In the last week the extreme right has been making all the running in the aftermath of the killing of soldier Lee Rigby on Wednesday. We have seen a sudden outpouring of racism and speedily-organised mobilisations by the EDL. The demonstration at Downing Street on Bank Holiday Monday was the first ‘official’ EDL event organised in response to the killing which anti-fascists had any time to respond to. Luckily UAF called a counter demonstration so the racists did not meet unopposed. The EDL demonstration was advertised for 3pm, although they had all organised to meet up earlier in Leicester Square. The rally organised by UAF was announced for 2pm, also at Downing Street.
When I arrived, the main UAF/anti-fascist contingent were behind police lines outside Downing Street and the cops were not letting anyone else join them. There was a small number of EDL the other side of them (estimated at 150). As I was unable to join together with the anti-fascist crowd, I tried to walk around the perimeter of the demonstration. It was then that I encountered a large number of EDL coming down Horse Guards Road. There were at least 500 of them and they appeared to be going wherever they pleased, marching freely through central London chanting, shouting and waving their flags with almost no police in attendance and no opposition. Apparently this main group of 500 or so had come from Leicester Square. There were some police vans tail-ending the march and a small number of police on foot were following them. However, when asked, one of the cops in attendance claimed to have no idea where the EDL were going. So it could be that the EDL were just being allowed to have an impromptu march wherever they liked or that the route had been agreed with the police but the cops were just unwilling to share this with members of the public.
Either way, the most concerning thing about this whole situation was the radically different policing strategy being adopted when compared to previous EDL demonstrations. In the past, EDL demonstrations have often been very constrained – hidden in car-parks out of town, restricted to static demonstrations or stuck behind huge police crowd control barriers. Now far be it from me to complain about a lack of cops controlling the streets, but the police seemed to have decided for the main part on a very ‘hands-off’ approach which involved the EDL getting to go more or less wherever they wanted. This situation did not feel especially safe in an area with a very ethnically mixed crowd of people from all over the world. Also, in addition to the actual marchers, throughout the day there were EDL everywhere wandering the streets individually and in gangs.
Eventually the group of 500 which had come from Leicester Square arrived at Downing Street for their rally. It appears that the anti-fascist crowd had initially occupied the intended location of the EDL rally and so the police had to remove them before the arrival of the EDL. From reports on the day, it seems there was some fairly heavy policing as the cops pushed the anti-fascists down the road. However, the anti-fascist crowd stayed for the duration of the EDL rally to oppose them.
Later on, once the EDL had had a couple of speeches, the police let them disperse up to Trafalgar Square and there were gangs of them roaming around. They mostly all headed for Leicester Square where there is a large Yates Wine Bar and a couple of other big pubs. On the way to Leicester Square I witnessed a gang of about 30 grouped around Glorious Leader Tommy Robinson (née Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) start on a guy seemingly purely because he wasn’t white. They totally surrounded him and it looked fairly ugly. To his credit he stood up for himself but was physically pulled out of the EDL mob by some cops. At Leicester Square about 200 or more EDL took over the street outside the Yates Wine Bar and were chanting, waving flags and banners, making impromptu speeches and singing some of their charming ditties including one about ‘ragheads’ and some of their old favourites including ‘Allah, Allah, Who the Fuck is Allah?’ and ‘Muslim Paedos off our Streets’. I watched one EDLer get nicked for trying to hit an anti-fascist with a stick.
The whole day felt generally unpleasant. Large groups of EDL marched around central London chanting their racist chants and were free to intimidate people in the street largely unconstrained by any significant police presence or opposed by any anti-fascists. From about 5.30 onwards they marched around the West End larging it up all through Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square, again unopposed.
However, credit to the people that organised the counter-demonstration – it would have been far worse had there not been any visible opposition. And throughout the day there were some brave and up-for-it anti-fascists who stood up to oppose much larger groups of EDL in what was generally quite an intimidating atmosphere.
