Co-written with Claire Fisher, published in Weekly Worker
As readers will know, home secretary Theresa May responded to the English Defence League’s intention to hold an anti-Muslim demonstration in Tower Hamlets and the proposed counter-demonstration of the left by banning all marches in five London boroughs in the month of September, including the City of London.” />
As it turned out, the police were unable (or unwilling) to prevent fascists and anti-fascists alike marching. The two contingents marched for just under a mile – simultaneously, but separately; the EDL moving from Aldgate station to London Bridge, and the counter-protest marching from the eastern to the western end of Whitechapel Road, with a section converging at the lower end of Brick Lane, ‘blocking’ the EDL from entering the borough of Tower Hamlets and from harassing its Asian inhabitants.
Arriving at the permitted ‘static protest’ organised by Unite Against Fascism at the corner of Vallance Road and Whitechapel Road, we endured familiar scenes of popular frontist speechifying emanating from a makeshift stage. Amongst the crowd of approximately 1,000 people were comrades from the Socialist Workers Party and smaller left groups, union activists with a variety of banners and a higher than usual presence from the local community – sections of the large Muslim population of Tower Hamlets view the EDL as a real threat.
From the stage, the SWP’s Martin Smith, national coordinator of Love Music, Hate Racism and UAF ‘national officer’ (amongst his many guises), declared that the various meeting points the EDL had tried to organise had been “smashed” by community and union pressure. Attempts to use the Sainsburys car park down the road had been foiled by the UAF and local community groups lobbying the supermarket, while the RMT rail union had closed down Liverpool Street station, another proposed meeting point. Instead, he enthused, the fascists would not be shouting “E-E-EDL!”, but “N-N-NCP!” – a reference to them being holed up in an obscure car park.
The following speeches by others on the left, trade union activists, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians and ‘community leaders’, reinforced the overall message that the EDL ought to be opposed by all right-minded people. We had already decided we had seen all there was to see when we picked up twitter feeds which located around 1,000 EDL supporters first at Kings Cross, and then, all of a sudden, at Aldgate station. This piece of news prompted us to turn on our heels.
Aldgate station was by this time almost completely closed off and swarming with police. The official figure was 3,000 police out for the event, with the majority of them clearly tailing the EDL rather than the counter-protest. And it soon became clear why – rounding a corner on Minories, next to Aldgate station, we finally saw the EDL protest.
The front of the march consisted of tanked-up football hooligans and lumpen elements violently shoving the coppers forward. It was unclear at that point whether the police were letting them march, or just couldn’t stop them from getting to where they wanted to go. In hindsight, the trajectory of their progress, which led them away from the minaret-strewn Tower Hamlets, must have been a police tactic. As the kettling of the student protests had shown us all, if the cops want you to stay put, they usually see to it you do.
Watching the people who marched behind these trail-blazers from close range, it was interesting to note that many of them appeared placid, walking calmly, with young couples holding hands, smiling and acting in a generally respectful way. Rather than being limited to the petty bourgeois-lumpen bloc of Trotskyist formulae, the EDL seems to have picked up a following of ‘ordinary’ working class people. “Come and join us,” some of them shouted as they saw us watching. According to the SWP’s internal Party Notes, the EDL managed only to attract their “hardcore following”, while “soft supporters” stayed at home (September 5). This is not what it looked like to us.
We noted among the crowd a small young Jewish contingent, an Asian face, Roberta Moore from the EDL’s Zionist ‘division’. Following her came an athletic builder type holding up the national flag of Poland. Rather than being driven by drunken hatred, it appeared to us as if some of these people were here out of a sense of community and solidarity, however distorted. Unity at the expense of an excluded scapegoat, of course, is one of fascism’s oldest tricks – however inclusive the assembly might appear otherwise.
Major scuffles were continuously breaking out at the front, and later we found out that the march resulted in 60 arrests (all from the EDL contingent) – for assault on a police officer, common assault, drunk and disorderly behaviour and affray. At one point, a hooligan contingent surged out of the police ranks, trapping us against a wall for a short time. On Whitechapel Road, we noted a number of incidents, including a line of Asian youths standing silently, being stopped and rigorously searched by police.
