It’s time I put the text of my speech to the South London Anti-Fascist Group’s AGM online.
The talk nearly did not happen. Much to my surprise, Hope Not Hate objected to me speaking, describing my presence as ‘intolerable’. Hope Not Hate’s predecessor organisation, Searchlight , long enjoyed a monopoly over media coverage of the far-right – it is worrying if Hope Not Hate believe they have a similar monoply over analysis of fascism, or even of opposition to it?
Anyway, after the AGM’s business those present had a talk by Hackney Unites on their work in east London, and performances by Dean Atta and the Ruby Kid . That gave me the most difficult slot of all – the last one. Here’s what I said:
Talk To South London Anti-Fascists
I am slightly embarrassed at being described as an activist. I’m as active as anyone with 3 part time jobs, twin sons and a PhD to finish.
I was very active for best part of two decades, a member of Class War for 16 years, I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action on an occasional basis (those who remember Red Action will know Anarchists were always kept in reserve for when the numbers were short, we were the auxillary force) and a founder member of No Platform and Antifa.
If I have theme this evening it is that things are very different today to 1992 or 1993 – but in some ways they can still be rather similar.
In 1993 anti-fascists had to contend with a large, fluid group of disparate young men, ostensibly protesting about terrorism. Their numbers certainly contained organised fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers, but also from football firms, people with little or no political background, and people looking for a scrap. Those anti-IRA demonstrations – the cries of No Surrender – were the precursors of the EDL demonstrations of today.
Those demonstrations passed. Indeed they were a distraction from doing what was necessary – reaching a mature peace in Ireland. And the EDL are a similar distraction
- The first is that they will stimulate racist attacks – either on lone Muslims on the fringes of demonstrations, or as we have seen in Luton in an attack on a mosque.
- That EDL actions will stimulate racist attacks by Muslims on whites. At the counter-demo to the EDL in Birmingham at least one white passer by was beaten up, with footage of the incident displayed across the papers.
With hindsight, there are other dangers we could perhaps add, although I have to say the idea of the EDL as an electoral force conjoined with the British Freedom Party is one that at this stage I don’t fear. Social movements tend to lose something, some of their sparkle when they try and become political parties.
3. The third danger I saw, which is by far the biggest, is that the EDL retard debate about Islam, and more importantly Islamism, in the UK. There is something different potentially about the EDL to the anti-IRA – read anti-Irish – demonstrations of the 1990s.
Lets consider where the EDL emerges – in Luton – following the Al-Mujihiroun demonstration against the Royal Anglian Regiment. Historically Luton is a town with comparatively good race relations. It has good relations between white and black, and good relations between Irish and British. It has very poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. Those problems long predate the EDL.
In 2009 I argued the presence of the EDL runs the risk of dividing debate into racists on one side, and professional anti-racists and Muslim representative organisations on the other, with little or no space for anyone else to operate in. Melanie Phillips on one side and the Muslim Council of Britain on the other. And that divide excludes the vast majority of people in this community, and indeed the UK.
There is a problem, for people on the left, in considering issues in those terms. Look at the hysterical reactions from some on the left when, I think it was Nick Lowles, made the comment that Al-Mujihiroun and the EDL were two sides of the same coin. It was hardly a bizarre comparison to make.
There are problems, and indeed real concerns with some of the brands of Islam we now see in the UK. In Tower Hamlets, the most important political institution is not the Labour Party, trades unions or a particular community group – it is East London Mosque. How we articulate and discuss these issues is an even bigger challenge than dealing with the EDL. They are another distraction from where we want to go, from where we want society to be.
I want to say a few things about multi-culturalism. It is something I suspect everyone in this room is comfortable with. As an Englishman of Irish descent with an African wife, I know I am. A London where we get on with our neighbours and our workmates precisely because they are our neighbours and colleagues. That gives us shared interests and things in common. A multi-culturalism where we see people as people, not as representatives of particular ethnic or religious groups, to be spoken to and interacted with on those terms.
