On Saturday 7th September the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right racist organisation, had planned to march through Tower Hamlets in London. Such a march, had it gone ahead, would have been sensationally provocative. But faced with the prospect of thousands of anti-fascist workers and youth confronting the EDL, the police stepped in and banned the EDL from entering Tower Hamlets. Ben Gliniecki and Niklas Svensson, present at the anti-fascist demo, report.
On Saturday 7th September the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right racist organisation, had planned to march through Tower Hamlets in London. Such a march, had it gone ahead, would have been sensationally provocative. Tower Hamlets is a famously diverse community with a large Muslim population and is home to the East London Mosque. The EDL had planned to march through Altab Ali Park, a park named after a Bangladeshi clothing worker who was murdered by racists in 1978. In addition, this area of London was where the celebrated Battle of Cable Street took place in 1936, when workers, young people, trade unionists and left activists successfully fought Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts and forced them to abandon their march through East London.
Initially, a lot of effort on the part of local politicians went into trying to ban the EDL from marching. Rushanara Ali MP and Jim Fitzpatrick MP both wrote to the Police Minister calling for a ban on the march, and Luftur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, also called for the courts to stop the EDL from marching.
Like these politicians, we were furious that the EDL was attempting to poison Tower Hamlets with its presence on Saturday. However, unlike these politicians we recognise that the only way to stop the EDL is through the mobilisation of workers and youth to run the fascists off our streets. Anyone can see that a strongly-worded letter from an MP, or the dusty decision of a distant judge, is not going to solve the problem of racism in society, nor did it stop the EDL march. Such petitions only serve to sow illusions that the police or the Conservative government can protect us from the EDL.
In fact, the only reason that the EDL were eventually prevented from marching into Tower Hamlets was thanks to the mobilisation of youth and workers that occurred after Teresa May – the Home Secretary – refused to ban the march. The Labour Party and other local politicians, faith groups, trade unions, UAF (Unite Against Fascism) and the anarchist-dominated Anti-Fascist Network (AFN) correctly mobilised and managed to get around 2,000 to come to demonstrate in Altab Ali Park so as to present a physical barrier to the EDL. Faced with the prospect of a confrontation between EDL thugs and anti-fascists, the police were forced to ban the EDL from entering Tower Hamlets or Altab Ali Park. This shows the power of the organised working class and begs the question of how much higher the turnout could have been if all the effort that went into trying to get the march banned had instead gone into mobilising people for the demonstration.
On the day, there was an enormous police presence, around 3,000 officers, who blocked Whitechapel Road and the surrounding side streets such that the two opposing demonstrations could not confront each other. This completely exaggerated police presence will undoubtedly be justified by the subsequent mass arrests.
The rally itself, organised by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and United East End, showcased a long list of speakers whose hatred for the EDL was clear; but they did not propose any solutions to the scourge of racism and fascism.
Max Levitas, a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, gave the best speech of the day. Being a veteran of that movement he remembered something about what fighting fascism seriously is like. First of all he raised the question of cuts and the problems of housing; he explained that it is the government, and not Muslims, who are to blame for this. He also raised the need to fight for socialism, and on that basis uniting workers of all faiths and backgrounds. However, most of the speakers satisfied themselves with condemning the EDL, calling for more mobilisations and for unity across faiths. There was even a Catholic Priest who, from the platform, insisted that we first had to fight hatred within ourselves.
Such abstract calls for people not to be racist will achieve nothing. The real way to fight the EDL is to propose actual solutions to the problems facing workers in Britain today: jobs, housing and public services. Racism and fascism are products of a decaying capitalist society and the EDL’s hatred is a weapon for dividing those who should be standing united against the real enemy – the bosses, the bankers and the rich. The only way to rid society of racism is to transform it along socialist lines – to provide for the needs of everyone so that no-one feels the need to solve their problems by scapegoating others.
The absence of a coherent political solution with which to fight the EDL, along with the organisers’ general passivity, fuelled the frustration of many young people who had turned out to oppose the fascists on Saturday. Led by the AFN bloc, several hundred people, mainly youth, left the main UAF demonstration and tried to break through the police lines in order to physically confront the EDL as they marched through the City of London.
It is easy to appreciate the anger that many people felt at the presence of the EDL anywhere in London, and so the idea of running them out of town rather than listen to an interminable reel of speakers is understandably appealing; but the organisation of this break-away was irresponsible under these conditions. The aim of the counter-demonstration was to prevent the EDL from marching into East London; but, with the police presence on the day and the comparatively small number of protesters, this aim was not best served, and the inevitable result was that hundreds of young people ended up getting beaten, kettled, arrested and dragged off to police stations in the furthest corners of London for processing.
If the group had managed to reach the EDL, the result would undoubtedly have been worse. A couple of hundred youth would have been no match for a similar number of seasoned hooligans from the EDL. After hours of internment in kettles or buses, the police only let the demonstrators go on the condition that they didn’t attend another anti-EDL protest for at least a month. Whatever the legality of such a ban, it is clear that the police were sending a message: we decide where and when you can protest.
The heavy-handedness of the police in this episode once again confirms that they are no friends of anti-fascist demonstrators. This is a fact that UAF and United East End would do well to remember. Although hundreds of people were being held in kettles not far from the demonstration, the organisers failed to demand of the police that these protestors be released, nor did they even inform the demonstration that this was going on just a few streets away! It was perhaps the highest irony that whilst hundreds of anti-fascists were kettled on Commercial Road, the UAF celebrating their victory shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!”. To have drawn attention to this fact would have highlighted the inability of UAF to unite these militant anti-fascists behind it; not to mention threatening the friendly police relations that UAF are so keen to maintain.
In order to harness the militancy and activism of these young people it is necessary to present a coherent, revolutionary political programme for fighting fascism by struggling for socialism. Only by mobilising the mass of people in workplaces and neighbourhoods in their thousands can we present a force capable of confronting both the police and the EDL. Revolutionary politics, combined with a physical presence to stop the EDL, are the most effective tools with which to organise and engage this layer of increasingly radicalised workers and youth.
It is vital that the EDL are physically opposed wherever they go. But it’s not enough to know what we’re fighting against; if we want to rid society of groups like the EDL we have to know what we’re fighting for. The struggle for a socialist society can provide the answer to the crisis of capitalism that fuels both the hatred of the EDL and the growing militancy of the workers and youth. Only by channelling this working class militancy using Marxist ideas can racist hatred be eradicated.