsters, and I think it’s my responsibility, and the responsibility of people like me, to reign in our fellows and tell them to pull their fucking heads in. Because they feel like they can ignore everyone else, they feel like it’s acceptable among other white Australians, and we need to tell them no. That racism isn’t welcome.”

    The question neither you nor the Parson Jeff Sparrow dare ask of yourselves is why has Islamophobia come to the fore in politics in Australia and similar countries over the last two to three decades? Is Islamophobia really just the product of a tsunami of poor moral and political choices by individuals? Or should we explain it by the (racist) argument that “whites” in countries like Australia have over the last three decades mysteriously come to express an innate racism towards people from the Middle East?

  10. Notice in the banner photograph for this article how the bands featuring in the Rock Against Racism concert that day remain unknown to this day, except to themselves, family, friends and supporters etc.

    Moral? The more popular the name the more fascist it becomes?

    Props too to whoever hunted down that visual proof.

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