By an East London anti-fascist
At the very best estimate, the scoreline for the events of 3 September in East London could be written up as 0-0 between anti-racists and the English Defence League. The biggest unambiguous winner was the state.
Everyone who came out onto the streets of Tower Hamlets today was, undoubtedly, a sincere anti-racist. They deserve congratulation and commendation for not staying at home and hoping the day would pass off without incident. But the “victory” we won by keeping the EDL out of Tower Hamlets feels very hollow when the leadership of our movement – whether consciously or otherwise – remains reliant on the state to fight our battles for us.
Although a clear and complete picture is yet to emerge, the day's broad storyline is as follow: in the morning, EDL activists “mustered” near King's Cross, gathering in pubs on the Caledonian Road as soon as they opened. After assembling there, they were escorted by the police through the tube system to Moorgate. Small groups of activists managed to harass and hold them up on their journey but their eventual passage through the transport system appears to have been facilitated in full collusion with London Underground management, despite the best efforts of some activists in the tube workers' union RMT (see separate comment below). After piling out at Moorgate, the EDL were marched by police to a rally point by Aldgate station, meaning that they were effectively able to have a march (a noisy, lively march with flags, placards and chanting) as well as a lively rally at which their leading figures, including Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), spoke. Anti-fascist scouts attending the rally estimate that EDL numbers reached 1,000. They were then marched out of Aldgate, over Tower Bridge (giving them an excellent photo opportunity on a historic English landmark) and back onto their coaches.
Anti-racists held an assembly on Whitechapel, near the East London Mosque. It featured mostly bland speeches from the great-and-the-good of Tower Hamlets' political and religious establishment, although did include some welcome points from trade union figures about the need to link the fight against racism to a working-class fight against cuts. One wonders how Tower Hamlets' cuts-happy councillors and Mayor, with whom the SWP/UAF entered into an uneasy and unprincipled alliance to organise the “counter-demo”, took to such remarks.
Although initially made up largely of the existing left, the anti-fascist protest's numbers were later swelled by several hundred local (mainly Asian) youth. A section of the protest moved down to Aldgate East station (effectively defying the Home Secretary's ban on political marches) so that all that lay between 500-or-so (perhaps later somewhat more) anti-fascists and the EDL's rally were a few hundred yards of road. The problem was that the road was occupied by an immense number of riot police.
They were the real winners in the day's events. They put thousands of personnel on the streets of Tower Hamlets and were their usual community-friendly selves, hassling and stopping-and-searching people (who never seemed to be white, for some reason) seemingly on a whim. The EDL were prevented from crossing the borough boundary into Tower Hamlets by the tight policing of their rally, but were still able to hold their action (the size of which was worrying) in the multicultural East End thanks to police assistance and facilitation.
The police were enormously successful in preventing anti-fascists from getting anywhere near the EDLers themselves, meaning that the racists have been able to march in and out of the East End, holding a lively rally in between, without encountering any serious visible or organised opposition. Any triumphalist claims that the EDL has been “humiliated” because they did not manage to actually cross the borough boundary are unhelpful; certainly it is positive that they did not achieve their stated aim of marching into Tower Hamlets or past the East London Mosque, but the police can claim far more “credit” for that than the anti-fascist movement can.
The entire day had a kind of grim inevitability. The presence of thousands upon thousands of riot police on our streets, particularly when they are hassling Asian kids, and especially when they are actively facilitating large racist demonstrations, is absolutely nothing to celebrate.
A small blow was landed later in the day when local people were able to hold up and damage an EDL coach as it made its way out of Tower Hamlets, leading to a large police clampdown on the Mile End Road. Certainly, those local residents who mobilised have distinguished themselves and proved that their political instincts and courage far outstrips that of their official political and religious "representatives", as well as the leaders of the mainstream anti-fascist campaigns.
The EDL will easily be able to spin the day's events into a victory for them; equivalent spin from our side is not helpful. What is needed is a serious examination of why our movement was unable to prevent 1,000 organised racists marching, with police assistance, into East London and holding a spirited rally. Part of the answer to that question lies in the insistence of both wings of “official” anti-fascism (the Hope Not Hate campaign and the SWP-run Unite Against Fascism) of building unprincipled alliances with, and sowing illusions in, the political and religious establishment and, ultimately, the state.
A mass anti-fascist movement organised on the basis of direct-action tactics and working-class politics could have the strategic creativity to avoid police kettles and actually confront the racists on the streets of East London. It could also provide political answers to the social conditions that allow organisations like the EDL to grow.
Those who wish to see the development of an independent working-class anti-fascist movement must meet urgently to discuss today's experience, and others, and organise to ensure that the next time 1,000 racists march into a multicultural area, with the full facilitation of the police, they do not do so without directly encountering the highest possible level of opposition.
Janine Booth (RMT) reports:
"I was at Moorgate station saying they should close it, but management chose to keep it open and the police chose to help the EDL travel in preference to other passengers. I even saw an EDLer make threatening gestures to an Asian man on the platform from inside a train before the doors opened, and despite being aware of it, the police still allowed the train to open its doors and let them out onto the very same platform where the man was standing.
"We cannot rely on the authorities to protect us from racists. It would have been great if there had been hundreds of anti-racists there to "greet" the EDL, but they were a mile or two away listening to speeches and music. Our movement has to get its act together."