“WHITE RIOT”— Rock Against Racism


Rock Against Racism

Amos Lassen

 Rubikah Shah’s “White Riot” looks at Rock Against Racism movement and tales us through its history. We understand RAR members’ motivation for starting the organization in ways that makes it relevant. We trace the movement’s rise from a fanzine to its organization of an all-star gig in Victoria Park that featured X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band. We see the concert not only capturing political schisms at the heart of punk, but common British attitudes of the time.

Through interviews with RAR staff and musicians we get a look at the era that brought about the rise of RAR. Support, whether aesthetic or ideological, of the far right is questioned here, with the hesitance of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey stand that might alienate right-leaning fans a source of dramatic conflict.

The film makes its points with clarity giving us a viewing experience that’s both energetic and a call to action. We see how a group of punk rock loving folks took a stance against the anti-immigrant nationalist wave that threatened to flood the United Kingdom. 

RAR founder Red Saunders states early on in the film that the late 1970s were volatile in UK. The economy was ruined and those suffering the most were looking for someone to blame. It was the perfect time for the far-right political party National Front to lay the groundwork for racial division. 

Fueled by the anti-immigrant sentiment coming from members of parliament such as Enoch Powell, the National Front frequently pushed their “we’ll put white people first” rhetoric in the media. They sold their far-right papers in front of schools, and worked the streets recruiting youth from struggling working-class families. However, it was musicians such as David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton who aligned themselves with fascist views that allowed hatred to take place. Clapton even went as far as openly asking fans at his 1976 Birmingham concert to vote for Powell.

Seeing Clapton promoting a white nationalist agenda while having a successful career based on music that came out of Black culture was hypocritic soSaunders decided to create Rock Against Racism to organize the “rank and file against the racist poison in music.” It began with a small team that included typesetter Roger “Dub” Huddle, office manager Irate Kate, photographer Syd Tune and graphic designer Ruth “Pink Heart” Gregory. The group turned their love of music into grassroots action and began publishing the music magazine “Temporary Hoarding” to speak against racism and organized local concerts that featured Black and white musicians on the lineup together.

Rock Against Racism embraced diversity, regardless of whether it occurred in a magazine or at a punk show and was vital to dismantling bigotry and xenophobia. The racism of the UK at the time was predominantly a white problem. Immigrants and people of color may have been burdened with it, facing countless acts of violence and frequent police harassment, but it was white people who needed to be part of the solution and not just the cause. This is what Saunders and his fellow RAR members knew from the outset. 

The film not draws parallels to what was occurring in the UK with the apartheid era in South Africa and also touches on the tools and systems that allow racism to thrive today. We see that the media is frequently complicit in giving those who hark in anti-immigrant speech a platform and it is a rite of passage that is not available to those who espouse anti-white doctrines. 

“White Riot” is a reminder that individuals, and not governments officials, are the real instruments for change. Shah’s film reinforces the importance of putting aside one’s own uneasiness for a much bigger cause. 

Rock Against Racism used its platform to bring attention to anti-immigrant politics, question conventional views of sexuality and challenged musicians who used fascism as a tool for financial gains and while it may have existed on the fringes, it achieved more through its underground creativity than could have been thought. 

The film is filled with energy bringing together music, politics, animation, interviews and history and it will please those unfamiliar with the punk scene and those looking for stories of average people challenging the status quo.

Shah’s film stresses the power that is within each individual to evoke change. Music may have been the vessel here but it was the message of being vigilant against racism that united them all. It just takes a few individuals willing to rise to the challenge for others to follow.