The English Defence League’s decision to call a central London rally during working hours on a weekday, and their ability to successfully mobilise for it, is an alarming indication of their growing strength and confidence.
Showing solidarity with the visit to Britain of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, estimates of the EDL’s numbers ranged from a few hundred up to 1,000. YouTube footage of the EDL’s main march shows a sizeable EDL presence that outnumbered the 250-or-so anti-fascists mobilised to oppose them.
The EDL crowd was made up overwhelmingly of white football hooligan type men, but not entirely — there were a few women and a tiny handful of black and Asian people, proudly pointed to something like trophies. Anti-fascists chanted: “We are black, white, Asian and we’re Jew”. An EDL woman replied: “So are we, why are you bringing race into it?”
The placards on the EDL demonstration were few in number, and all against Islam. They did not focus on promoting women’s rights and the right to free speech. The key slogans were “Close East London mosque”, “England needs a Gert [sic]”, and “Ban the Burkha”, with the most unflattering picture of an Asian woman (in a burkha) they could find — their real “message” being “Muslim women are ugly”.
The opposition to the EDL march was coordinated by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), and was heavily dominated by the SWP (which controls UAF).
Despite fine talk about “stopping the EDL from marching”, the SWP leaders of the mobilisation didn’t seem to have any real ideas about how to actually confront the EDL (who, according to varying reports, were either at Vauxhall train station, in pubs around Leicester Square, or on High Holborn).
The anti-fascist action began on College Green outside Parliament and consisted largely of chanting “Nazi scum off our streets” at passers-by.
The SWP acquiesced at the first sign of resistance from the police and instigated a “sit-down” just a few hundred yards away from the Green. This allowed the police to form a loose kettle.
More chanting ensued, except that now — because of the police cordons — there weren’t even any members of the public around to hear. The police felt confident enough at this stage to begin picking demonstrators off. Over the next hour or so an ever-diminishing number of anti-fascists was whittled away by police snatches, and there were a fairly large number of arrests. No riot police were used. Many of those arrested were processed on then driven away in two London buses.
The EDL were able to have their march almost entirely unopposed; another victory for the far-right in the face of feeble resistance from the anti-fascist movement. The SWP’s report of the day’s events attacks “the state” for “allowing” the EDL to march — which somewhat misses the point.
It would be dangerous to eschew legal and “official” actions in favour of seeking all-out pitched street-battles with people undoubtedly better at fighting than we are. That said, the SWP cannot hope to sustain its current Janus act whereby it positions itself both as the most r-r-r-revolutionary element by giving lip-service to militancy but also continues to bureaucratically control UAF, a cross-class alliance which hegemonises the anti-fascist movement and keeps it situated in the respectable, bourgeois-liberal centre-ground.
UAF leader Weyman Bennett has described the next anti-EDL mobilisation, in Bolton on Saturday 20 March, as “a line in the sand”. There are two perspectives on offer for the anti-fascist movement: one is the SWP/UAF perspective of cross-class, state-reliant liberalism and the other is the tradition of working-class direct-action anti-fascism embodied by protests such as the Battle of Cable Street. The Bolton mobilisation may well prove to be a line in the sand between these two perspectives as well.