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South London Anti-Fascists confront the BNP in Whitehall

This week it was the British National Party’s turn to try and cash in on Lee Rigby’s killing. But it went badly wrong for them, writes Jeremy Dewar

Only around 50 disconsolate and bored supporters huddled on the edge of College Green – opposite the Houses of Parliament, waiting for their leader; Nick Griffin eventually turned up over two hours late. They then faced the final humiliation of being taunted with shouts of “Cull the fascists, not the badgers!” from animal rights protestors ringing in their ears.

Griffin first announced that the BNP would lead a motorcade from Woolwich Barracks to Lewisham. Griffin clearly fancied his role as a latter-day Oswald Mosley, giving the Roman salute from a convertible. More seriously, it threatened to be a day of racist hate-mongering, intimidation, and violence on the streets of South London.

Neither was the destination of Lewisham accidental, as the scene of the game-changing confrontation between the National Front and anti-fascists in 1977. The target was an Islamic centre but the Nazis still want revenge for that day 35 years ago when their attempt to march through south London came badly unstuck and they never tried it again. Obviously they hoped public revulsion against the brutal killing in Woolwich would give them opportunity to take to the streets and intimidate the Muslim population of the area.

A 50-strong meeting of the South London Anti-Fascist Network discussed this and the new situation that confronted us in the wake of the previous Monday’s strong showing by the English Defence League, when they surprised and outnumbered the antifascists, putting over a thousand on the streets of central London. EDL chief Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Lennon, had called over 50 demos around Britain (most of which were pretty dismal affairs) but had ominously told London supporters that if they felt inclined to go to Woolwich, then “they had to do what they had to do”.

Our clear intention was to avoid being stuck behind a police pen along with the increasingly discredited Unite Against Fascism, to remain mobile and to prevent the fascists – BNP or EDL – from attacking ethnic minorities, their properties or places of worship. In particular we had responded to a request from the Imam from the Lewisham Islamic Centre to combine with local Muslim youth to protect the Mosque. We also agreed to leaflet the Woolwich estates and youth clubs the night before.

In the end, these plans had to be scrubbed as the BNP, banned by the police who feared a large confrontation from meeting in Woolwich, moved their protest to Whitehall. Around 150 activists from many different political groups – Solidarity Federation, Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers Power, the Anticapitalist Initiative, Left Unity and trade unionists – gathered at the Imperialist War Museum in the morning and marched to parliament.

Conflict

Westminster revealed the gaping difference between the tactics – and aims – of the South London Antifascists and UAF. While the UAF contingent, as always led and controlled by the Socialist Workers Party, stayed a quarter of a mile away by the cenotaph, untroubled by passers-by, the police or the BNP, we marched straight to where the BNP were attempting to congregate opposite the Commons entrance.

The advantage of this is that we took both the fascists and the police by surprise. A few BNP-ers tried some bravado, coming forward to confront us but were sent packing in no uncertain terms. At last they were feeling some of the despondency and despair that they seek to mete out to Muslims and immigrants.

Unfortunately, lacking numbers, we were unable to prevent police snatch squads coming in and indiscriminately arresting antifascist protesters. I witnessed one such attempted arrest – which we thankfully prevented by pulling the comrade back into our ranks – apparently merely for the “crime” of standing on the antiterrorist crash barrier and shouting.

Eventually the UAF abandoned their pen and marched down to join us, but then inexplicitly halted 50 yards away in Parliament Square. Far more up for it were the anti-badger cull protesters, who not only joined us, but developed the surreal chant of “Cull the BNP, not the badgers!”

Lessons

1 June has to be judged as a minor success for South London Antifascists. They adopted the correct tactics without falling into the trap of reducing antifascism to physical confrontation. But we should not get carried away – this was not the resurgent EDL, this was the fast-sinking BNP.

Also, we suffered – along with some UAF supporters – at least 58 arrests. This was a timely reminder that the police are not politically neutral, but will always tend to protect the fascists in any confrontation. All these comrades need our continued support: drop the charges – self-defence is no offence!

But also we need to strengthen the ranks of militant antifascism. The politics of UAF are the politics of popular frontism, in essence liberal pacifism. Their aim is to remain respectable at all costs, so they can attract support from the widest possible political range: union leaders, Labour MPs… even David Cameron sponsors UAF!

But we cannot unite everyone, including the capitalists and the Tories, against fascism, because at the boss class knows that fascism is their final defence against the working class. Not that they are always pleased with some of fascism’s excesses, but in times of extreme crisis they will turn to fascist street forces to disorganise, smash up and defeat working class opposition to their cuts and oppression.

This may not appear to be the case here today, but a glimpse at Greece and the rise of Golden Dawn shows that the situation could quickly change and fascism will inevitably rise and offer its “solution” to the ruling class.

This is why groups like the South London Antifascists are crucial to uniting the working class forces, who do not curb their tactics in order to keep Ed Miliband and David Cameron on board. They are committed to confronting the fascists wherever they try to spread their message of hate and violence: no platform for fascists.

Two possible future developments: it is rumoured that UAF – aka the SWP – will respond to the emergence of the South London Antifascist Network by launching South London UAF; on the other side, Brighton Antifascists have invited others to join them in discussing the launch of a national antifascist network. Every socialist, every antifascist – including SWP members – should fight to ensure that the latter outcome is achieved, not the divisive, sectarian and politically flawed former outcome.

The fascists have national networks and at the moment can mobilise many more than our side. This is a wake-up moment for the left: end the fatal popular frontism of UAF; end the politics of sectarian control of supposed united fronts by the SWP; forward to the formation of a militant antifascist defence league.

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