“The main thing is not to lose sight of what the fascists are, whatever they're wearing and however they are trying to spread their message. Just have in your mind's eye an image from the holocaust and you will always feel motivated to no platform the scum whenever the opportunity (and balance of forces) presents itself.”
‘Confidence is an important weapon against the fascists,’ claims scouse street-fighter Duncan Trot (name obviously changed) ‘and every successful counter demo against them will increase this confidence. We know the majority are, broadly speaking, on our side. We have to give them the confidence to be open about it.’ It was this philosophy which inspired the re-launch of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in the 1980’s, a militant campaign of one anarchist and two socialist groups to deny re-organised British National Party (BNP) any space to grow in the East End of London, UK. As Nationalist parties increase in popularity across Europe, seemingly invigorated by the anti-immigrant attitude of the corporate press and mainstream political parties, a reflection of past struggles is both relevant and important as battle lines are redrawn as communities are once again targeted by the far right and those who fight against them.
The Fight for the East End
Duncan explains how the militant anti-fascists saw the urgent need to offer a speedy and effect response to the growing right wing threat in the 1980s. The BNP were targeting the white working class community in the East End of London under the slogan ‘Rights for Whites’, claiming that the poor housing and lack of job opportunities were the fault of the large Asian population in the area. It did not matter that the Asian community were just as poor, had just as bad housing and faced the same problems in getting a job. There was a strong feeling of dissatisfaction and alienation in the community and the far right were attempting to exploit it.
It was a threat that some felt was not being combated effectively, despite the strong anti-fascist sentiments among activists. There were the leaflets, the demos and the gigs all of which were vital for winning the argument against the right and for presenting an alternative option to the large segment of society, who had been thrown by the wayside as other people got very rich in Thatcher’s Britain. However, despite the grassroots campaigning, the popularity of the right was increasing, “The BNP were fighting elections and were holding rallies in a local school. The traditional response of the left, partly justified because not everyone can be a streetfighter, was to call a demo outside the school. The police would then cordon off the school, escort the fascists into it and the meeting would go ahead. The local youth would look on and think to themselves, ‘the left don't mean business’”. Duncan explains as he sips on his beer. From behind his pint he appears more like a tired dad than a veteran street fighter. He sighs, possibly remembering old sectarian disagreements where he urged for action and got redirected to another meeting, but his eyes light up again as he begins to recall the danger and action of his time in the now disbanded AFA.
“To counter the predictable standoff, where despite protests the meeting would still go ahead, the AFA stewards assembled away from the counter-demo. We sent scouts out to locate the main body of fascists. With this intelligence we positioned ourselves on their route. We were all dressed in a "casual" manner, not dissimilar from many fascist themselves.” Duncan begins to laugh at this point and we discuss how to dress like a fascist, or maybe more interestingly how not to dress like a typical left wing activist. He makes it clear, “There were no Peruvian jumpers, ‘I hate Nazis’ badges or Jesus sandals to be seen. This confused the police because when we stepped in line behind the fascists the police simply thought we were more of the same, despite several Black and Asian people in our ranks.” Police, Duncan’s look informs me, are not always the brightest.
“As we approached the venue for the rally we quite simply attacked the fascists with all the ferocity we could muster. This had two effects. First, and most obviously it disrupted their plans for a ‘normal’ election night meeting. Second it made everyone on the counter demo feel a whole lot less intimidated by the fascists, so they ran and joined in the commotion. The local youth looked on, saw what were doing and decided that AFA certainly meant business. The police were confused and arrests were kept to a minimum. When the fascists regrouped and charged us we stood. They stopped. At that point about a hundred local youths came over and joined our lines. We knew we had won a battle in the anti-fascist war.” It was clear that Duncan was proud, not just of their superior muscle power but also of the success of the plan, “believe it or not,” he smiles again “we got away with that trick twice before the police wised up to our tactics. “
Violent and Determined
He is at times very serious and prone to breaking into polemics when describing the need for action against the BNP, but Duncan can just as quickly appear like a friendly middle-aged regular, hiding away in the corner of a pub, searching for a punch-line or a relevant anecdote. For instance when I query about how they funded their actions he tells me, “We were sponsored by Lucozade,” as I wonder how a fizzy sports drink could be useful to the AFA, he continues, “because it came in a mighty heavy bottle and it could be used to quench your thirst and put a fascist in hospital.”
The legitimacy of Duncan’s argument in part rests upon the fact that the AFA had the dedication to put themselves in the firing line. It wasn’t just the fighting ability of individual members of the group, but the lengths they went too. They put themselves in danger; they stood directly in the path of a big ugly threat and were prepared to take the consequences. There are others who fight anti-fascists with whatever means they can and they often disagree with the violent methods used by the AFA and other groups. Some people arguably have the right to disagree with the militant nature of AFA, as they have mobilised against fascists themselves, incurring the often unpleasant consequences. Their disagreement with violence is either practical, moral or both.