I don’t usually see the need to articulate most of the problems of London in racial terms. That is not to say racism does not exist – it does. But there are two types of multi-culturalism. Kenan Malik’s attack on a top down multi-culturalism, where identities are imposed by authorities – read his book From Fatwa to Jihad – is I think essential reading. He sets out how in Birmingham identities were imposed, by the local authority, and funding and power allocated on that basis. And within two decades, you have blacks and Muslims fighting each other in the streets. In the 1980s they had been fighting alongside one another against the police.
Onto the contemporary far-right. As in the early 1990s, the main far right party is underachieving. The spivvy nature of Griffin’s BNP has been understood by his own supporters, taking a lot of his base away. Griffin’s sole priority is probably to get re-elected as an MEP – those who have served two terms in the European Parliament get a very significant pension. It is hard, but not impossible to see him getting the BNP back to where it was.
These are still challenging times though for anti-fascists. I would recommend to you some of the work Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University has done on far-right voting patterns and opinion poll data across Europe. In most countries the populist (read fascist) party has a rising vote – Norway and the UK being the most noticeable exceptions. It is not hard to see why the vote is collapsing in Norway – in Anders Breivik, they have seen fascism in action. In France and Austria the majority of white working class voters indicated they would vote for the ‘populist’ party.
I am not sure anything about a trend ensures its continuation. To me, a whole series of dangers exist, but one of the most dangerous is to play into the hands of fascists. If there is such a thing as ‘the black community’ or the ‘Vietnamese community’ or the ‘Muslim community’, with fixed leaders, structures and needs, can we really wet our pants in shock and distress when someone says “I represent the white community vote for me”?
Yes we need multi-culturalism. It is what I live. But we need a bottom up multi-culturalism, not a top down government approach that plays into the hands of our enemies.
No Platform, which I tried to uphold for two decades, is harder than ever to implement. Firstly because of police repression – consider the six Antifa members jailed last year, the amount of CCTV, the limitless expenses these specialist police units seem to have. Secondly look at the rise of social media and the Internet – the BNP could be prevented from leafleting, but that same leaflet placed online and seen by hundreds of people within minutes. Which makes no platform more of an occasional tactic than part of a sustainable, permanent programme.
We have to beat the fascists in argument. And we can. Our ideas are better than theirs.
Thank you for listening.
Beating the Fascists: The untold story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall (Freedom Press), reviewed by Ben Aylott
A couple of reviews below about the recently published account of militant anti-fascism over two decades in the UK by Anti Fascist Action…a must read on so many levels for all those professing to understand fascism, anti-fascism and the working class in the UK.
Beating the Fascists is a highly readable and uncompromising account of two decades of militant anti-fascism with important lessons for today. Beginning with the background to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in the late 1970s and the expulsion of the ‘squaddist’ street-fighters from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1981, Birchall takes us on a tour of the following 20 years of Anti Fascist Action (AFA).
The book is a real page-turner, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The description of the often brutal treatment of the fascists at the hands of the militants is graphic to the point of absurdity at times. But Birchall also has some serious points to make.
There is a sense of setting the record straight: principally in Birchall’s argument that AFA, and the militant anti-fascism it espoused, had the most devastating impact on fascism in mainland Britain in the period and that it directly contributed to the BNP’s eventual retreat, in the mid 1990s, from the Mosleyite dogma of the necessity of controlling the streets. Indeed, Birchall claims a continuity between AFA and the 43 Group of Jewish ex-servicemen, who confronted Mosley’s attempts at a fascist resurgence in the immediate post-war period.
The publication of this book has inevitably been controversial, not least because of its critical account of ‘constitutional’ anti-fascist organisations, in particular the SWP. Its recurring criticism of the British left in general is that it is largely to blame for the alienation of working-class voters who are getting behind the BNP, an argument that has taken on renewed relevance in the debate about the significance and role of the English Defence League.
Street politics: ‘Beating the fascists’
For two decades British anti-fascists fought a cold blooded battle for control of the streets against burgeoning far-right movements, Brian Whelan meets the authors of a controversial new book by activists who were there on the frontlines.
Just last year the BNP put forward 338 candidates for the UK parliamentary election, the biggest fielding by the far right the country had ever seen, topping the National Front’s 303 candidates in 1979.
