Punk Rock Doc ‘White Riot’ Fights the Good Fight

Goon squads face off against the power of loud guitars in late 1970s England.

White supremacists on the march, demagogues run amok, violent clashes, an economy in the toilet… sounds familiar? Rubika Shah’s hope-laden White Riot takes us back to similarly lousy days in late 1970s England.  

A small unit of dedicated anti-racists — today, well-fed, placid-looking elders — determined to fight the power by creating an underground newspaper, organized small club events to fight racism. They enlisted the help of some of the hot post-punk talents of the day, such as X-Ray Spex, Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse, The Selector, and The Clash. They banded together Jamaican roots music players with the scurvy three-chord wonders of the time. 

How it was done is told by Red Saunders, a printer and a photographer, as well as several of his partners in propaganda, including Kate Webb and Ruth Gregory.  Such was Rock Against Racism’s manifesto: “We wanted rebel music. Street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of each other.”  

Their paper Temporary Hoarding began soliciting comments from a P.O. Box. The letters they received make for poignant reading. There were kids in backwater towns confessing that no one was going to make them dump their Black friends. Some sent in small amounts of money to buy a RAR badge, with its sharp circle-star logo. Never underestimate the power of good graphic design. Temporary Hoarding served as fanzine, broadside poster material, and DIY instruction manual on how to throw a racism-busting show. The illustrations (brought to life by animators Levan Tozashvili and Jonas Odell) used the Situationalist method of stealing and repurposing advertisements. 

By 1978, the circus-like spectacle of the Sex Pistols was over — as seen in Julian Temple’s The Filth and the Fury, a companion piece for this. England was suffering a whopping Imperial hangover. It was broke, and under the usual pressures toward austerity by the International Monetary Fund. A badly depressed economy stimulated fringe politics. Thus the rise of the National Front, with its platform of returning non-white English citizens to their country of origin.

The ambient racism in England was profound, as we see from a TV montage. The BBC was still running a blackface minstrel variety hour on television as late as 1977. The ‘sus’ laws were used as a club against people of color by the police as a say-so arrest, even as the London cops failed their duty to investigate racist assaults. Pauline Black of the ska band The Selector here describes her own arrest and what could have happened to her if she’d been misidentified as a thief by a white witness. Steel Pulse’s Mykaell Riley got six months in Wormwood Scrubs jail on a mistaken identity charge. 

Colonized people from Bangladesh and the Caribbean came to England in the 1950s because of post WWII labor shortages. The leading voice to deport them back to where they came from was the MP Enoch Powell. Apparently an erudite man when he wasn’t spewing vomitous racism, Powell had risen steadily in politics ever since his so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech. It was a mad jeremiad about how England was building its own funeral pyre by letting in outsiders.

In the speech, Powell told of a constituent complaining to him: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Perhaps not. As Temporary Hoarding noted, there were 30 white persons for every one Black person in England. On the bright side, this “whip hand” comment accidentally acknowledged which race had held the whip in the first place.  

By 1978, the Powell-led National Front was a party to take seriously. Powell and his Chris Christie-like deputy, Martin Webster, were reaching out to the jobless and frustrated skinheads. As tensions increased, so did the violence. In White Riot we see a cornershop owner who had spent three years in a Japanese POW camp for fighting on the British side. He had both his windows and a tooth broken by a rock-throwing thug.  

In the 1969 Get Back sessions, The Beatles took a swipe at the loathsome Powell — it’s in the tune “Commonwealth,” found on bootleg albums. If only the big names of the 1970s rock had been equally ready to respond. From his poolside in Los Angeles, Rod Stewart railed against the foreigners taking over England. Eric Clapton disgraced himself forever with a long and noxious racist diatribe from stage in 1976. (This is what the word “irony” was built for. Clapton owes his fortune to Black music. As writer Tim Sommer put it, Clapton was to the blues what a chalk outline is to a corpse.)

Considering the rot at the top in the world of rock & roll, it’s refreshing to see White Riot’s attempt to round up talent from the lower-echelon. The biggest name here was the ever-rising Clash. The Clash used to be called, “The only band that matters” and their relevance is demonstrated here. Surviving members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon are interviewees; White Riot is the kind of documentary that’s so involved with the era’s music that it runs the entire 3 minute 27 seconds length of “Damaged Goods” by the Gang of 4.      

Says Red Saunders today: “Our job was to peel away the Union Jack and reveal the swastika.” The RAR group couldn’t deal with out-and-out Nazis. Instead they sought out the kind of confused kids drawn to simple-minded answers. The key was not the power of violence, but the power of persuasion. (Going back in a time machine to shoot Hitler would be fun. It’d be far more fun to have the eloquence to argue him out of his course.)   

The genius of the RAR shows and the group’s paper was that it wasn’t narrowly focused; it dwelt on British Army atrocities in Ulster, and the laws meant to keep gay people invisible. Confronting the “beauty myth,” before that was even a phrase, was the X-Ray Spex’s scrappy half-Somali lead singer Poly Styrene. Young enough to have braces on her teeth, she denounces the way a “little girl should be seen and not heard” in her anthem “Oh, Bondage, Up Yours!” 

Shah includes maybe a bit too much news footage of the Battle of Lewisham, Aug. 13, 1977, that put 11 cops in the hospital and 214 participants into jail. The subject almost deserves a documentary of its own. Lewisham was a triumph for the anti-racists, who managed to fend off a National Front march into a Black neighborhood. But it’s a sidebar to the non-violent triumph that RAR built with its new partners in the Anti-Nazi League.

The big Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park, East London on April 30,1978, occurred after a four-mile march from Trafalgar Square. Escorting the crowd was a flatbed truck carrying Toltec-sized head effigies of Powell, Webster, and Hitler, built by those master gargoyle-makers at TV’s Spitting Image. 

Victoria Park was in the heart of the National Front’s constituency, but the show drew people from faraway places in England. All the potential troubles — vandals, a bad PA system, the threat of rain — vanished. The organizers took the political gamble to get the Sham 69 leadman Jimmy Pursey on stage, since there was an overlap of fans between skinheads and other young people. RAR cut a deal with The Clash to yield the headliner position to Tom Robinson. The idea was that Robinson was such a populist that he’d keep things cool when the show broke up. It stuck in their craw, but The Clash did it anyway. 

Watching this strife temporarily resolved with a day in the park, my longtime overestimation of the influence of underground newspapers and rock music alike got seriously fluffed. The timeliness of this likable and encouraging documentary goes without saying. The music of that long-ago day lingers. Very little contemporary music sums up 2020, our year of living dangerously, as well as RAR vets Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1979 “Goon Squad.” And since the Reaper has been clearing away the people who pogoed on those stages, it’s encouraging to see Saunders, portly and bearded, still around, demonstrating the long-lasting power of a really good idea.

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