However those who complain about the violent tactics, but do nothing themselves to stop fascism cannot justify their positions as long as racist or homophobic attacks continue to increase across Europe. Legal measures to stop the extreme right also only seem to have limited successes. Institutionalised no platform policies and ‘race hate laws’ can provide fuel for the BNP, as they claim they are the victims of a state conspiracy to deny the truth, but this is not the case with street level no platforming. They cannot claim that the government is prohibiting their ‘right’ to communicate their message to the community, if it is the community which is prohibiting them from speaking. It is questionable whether longwinded court cases, about what can and cannot be said in public, will inspire those disillusioned with mainstream politics to turn away from fascism.
Duncan argues that if combating the threat of the far right is about more than reactionary measures then the confidence of the local community has to be won and real solutions have to be offered, “ first, we have to nail their lies with really effective counter arguments, disseminated to as wide an audience as possible, second we have to offer some sort of broader political alternative to fascism and far right nationalism, that will give ordinary people a degree of hope in their own futures and third we have to deny the fascists the ability to organise and spread their hate by whatever means necessary.”
It was a struggle which the AFA were prepared to fight on all fronts. “We held an anti-fascist march and festival (in fact we organised a second festival the following year, 1990) and it proved that we were not just in it for the fights, despite many others on the left foolishly calling us "squaddist" (i.e. purely militarist). But there was another important fight. It was to say to a whole generation of youth in Britain that the fascists would not be allowed to operate as a musical force. They had formed a musical front, "Blood and Honour" to recruit youth. It tried to organise a festival in 1989, but we got there first and made sure that the meeting point, Hyde Park, became a no-go area for fascists.”
“They couldn't let the "reds" get away with this and so decided to convene an all European fascist musical extravaganza in 1992. Everywhere the youth were watching. Would they pull off this particular ‘Springtime for Hitler’,” even though as Duncan informs me with a wink it was in the autumn, “or would AFA pull off it’s most spectacular no platforming of fascists ever?”
”Their plan was to meet at Waterloo Station in South London and then transport the master race from all over Europe to a festival in South East London. We knew what was coming and went all out to mobilise as many anti-fascists as possible for a counter demo at the station. It looked like we were going for the traditional protest. But we added a twist. First, the day before the demo we visited the rail workers at Waterloo station and got them on our side. Second, we made the station safe for the thousands of anti-fascists coming to protest. Two hours before the time the demo was due to convene, the entire AFA stewards group, from all over the country, met up in North London. Once our scouts informed us of what was happening, we moved like lightening to Waterloo.”
“What followed was an unconditional triumph for militant anti-fascism as every group of Nazis, from Britain and all over Europe, received a sharp reminder of why they will never be allowed to pass again. The hospitals were filled and it was black paramedic workers carrying them away in stretchers. Anti-fascists who had never struck a blow in their lives confidently joined the battle and the fascists were put to flight. They never tried to stage a festival on that scale again. The next day the national newspapers called it the Battle of Waterloo. We pointed out that whatever they chose to call it the day will forever be remembered as one in which militant anti-fascism showed that with organisation, mass mobilisation and united action it was capable of scattering the ranks of the seemingly ‘hard’ fascists to the wind.” Duncan pauses, sips his pint, looks me in the eye and just in case I had any doubts about his commitment he tells me, “And of course we followed it up with more meetings, mass leafleting and grass roots campaigning.”
The far right look a little different nowadays. They wear suits and use front groups to jump on campaigns about civil liberties, paedophiles or wasted government money. The police are also more wary of militant anti-fascists, defending meetings with more sophistication and planning. Duncan argues that the nature of the fight must also change, “the anti-racist message needs to be updated to take into account the terrible persecution of asylum seekers and minority populations, like Pakistanis and Somalis in Britain or the Roma in Europe. We need good arguments on these issues, well explained and easily accessible to ordinary people. We have to combine campaigns on these issues and direct them against the governments who are encouraging the persecution of these people as well as against the far right and the overt racists. If you fail to do this to do this you will not, in my experience, nail the lies the fascists are using today to win people over. You have to defend asylum seekers if you want to be able to defeat the fascists.”
It seems like story time is over. Duncan tells me he is off to Birkenhead at the weekend to leaflet against the BNP for the upcoming local elections and off to pick up his kids and take them swimming right now. As he buttons up his coat, he turns to tell me, “The main thing is not to lose sight of what the fascists are, whatever they're wearing and however they are trying to spread their message. Just have in your mind's eye an image from the holocaust and you will always feel motivated to no platform the scum whenever the opportunity (and balance of forces) presents itself.”