The party gambled and lost, failing to win any seats and losing their 12 seats on Barking Council. The British left declared the BNP to have been finally defeated, decimated and no longer a threat.
However, veteran members of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) have a different analysis, they point out that the BNP have more than tripled their vote and say things are going to get a lot worse.
Joe and Ian are veterans from AFA’s war against the far-right, meeting in a bar in their former stomping ground of Islington, North London, they say they must protect their identities for fear of reprisals to this day.
Their book Beating the Fascists has caused a huge stir in the UK; published by Freedom Press, the book pulls no punches in its accounts of the physical fight against fascism on the streets and the internal political tensions that often threatened to tear the group apart.
Over ten years in the making Beating the Fascists not only chronicles the bloody street battles and political squabbles but also points out how fascist filled a vacuum for a radical alternative that the left has failed to.
The BNP’s turn to electoralism and attempt to become, on the surface, a respectable political party, was a direct result of the remorseless violence they were met with by AFA in the early 90s, the authors claim.
They explain that the BNP’s decision to abandon their Mosleyite strategy of winning control of the streets through menace was due in no small part to AFA’s violent counter-strategy.
However, they say AFA always argued that unless the left could undermine the far-right’s political constituency in the white working class they would never be truly beaten.
“The NF, C18 and BNP all had the same Mosleyite strategy to win control of the streets and after that the wider political narrative would kick in,” Joe explains.
“That was their plan so I mean there was a flaw in that if they were met by equal or superior violence they would be left in a limbo and that’s the position they found themselves in in the mid-90s, so they stepped off”.
The book is an often disturbing read, each chapter switching from graphic details of violent operations with militaristic discipline against fascists to analysis of the political decisions they faced.
When questioned on whether they have exaggerated for bravado or omitted stories of fights lost, the authors claim that the book is true to events as they happened.
“The punches are pulled on a number of instances to be fair, it’s a proper history and the violence and subjective perspective of the participants is presented to allow people to see that anti-fascism wasn’t a non violent affair,” Joe explained.
They reveal inside accounts of events such as ‘Battle for Brick Lane’, a series of running battles spanning 1990-1993 which saw the far-right lose one of their strongholds in London’s East End.
“Initially fascists were operating in kings cross – we wiped them out and after that their paper sales in chapel market were destroyed,” author Joe explained.
“We had boundaries and there were no prisoners taken, once we set up north London – west London divide we started moving into east London knowing we could retreat back.”
“We had a safe area here in Islington, North London became a stronghold for us, it was a prototype for clearing out fascists.”
This strategy was expanded nationally and the group enjoyed varying success in Manchester, Leeds and Scotland.
“When we went to brick lane, it was very symbolic for the BNP, they had been there from 1979 and hadn’t been touched, then suddenly they had to fight for their pitch and lose.”
The book crudely details how members of the far-right were ambushed leaving their pubs, attacked with bricks on demonstrations and kept under watch in extensive files.
The Irish diaspora played a central role in this battle as republican marches and the Irish community became a prime target for attack by skinhead thugs.
“There were trips to Belfast by members but not by AFA officially, there is no denying it,” Joe confesses.
“There was support there for Irish republicanism. People visited militant republicans in Belfast and friendships developed.”
“There were also people involved who had a more hands on role in republican movement – stuff that was learned over there was used against state operations over here and gave us an edge on the streets.”
The authors say that the political climate allows no place for violent confrontation in Britain at present, but they express no remorse for their past activities.
“It had to be violent because the opponent was violent – if they’re going to use violence you can’t use non-violence against that, you’ll be battered into the ground.”
They still see the BNP as a great threat pointing out that after they “fought them to a standstill” the party adopted a more respectable electoral approach pushed by Nick Griffin.
“I don’t think there is room for fighting them anymore, if the BNP stand 800 candidates to be effective you’d have to confront all 800,” Joe added.
“Would that damage anti-fascism or improve it if someone is running for election and you’re kicking in their door and setting fire to their cars people will ask what you are standing for?”
Having spent a decade fighting the far right on the streets Joe now believes they are now more dangerous than ever, as they hold elected positions.
He explains that alongside the war stories the book explains how AFA predicted almost two decades ago that the BNP would inevitably make serious electoral breakthroughs.
