Saturday June 1st saw the far-right use the murder of Lee Rigby to mobilise across the country and push their racist ideology. In Leeds we saw one of the largest turnouts of the day by the EDL, who used the opportunity to march through the city centre to the war memorial in an attempt to hijack the issue for their own agenda.
An independent group of anti-fascists had organised a counter-demonstration at short notice to show opposition to the EDL and try to prevent their march if possible. Around 150 anti-fascists gathered on Briggate before the EDL meet-up time to flyer the public and build for our own demonstration. After an hour or so the group marched up from there to the war memorial to lay their own tributes calling for unity in the face of far-right extremism, both Islamist and EDL. As this finished there was some debate amongst the assembled anti-fascists as to whether to return to Briggate or to stay and hold the ground at the war memorial to prevent the EDL from marching. Despite many wanting to stay and feeling they had enough numbers to keep the area, UAF encouraged people to retreat back to their stall on Briggate and allow the EDL to march without even coming into contact with them. With half of the group leaving the rest could be pushed out of the area by police, leading to one arrest for breach of the peace. Eventually the two groups of antifascists were corralled and kettled on Briggate for the EDL to march unopposed.
Meanwhile the EDL had been gathering near the train station at city square. By the time they had all assembled and were ready to march there were about 150. After being kept waiting by the police while anti-fascists were cleared from the war memorial, a small group of about 30 were allowed to march down Park Row to lay a wreath, while the rest remained kettled on a traffic island by city square. A group of about 20-25 anti-fascists, who had managed to avoid police kettles, returned to the war memorial just before the EDL arrived. With police lines separating the two sides the anti-fascists began to heckle as the EDL approached. After they had laid their wreath the two sides turned on each other. Shouting and a minor scuffle broke out leading to one EDL arrest before police separated the two groups and each dispersed.
The UAF demonstration dispersed not long after, proclaiming the day a success (despite UAF themselves not even coming into contact with the EDL), while small groups of the EDL stayed in a few pubs in town. Most visible of these was their presence at the Northern Monkey on Headrow – which included hanging EDL emblazoned flags out of the pub and chanting. Later into the evening some EDL members returned to the war memorial to take photos of themselves beside it and to rip down any tribute with references to racial unity.
Just a month ago the EDL had visited Leeds again, this time to Moortown in North Leeds. Back then they had seemed like a spent force, managing to muster only about 100 for what was billed as a national demonstration and attended by EDL divisions across the UK. By comparison, Saturday was one of several marches across the country (although many of these weren’t at all well attended) and this is reflective of an upsurge of interest in the EDL after the Woolwich attack. While the organisation of the EDL is still in disarray and in the long term they still don’t seem to be a major political force, it is worrying that they can be seen as a pole of attraction in a moment of crisis. A similar trend can be seen in the rise of UKIP as a protest vote. Though it is unlikely they will become a serious contender in parliament the fact that they can be used in such a way is enough to make mainstream
parties pay attention. In both examples it isn’t so much the organisational capacity of the groups themselves as much as the shift to the right of politics generally that is a concern, which could in the right circumstances create a serious far-right threat. The experience of Golden Dawn should be a lesson to anti-fascists everywhere – pre-crisis it was just a fringe extremist group but now embodies a mass fascist movement in Greece. Although nowhere near as extreme a situation, UK now has a proto-fascist street movement and a nationalist splinter from the Conservative party both acting as far-right poles of attraction within their respective spheres.
The events of Saturday have left many in Leeds questioning present anti-fascist street tactics. After having the demonstration on Briggate hijacked by UAF and then have them not only refuse to stand by militant action but actively sabotage it there is a feeling that something else is needed and we need to more actively build for militant resistance. Leeds anti-fascists are fed up of the dominant discourse of allowing each side to march and spread their own propaganda without coming into conflict or even sight of each other, with liberal anti-fascists all the while shouting hollow chants of “No Pasaran”. We recognise that such words need to be followed with actions and a commitment to physically stopping the far-right taking hold of the streets. There have been rumours that an Asian woman was harassed on the streets by the EDL last Saturday, and while these may or may not be true it is a very imaginable possibility that racist abuse and attacks might happen when a group with a racist ideology mobilises in large numbers. Letting them march isn’t simply a case of letting them have their say as a PR stunt to show how civilised we are, it’s also allowing for conditions which could lead to bystanders being put in danger because of their race.
But militant street action on its own won’t defeat the far-right and for too long there has been a tendency amongst the left to restrict anti-fascism to counter-mobilisations. Anti-fascist outreach needs to play a part in building grassroots anti-fascism in communities across the working class. Although the turnout for Saturday was probably as good as can be expected with short notice and with the anti-fascist movement in it’s current state, it’s not good enough to defeat the far-right in the long term and establish our own counter perspective. We need to go beyond always being on the back foot by just reacting to far-right demonstrations with counter mobilisations, instead a concerted effort to build anti-fascism and leftism within our communities is needed. Hopefully in the wake of this brief resurgence of the EDL anti-fascists across the country will be reassessing their tactics and creating new networks to militantly confront the far-right and proactively build a grassroots anti-fascist movement amongst the working class.