‘Anti-Extremist’ protests in Birmingham: racism takes to the streets

Author: 

Charlie Salmon

Racist gangs have once again taken to the streets in a self-styled campaign against ‘Muslim extremists’. In Birmingham city centre on Saturday 8th August, protestors organised by the ‘English Defence League’ (EDL) and a group calling itself the ‘Casuals United’ (CU) clashed with the police, anti-fascists and local residents after staging their latest rally. These groups were responsible for a riot in Luton earlier in the year after a handful of Islamists heckled a parade for troops returning from Afghanistan. What these groups represent and who is actually involved are important questions for the socialist left. Are the EDL and CU simply fascist front groups, are they just gangs of football thugs looking for new opportunities to scrap with the police, or is something far more complex developing?

The EDL (sometimes referred to as the ‘English and Welsh Defence League’) and CU both strenuously deny links with fascist organisations like the British National Party. On the Birmingham demonstrations, people carried placards that expressly denied the link. The EDL website carries the following claim: “We are a mixed race group of English people, from Business men and women, to football hooligans and supporters. We absolutely condemn racism within our group, and have no issues with Muslims. Our issues are the Radical muslims who wish us harm, and intend to do so. Also with those who wish to turn England into an Islamic state under Sharia law.” The efforts of the EDL and CU to distance themselves from the fascists may seem either a bit suspicious or quite understandable depending on your point of view, but the fascists are equally keen to make the same impression.

The BNP website carries an ‘interview’ (posted 9 August) between Simon Darby, BNP second in command, and party leader Nick Griffin. Griffin distances himself from the riot, criticises it for not being a “white English thing” and speculates about the involvement of the secret services. He claims that the secret state is using the demonstrations as a “honey-trap” for his friends on the fascist and racist far-right.

Griffin’s comments are instructive for a number of reasons. The public denial of any involvement fits with the BNP’s current stratagy of developing a ‘respectable’ facade. Over the past few years, Griffin has issued statements along the lines of “now is not the time for violence” – “now” being the operative word – and has described the current period as one of “quiet revolution”. This points towards the BNP maintaining a long-term strategy of building its organisation through steady, ‘grass-roots’ work in local communities. It also suggests that the BNP still think it possible to win a Parliamentary seat at the next general election. For instance, Griffin claims that if the BNP had been elected in Luton and Birmingham “perhaps ordinary English people wouldn’t feel they have to take to the streets”. So Darby and Griffin continue to build a case for their ‘quietly does it ... for now’ approach.

But they also send out a number of signals to their hard-core supporters and other fascists – some of whom are critical of the BNP’s relative ‘caution’. First, the criticisms of the riot for not being “white”. The BNP reiterate the claim that they are not racist at every opportunity which has led to disaffection from long-term fascist activists and open criticism on web discussion boards like Stormfront. Where some have greeted the riots for simply being anti-Muslim, the BNP are a bit more particular – thus reasserting themselves in the wider fascist community, letting their supporters know what they really think.

In the interview, Simon Darby warns of the immanent prospect of a “Muslim Europe” and Nick Griffin criticises Labour and Tory alike for allowing it to happen. The Tories “made a mess on their own watch” and “Labour politicians fall over themselves” to assist the Muslim takeover of this country. Griffin claims that “Luton is a tinder box with a growing, young Muslim population” and that “on the anti-Muslim side” their actions are the result of a “pent up frustration”. He also muses over the similarities between what’s developing in places like Luton and Birmingham and “what happened in Bradford before the £20 million riot” in 2001. Simon Darby finishes by stating that “we as a party” are well placed “to take advantage of any Islamic unrest”.

All of these statements work themselves up into a picture of what the BNP really thinks and advocates: white supremacy; building fascist organisation for the long term; using anti-Muslim racism to corral support just as fascists used antisemitism in the past. What the BNP deputy leader means by ‘taking advantage’ should be clear: the party leadership expects a continued growth in support, they can expect to see more people turn to them as the economic crisis intensifies and they hope to poison as many people as possible with their nationalistic, racist ideas. They expect to exploit positions in the European Parliament, local councils and perhaps even the House of Commons to become the leadership of a widespread reactionary movement against ethnic minorities, ‘foreigners’ and the workers movement. In short, they still hold to the fascist idea of a national revolution, or more precisely a reactionary counter-revolution.