The last week and the continuing pace of events has hopefully been a salutary reminder not to underestimate the EDL. They have moved quickly and been quite smart in their exploitation of the killing in Woolwich. The death of Lee Rigby was a gift for the EDL and they have not been slow to utilise it. They have been swift enough to capture an element of the public and media mood – to get in that window of opportunity while everyone’s feelings are still raw. They had a demo the same day as the attack, attempting to march on the Greenwich Islamic Centre; Yaxley-Lennon put out a video statement very quickly; they stepped up organising for their pre-planned demo in Newcastle and also announced the demo at Downing Street two days later. Yaxley-Lennon also publicised a sponsored walk to Woolwich to raise funds for Help for Heroes and they have announced wreath-laying events across the country for Saturday. There’s an EDL ‘meet and greet’ in Leeds on June 1st to deal with all the new interest they are receiving; their Facebook ‘likes’ have gone from 30,000 to 130,000 in a week and they are planning demonstrations outside the court when the men accused of the Woolwich attack appear. Plus there have been impromptu spontaneous events in cities across the country – some sort of drunken march in Bristol, blocking the road in Wolverhampton etc. That’s a lot of activity for less than a week. In addition to this ‘official’ EDL activity, there has also been a big spike in anti-Muslim racist incidents in the last few days. There have been193 anti-Muslim incidents recorded in the last 6 days and 10 attacks on mosques, including a firebombing.
No doubt the EDL may still be capable of shooting themselves in the foot, but after a year when they seemed to be in terminal decline, this sudden resurgence is a proper wake-up call for anti-fascists.
The reaction to the killing of Lee Rigby
The singular thing over the last few days has been the seeming scale of the racist reaction to the killing of Lee Rigby. I don’t recall there being a similar level of anti-Muslim backlash even after the more obviously ‘terroristic’ attacks of the 2005 7/7 bombings. I think a large part of the reason for this is the groundwork that the EDL has laid over the last 4 years. This demonstrates the circular nature of the relationship between the EDL and wider racism in society – the existence of the EDL has emboldened racists and made anti-Muslim sentiment seem more acceptable. The EDL have then reaped the reward of the last 4 years of marches and demonstrations with the scale of the racist reaction to the killing in Woolwich, which has in turn given them a real shot in the arm. The recent rise of UKIP probably hasn’t hurt any either – lots of people were saying after UKIP’s election results that now they finally felt free to say the racist things they had been thinking all along.
This gives us an important cue that we need to be tackling the wider racism in society and not limit ourselves to only trying to stop the EDL when they raise their heads publicly.
Following the killing in Woolwich, the EDL were ready placed as the go-to guys if you don’t like Muslims and have been providing a convenient way for people to funnel their emotions over the killing. The state is not providing anything in the way Bush did after 9/11 – no way to ‘get the bad guys’ – neither is anyone else providing anything ‘to do’ about it. The EDL are the only people providing an outlet for anger and a ‘thing to do’.
Despite this phenomenon and although EDL numbers have been boosted by recent events, they haven’t been boosted as much as might have been feared. Although both this and the Newcastle demo had numbers higher than recent showings, neither were in excess of what they’ve had in their heyday. Importantly, they don’t seem to have had a huge breakthrough outside of their normal constituency (at least in terms of those who are willing to come out on a demo). This still looked like an EDL demo and the vast majority of people on it fitted the stereotype of middle-aged fat white men with bald heads. My guess is that dormant or disaffected EDL sympathisers – those who drifted away in the last year or so of their decline – have been motivated to get out of bed for this one. When they were just trudging round city centres there was dissention in the ranks. But now here’s the enemy they were wanting. So they have roused their core constituency but have not (yet) made a breakthrough. With any luck the drunken racist antics of this core constituency will make this unlikely, but there is also important work to be done here too – to de-legitimise the EDL, to show them up for what they are and to make it clear that the majority of people oppose them and that they do not represent a legitimate political position.
