Rules of engagement: Anti-fascism after Tower Hamlets

24 09 2013


re-blogged from While Rome Burns

The Tower Hamlets demonstration against the EDL on September 7th was a big day for those of us who have been hoping for a renewed opposition to be able to tackle the rise of the far-right and the new forms of racism spreading in this country.

There were a lot of expectations riding on what happened on the 7th and a lot turns on how it comes to be perceived and what lessons are drawn from it.

Context is everything

Since the last time the EDL were in Tower Hamlets in 2011 many things have changed. They suffered a general decline in their fortunes and early this year we were all getting ready to write their epitaph. Then everything changed in May when the EDL managed to swiftly exploit the murder of a British army soldier in London. Suddenly there were 2000 of them on demos again, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was being interviewed on TV all the time, their Facebook likes went from under 24,000 to over 100,000 within a day and they seemed to have leapfrogged further ahead than they ever were before. The last few months have in general been a frightening time when the far-right have looked like they were winning.

More recently, the effect of their exploitation of Lee Rigby’s death seems to be wearing off a little, but the support and sympathisers that they have gained in this period will not go away so easily, even if they are not always willing to turn out on the streets.

In addition, since May, there has been a huge spike in anti-Muslim attacks both on people and mosques, including nailbomb and firebomb attacks. Many of these attacks have been directly linked to the EDL through EDL graffiti left at the scene or EDL members convicted for the attacks. Even without these direct links it is clear that a general rise in far-right activity creates a climate where such attacks happen.

It feels like the clock is rapidly rolling back to the racist murders of the early ‘90s associated with an increase in support for the BNP (of which Stephen Lawrence was to become the most high profile victim), or possibly to the murderous violence of the late ‘70s rise of the NF, which claimed the life of Altab Ali among others. The EDL have not been alone in this effort to drag us back into the racist violence of the past. A whole alphabet soup of splinter groups to the right of the EDL now hold their own marches and rallies across the country, mostly in limited numbers, but making up for that in more overt traditional racism than the EDL is willing to openly espouse. The rise of UKIP and the phenomenon of ‘Woolwich Strong’ both indicated a large passive basis of support for nationalistic, racist and anti-immigrant politics. And all along official state racism has been providing the grounding context for this, slowly shifting the middle ground of politics to the right with its normalising of ‘go home’ rhetoric. The government not-so-subtly borrowed the idea of the BNP’s ‘truth truck’, turning it into the UK Border Agency’s notorious ‘racist van’ and has introduced squads of Border Agency staff illegally stopping and demanding papers from foreign-looking people on the street like we were living in pass-law era South Africa.

Evolving anti-fascism

There has been a general failure to adequately deal with the change represented by the rise of the EDL in the last 4 years.

The anti-fascist and anti-racist movements have been found wanting in the swift change from combating the electoral politics of the BNP to the sudden re-emergence of far-right street gangs with the EDL.

The ‘official’ anti-fascist movement represented by Hope Not Hate and UAF, for all the good work they do, are hamstrung by their close ties to the authorities – they are not willing to risk breaking the law in order to effectively confront the fascists on the streets. Politically they are tied to Labour politicians, union bureaucrats and conservative religious leaders which means their proclaimed politics can only be a fairly shallow liberal celebration of ‘multicultural Britain’, which is fine as far as it goes, but leaves them struggling to combat the EDL either ideologically or physically.

Additionally anti-fascism has been hit by the fall-out from the SWP’s ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal. For those that haven’t been following all the Trot gossip – the SWP is Britain’s largest far-left group and the main driving force behind UAF, but earlier this year the party was thrown into disarray by allegations of rape and sexual abuse against a senior party member. As a consequence of the party leadership’s flawed handling of this, significant numbers of SWP members have left the party and there are many disaffected Swappies in the ranks. The effect of this on UAF is hard to precisely judge for those not involved themselves, but it certainly seems to have had an impact on their organisational capacity.