Over the last ten years of producing their book they have seen their predictions and worst fears for the BNP’s success realised.
“You can keep saying they’re not a threat up until the point you’re walking into the camps,” Joe adds.
“Things will get worse but how it turns out in the end is anyone’s guess, nobody can disguise the fact that the left are completely finished now in London.”
“They are bereft of ideas and bereft of constituency. Unfortunately groups like the BNP are now the official radical opposition.”
Ian adds that they believe the BNP are currently only experiencing setbacks and to write them off as a threat is a great mistake.
“The left should understand what the BNP are trying to achieve is very difficult – trying to bring nationalism in from the cold.”
“That’s something the left has entirely failed to do with communist politics. Its not going to be overnight, they’re going to have setbacks and recover ground.”
Beating the Fascists could be two separate books, appealing to very different audiences. The first a brutally violent story bragging of hard man conquests, the other a vital political analysis of the rise of the BNP and detailed history of the groups that fought them.
by Truth, Reason & Liberty on Thursday, 25 August 2011 at 20:30
Recently, I made the case yet again against using the state to fight fascism. One key point in this was that by calling on the state to stop a protest taking place because those marching are fascists you set a precedent for them to do so when those marching aren’t fascists. Thus, the only thing that surprised me was the rapidity with which that point was proven right.
Hope not Hate declared the police’s decision to seek a ban “a victory for common sense.” They are jubilant that the EDL have been “foiled” in their plan “to bring violence and disorder to the streets of Tower Hamlets.” This alone smacks of a staggering level of naivety, given that the police only have the power to ban marches and not static demonstrations – as the EDL themselves proved only this month in Telford. Not to mention Leicester, where a ban didn’t stop “violence and disorder.”
Then there is the statement from the Metropolitan Police;
We are in the process of applying to the home secretary for authority to
prohibit a march in five London boroughs for a period of 30 days.
As Dave Hill (who supported calls for a ban) admits, this “applies to all marches in the boroughs concerned,” with the exception of “funeral processions and marches that take place annually and are therefore deemed part of local cultural custom and practice.”
As a result, the Socialist Worker is calling on “everyone who opposes racism and fascism” to “protest about the ban” and to still “come to Tower Hamlets to show that the racist EDL is not welcome.” Peter Tatchell is concerned that the “proposed ban on EDL march may also ban anti-EDL demo & East London Gay Pride.” He rightly calls this “a dangerous precedent.” And if the ban extends to Newham, the Disarm DSEi protest against the world’s largest arms fair is another protest potentially in the firing line.
As Tower Hamlets ALARM say;
State intervention is a worrying turn, the State stepping in and banning
EDL protests is not a sign of a left wing section of the State acting,
or even an Islamic element gaining strength, it is a sign of a further
move to a totalitarian State. We already have the camps in Yarlswood,
thug police that get away with murder and an ever watching State
gathering information on us. We don’t need to campaign for them to ban
political groups. Today the EDL, tomorrow us.
We don’t need the State to stop the EDL. We need to do this ourselves.
We need our communities to work together, overcome divisive elements and
tackle the threat of fundamentalism in whatever forms it takes.
Let’s hope that the repercussions of this ban reach enough of the left that Hope not Hate’s approach will receive much more opposition next time.
A row between members of Norwich SWP and supporters of the Norwich Community Action Group (NCAG) has the potential to damage anti-fascist unity in the city, and undermine working-class solidarity so vital for effective action against the cuts.
Bitter argument developed after NCAG supporters responded to a belated appeal by the SWP for physical support outside a public meeting the SWP had advertised to discuss ‘How to stop the EDL’.
Upwards of thirty EDLers, not all of them white, arrived at the meeting-venue. NCAG supporters were outnumbered, and a dangerous situation could easily have turned violent. In the end police arrived with dogs, and the SWP meeting was cancelled at the advertised venue, though it may have taken place elsewhere. Lack of forethought by the SWP, and their failure to take basic precautions over how to present, advertise and ensure security at their meeting, put NCAG members at significant risk on the night and left them exposed to reprisals.
