North East Against Racism flying demo
Saturday 29 May was meant to be the day of the English Defence League’s ‘secret’ protest. So secret, in fact, that its location was revealed months ago as Newcastle upon Tyne, giving anti-racists enough time to organise a whopping three separate anti-racist protests, all ostensibly setting out to ‘oppose’ the EDL.
The outcome was far from decisive. The EDL turnout was not nearly as high as anticipated, with most reports giving estimates of between 800 and 1000 at their demonstration. The day passed off relatively peacefully, with no arrests on either side, and there was no repeat of the widespread rioting and violence the EDL caused in both Stoke and Dudley in recent months.
Sections of the anti-fascist movement have been quick to declare the day as a ‘huge success’ and a victory, with ‘anti-racists dominating the city’. This is simply not true. The fact is that the EDL were able to hold a police-sanctioned march through the city centre, ending at an outdoor rally with speakers and music, before they dispersed en masse to pubs around the city to continue their drunken, xenophobic chanting. This ability to openly organise and assemble in the streets, effectively unopposed, was a massive confidence boost for the EDL. What’s worse is that later on the EDL continued to maintain a large presence in the city – groups of young males in EDL hoodies and t-shirts were on virtually every street corner, and outside every pub, well into the evening.
The EDL demonstration
The anti-fascist response was marked by its disunity and poor turnout. North East Against Racism (NEAR), a grassroots organisation similar to the Glasgow and Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliances, assembled early on, with the intention of staying mobile, avoiding police ‘kettles’, and confronting the EDL. NEAR had spotters around the city, as well as at the service station of the outskirts of Newcastle where some of EDL were gathering. Having discerned that the EDL were beginning to assemble outside of the central railway station, we marched down to confront them. Skirting through backstreets to avoid police lines, we reached the group of around 100 EDL. A tense stand-off ensued, with police forming lines to attempt the separate us from the EDL. Tactically retreating, we marched back and forward a number of times to the station. However, the NEAR demo, although called with the best of intentions and tactics, faced two main problems. We numbered less than 100, severely limiting our ability to disrupt the EDL or challenge police direction. On top of this, the EDL were everywhere – this was two hours ahead of their official demonstration start time, and EDL supporters were spread out across the city. No sooner had we massed beside one group of EDL supporters than another would start appearing behind us. We retreated back to the Monument, where local trade unions were holding a rally against the EDL. Unfortunately, this gave the police an excuse to keep us there, and the NEAR mobilisation disintegrated.
So what did the labour movement response to fascism entail? A couple of lonely union banners, shit music, some woman dancing with a hula-hoop, a few speakers and a shockingly low turnout of no more than 150 is probably the best way of summing it up. Outright lies as well – one speaker applauded the police’s actions while informing the assembled turnout of embarrassed looking trade unionists, confused onlookers and obscure paper sellers that the EDL had been ‘denied the right to march in our city today’. Surrounding the union rally was huge lines of police, which only served to alienate the public from the event, and either way, did not stop a leading EDL member, Joel Titus, from swaggering his way through the crowd earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, as the EDL began to assemble in the city centre, Unite Against Fascism were massing on a quiet road a couple of miles away. What followed was a stage-managed display of militancy, with angry chanting and plenty of talk of ‘smashing’ the EDL, before the 500 or so protestors marched into a pre-arranged tight police kettle within what was just about shouting distance of the EDL. If you shouted REALLY loudly, that is. Which they did of course, not that you could even see the EDL through the thick lines of police, parked riot vans and so on.
The word reached us that NEAR were regrouping in another part of the city. Rumours abounded that the EDL were going to descend on Fenham, a mixed area of the city with a significant Asian population, as they had in Stoke, where groups of EDL went on the rampage through a predominantly Muslim area of the city, smashing up shops and vehicles. Avoiding police detection, NEAR maintained a strong presence in Fenham for the rest of the day. Thankfully, this precautionary step remained as just that and there was a no show from the EDL. Nonetheless, with the UAF and TUC demonstrations both packed up and gone home, all that remained in the city centre from the events of earlier on was large numbers of boozed-up EDL members, as well as the accompanying heavy police presence. Fortunately on this occasion, the EDL kept up their non-violent, peaceful facade and the streets of Newcastle remained free from the scenes of destruction seen elsewhere.
EDL: a fun day out for all the family!
It’s uncertain where the anti-fascist movement in England, or the EDL, go from here. It is clear that UAF, particularly following their disasterous attempts at playing militant in Bolton which ended in their leading members’ arrest and a farcical push-and-shove contest with the police, have no interest in direct confrontation with the fascists. They will continue to maintain that marches to show the EDL that ‘they are not welcome’, while barely setting sight on them, is the best strategy to oppose them. The NEAR demo on the other hand had real potential, but sadly lacked numbers. A decisive point could have been attempting to occupy the space where the EDL were finishing their demonstration. While police stood idly around the edges, leading EDL members were setting up a PA system in the middle of the Biggmarket. Several of us were able to wander freely through – with more numbers we could have taken the street.
The future for the EDL is difficult to predict. Last year, many predicted that they would burn themselves out within a few months. This has evidently not been the case – they now have a solid base of support that they can mobilise anywhere in England, from Aylesbury to Newcastle. In the short term, they look set to be planning demonstrations over the summer – perhaps an attempt to capitalise on the upsurge of football-related patriotism that England’s involvement with the World Cup will generate – including extremely provacative demos in Bradford and Tower Hamlets in east London. In the long term, the EDL leadership are attempting to make inroads into UKIP – a party with which they share both overt Islamophobia and an obsession with Geert Wildeers. With the BNP in organisational and electoral disarray, could a new popular front of the radical right, backed up by a street army of football hooligans, be about to emerge?
The tactics we need to defeat the far-right have already been displayed twice in Scotland. Mass street mobilisations to directly confront and stop the fascists can and will be effective. But for this to truly happen, unity of the anti-fascist movement is essential. Unfortunately – and as we’ve gone into on several occasions before – the established organisations have no such interest in directly stopping the fascists. Until then, its up to organisations like GAFA and NEAR to do so, and NEAR should be commended for taking the initiative with their demo in Newcastle on Saturday. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t a bigger turnout.