An anti-racist student organiser discusses, in the light of the upcoming English Defence League (EDL) event in Bradford, what anti-fascists can learn about recent state interventions and particularly the policing of anti-fascist demonstrations.
The upcoming English Defence League (EDL) demonstration in Bradford on 28 August had been described as ‘the big one’ by EDL spokesman Guramit Singh and members were advised to keep women and children at home. Rumours that the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 was to attend provoked fears of a return to the rioting the city saw in 2001. This prompted debates within the anti-fascist movement as to whether a counter demonstration should be held and the level of state intervention to be sought. Ultimately the home secretary pronounced a ban on any march by the EDL, leaving it with the right to hold a static rally.
To understand the context in which the debate has been framed and to form a comprehensive anti-fascist strategy it is useful to examine a dimension that has been growing in prominence with the street-based nature of previous confrontations – the role the police has been playing in mediating between opposing groups of right extremists and anti-fascists. An effective way of doing so is to examine two demonstrations in which both groups were respectively described as ‘at their worst’; Stoke on Trent on 23 January 2010 and Bolton on 20 March 2010.
With a strong football firm and local BNP support, Stoke has often been described as ‘the lion’s den’. The truth in this was evident at the demonstration. The EDL dominated the streets with over 1,500 protestors (compared to 300 anti-fascists) and eventually broke through police cordons, seriously injuring six constables and vandalising five police vehicles. This prompted fourteen arrests after which five people were charged with public order offences and one charged with assaulting a constable. There were no arrests reported amongst anti-fascists.
The Bolton demonstration, however, saw more even numbers of approximately 1,500 on both sides. Greater Manchester Police reported heavy confrontations with anti-fascists at the demo during which fifty-four were arrested. The assistant chief constable Garry Shewman praised ‘the efforts of the EDL stewards who worked with us in the face of some very ugly confrontations' which led to fewer (seventeen) arrests on their side. Two policemen were injured that day, one of whom was bitten by a police dog. Three anti-fascists were hospitalised and one man was allegedly stabbed by an EDL supporter outside a pub.
Of the fifty-four anti-fascists arrested thirty-four were released without charge, fifteen received fixed penalty notices and four were charged with public order offences. Another two were charged with the serious offence of ‘conspiracy to incite violent disorder’.
Anti-fascists have identified this trend in arrests as indicative of the overly repressive policing of their side and have denied the police’s claims of violence from within anti-fascist ranks. Accounts from those present on the day detail incidents of police brutality and the excessive use of force. According to a protestor present on the day ‘A number of police officers began using their truncheons, a blonde woman in front of me was hit on the head, she then fell to the floor, a man next to her was also hit on the head and he fell on top of her. We tried to get them both up, I had my hands around the mans torso, at which point I was hit on the head.'
Local campaigner, Rhetta Moran, who is also facing a conspiracy charge, alleges that while she was detained in Bolton police station ‘police took my house keys, went to my home, took papers and copied files from my computer.'
Concerns have also been raised about the bail conditions imposed on those arrested that prohibit them from attending any further demonstrations and meetings. National Union of Journalist Executive Council member Dave Toomer described them as ‘a violation of human rights and in breach of Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights which protects freedom of association and assembly’.
Undermining community support
Just as alarming as the policing that took place on that demonstration are the more subtle covert measures used to de-politicise anti-fascist activity and undermine BME involvement. Local police and councillors reportedly visited local mosques warning individuals about attending the demonstration and advertised in the Asian community a free trip to Blackpool for the day of the demonstration. Warnings have also been sent to local student union members in the run up to demonstrations as to how ‘Being arrested and gaining a criminal conviction is likely to have a significant impact on your studies, including potential disciplinary proceedings involving your universities’.
These measures were supported by local group the Manchester Council of Mosques (MCM) which worked with the Greater Manchester Police to spread the overall message that ‘attendance may only serve to undermine the image of Muslims as a law-abiding and peaceful people.' The action of the MCM was to draw praise from then cabinet minister John Denham: ‘The Muslim community were able to remain calm and work well with the local authorities. The EDL would have liked nothing more than to see groups of Muslim men turn up in their own counter demonstration.'
The danger in this process of de-legitimisation and de-politicisation can perhaps be seen in the later adoption of a more timid approach by anti-fascists in combating the far Right and the moving away from confronting fascism and organising community self defence. That was the criticism levelled at the counter demonstration in Dudley on 17 July which was held so far from the EDL demonstration that EDL supporters were able to break police lines and vandalise BME businesses, homes and a local Hindu temple.
Hence there is a real and substantial danger to BME communities and the anti-fascist movement from the states attempts to exclude them from active participation in political activity and criminalise legitimate anti-fascist activity. Communities should thus be wary of the long-term repercussions that may come with further inviting the state into the anti-fascist movement and seeking an escalation of the role it plays in their defence.