An account of events posted on the NCAG website made clear the extent of anger felt towards the SWP. It has drawn a long series of comments, some of which are from declared EDLers. The article was also picked up by an EDL-supporting blog. Some SWPers are now claiming that because NCAG has allowed this exchange on their website, and because some NCAG members engaged EDLers in discussion, they are apologists for fascism.
NCAG are within their rights to criticise the SWP’s failure to take the EDL seriously as an organisation capable of mobilising members in local areas to confront the left. Lessons do not seem to have been learned from what happened in Brighton in June, when EDL members disrupted a UAF meeting in the town. Norwich SWP’s meeting about the EDL was advertised openly. The Socialist Worker website even says all are welcome to such meetings. Yet Norwich SWPers know from their own anti-fascist work that fascists are active in parts of the county. A brief look at the EDL website would have told them its ‘East Anglian division’ claims over a hundred members. This figure may well be exaggerated, but the possibility that EDL members might take the ‘All welcome” tag at face-value and arrive at the meeting should have been considered, and planned for well in advance.
The SWP’s characterisation of all EDL members as hardened fascists allows the SWP to dismiss the option in any circumstances of formally debating with EDL members, or even of talking to them. It seems to have provoked some Norwich SWPers into demonising those in NCAG who spoke with EDLers, or who engaged in online debate with them. This in spite of the fact that the same NCAG members turned out in response to the SWP’s late solidarity-appeal and put themselves physically on the line in order to protect an SWP meeting!
The nationalism of EDLer arguments must be countered with those that begin by staking out the common ground between workers on the basis of their shared class-interest. This means understanding and exposing the reactionary role of religion under capitalism, as well as countering racist, sexist and homophobic ideas as divisive of the class. The cross-class approach practised by UAF, and understood to be sanctioned by the SWP, serves to repel rather than inspire layers of the working-class. It aids the fascists who look to organise and mobilise via the EDL.
A number of English Defence League members have been before the courts today, charged with a series of racially aggrevated offences.
Andrew Ossitt, 40, from Newquay, came to Halifax on April 2, along with around 60 other English Defence League protesters.
He was part of a group who came into town after a demonstration in Blackburn.
They congregated outside the Courtyard pub, Wards End, Halifax.
Another man, Dennis Farrell, 26, of High Lees Road, Halifax, also appeared at Calderdale Magistrates’ Court. He will face trial on November 3 after denying two charges of using threatening words and racially or religiously aggreviated harassment.
Scores of police went to the pub at 6pm and marched the group back to the train station.
Vanessa Schofield, prosecuting, said: “Officers’ attention was drawn to Andrew Ossitt. He was walking along, slightly behind the group. He raised both arms in the air and shouted, ‘These are our streets, Muslims off the streets,’.
Ossitt admitted using threatening words to cause harassment alarm or distress and a second charge of religiously aggravated harassment and was fined £100.
Mohammed Farooq, representing Ossitt, told the court although he joined in with chanting, he was not an instigator.
He said: “At no point was it his intention to be part of any demonstration outside the pub. A few members began chanting, a few more joined in. Due to him being in drink at the time he began to chant ‘You burn the poppies, and we will burn the mosques,’.
“Andrew Ossitt says at the time of making these remarks he did not feel he was going to cause anyone any alarm, harassment or distress. With hindsight he said had there been members of the Muslim community there, they would have done.”
His solicitor said Ossitt felt “aggrieved” at being prosecuted. “He has been singled out from that demonstration and used as a scapegoat here in court. He has said there should be 60 or so EDL stood next to him,” said Mr Farooq
He said Ossitt has not attended any English Defence League meetings since April.
As well as the £100 fine, chairwoman Anthea Atkinson told Ossitt to pay £85 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.
“Our aim is to punish you, which we believe this will do.
“If this offence had not been religiously aggreviated, you would have paid £30 but it has been increased to reflect the religious aggreviation,” she said.
A member of the English Defence League has admitted taking part in a spray paint attack on a mosque.
Also before the courts, Charlotte Davies, 19, will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit racially aggravated criminal damage.
She travelled from her home in Irving Path, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to Durham Crown Court where she indicated she admitted her part in the graffiti attack in November.
