Over the last year the North East of England, particularly Sunderland, has seen demonstrations by several far-right, racist and fascist groups such as English Defence League (EDL), British National Party (BNP) and Northern Patriotic Front (NPF) ostensibly about plans for a mosque in the Millfield area of the town. The BNP also tried a similar campaign in nearby Pallion regarding halal products in a sandwich shop. They gave that up after continually being outnumbered and the infamous Truth Truck V Bridge fiasco.
On March 30th 2013 the EDL and several other tiny splinter groups combined to protest in Millfield. One local anti-racism group called SAFC, whose leadership is dominated by Socialist Workers Party (SWP) types started to deliberately block, mislead and smear anyone who questioned their plans or lack of democracy with anti-anarchist hysteria being a favourite tactic with their leader. There was no attempt to engage politically with their critics and instead they withdrew further from other groups and became very secretive about their plans for the counter-protest. The reason for the secrecy was to become apparent on the day.
Without telling anyone until it actually happened, the SAFC leadership had secretly agreed with the Police to disperse a full 30 minutes before the EDL demo was meant to start. They spun this by saying it was more important what the local right-wing rag thought about them and this tactic would give the anti-fascist good press. [This actually backfired as the only picture the local paper printed was of the EDL] When information about this betrayal filtered through the crowd many were very unhappy with the news and began to shout their disapproval saying, quite rightly, that people had come to oppose the EDL and hadn’t even seen them yet.
The SWP decided to order everyone to leave or else we were being sectarian, their organiser would be arrested, the police might not let people protest again etc. Seeing this as a mixture of guilt-tripping and pure bollocks, sections of the crowd began to get very angry about the sell-out.
The SWP began to march off away from the scene as the EDL approached. Of course, to the EDL and anyone else watching it looked like the anti-fascists were running away. Half the march tried to at least slow down the retreat and were pushed by police on one side and labelled trouble makers by the SWP on the other. With the utter embarrassing capitulation over, angry words were traded and many who had previously given SAFC the benefit of the doubt left in disgust. The SWP were left on their own to give their usual ‘we won really’ speech to nobody.
The EDL announced a national demonstration in Newcastle on May 25th 2013. Another liberal front Newcastle Unites (NU) was set up by SWP, a Labour councillor and other usual suspects (Unison and the regional TUC wont work with SWP so they were less than enthusiastic). From the very start they ‘democratically’ voted to keep out anyone who might rock their boat by expecting to have a say in how the counter demonstrations would work. The AWL, RCG and North East Anarchists were the first to be told ‘no thanks’ by the self-appointed leaders of anti-fascism.
The facebook event page for NU became a telling example of the Stalinist tendencies of the leadership. Any person – no matter if they were anarchist, Green, Labour, communist or non-aligned – who questioned the tactics, strategy or politics of NU had their comments deleted, they were blocked from viewing the page and some were threatened with violence from the stewards and the police! Even the most sober, polite and reasonable questions resulted in the person being blocked and labelled sectarian, divisive or, in the case of one anarchist, a fascist infiltrator!
The increase in interest in the EDL following the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich meant the demonstration would likely be much bigger than the 500 anticipated. In the end about 2,000 EDL supporters came to Newcastle looking – in their own words – for revenge.
The morning of the demo those trying to organise outside of the NU liberal bubble had people keeping an eye on the EDL and managed to spot EDL leaders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll having an early-doors meeting outside the Assembly Rooms.
By mid-morning the EDL crowd was very boisterous due to the warm weather and the amount of beer being sank. The crowd grew rapidly from a few old fascists to over 500 and by the time the march set off they numbered in the thousands.
The police operation was very well organised and there was very little opposition to the EDL. A small group of women had a few good goes but were quickly restrained by the police. Some of the public clapped as the EDL went by. At their rally the cheers were deafening as one speaker told the crowd to ‘send the black cunts home’.
Meanwhile, far on the other side of town, a much smaller demonstration of about 500 walked through quiet streets away from the busy shopping area. The NU rally couldn’t be heard from the no-man’s land between the two sets of demonstrators. The SWP said they had a thousand – maybe they thought everyone had brought an imaginary friend? There were very few local Muslim youth on the march compared to the demonstration in 2010 which wasn’t surprising considering the danger they would have been in when trying to get in and out of the city centre. There would have been a few more anti-fascists on the march but the NU organisers and the police intervened to make sure some people missed it all.
At the other end of town near Haymarket metro station, a small group of RCG members were meeting and handing out leaflets. A few yards away stood a handful of really young punk kids. Both groups, including two minors, were arrested and held for many hours before being bailed until August.
The RCG had been explicitly threatened with police action by the Labour councillor on the facebook event page. The RCG had been accused of all kinds of things by the SWP including giving away ‘secret’ meeting places such as the Trades Council building which has openly held political meetings for decades!
The RCG have said they know the police acted at the request of NU leadership – something NU have not denied. It is also highly unlikely the police would have bothered with the RCG on this day as they had plenty to do elsewhere as 2,000 pissed-up blokes swarmed through the town centre. So, unless they come out and deny it, you can take it as truth that the leadership of NU sold-out fellow anti-fascists and colluded with the police to have them arrested. And they call the rest of us sectarian?
A combination of an unexpected boost for the EDL and the shocking betrayal by so-called anti-fascists like the SWP and Labour meant anti-fascism came a very poor second for the second time running. Anti-fascists must learn from these experiences or we will never recover the ground we have lost.
We cannot rely on the liberal left to fight our battles while they enthusiastically give us up to the police for disagreeing with them. We must bring together all those who are interested in real anti-fascism and anti-racism to be better organised for next time. And there will be a next time because the liberal, state-sponsored model of anti-fascsim has been shown to fail.
Genuine anti-fascists can and do work together in our region but we need to be better organised. We’re fighting on three fronts – the police, the fascists and the liberals – so we need to get our act together. If we go on the way we are, we will definitely lose the next round too.