The message from the BNP is clear, but how much of it – specifically the disassociation from EDL and CU – can we trust? From the BNP’s point of view, it’s easy to see why the leadership would want to distance itself but this is not the same thing as having no involvement. If we’re simply dealing with likelihoods, how likely is it that the BNP and their members are involved in some way? If they’re not in leading positions in this group it’s almost certain that some cross-over exists in the same way that BNP members – at least the peripheral members – maintain links and active involvement with more explicitly fascist and neo-Nazi groups like ‘Blood and Honour’. How many faces from the Birmingham demonstration will appear at the BNP’s ‘Red, White and Blue Festival’ this coming weekend? How many BNP members and sympathisers, some looking for a bit more action and others hoping to have some influence on organisers, will have taken the initiative after the Luton riot to get involved or at least attend the action in Birmingham? Again, the likelihoods tilt in favour of some involvement. The BNP’s attempts to distance themselves from this action ring hollow.

What of the ‘English Defence League’ and the ‘Casuals United’ themselves? If, as seems almost certain, they’re not wholly controlled by fascist groups then what do they represent? How is a seemingly small, internet-based organisation able to muster so much support and stage such high profile provocations? Why have members of the Hindu, Sikh and the Black community involved themselves in such anti-Muslim action?

The EDL issues calls for demonstrations and the CU appear to provide much of the muscle. ‘Casuals United’ is the football ‘supporters’ wing of another mysterious group named the ‘British Defence League’ which appears to be an umbrella organisation for the English, Welsh and Scottish ‘Defence Leagues’. Their website states that “Casuals United is an alliance of football supporters from all over Britain and was set up just to recruit people to the Defence leagues. Instead of hating your own people because they support a different football team, join with us and reclaim our country from those who want to bow down to terrorists and allow them to bully their way into Government and make us all slaves to their perverted version of Islam. We have lads from all clubs on board”. The people that CU describe as ‘supporters’ are more likely to be labelled ‘hooligans’ by the great majority of real football fans.

So the EDL and CU describe themselves as something like a pressure group, organising “massive, but peaceful protest[s]” to make the government “get their act in gear” against “Violent extremists”. In reality – at least based on the experiences of Luton and Birmingham – the EDL and CU are organising mass provocations with a distinctly racist overtone. They have organised two high-profile ‘demonstrations’ that have ended in rioting. In Luton, where there was no organised opposition from anti-racists and anti-fascists, the ‘demonstrators’ rioted, attacking shops and individuals of a Muslim ‘appearance’. In Birmingham, where community groups and the SWP’s Unite Against Fascism group organised a counter demonstration, the EDL and CU people attacked them. Do EDL and CU really expect the government to “get their act in gear” on the basis of racist violence? Neither the organisers of EDL and CU nor most of the people they carried with them can really think so.

So what’s going on? Consider the following possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: EDL and CU are straightforward British national bigots with some connections to the football ‘hooligan’ community. The leaders of EDL and CU are opportunists who have exploited the actions of a small group of Islamists to launch a campaign against ‘extremists’. They support ‘our troops’ and are outraged by UK-based ‘foreigners’ speaking out against the war. When they started their campaign, they didn’t expect it to get such a big response but are quite pleased with what they’ve achieved.

Scenario 2: EDL and CU are front groups for individuals with current fascist associations. These people are exploiting long-standing currents of racism within football hooliganism to stage anti-Muslim riots. Most of those on the demonstrations are hardened racists who like a bit of a scrap.

Scenario 3: EDL and CU have been set up by former members of other far-right and fascist organisations with the express aim of reviving street-level mass racist violence. They see themselves as appealing to a real, widespread racist and specifically anti-Muslim feeling. They’re making a big push at the moment in the hope that the economic crisis will mobilise desperate and hopeless individuals into action. They’re disappointed by the BNP’s moderate turn and hope to build a rival fascist organisation out of this movement.