The EDL national demo in Birmingham in July this year was a shock to many of us. This was the first EDL national demo which both we and they had had time to build for since May. The Newcastle demo immediately after Rigby’s murder got vastly more numbers than had previously been expected, with 1500-2000 EDL turning out. And yet UAF only called a regional Midlands-wide counter-mobilisation for Birmingham and didn’t even make a very good job of that – doing almost no publicity or building for the demo in Birmingham itself. As a consequence, in the country’s second largest city, there were very small numbers of anti-fascists corralled out of sight by police while 1000 EDL were very visibly taking over the city centre largely unopposed.

Meanwhile the autonomous anti-fascist movement, largely composed of anarchists and smaller left-wing groups, has had its own problems dealing with the changing political situation. The rise of the EDL has meant for the first time in a long time that we are seeing large groups of far-right supporters on the streets. For many years militant anti-fascists were only dealing with small groups of skinheads and Nazis, who were effectively kept in their place by similarly small groups of committed militant anti-fascists. This tactic, known as ‘squaddism’ has been shown to be not enough to deal with the EDL. Anti-fascists have realised there is a necessity to mobilise numbers on the streets to be able to oppose the EDL effectively.

This realisation has involved breaking with a strong ingrained prejudice of large sections of the anarchist and far-left movements. For decades the assumption has been that the larger liberal left will always be there to do the slog work of getting out the numbers and that it would be impossible for us to do this work ourselves. But the world has changed since the 1980s and the fact is we cannot any longer rely on the mainstream left (in this case the UAF) to do ‘their job’ while we content ourselves with hanging round the fringes of their demos, slagging them off and lacking the confidence to do our own thing.

Changing the rules of the game

Hence the importance of the Tower Hamlets mobilisation – it was a response to the changing nature of the far-right and the general inadequacy of anti-fascism both militant and liberal to deal with this. Clearly a huge amount of effort went into calling a mobilisation under the name of the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN) and to do the sort of work that we normally rely on UAF to do. It was a bold attempt to change the rules of the game – to try and do something new.


For a few days in advance of the demo, it looked like the cops might actually march the EDL right up Whitechapel High Street, but luckily in the end, this didn’t happen. Unlike 1936, they weren’t quite foolhardy enough to try and force a fascist march through a largely hostile area. So the EDL marched but they didn’t get to go where they wanted and suffered a relatively poor turnout. The general lack of booze on their demo was an improvement on the Brummie cops’ tactic of corralling all the EDL in a bar for 3 or 4 hours before letting them loose on the city streets and then being surprised when they caused trouble. Mr. Yaxley-Lennon got arrested – my suspicion is probably as balance for all the anti-fascists who were arrested, so the policing didn’t look too one-sided in the media.

UAF had their rally. They got good numbers out and once the EDL had left town they declared ‘victory’, which seemed slightly hollow as the police had facilitated the EDL march on exactly the pre-arranged route and they had not even come in sight of the UAF crowd.

We did our breakaway march from Altab Ali park to try and disrupt the route of the EDL and were surprisingly successful. We got large numbers of people to join us in leaving the park and got damn close to the EDL.

Most people were probably not expecting mass arrests on the scale that was experienced, although the 58 people arrested at the anti-BNP mobilisation in June did provide a warning of possible police tactics.


Antifascist black and red flags by the police van. Some of the AFN bloc got really close to the EDL march

Intents and purposes

The primary aim was of course to stop the EDL marching, or to get as close to that as possible – to disrupt them, interrupt them, delay them – to make a visible public display of more than vocal opposition.

In a broader sense it was an attempt to organise mass direct action and to bridge the gap between small-group squaddist anti-fascism and UAF-style rallies – to be both militant and accessible to people. Was it possible to mobilise a large crowd of people who were up for attempting to get close to and confront the EDL?

