Rock Against Racismâs thirtieth anniversary
Thirty years ago on April 30, a crowd of 80,000 rocked out to bands including The Clash to protest against the rise of the National Front. In the run-up to Rock Against Racism‘s thirtieth birthday celebrations, Time Out talks to Matthew Collins, a BNP supporter turned anti-fascist campaigner, about his violent past, becoming an informer and why RAR is as important today as it was three decades ago
When Rudolph Hess died in 1987, I was 15. I watched the obituaries on TV and thought it was all very exciting. Soon after, a free BNP newspaper came through the door. It described Hess as a prisoner of conscience. It was the most dangerous and exciting thing I’d ever read.
I was white, working class, living on a Lewisham council estate. Our community centre had been closed down and turned into a drink-and-drugs den. I wanted to be part of something.
I wrote the BNP a letter. Eventually I received a phone call: some gruff old voice asking me if I’d like to come to a meeting in a Bromley pub. The six people there were quite open about their views: Jews were controlling everything; black people were inferior and criminally inclined.
I started going drinking with BNP and National Front supporters and going to meetings. Everyone knew each other. I found it comforting. Relations with the black people I knew changed. I began to feel that black and Jewish people had no right to be here. I stopped watching TV and listening to music. I thought it was all a propaganda machine for the Jews. The fascists aged me: within a month I felt 45.
Violence was a constant element. When you were selling newspapers on street corners, you knew you would have a fight and were resigned to it. Also, every time we had a march or meeting there was always the fear that the anti-fascists would storm us. There were more of them than us and they were hard.
A big misconception about the time is that we were all skinheads. But skinheads played very little part in our movement by this time. I was an ordinary working-class bloke: the last thing I wanted to do was run around in boots and braces with a shaven head. I dressed like a casual.
In 1989, the BNP opened a bookshop in Welling and I volunteered there. The shop had a big effect on Bexleyheath and the surrounding areas. That area of south London was known as the Deep South and the atmosphere contributed to the Stephen Lawrence murder.
The local community held a meeting at Welling Library to discuss the opening of the bookshop. The BNP went along. I thought we would put our case about the things the BNP holds dear: freedom of speech and our right to engage in political movements. But we just stormed in. We attacked the caretaker, stamping on his body, his arms, his legs, his head. He hasn’t worked since. We kicked open the doors to Welling Library and shouted ‘We are the British National Party!’
I remember looking at the meeting and there were just little old Asian ladies on chairs. We laid into them, kicking and punching. Everyone ran to hide but we took hammers to them, pieces of wood, sticks and motorcycle helmets. Some of us were smashing the toilet door trying to get to this pregnant Asian woman. Another person jumped through a first floor window to escape. We put 17 people in hospital.
At first, I thought it was great fun because these people were trying to stop my freedom of speech. But towards the end of the fight, which only lasted two or three minutes, I suddenly thought: I need to get out of here. This has gone too far. I looked at all these people lying there and it wasn’t what I wanted.
In 1990, I became chairman of the South London National Front and also worked a couple of days a week at the bookshop. But I was concerned about the psychotic nature of some of the people around me.
I just wanted to redress the balance. I decided to ring [anti-fascism and anti-racism magazine] Searchlight anonymously. Everyone in the BNP knew the staff at that magazine were evil baby-eating communists.
I began to give Searchlight information: about correspondence, what the campaigns were going to be, who’d been arrested for what. Towards the end of 1990, I rang Searchlight and the person at the end of the phone said, ‘Why don’t we meet. Your information is very good.’
I met Gerry Gable, the editor, at a museum. He asked me to continue passing on information, and I agreed. I handed over membership details, helped them photograph members, blew its meetings. No one was suspicious but I was terrified they would find out. I had a fair idea of what would happen to me.
In return for helping Searchlight I got book vouchers and records. They encouraged me to go to museums and read books. I met Gerry and we talked about music. We’d go to Chinese, Greek or Lebanese restaurants, and I starting thinking: I really like London, you can eat anything here!
In 1991, I was involved in forming Combat18, which was initially just organised security. Then it took on a life of its own and began plotting attacks on the Irish and the anti-racist community. They were quite successful: they firebombed Gable’s house, threatened to shoot a former Time Out news editor and smashed up a Portsmouth synagogue.
I continued to provide information for Searchlight, but I was tiring of it all. I was getting older, I had a girlfriend and desperately wanted to walk away from it.
So in 1993, Searchlight magazine approached [ITV investigative current affairs series] ‘World in Action’ with the idea of exposing C18 with my help. When C18 became aware of the programme it went into panic mode, dusting people down for mics at meetings. But still they didn’t find out about my involvement.
But the morning after the programme, Special Branch came to me and said ‘You’re going to be murdered.’
They got me an Australian visa and put me on a plane. I was terrified. I stayed there ten years, went to college, got married, got divorced. Since I’ve returned I’ve been in hiding. The BNP people I was close to would not forget. I’ve got my eyes open for a dirty dozen in London.
There is a danger the BNP will do well in the May elections. There are two London Assembly seats they have a chance of winning. It depends entirely on Boris Johnson: the more right wing he becomes in the eyes of the electorate, the better chance that the Conservatives will get BNP votes. There is big support for the BNP in Barking and Dagenham.
That’s why it’s important that Rock Against Racism, now renamed Love Music Hate Racism, is still around. I’m involved with Hope Not Hate, a group set up to fight the BNP in the elections: we will be putting on gigs in support of RAR’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations, which hopefully will help people see that there is no place for the BNP. It’s a battle for hearts and minds out there.
The Love Music Hate Racism carnival is on April 27 in Victoria Park, for info visit www.lmhrcarnival.com. See also www.rockagainstracism.org.uk, www.hopenothate.org.uk.
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