The Nasir Mosque in Hartlepool, a shop and a guest house were sprayed.
The plea was not formally entered although the case was adjourned for a pre-sentence report to be carried out and she will be sentenced in October.
Anthony Smith, 24, of Neptune Way, Easington Colliery, County Durham, and Steven Vasey, 32, of Prior’s Grange, Pittington, County Durham, are accused of the same offence and they will enter pleas next Friday.
In Redbridge Surrey, Four English Defence League thugs who bombarded a mosque and an imam with bricks in a racist attack are facing jail.
The group of youths tried to storm Redbridge Islamic Centre, Eastern Avenue, Redbridge, after taunting worshippers arriving for evening prayers with racist chants.
The front window was smashed and the imam Shafeel Begg was hit by a brick as he tried to pursue them on March 24.
Rocky Beale, 21, of Purleigh Avenue, Woodford Green, Eliot Jones, 19, of no fixed address, Matthew Stephenson, 18, of Burrow Road, Hainault and a 16-year-old who cannot be named because of his age, were convicted of violent disorder at Snaresbrook Crown Court after just 90 minutes deliberation by the jury on Wednesday.
They will be sentenced on September 28.
Two others, Daniel Leal, 19, of Queenborough Gardens, Gants Hill and Ryan Jones, 23, of no fixed address were cleared of violent disorder after a two-week trial.
Pam Oon, prosecuting, said the 16-year-old “threw a brick, which smashed the front window of the mosque”.
He and another of the attackers then ran inside, and Mr Begg and caretaker Mohammed Wahud gave chase.
“In the process the caretaker was injured by some broken glass,” said Ms Oon.
“When the imam and the caretaker came out of the mosque, the youths were still throwing bricks and shouting abuse, before they ran down Eastern Avenue towards Redbridge Tube station.”
The 16-year-old told police he had been attacked by a group of men from the mosque with iron bars.
Five nearby parked cars and a number of neighbouring homes were also damaged before the gang arrived at the mosque.
Last night the SWP held a meeting entitled ‘What To Do About The EDL’..or rather they would have done, if they weren’t forced to leave the Golden Star pub on Duke Street because EDL members were already there waiting to join in the debate.
Clearly the Socialist Workers Party’s internal communications department is not fit for purpose as someone obviously forgot to tell the Norwich branch that holding and advertising these kind of meetings encourages the EDL to attend which has been happening to the SWP across the country. Either that or the Norwich branch are just idiots. We think we’ll go with the latter.
30 or more members of the EDL turned out, more than the whole membership of the SWP in Norfolk and Suffolk.
And SWP numbers were only slightly swelled last night because begging posts had gone out on Facebook for ‘solidarity attendance’ once they’d found out the EDL were definitely going to be making an appearance.
By calling this meeting publicly without a thought for peoples security, without a thought for the safety of members of the public or the bar staff of the two pubs the SWP were thrown out of, they have exposed themselves once again to be the most clueless, manipulative and amateur organisation that exists on the left today.
Not only have their actions narrowly avoided serious harm to individuals, they compromised at least two anti-fascists from NCAG who found themselves having to engage in debate with EDL members in order to try and get people away safely from a situation that was growing more dangerous by the minute. The term ‘lambs to the slaughter’ springs to mind. Having said that, it was apparent that the older EDL members wanted to do nothing other than discuss and on several occasions prevented younger members from ‘piling in’.
A word of advice to less experienced folks..next time the SWP send you ‘messages of solidarity’ in other words ‘help us out’, reply with ‘fuck off’ and steer well clear…
Because if a group organises a meeting called ‘What To Do About The EDL’ and the EDL turn up and rout the meeting, clearly the organisers of said meeting don’t have a fucking clue what THEY’RE doing never mind what the EDL are up to!
Perhaps if the SWP gained the slightest understanding of the ‘white working-class’ instead of spending all their time giving platforms to ‘mad mullahs’ and marching alongside idiots dressed up as suicide bombers things would be a lot clearer?
And then again pigs might fly…
One thing is clear. Due to the SWP’s idiocy and amateur behavior, the EDL in this part of East Anglia will be buoyed up by last nights events, and unlikely to be disappearing from view anytime soon…