THE DEATH OF A CIVIL RIGHTS MARCHER in Charlottesville, Virginia raises the question of whether such extremist right-wing violence could happen here.
For answer I go back forty years to my student days and to my years as a novice reporter on the South East London Mercury, to what became known as the Battle of Lewisham.
The Mercury’s editor, Roger Norman, made a name for himself as a champion of multiculturalism, fostering harmony and a sense of live and let live. The 1970s and ’80s were crucial decades for the Afro-Caribbean community in Lewisham, at a time when the National Front was making a nasty nuisance of itself.
His liberal beliefs lay partly in personal circumstance: his wife, Emily, was black and his humanitarian, non-party political beliefs earned him an MBE for his services to community journalism.
‘RN’, as Roger was known, died 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.”
But I digress; in 1974, the Front wanted to march through Roger’s New Cross patch and he ran a front-page spelling out in words and pictures what they stood for, under the headline: “You’d Better Believe Us!”
The year after that march, I started at Goldsmiths College in New Cross and 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.
In August 1977, the area again braced for trouble when the National Front marched 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 Met were on duty that day with, it was said, more horses than was normal for a demonstration. They also used riot shields for the first time on the British mainland, having previously been used by troops in Northern Ireland.
What lessons can be drawn from those distant days?
One is the need for eternal vigilance against the rise of the Nasty Right. 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 — is to remember what a good local newspaper can do for its community. People often disparage newspapers these days, either because they represent the out-of-favour ‘mainstream media’ that is seen by both left and right as the new enemy; 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 those journalists who remain after redundancies work. But a strong paper with a good editor can be a force for good (he 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, sulkily reading someone else’s words after much prodding, didn’t do much to repair the damage already done.