Another related aim was to talk to people, make links and connections, even beyond the demo, to create anti-racist, anti-fascist alliances that may bear more fruit in the future. And to spread the idea that it is possible to do different things – you don’t just have to do the UAF rally in the park – other things are possible and can be effective.

The Tower Hamlets mobilisation involved a change to doing the sort of work UAF normally do – stalls in the streets, leafletting sessions, press releases. But with the intention to be less politically compromised than UAF and with the clear guiding principles that we would not talk to or negotiate with the police or the authorities or have a hierarchical structure where discipline is imposed by the central committee.

This was really a ‘coming out’ for the AFN, which originated as a less ambitious structure for allowing small autonomous anti-fascist groups across the country to travel to support each other when there was a counter-mobilisation against the far-right. But AFN has now stepped out of the shadows to publicly become an alternative and an addition to the rather more politically compromised UAF.

Actions and reactions

On a straightforward appraisal of the day, it seems pretty clear that the cops were the main winners, with the cowed EDL sticking to the police orchestrated demonstration plan, and 286 anti-fascists arrested; complete with repressive bail conditions, DNA, fingerprints and details recorded.

However, seeming defeats can sometimes be more of a boon than what appear to be victories. We succeeded in gathering a significant crowd of people (approximately the same numbers as the EDL managed to get out for a national demo) who were willing to move beyond listening to the speeches in Altab Ali park and take the further step to trying to actively confront the EDL.

Small groups of individuals did harangue the EDL along the route of their march but the breakaway AFN bloc was the only large visible opposition the EDL saw all day.

So it is a real positive that people were up for joining the group leaving the park and being willing to try and block the EDL. We got a good mix of people joining us. This shows that there is an appetite for anti-fascism that goes beyond listening to the mayor and religious leaders in the park while the fascists march nearby. It shows that it is possible to get large numbers of people to take more confrontational direct action.


[At the UAF rally in Altab Ali park, just before and after the AFN bloc departed. See the timelapse video]

Clearly it would have been better if there hadn’t been 300 arrests and it would have been better if we had been more effective at blocking or disrupting the EDL march. But sometimes you only discover strengths and weaknesses when you do try something. It’s only through action that you discover and determine what you are capable of.

Fashion rules/ground rules

Some of the things that could have been better there was little we could do about. Other things were pretty much within our power to affect.

There were some mixed messages put out by the organisers that I think may have originated with people’s differing ideas of what they were imagining the AFN mobilisation on the day would look like.

On the one hand there was extensive leafleting around London but especially in the local area, a well attended public meeting with well-chosen speakers a week before the demo, links and liaisons made with local community groups etc. All of this and the general look and tone of the publicity and propaganda was relatively inclusive. We looked organised and together, like we were connected with local people and none of it looked too subcultural or too much like ‘this isn’t for you, this is for some special group of people…’

Slightly undercutting this message was some of the information put out in advance of the demo which encouraged people to adopt black bloc dress and tactics. There were strange-looking videos of black blockers practicing weird formations in a field somewhere in Germany and encouragements to ‘wear anything as long as it’s black’.  A long list of ‘safety guidelines’ was circulated in advance of the demo criticising such things as ‘attention grabbing behaviour’ that were then adapted into another set of shorter rules/guidelines by the mobilisation organisation.

It seems bizarre to be putting lots of effort into giving out thousands of leaflets all around Whitechapel and Brick Lane, encouraging mass participation in the demonstration and then a few days before the demo telling all those same people that really they all had to find an ‘affinity group’, mask up in black and leave all their ID and their phone at home.

Not that any of the advice was necessarily bad advice – most of it I follow and advocate myself. But we have to consider who is actually going to follow or not follow this advice and who will be put off coming altogether by being given the impression that it is only for certain sorts of people to attend.

It’s hard trying to square the circle of mass participation and community involvement while also maintaining some particular politics and a commitment to direct action. Certainly we don’t want to go too far down the road of eulogising the black bloc. Not that there’s anything wrong with militancy or confrontation, but it’s a particular tactic associated with a particular subculture.

