Syd Shelton

Syd Shelton discusses his exhibition of antiracist protest photographs in London

Syd Shelton,  Specials Fans, RAR Carnival Against the Nazis, Leeds, 1981, gelatin silver fiber print, 16 x 20".

Syd Shelton is a photographer who first started working with the Rock Against Racism activist group in 1977, when racial tensions were at a peak in the UK. At a time when right-wing media attacks on the black community in southeast London were common and discriminatory policing was taking a toll on that community, Rock Against Racism brought together antiracist activists from across the country to attend concerts, exhibitions, and protests. Now, as racial tension and a refugee crisis grow again in both the US and the UK, Shelton’s photographs from his time with the group are on display at Rivington Place in London, ‪from October 2 through December 5‬, 2015.

I BECAME INVOLVED with Rock Against Racism after the Battle of Lewisham in southeast London in 1977. This was when a racist march by about one hundred National Front supporters was met with five thousand antiracist activists who had traveled down from all over the country. The Metropolitan Police were determined that the National Front be able to march, so they deployed a quarter of their force, suited with riot gear. This was the first time the police in Britain were militarized, and the officers’ use of riot shields really shifted the goalposts for activists—we were up against something different now. At the same time, Eric Clapton had just delivered a horribly racist tirade onstage, in support of Conservative politician Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

We realized we needed to grab the headlines to counter the right-wing media’s high profile, and our first major event was a carnival in April 1978—a huge concert in the Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets. We didn’t want it to just be a free rock concert, though; we wanted it to be a demonstration. So we organized a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, which is about six or seven miles. It took us around six hours. It wasn’t just a straightforward march, though; every few hundred yards we’d have bands. The Ruts and Misty in Roots played on the backs of trucks in the march, and the Clash and X-Ray Spex played from the stage in the park. It was the largest antiracist demonstration since the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 between the fascist Blackshirts and antifascists.

What we did in Rock Against Racism was use art—music, photography, graphic design, fashion, style—to make our arguments. We used culture as a weapon. We wanted the music itself, and practices such as having black bands and white bands performing together, to express antiracist ideas and give them real weight and meaning, rather than using the crude slogans that so often caricature mass movements. That’s also why we didn’t look for a different title for this exhibition—we just named it after the group.

One of my favorite images from the exhibition is of three young black kids at a Specials gig in 1981. They’re wearing Ben Sherman button-down shirts, Harrington jackets—total skinhead gear originally. The whole thing had gone full circle, because skinheads appropriated their style from the rude boys in Jamaica, so it was like a new generation of rude boys had reclaimed the style back from the skinheads. This picture is a really good example of “style-activism,” to use a phrase from one of the show’s cocurators, Carol Tulloch. Another important image that’s included is of Jimmy Pursey at our second carnival in Brixton, also in 1978. He had had to pull out of performing after a gang of racists threatened to kill him. But in the middle of the show, I was backstage reloading my cameras with film and suddenly Jimmy charged onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and made the most fantastically brave and passionate antiracist speech. Then he turned around, literally shaking with emotion. He looked at me for a second, and I got the shot. I still feel that I’m putting the antiracist argument forward using art. But this exhibition is not about me as a photographer; it’s about making a statement in the streets of Shoreditch.