None of the above may be spot-on but a combination of some of these factors might bring us close to the truth. What we do know is that largely internet-based calls to action – issues via web pages, email lists and Facebook – have brought people onto the streets. The calls have worked because there has been a palpable shift to the right in British politics, the appeal of racism has intensified as people try to make sense of the economic crisis, the left and labour movement is in no fit state to tackle these ideas and in any case our movement has never managed to decisively squash racism and national chauvinism. We face the real danger of further such demonstrations and an associated surge in one-off racial attacks.

One last aspect of the EDL and CU mobilisations that requires accounting for is the presence of small numbers of black and Asian rioters. Football hooligan ‘firms’ are not necessarily segregated on racial lines. If someone supports a particular team and likes to fight, then they’re welcomed in. But the realities of our society and the renewed existence of communalism suggest that something else could be going on.

In 2004, Sikh extremists in Birmingham closed down the play “Behzti” because it depicted a rape scene in a Gurdwara. Between 1983 and 1994, Sikh militants seeking the formation of their own state – Khalistan – murdered thousands in Punjab. There exists within the Sikh community – even in Birmingham – extreme communal and deeply anti-Muslim sentiment that can be mobilised in some numbers.

Similarly extreme anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists are well organised. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power in India between 1998 and 2004, is considered the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a paramilitary organisation with many millions of members from which the leadership of the BJP is largely drawn. The RSS has many similarities to European fascist organisations and has been responsible for the murder of thousands of Indian Muslims – particularly in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP and RSS are both organised in Britain where, along with other activities, they run weekend schools and ‘training’ events for children and teenagers. Much of the ‘training’ involves marching up and down in military uniform and reading texts by the RSS founders.

Lastly, Birmingham has suffered from sharp communal tensions between black and Pakistani youths. These tensions have resulted in street fighting and rioting. For example, in October 2005 a community radio DJ claimed that a fourteen year old Jamaican girl had been raped by “gang of Pakistani youth”. Groups of armed youth from both communities took to the streets of the Lozells neighbourhood. Shops were attacked and a Mosque targeted. The confrontations claimed two lives and resulted in the injury of very many more.

Given these factors, it is little surprise that small numbers from these communities turned out for the EDL and CU anti-Muslim demonstration. What’s important is that in anti-racist and anti-fascist work we combat the dangers of communalism and fight against purely communal responses to racist and fascist activity. Any appeal for a response to BNP, EDL or any other racist and nationalist action made on a communal basis – through the church, temple, mosque or Gurdwara – can only intensify existing divisions. Socialists should call for working class unity across racial lines, not – as has been the habit of the SWP and UAF – make appeals to specific communities. Our movement needs solidarity not communalism.

The EDL is calling for further demonstrations in the coming months in Harrow, Luton and Manchester. Whatever the protestations of the organisers, these mobilisations have shown themselves to pose major physical threats to Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim – not just the ‘extremists’ who we all condemn. We can expect the future demonstrations to turn violent and so we must mobilise in self-defence and solidarity to stop them in their tracks. To achieve this aim and in order to forge effective anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns the labour movement must unite and mobilise on the basis of working class politics. Our movement must use its organisational strength to crush the prospects of a wave of racist attacks and pose a positive working class alternative to the developing crisis in the economy and society more widely.

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"UAF leadership ... had long since disappeared"

The following is from 'Tafkas' and was posted on 'The Radish - uncensored student news & analysis at the University of Birmingham'.

His comments on the role of the UAF 'leadership' are particularly important.

CS

The 8th of August; Fascism and Anti-fascism on the streets of Birmingham

I arrived at the Bullring shortly after 5:00, the scheduled start of the Unite Against Fascism demonstration. An islamophobic hate group called the English Defence League (or EDL), widely thought to be closely associated with the BNP, had planned a march for that evening, and we intended to be there to counter them.

