“We are black, white, Asian and we’re Jews! And we’re many, many, many more than you!” This catchy tune was the best chant I heard at the demonstration against the English Defence League’s march through Tower Hamlets in East London. It summed up the central message of those protesting the EDL’s pernicious attempt to stoke religious hatred: multiculturalism is not dead, and the vast majority of Londoners reject Islamophobia.
The rally, co-ordinated by Unite Against Fascism, attracted all sorts. Standing in the middle of the small Altab Ali Park facing the make-shift stage, I could see the local Labour party, trade unions, umpteen socialist parties, mosque delegations, LGBT groups and, of course, the local parish priest. It was a carnival of bizarre speakers (including an appearance by Muslim 90s hip-hop legend UK Apache – “the only thing terrorist about me is the beats I’m dropping”), polite conversation (“So, what’s the difference between the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Appeal?” “We aren’t self-serving c*nts”) and niche magazines (the quarterly Jewish Socialist Gazette anyone?).
Turn 180 degrees, though, and it was a rather different story. At the back of the park stood around two hundred people dressed in black jeans and black tops carrying black flags. Many had their faces covered – one man had even covered his in a tattoo. Put mildly, they looked rather intimidating.
Despite wearing mainly greens, reds and blues and having only one nose piercing between the three of us, we were soon approached by a member of the group. She urged us to follow her when she, along with her comrades, went to actively disrupt the EDL. “We’re going to do some serious damage, actually,” she told us. The implication was clear: her group, the ‘London Antifascists’, harnessing the memory of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was actually going to do something about the EDL presence, rather than just stand singing nice songs and listening to speeches.
As promised, our friend and her allies in black did indeed leave the park; they tactically turned away from the heavy police presence to find a back route to Tower Bridge, where the EDL were assembled pre-march.
150 of these protestors, having been kettled by police, were, several hours later, marched onto buses as they were arrested under public order offences.
As I left Altab Ali Park (with ‘black or white, stand and fight!’ still stuck in my head), I wondered whether I should feel guilty. There I was, safely behind hundreds of police officers, listening to speeches, chanting and waving a dog-eared placard, while the “real” protestors – the “proper” anti-fascists – went to actually ‘stand and fight’. That evening, they were sitting in a police station while I was having a nice cup of tea back home.
Then I switched on my computer. The headline on The Guardian read “EDL marchers scuffle with anti-racist protestors”. The Independent’s version was “More than 160 arrested at EDL Tower Hamlets March”. Almost nothing of the huge, colourful, diverse gathering at the official counter-demonstration. Instead, the story was ‘arrests, arrests, arrests’.
I am not for one minute suggesting any kind of moral parity between the arrest of EDL members (including their leader Tommy Robinson) and those of the London Antifascists. However, the narrative as seen by most people is ‘extremists on both sides get arrested by police’.
Screw that. This is not a story of two equally nasty groups – it’s a story of fascists intent on intimidating Muslims in Tower Hamlets being challenged by vastly more Londoners who want to see them off the streets.
The question, then, is who is more effective in challenging the EDL – the mainstream UAF and Hope Not Hate organisations or the more radical black-shirted Antifascists? I would venture three reasons why the answer is the former.
First, and most obviously, the apprehension of radical protestors deflects media attention from the content of both the EDL march and the counter-demonstration. It would surely be preferable to have the newspapers print ‘Diverse group of Londoners outnumber EDL by ten to one’. This can only be achieved when there are no “sexy” arrests or violent flare-ups for journalists to cover.
Second, the actions of London Antifascist activists vindicate the EDL line against their opponents: the ‘loony left’ are the ones who ‘cause trouble’ and, without them, marches would be peaceful. The creation of this narrative is problematic because it lets the EDL get away with just hurling pathetic insults at the anti-fascist movement rather than tackling their case. It furthermore acts as a useful recruiting tool for the EDL: those considering joining will be more likely to do so if they can rationalise the other side as the extremists and their side as “normal English patriots standing up for their country”.
Similarly, many are scared away from anti-EDL demonstrations because of the fear of being caught up in a kettle or being arrested. I had serious conversations with my friends about whether we ought attend last week in light of the warnings we had received about potential arrest. Since then, in many of my conversations with others – particularly older folk – I have received expressions of shock that I joined a UAF rally. If anti-EDL events were instead known to be peaceful and welcoming affairs, we would see a larger and broader mobilisation.
Some may argue that these three considerations are outweighed by the short-term gains sometimes brought by direct action; the ‘black-shirts’ do, to their credit, occasionally physically prevent the EDL from marching down a given street. Ultimately, though, the battle against the EDL will not be won by the odd march being re-routed.
The way to beat the EDL is to present a different vision of “Englishness”. And we could do much worse than follow the example of UK Apache – a Londoner of Asian and Arab-Iraqi heritage; the creator of 1994 ragga jungle hit ‘Original Nuttah’; and a man who unashamedly uses banter to deflect Islamophobia. And guess what? He wasn’t wearing black.