The punks that took on prejudice: White Riot and the 1970s Rock Against Racism movement

Winner of the best documentary award at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, White Riot celebrates the grassroots tactics of the 1970s movement Rock Against Racism to target a rising tide of hatred. What can we learn from the punks?

White Riot (2019)Photo by Syd Shelton

During the opening sequence of Rubika Shah’s exhilarating new documentary White Riot, which charts the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, a sequence of familiar, grainy footage plays. Groups of fascists are on the streets boasting about their violent hatred, political leaders spout far-right rhetoric on the TV, and the police target black and brown communities with unjust treatment and brutal violence. These eerily resonant scenes could be from 2020, but are in fact from the UK in the 1970s, when the country was experiencing a toxic tide of hatred against immigrant communities.

Using a mixture of archive material, animation and new interviews, Shah’s feature debut tells the story of the formation of the grassroots cultural campaign. Rock Against Racism started in 1976, prompted by the racist outbursts of Eric Clapton, who RAR described as “rock’s biggest colonist”, and the rise in political power of the National Front. 

White Riot seeks to show us how the DIY, multiracial, community-led movement fought back against British fascism. To spread their antiracist message, Rock Against Racism published fanzines and organised gigs where black and white bands would share the stage. They called out hypocritical white musicians who espoused right-wing rhetoric while benefiting from the influence of black music.

Together with the Anti-Nazi League, in 1978 Rock Against Racism famously (as documented in the film) organised a carnival that saw 100,000 people march from Trafalgar Square to an open-air concert in Victoria Park, a hotspot for the National Front at the time. Bands like X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson Band and The Clash all took to the stage. 

“Our job was to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika,” says the movement’s co-founder Red Saunders in the film. As a self-declared punk myself, and a woman of colour, this speaks to my own devotion to this music. Since I was a teen, I’ve held on to the belief that punk is ultimately about resisting, fighting back against the elite, and supporting the marginalised minority in society. Given our current predicament, with racial tensions again at boiling point, are there lessons we could take from Rock Against Racism’s approach? Do we need another riot?

At first, the narrative that White Riot presents is one centring around whiteness. Kate Webb, who ran the RAR office, said: “Part of what RAR was doing was trying to think about racism as a white problem and the idea that we were all still living consciously or unconsciously with the legacy of colonialism.” Rock Against Racism identified whiteness as the problem, allowing for a deeper conversation on racism and its connections to British history to be held. 

Of course, to anyone else who had to deal with racism on a daily basis, Rock Against Racism’s epiphany felt somewhat late. As Pauline Black, frontwoman of ska punk band The Selecter, said: “Rock Against Racism was white people finally waking up to the fact that ‘oh my god there’s racism here’. Please, black people were living it.”

White Riot (2019)Photo by Syd Shelton

Yet, as frustrating as it may have been to see white people suddenly recognise the prejudices faced by people of colour, the efforts of Rock Against Racism were a valuable step in tackling the racism of the time. The outlook of RAR specifically targeted the youth who were already disaffected and drawn to the rhetoric of the National Front. It offered an almost simplistic vision of black and white people uniting through shared music culture. Although lacking in nuance (there were plenty of examples at the time of white artists and fans of black music who were unable to recognise the contradiction of loving black music and hating black people), there’s a lot to take from the idea of incorporating music culture into an antiracist movement. 

While the recent Black Lives Matter protests were taking place, the music industry attempted to recognise the role it could play by taking part in Blackout Tuesday, posting black squares on social media in solidarity. The move was widely mocked for being too passive, but elsewhere in the music world real change was happening. Spurred on by the wealth of antiracist material passed around on social media, musicians and fans of all backgrounds spoke out. Bands and fans demanded labels and promoters make their rosters more inclusive, the DIY database Black Bandcamp was created to make it easier to find artists to support, and many artists donated profits from live-stream fundraisers and Bandcamp Fridays to antiracist causes. 

White Riot (2019)Photo by Ray Stevenson

It’s this grassroots sensibility at the heart of Rock Against Racism that Shah seems desperate to draw the viewers’ attention to. This was a movement that could have been started by anyone, and everyone could be involved. Anyone could write to the Rock Against Racism headquarters and ask to join a local branch or start one in their town or city. The organisation also published a fanzine called Temporary Hoarding to spread their political outlook and share skills, giving readers step-by-step guides on how to organise a gig or start a campaign. Through DIY self-publishing, they were able to sidestep establishment media outlets to directly communicate with their audience.

White Riot left me with a sense of hope that I haven’t felt for a long time. The barrage of bad news that follows us at every waking hour, and the dominance of racist rhetoric, can make us feel powerless. But if there’s any one message to be taken from Shah’s film, it’s the belief that if a group of punks and reggae fans could unite to fight back against hatred in the 70s, anyone could do the same now.

  • White Riot is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 18 September 2020