If you become too identified with that subculture then you cease to attract anyone else, which apart from being politically ineffective, leaves you vulnerable. A wider basis of community support can be a sort of safety net for all of us in case of repression.

Also it’s a question of imagery and representation – how will this event be circulated and represented? If all the images that circulate look like black bloc stuff, that will create a certain version that will go down in history, and will in turn determine who turns up to the next AFN mobilisation.


Rules of engagement

It has been suggested that we shouldn’t have met in Altab Ali park as this made it intrinsically difficult to leave. Clearly it is easier and there is a certain safety in numbers in choosing to meet at the UAF meet point. As became apparent on the day, it also allowed us to draw a large number of people along with us who were bored to death with listening to the Mayor.

However, if we had known in advance that we were capable of getting out healthy and respectable numbers of people then we may well have done better to do as the EDL do and not announce the precise time and place until close to the day of the event. We could publicise the date and rough area in advance so people can make travel plans and keep the day free but only announce the precise rally point when we have more of an idea of the route the EDL will be taking. Or we could announce a time and place but just be willing to change it right up to the last minute. Both of these options would take out the practically difficult task of ‘getting to them’ and give us a better chance of being in the right place to potentially stop them marching.

We could have announced our meet up point to be the south side of Tower Bridge – meeting right where they were meeting – then there would be no issue of them not seeing or hearing us and we might have had more of a chance of stopping them marching.

We should also have been more willing to split up and regroup to get to a particular location. If the twitter and text information had been more oriented to giving members of the crowd the information they needed to be in the right place then potentially we could have simply informed everyone of where the police were and where the EDL were and let everyone get there in whatever way they chose. This would also help people avoid police kettles. In addition we’d be trusting the crowd we had mobilised to find a way that worked for them – not everyone is up for or capable of running through the back streets with the cops on their tails. Rather than putting all our eggs in one basket, if we had split up, there would be little chance of us all being kettled at the first crossroads.

Perhaps something like the Sukey application created to help people avoid kettles in the student protests of 2011 could be in place separate from the mobilisation organisers. Simply relaying information via text and twitter about where the EDL are and where the cops are is not incriminating in itself and might have avoided a lot of people running around the streets a little cluelessly.

After Tower Hamlets

It may be that with ourselves attuned to every slight fluctuation in support for the EDL that we are now feeling that they are in decline again. However it would not be wise to get so focussed in on the micro level of week-by-week changes in their fortunes that we lose sight of the big picture. And especially it would not be wise to start to relax and take our eye off the ball because we think they might be declining.

Every time they have a surge it’s like a high tide mark, and they may rapidly recede from that line, but the basis of passive support for them has been laid, and next time it will be that much easier for them to make that mark and then to surpass it. Hence why their level of activity and support seemed to explode out of nowhere after the killing in Woolwich. I suggest that even if their obvious level of activity does drop down a bit now, the groundwork has been laid for the next surge if it comes.

And even if they do seem to go down, our back-slapping is entirely relative – last year the EDL got 1500, this year they got 600, so hooray. But 5 years ago nasty mobs of racists marching down the street didn’t exist. So what is there to celebrate?

The point is not to get complacent. If they seem to be in some slight period of decline, that’s the time for us to organise. Better to redouble our efforts when they are in decline and try and finish them off, rather than relax and wait for the next opportunity for them to blame something on Muslims and increase their support. And if this does happen then we need to be ready to confront it, rather than being taken by surprise.

Quite arresting

Obviously, the number arrests in Tower Hamlets was exceptional and may represent a new tactic by the Met police aimed at intelligence gathering, taking people out of action through bail conditions and intimidating people from attending any protests not organised with the police in advance.