Don’t bury the meaning and significance of this in mockery
One way of de-legitimising them in the eyes of wider society is to publicise the times when they fuck up from a PR point of view. When EDLers display their racism on Facebook for example, the Left gleefully seizes on this. Although this is all valuable and worthwhile, we should remember that this is probably not going to affect their appeal to their core constituency. The more they are known as those people who are against the Muslims, some people might be put off, but other will be attracted. And when some incident like Woolwich does occur, they are right there, well-known and positioned to take advantage of it. So now you get people re-assessing them saying ‘I always used to think you guys were racists, but now I’ve changed my mind…’
Spending too much time getting excited about when the EDL embarrass themselves does feel a bit like clutching at straws – we weren’t able to effectively oppose them in the streets this time so we’ll find another way to laugh at them and declare their demonstration a failure. It’s certainly good to expose the EDL for what they are, but anti-fascists circulating film of people making Nazi salutes to crowds of hundreds in the middle of London or recordings of EDL leaders being cheered for saying ‘send the black cunts home’ and then feeling like that’s somehow a good thing, like we really got one over on them there, feels a little perverse. It is horrific that these things are happening and it’s not really a victory for us that they are. If anything, it’s the opposite, really – it is a failure that they are bold enough to do these things in public.
Mocking and dismissing the EDL as idiots has not proven to be a useful tactic, because here we are and they have managed to bounce back out of the doldrums. All they needed was one appropriate incident that fits their ‘clash of civilisations’ agenda and the nous to exploit that effectively and they’re making hay. We can say ‘oh they’re just trying to capitalise on this terrible incident’, but the fact is they are being very successful at capitalising on this terrible incident.
Anti-fascists have to up our game
It appears anti-fascists have been left lagging somewhat and unable to keep up with the speed of events. Respect to UAF for actually getting something together for Monday – it looked initially like no one was going to say or do anything. It was very important that the EDL were opposed.
However, some weaknesses have been exposed in anti-fascism in recent days. It appears we can get good numbers and outnumber the EDL when given large amounts of advance notice and months to prepare. Normally this has worked in a specific locality when the mobilisation has played a lot upon locals coming out to oppose the presence of the EDL in their area. But the EDL have a culture in which they have large numbers who are willing to travel across the country for their events. The committed anti-fascist movement who will travel anywhere to oppose them is considerably smaller. Also we seem slow compared with them. It’s probably good that we don’t use Facebook for everything like they do, but nevertheless, their use of social media and the internet does enable them to organise with speed. We don’t seem to be able to move so quickly.
We need to build the culture that the EDL will be opposed wherever they go – we shouldn’t have to wait for someone official to make a call out. The EDL are doing stuff every day at the moment. It’s too slow to wait for call outs. If the EDL have announced an event, that should be enough to make sure that anti-fascists are there. We also need to be able to move quicker and communicate quicker and cultivate numbers of people who are willing to travel to oppose the EDL wherever they are.
The EDL are on a roll at the moment – they will get bolder if not effectively opposed. As we have seen over the last week, the success of the EDL will lead to an increase in racist attacks as racists are given the impression that theirs are acceptable opinions that people can openly espouse and that they are not alone and have support in society.
What we need to do
This last week has confirmed many of the things I argued in a previous blog post. Particularly that the EDL can bounce back from seeming decline, that we can expect activity in the far right to spring up and circulate quickly via the internet, that we need to be able to respond quicker, we cannot rely so much on merely mocking them, that autonomous anti-fascists can’t just tail-end UAF demonstrations but need to get stuck in to mass organising and that we need to combat the whole background culture of racism on which the EDL feeds.
Ideally anti-fascists need to move quickly – things are changing day by day at the moment and in two weeks things will have moved on and changed again.
So, at the risk of setting down an arrogantly proscriptive list of things to do…
We need to:
– build the culture that they will be opposed wherever they go.
– get the numbers out quickly – we have to be willing to travel and be able to organise quicker.
– build autonomous local anti-fascist groups united in a wider movement separate to UAF. Build the Anti-Fascist Network.
– oppose the EDL not only at their official rally. Whether they feel like they are free to roam the streets at will before and after their official event is key. If their events feel fun and successful for them they are going to keep coming back. Our task is to try and make them feel rubbish.
– And no back-slapping until we outnumber them 10 to 1.
– de-legitimise them – show them to be beyond the pale of what is acceptable.
– make the arguments against their Islamophobic politics – not just the identify the minority of Nazis among them, accuse them all of being Hitler-worshippers and consider our job done.
– tackle wider racism in society with other approaches, not just at the public manifestations of EDL.
– actively promote an anti-racist and anti-fascist culture. Maybe doing our own events and demos separate from just opposing the EDL.
– retreat into merely mocking them and think that is an adequate response.
– under-estimate them or write them off – they’re not dead till they’re dead.