Returning to our original starting point in Whitechapel, we found it was now serene, with tell-tale placards strewn on the empty streets, and SWP members languishing outside pubs, congratulating each other on their ‘victory’. We spoke to an SWP organiser who was in dire need of getting some frustrations off his chest. During our absence the numbers of counter-protestors had been bolstered by Asian youths and anarchists, who had collectively defied police orders and started to march west towards Aldgate. The comrade told us he was jubilant when this happened, considering their defiance of the marching ban to be a brave and commendable act. Many rank and file SWP members enthusiastically joined the foray. However, once down the road, the UAF leadership, armed with megaphones, directed the march to turn around, stating that their objective had been achieved.
Socialist Worker Online reported: “There is jubilation on the streets of east London. The EDL have scurried off home, without setting foot in Tower Hamlets. Anti-racists are now holding a ‘victory march’ down Whitechapel Road and returning to their rally point. Together they have filled the width of the road, and are being cheered by onlookers and crowds gathered around the East London Mosque. Within a few minutes they will be back at the rally point at Vallance Road, where their day began.”
The comrade we spoke to, however, was not jubilant, unable to reconcile the “victory” the central committee had proclaimed with the feelings of the people he was marching with. “It’s not right,” he said, “that the CC should turn around a march that was started by the people, and not take their wishes into consideration. There are problems in this organisation.” Later, he wryly added: “I’m not trying to recruit you – don’t worry.” In a real Communist Party, of course, he would be able to address any “problems in the organisation” openly in its press.
Whether this was a “victory” or not is hard to tell. One rather symbolic achievement was that both sides were able to defy Theresa May’s anti-democratic ban on marching, if only for a few hundred metres. Placards were waved and slogans were chanted on both sides, despite police threats that this kind of behaviour would lead to arrest. At the time of writing, however, it is still unclear how exactly the 1,000-strong EDL contingent got from Kings Cross to Tower Hamlets. Were they, after all, able to catch tube trains to Liverpool Street once the RMT’s half-hour closure of the station was over? Or did the Met give them a guided tour from A to B at ground level?
Having seen the EDL in action and up close, it is fair to say that a pitched battle would have ensued had both sides come head to head. The reader may decide who would have emerged victorious out of this particular confrontation. One gleeful consolation we take away with us is the story reported the next day in the press: upon leaving London, one of the EDL’s hired coaches broke down. Pissed to the gills and wanting to get back home, they lost their temper and rioted until the cops arrived and arrested every single one of them. Another classic EDL coup!
We broadly agree with what comrade Jack Conrad said in the CPGB podcast of September 4: in order to counter reactionary politics in the long run, we will need a Communist Party that is capable of mobilising communities, just as the historical CPGB was able to mobilise the working class against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s – not just physically, but politically (cpgb.podbean.com/2011/09/05/edl-protests). The self-evident, practical problem is that such a party does not exist at present, and we cannot pull one out of a hat at short notice.
What would be the alternative in present circumstances? Shall we allow groups such as the EDL to march triumphantly through Asian working class neighbourhoods without any opposition? Fascist groups tend to attract losers, and they do so by projecting an image of strength, unity and power. As evidenced by the precarian working class contingent within the EDL ranks, the army of losers may be growing in these days of economic crisis. As people feel the carpet being pulled from under their feet, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the imaginary ‘Islamic threat’ is really of such importance to some of these confused protestors – or just an excuse to march alongside others.
At the most basic level, the anti-EDL counter-protest was a show of strength and solidarity: those misguided souls who march with the EDL should not be left with the impression that they are marching with the winning team. To counter the EDL politically and win the working class to socialism, however, much more is needed than UAF’s lowest common denominator politics. And what better occasion to interact with the left through our presence and literature than protests such as the one last Saturday? The existing left, we fear, will not come knocking at our doors to enquire about our vision – a CPGB stall would not have been a bad idea at all.