It is important to provide good support for those arrested, whatever that might be: solicitors, publicity, supporters at police stations or courts etc. We’re unlikely to get out numbers on demonstrations if we fail to support arrestees now. And collective support can help prevent the effect of intimidation that the police aim to produce through mass arrests.


That said, it should be recognised that almost all the anti-fascist arrests were for the same minor offences and are likely to go nowhere. Getting arrested is pretty much par for the course for anti-fascism, and arrests were always on the cards for the 7th. We shouldn’t get too outraged or excited about it and we shouldn’t get too allergic to it. If we let the fear of arrest stop us confronting the far-right then that is a clear win for the cops and the fascists. And if we are successful there will unfortunately probably be more of this to come.

It is important that we don’t regard the arrest of 286 people as our failure, that requires intensive soul searching and large changes of behaviour on our part. The number of arrests is not ours to control. We didn’t get those people arrested. The police arrested them. It is important that we see the mobilisation in a positive light and don’t get distracted by raking over ‘if only we had done this we could have avoided the arrests’ or conclude that we must never organise big anti-fascist demos in London ever again because of the risk. It is not possible to manage every particular situation and eliminate all risk from anti-fascism. That could only be achieved by becoming totally ineffective.

The BNP demo in Westminster in June at which 58 people got nicked prompted some to suggest that the movement could not afford arrests in such numbers and others to say that central London was an especially arrestable area where people should be discouraged from confronting fascists. However, as a result of our actions, the BNP are pretty much finished on the streets – I very much doubt that they will try anything similar any time soon. So Britain’s premier neo-fascist electoral party was dealt a massive body blow to its prestige. People being arrested is not automatically so bad that it outweighs any good that may have been done. Some arrests can be worth it.

We shouldn’t let ourselves get too distracted into arrest support and defence campaigns. These things are important clearly, but we should remember what we are here for and the focus should remain on confronting racism and fascism. If all our energies are absorbed into arrest support and defence campaigns then that is a victory for our enemies and a betrayal of the people who were arrested.

Love to hate U(AF)

Another thing that is in danger of overshadowing the important aspects of the Tower Hamlets mobilisation is our perennial obsession with bashing UAF.

This UAF-hating is really a subset of the traditional alignments of the British anarchist and far-left movements. UAF is essentially a creation of the SWP and large sections of the British left define themselves by all the ways in which they are not like the SWP. Anarchists hate they SWP because they are Trots and anarchists hate Trots (apart from a few who are alright). All the other smaller Trot groups hate the SWP if anything even more than anarchists do. Now with the ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal half the SWP hate the SWP too.

There has been some discussion of bad things UAF did or supposedly did on the 7th September and none of them are really news, none of them are really that shocking or massively damning. UAF are what they are and they do what they do. We probably should not expect anything else.

In Tower Hamlets, UAF held a rally in the park and did not brave the police to go and confront the EDL directly. That is not the worst thing in the world. I am sure we all believe in using a diversity of tactics in combatting fascism, including those that are non-confrontational. If UAF had not organised a rally, we would have had to have done it ourselves to give an option to people who did not want to risk arrest or confrontation.

Certainly things could have been very much worse. We didn’t get denounced as ‘outside agitators’ or ‘troublemakers’. I’m sure many of us have been on the receiving end of such accusations before. And to be fair we did steal half their crowd and march them off to do something they disapproved of.

Since the demo there has been quite a lot of crowing over the ‘collapse’ of the UAF and how it’s a good thing that they are finished. People have been celebrating the end of their dominance over anti-fascism with the arrival of AFN on the scene to take their place. Firstly, this is very premature – one big demo does not a national anti-fascist movement make. Also, this betrays a very skewed set of priorities – anyone would think from the way some people have been talking that it was the UAF we were demonstrating against on the 7th. In case we need reminding: It’s not a party-building competition with the SWP – it’s about defeating the far-right.

