A fascist bookshop is not the cause of racist murders in south-east
London, and calling on the authorities to close it is certainly no solution,
says Kate Lawrence
Far right and wrong
On 22 April a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by racists
in south-east London. It was the fourth racial killing in the area in two
years, and it sparked a tide of anger from the black community.
However, since violence broke out at a demonstration called by two Militant-backed
groups, Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) and Panther UK, anger over
Lawrence's death has been displaced by a bitter row between rival anti-racist
In the wake of Lawrence's murder, three different groups have called demonstrations
in the area. Militant's march was followed by a demonstration called by
the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), reformed two years ago by the Socialist Workers
Party. The Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), made up of members of the Labour
Party and officials from trade unions and local government, has also
The row between these groups erupted after Militant's march ended in violence,
when a handful of protesters escaped the attentions of Militant stewards
and attacked a British National Party (BNP) bookshop in the area where the
racist murders have taken place. Immediately Marc Wadsworth of the Anti-Racist
Alliance accused the 'white left' of stirring up trouble. 'Their actions',
Wadsworth told the Independent, 'led to black youths being beaten
and arrested by the police' (15 May 1993).
At the heart of Wadsworth's attack lay the accusation that the 'white left'
was using the death of Stephen Lawrence for its own political ends. 'The
justifiable anger of the youth who attended the demonstration... was
exploited by the organisers', he wrote in a letter to the Guardian (18
May 1993). In case anybody thought that ARA might be hoping to use Lawrence's
death for its own political ends, Wadsworth carefully pointed out in his
letter that the ARA campaign 'has been guided by respect for the wishes
of Stephen Lawrence's family who...publicly disassociated themselves from
the destructive demonstration on Saturday 8 May'.
Wadsworth's attack on the 'white left' was rather ironic given that he is
a longstanding member of the Labour Party - more white and with a worse record
on race than any left group. In fact, ARA's primary motive in the row had
little to do with politics. It was concerned that the violence which followed
the Militant march should not be allowed to upset its own attempts to become
the official voice of the black community, with special negotiating
rights with local authorities and the police.
The message of Wadsworth's attack on ARA's rivals was that these groups
have illegitimate political agendas. But the real problem with the Anti-Nazi
League and the Militant-led groups is that they share the same dubious brand
of politics as the Anti-Racist Alliance. Behind the mud-slinging, ARA, the
ANL, Panther UK and Youth against Racism in Europe are all squabbling over
who should have the franchise for a campaign against the 'fascist threat'
in Britain. Whichever set of initials it is fronted by, such a narrow anti-fascist
campaign does more harm than good.
The obsession of the left with a handful of fascists is an evasion of the
real problem of racism in Britain. All of the campaigns in south-east London
have focused on the presence of a BNP bookshop in the area. But south-east
London has a long history of racial violence which predates the BNP presence
and has nothing to do with any bookshop. This violence derives from racist
attitudes which are entrenched in British society.
Racist ideas are commonplace in Britain because nationalism is at the heart
of mainstream politics. Hostility towards foreigners is institutionalised
from the top down, in legislation such as immigration controls which are
supported by every major political party in Britain. The message behind
the Tories' current Asylum Bill, for example, is that immigrants have no
right to British jobs, housing and welfare. The consequence is that black
people in Britain are regarded as aliens and seen as a legitimate target
Even in Germany, where the presence of far-right groups is far more significant
than in Britain, the primary problem is the state clampdown on immigration.
The recent government moves to impose tougher laws against immigrants and
asylum-seekers has created an anti-foreign climate in which racists can
feel free to launch attacks like the firebomb murder of five Turkish
people in Solingen.
In Britain, where the far right is confined to a handful of boneheads
in Bexley and elsewhere, it should be far clearer that it is the British
state which poses the most serious threat to black people. The racist climate
created by the authorities has ensured that you do not need to support the
far right in order to see black people as a problem. Indeed far more racists
vote Labour than BNP. The British 'fascist threat' is largely an invention
of the left.
The rival anti-fascist campaigns in Britain are not only focusing on the
wrong target. They are even asking the authorities which have institutionalised
racism to lead the fight against it.
Over the past 25 years some 80 black people have died at the hands of the
British police and prison authorities. The police force acts as the front
line in the state's silent race war, occupying black inner-city areas in
semi-military fashion. Yet ARA, the ANL, Panther UK and YRE appear to think
that the authorities will be good enough to defend black people from attack.
Each group has called on the local authority to close down the local BNP
bookshop. The Anti-Racist Alliance is quite explicit about its willingness
to negotiate with the police about how they can play a greater role within
areas of racial tension.
Use a Condon?
Even the Socialist Workers Party, which sponsors the Anti-Nazi League, has
resorted to calling on the police force responsible for violence and discrimination
against blacks to fight racism. A recent edition of Socialist Worker
asks why the police have failed to deal with the neo-Nazi group Combat-18.
'Combat 18's bulletins have pictures of Hitler on the front with "Race
War" and "Armed Resistance" headlines', noted the editorial
statement: 'Paul Condon, London's police commissioner, says the police tackle
the Nazis. So why is he not organising the arrest of Combat 18 leaders?'
(15 May 1993)
Raising expectations that the Metropolitan Police could deal with racists
lends legitimacy to the Force that has brutalised the black communities
of London on a scale which far-right sects can only dream about. Condon
the anti-racist was in charge of Notting Hill police in the late eighties
when they regularly swamped the area, systematically harassed black youth,
and turned the annual street carnival into a massive training exercise for
riot police methods. Even if Condon were to do as Socialist Worker requested,
and arrest every member of the tiny Combat-18, it would do nothing to protect
black people from violence and discrimination. But it would do a lot to
improve the public image of Scotland Yard.
The demand shared by all the anti-racist groups for the authorities to close
down the BNP bookshop in Bexley is equally dangerous. It not only trivialises
the fight against racial violence by reducing it to a question of local
council by-laws. It also gives the authorities carte blanche to decide
what political activities are and are not to be considered legitimate. Such
powers will inevitably be used to the detriment of the left. When the ANL
followed up the Militant march with its own demonstration calling for the
closure of the BNP bookshop in Bexley, the only thing which was banned by
the authorities was the route of the march designed to pass by the bookshop.
Loss of faith
By calling on the police and the authorities to deal with racists, all of
the rival campaigns risk arming the official sponsors of British racism
with greater authority, while disarming anti-racists with the idea that
the fight for black rights can be entrusted to the state.
The left's obsession with fascists, and its invitations to the police and
the authorities to lock up neo-Nazis and ban their books, can be interpreted
as a loss of faith in its own ability to lead a campaign against racism.
Rather than risk unpopularity by tackling the difficult task of combating
respectable racism in British society, much of the left now appeals to the
British tradition of patriotic anti-fascism, and calls on the authorities
to fight the Nazis on the streets of south-east London.
Meanwhile the squabble over which group can or cannot march in Plumstead
has set up anti-racists everywhere for an attack on protest as a legitimate
form of struggle. In the Guardian, leading black conservative Joseph
Harker has used the squalid row between ARA, ANL and the Militant-led groups
as an argument against demonstrating and activism. Rather than taking to
the streets, said Harker, the way forward for blacks is through mainstream
political progress and behind the scenes lobbying - in other words keeping
their mouths shut. (14 May 1993)
The danger of narrow anti-fascist politics is that it essentially endorses
the reactionary consequences of Harker's view. After all, if a handful of
fascists is the problem, and Commissioner Condon is the solution, then once
the police have rounded them up, what else have we got to complain about?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993