By KD Tait
On 7 September, the Metropolitan Police arrested 286 antifascists for venturing away from the police-determined route for a demonstration against the English Defence League in Tower Hamlets. The arrest and detention of the 286 represents a further attack on our already eroded right to protest, and indeed on our human rights.
Lawyers for the 286 believe that the demo restrictions were almost impossible to discover, and so almost all the arrestees will eventually be freed without being charged. You cannot be guilty of ignoring restrictions you were never told about.
However, it was probably never the intention of the Met to convict – or even to charge – 286 antifascists. They are basically out to intimidate workers, youth and the black and Asian community from defending their areas from fascist attack, and cynically to gather information.
Having recently lost a court case in which the tactic of “kettling” protesters, taking their pictures and recording their identity before allowing them to disperse was declared illegal, the Met have simply upped the stakes – by first arresting all those in the kettle, and then taking mug shots, prints and DNA swabs from them.
But the response of the antifascists has already shown that the Met will not succeed. A defence campaign is being organised, and plans are already afoot to keep the militant wing of the antifascist movement on the streets.
The mobilisation against the EDL in Tower Hamlets saw the most decisive break so far from the dominant tactics of United Against Fascism. The UAF protest followed the usual pattern of a static rally in Altab Ali Park under conditions imposed by the police, followed by a “victory march” staged long after the EDL thugs had departed.
This time, however, roughly half the 1,000 or so anti-EDL protesters, led by the Anti-Fascist Network, broke away from the rally on news that the EDL had started to march towards the borough, which is home to a wide range of ethnicities, including many thousands of Bengali Muslims.
With 3,000 police and 10 rows of vans and Territorial Support Group on the streets to prevent any clashes, getting within range of the racist EDL thugs was always going to be nearly impossible for the vast majority, if not quite for all of the AFN breakaway march. But whatever their prospects on this occasion, the decision to try and defend the local community from the EDL provocateurs was a correct one. It showed there is another way to confront the EDL.
The display of force by the Met and the near total silence by UAF and the Socialist Workers Party on the arrests have led many to question a strategy based on collaboration with the state and anti-working class forces, a strategy that abandons control of the streets to a racist and violent police force.
Antifascists are tired of the “official leaders” who claim the tradition of Cable Street and Lewisham in one breath, and in the next denounce those who organise self-defence against police or fascist violence.
The events of Tower Hamlets open up the possibility of rebuilding the antifascist movement on the principle of independent working class unity, not hemmed in by the limits set by the police or by what liberal “allies” can stomach.
Considering the proportion of the UAF rally in Altab Ali Park that joined the AFN bloc, it’s clear that a majority of demonstrators were prepared to do something to disrupt the fascists’ plans on the day.
Relying on the state
No doubt the UAF leaders – effectively the SWP – will counter that the EDL had no chance of marching through Tower Hamlets, and that the state and the police had good reason to limit this particular provocation.
The consequences of allowing a fascist march through Tower Hamlets would negatively affect relations between the police and various establishment “community leaders”. To allow “football hooligans”, as the police undoubtedly view the EDL, to antagonise the youth, encourage local racists and in general provoke a headache for the police was not in their interests at all.
On the contrary, the police rely on institutionalised community relations: a web of police chiefs, councillors and the conservative leaders of small business and religious organisations.
The trade-off for not getting a state ban in this instance was that the police would keep the EDL out of all but a few square metres of Tower Hamlets, and in return their allies in the borough would organise only a token counter-demonstration. It is widely believed that SWP organiser Weyman Bennett was complicit in this arrangement, as has happened many times in the past.
But relying on the state to beat back the fascists is fatal. Firstly, the state will not always be willing to face down the far right. Indeed when capitalism is in a severe crisis, threatened by a militant working class, the ruling class will turn to fascism to unleash its attack dogs.
Secondly, whenever the state does use its powers to deny the fascists their “right” to intimidate, beat up or even murder their opponents, it will also use its force to crush the antifascists even more ferociously. Just look at the arrest figures: 14 EDL supporters, 286 antifascists.
Working class unity
Instead of secret negotiations with the Met’s Gold Commander, instead of the slippery slope of state bans favoured by council bosses, instead of appeals to stay at home in fear, instead of all these methods of disarming and demobilising a working class presence on the streets, we should organise for the fullest possible independent action of the working class, youth, and black and Asian people.
In fact the decline of UAF’s ability to put people on the streets on the day is the clearest evidence that their strategy is wrong. If you build pacifistic celebrations of multiculturalism in ways that give patronising self-appointed “community leaders” a platform from which to deliver a top-down event stage-managed by the police, then it should be no surprise that those harassed daily by the police and racists don’t show.
And this is not a good thing, at least in the sense that the UAF enjoys, if only on paper, the support of the bulk of the labour and trade union movement. We need a workers’ united front against fascism, one that mobilises the mass base of the trade unions. Instead of this, the trade union leaders are happy to farm out the day-to-day running of UAF to the SWP, on the understanding that they will run it in a respectable, reformist fashion. It is about time we broke this rotten accord.
We should aim to build an independent antifascist movement rooted in working class estates and communities – one whose approach is fundamentally different to that of UAF.
• Working class unity against racism and fascism
• No platform for fascism
• For organised self-defence