The protest began fairly peacefully, with the UAF leadership trying to lead the crowd in chants and the usual recruiting stalls out. The location seemed to be inviting kettling by the police, being just outside the Waterstones next to the Bullring, and the fact that it was a stationary demonstration meant we were milling around listening to a megaphone for some time. The crowd began to grow restless, wondering where the enemy they had come to confront was. The reason the EDL was nowhere to be seen was that their march was planned for an hour later, at 6:00. Why the UAF decided to call the demonstration earlier is unclear, but the extra time meant many left impatient and disillusioned, while others just grew angrier.

By half-past, the crowd was angry and ready for confrontation. People from the TUC moving to join the protests were mistaken for the EDL and pelted with sticks. The police, having already surrounded us, began to grow more wary. Small groups of 3 and 4 skinheads were observing us carefully. “They’ve got spotters,” the man next to me warned me. “If they’ve got any brains, they’ll try and surround us, come at us from all directions. Even fascists can figure that one out.” In lieu of any possibility for effective action, the crowd began to half-heartedly throw sticks, signs, and a glass bottle at the police, but fortunately they were stopped before the police were provoked.

Shortly after 6, with no sign of the EDL and mutterings of punctuality being expected of fascists, the crowd tried to surge down New Street towards where the EDL march was starting. What followed was the most leisurely-paced beginning to a riot I have ever seen. A crowd surge was soon followed by a retreating stampede as the police advanced with batons. This ended up happening a couple of times, with short intervals. Meanwhile, the police by the Bullring were forming a line in preparation to kettle the protest, but at a very relaxed pace. The police line on the High street, on the other hand, was equipped with riot shields and helmets. The riot police advanced about once every 10 or 15 minutes, and it took almost half an hour for the line by the bullring to form properly. We were even given advance warning that we were about to be kettled. This led to the vaguely surreal scenario of a kettle with barely anyone in, with about a third of the protest having left in frustration, and more people outside filming or craning to see what was going on than actually contained by the police lines. The more vocal protesters were semi-restricted to the bottom of New Street, leading to a situation a friend described as “kettles within kettles within kettles”. Throughout it all, shoppers kept coming and going, apparently oblivious. Then the situation escalated.

Some members of the EDL, who were reportedly being held in their own kettle in Victoria Square, had managed to break free and come down the high street, attacking and deliberately goading the large quantity of local Asian youth present. Sure enough, the enraged charge went straight past the loose police line and routed them almost immediately, pursuing them as far as Carr’s Lane. Some managed to chase them up a side street past Corporation Street, despite UAF stewards tying to discourage them, but they were swiftly pursued by about 20 police with riot gear. I quickly thought better of following them. Seeing an injured young man in a shop doorway, I told a spare policeman that he might need help, but was met with a shrug. Fortunately, his friends were able to escort him to safety.

More police advanced towards me, planning on kettling what remained of the crowd on the High Street. A line had already formed before Carr’s Lane, and as I quickly found out trying to get back to New Street was futile – it was blocked off too. By this point, there were more confused shoppers than protestors confined to the high street. The UAF leadership, perhaps sensing what was coming, had long since disappeared. Any possibility for effective action appeared to have evaporated, at least to my eyes, so around 10 past 7 I was eventually able to slip past police lines and make my way back home.

Around 9, when I began to write this article, I received a phone call from a friend. “Are you in Birmingham?” he asked.

“Yes, why?”

“You know there’s a riot in the city centre?”

“Really? I thought that had died down a couple of hours ago!”

“No, the police are going crazy with baton charges! I can’t see why, nothing’s being broken or smashed up. I didn’t even know anything was going on, I just went into town for a drink!”

Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Rather than the well-directed rage of Cable Street, confused anger seemed to be the order of the day. The UAF had no idea what to do with all the people they’d assembled, the crowd seemed to know little about how or where to confront the EDL, the EDL members who managed to reach the bullring must have been feeling almost suicidal, and even the police only seemed to have a vague idea of what to do. Whether you consider this a peaceful protest that got out of hand, or militant anti-fascism that was disorganised and misdirected, it appears that the only beneficiaries were the EDL themselves scoring a potential propaganda victory. How these events plays out in the wider media, and whether hate groups have been emboldened or discouraged, however, is yet to be seen.