I disagree with much that UAF do and how they do it but we would be really screwed if they didn’t exist. They have opposed the EDL across the country and in many places have been the only people organising. Autonomous anti-fascists do not have the organisational capacity to replace UAF anytime soon.

We don’t want to come across as sectarian, and should consider how our sniping at UAF looks from outside – we like to laugh at the Infidels and EDL slagging each other off. No doubt airing our dirty laundry in public appears similar to those outside the anti-fascist movement and probably does not inspire them to get involved. We should just get on and do our thing and try and be as effective as possible against the far-right and let our actions speak for themselves.

AFN rules OK

The main thing for autonomous anti-fascists is to keep going and keep focussed. Whether it’s the risk of throwing all our energies into arrest support rather than combatting fascism or into slagging off UAF, we need to avoid the temptation of such sidetracks and keep on target.

Specifically we need to keep organising. We have had this successful mobilisation in London, but across the country the picture is very different. In many places EDL marches have gone virtually unchallenged and they have also been able to intimidate anti-racists, closing down anti-racist meetings and gigs or attacking people from the left in the street. Anti-Muslim attacks continue unabated.

We need to be more ambitious. Instead of taking the opportunity post-Tower Hamlets to relax a bit or rest on our laurels, we need to try and reproduce the level of resistance we managed for Tower Hamlets across the country and ideally better it. Whenever the EDL have a national demo there should be an AFN bloc there to confront them. We need to organise nationally for this. We cannot entirely rely on the local anti-fascists in a particular city to do all the organising work. Anti-fascists across the country should be mobilising whenever the EDL announce a demonstration.

We need to think about effective strategies to have large militant crowds and to get around the police. We don’t want to lose those people we brought out by getting a reputation for leading peoples into mass arrests.

We need to engage with people, build support and a wider anti-racist culture. Open accessible public events can be good for this – film showings, public meetings, gigs etc.


EDL outnumbered everywhere

The EDL are eminently beatable. They are not huge. They have a lot of fair weather support that fizzles away to nothing when conditions do not favour them. They had dwindled down to next to nothing before Rigby’s death. The far-right have been chased off the streets before – they can be again. For most of my adult life there was practically no far-right on the streets, due to the efforts of past generations of anti-fascists. The EDL have been going 4 years or so and got 600 or 700 out for the national demo in Tower Hamlets they had been plugging for months. We got that number on just the AFN part of the counter-mobilisation. It is totally possible to outnumber them.

Don’t imagine it’s no work though – huge amounts of effort has gone into any counter-mobilisation that has been successful. A key reason other mobilisations have not been successful is that people haven’t put the work in.

Also, although the EDL are beatable, the wider context of popular anti-immigrant, xenophobic racism and state/police racism is rather harder to challenge. But it is important not to think of this as a separate thing from confronting the EDL. Part of the point of fighting the EDL is to keep the space open to be able to confront wider racism and oppression, both ideologically and practically. The EDL rally support for the state and its foreign imperialism (as well argued in the ‘Incubus’ blog) – they are essentially a modern-day King and Country mob – a loyalist mob. So they shift the political spectrum right. By fighting them and asserting an opposing set of values of solidarity and respect we help resist that trend.

Also practically, the far-right attack left-wing, anti-racist, pro-migrant and progressive meetings. If we don’t deal with the threat of the far-right there won’t be the political space to challenge racism, imperialism, the rule of the rich or to fight for our collective interests.

We can do these things as long as we don’t start accepting fascists as part of the furniture and start thinking that it’s normal in 2013 for 300 racists to be marching down the High Street in Anytown. There’s no rule that it has to be this way. They weren’t here 5 years ago. Lets make sure they aren’t here a couple of years from now!

Note: There was a rumour doing the rounds that the group of AFN people who got to the junction of Cable Street and Mansell Street had forced the EDL march to be diverted up Minories. Unfortunately this is not true – the march was always going up Minories, as stated in the police conditions of the march and repeated to the EDL over and over again through police loudhailers.



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