Saturday, 10 October 2009

Liverpool and Manchester: a tale of two rallies

According to the Manchester Evening News, "hundreds of police officers are in Piccadilly Gardens as a march by the English Defence League was met by rival protesters." MEN reporters at the scene have been offering continual updates on the situation.

At first, everything appeared - in the words of one journalist - "pretty well confined to baiting within the gardens." Earlier, however, there were several incidents and arrests were made. One comment from an MEN journalist on the ground at 2:30pm states; "some edl protesters broken out and heading towards pic station. Riot police chasing."

BBC News offers more details, stating that "18 people had been arrested in Manchester on suspicion of public order offences" with at least one being "on suspicion of carrying a weapon." According to their BBC Radio Manchester correspondent, "trouble started when 100 members of EDL arrived at Piccadilly Gardens and they were immediately met with shouts of 'racists' and 'off our streets' by members of the UAF [Unite Against Fascism], who had already congregated at Piccadilly." Within the gardens, "a line of police officers, dogs and mounted police" separating the two groups appeared to be keeping the situation "tense," but "not yet out of control."

The running coverage of the event by MEN shows exactly how "tense" the situation was. At 3:33, an EDL supporter "hurled a lucozade bottle into the crowd of UAF supporters." Outside the gardens, a police helicopter was "tracking a group of men running through the northern quarter towards the back of the Arndale [shopping centre]" and "at Starbucks near Debenhams on Market Street," police "wrestle[d] one man to the ground."

At 3:41, the protest started "heating up," with "both sides surging against the police lines." The EDL then demonstrated their penchant for violence, with one "EDL member thr[owing a] banner at an officer," not long before a "wooden plank spins up from the EDL and towards the police line," only to "narrowly miss."

The rally ended at quarter to five, with UAF protesters contained in Piccadilly whilst the EDL were led by police to the train stations. The right-wing protesters, even in leaving, offered "minor flashpoints" for the police, whilst the UAF were "allowed to leave Piccadilly Gardens without a police escort" and without incident.

Ultimately, tight police control on the situation avoided the fierce running battles that many feared when rumours began circulating early this morning that the protest had been postponed until five and the EDL holed up in a local Wetherspoons. With the fascist group spending hours drinking whilst anti-fascists were forced to wait around on the streets anxiously, the situation would have been an ugly one.

What did happen, though, quickly laid to rest the continued insistence offered by the EDL that they are not responsible for the violence which erupts at their demonstrations. In a press release after their last Birmingham protest, they insisted that they "had planned a peaceful protest" only to face "t
he UAF stirr[ing] up the local crowd," and that it is the anti-fascists, who "have a history of provoking violence," who were responsible for the trouble. Long before today, this credibility of this claim was non-existent, as I have previously discussed in-depth. That a small crowd of ultra-nationalists and football hooligans, outnumbered three-to-one by anti-fascists, could provoke such trouble as they did today only cements that fact.

Meanwhile, thirty miles away in Liverpool, hundreds of people gathered for the 12th annual James Larkin march and rally. Held in memory of "Big Jim" Larkin, an Irish trade union leader and socialist responsible for organising the Irish working class at the start of the 20th Century, the march stands in support of national and social liberation struggles worldwide, as well as anti-racism and anti-fascism.

In contrast to the violence and disruption in Manchester, the Liverpool rally was a peaceful yet lively one which drew hundreds of people into the march and had the support of nearly all spectators as it wound its way through the city centre. During the march the spirit and radical culture of the people of Liverpool was on display for all to see, as much a spectacle of entertainment as it was a display of solidarity.

As well as providing a powerful contrast to the scenes in Manchester, the Larkin Rally also offers a lesson to those fighting fascism. It was not so long ago that the fascists were targeting not Muslims but the Irish, and for similar reasons. The English Defence League recently offered the media pictures of themselves setting fire to a swastika flag. This was meant to "prove" that they were not racist, especially as the group burning the flag consisted of blacks as well as whites.

History teaches us, however, that - in the words of the main speaker at the James Larkin rally - "racism is just another form of sectarianism." Fascists seek a divided working class, and will use that division to consolidate their own power. In the 1930s, they were the strike-breakers and scabs, helping to undermine the trade union movement. Liverpool's Irish community will not need reminding that the Irish were a target of theirs not too long ago. Jews, gypsies, gays and communists have also served as convenient scapegoats. Today it is Muslims, though the hatred is not specifically targeted at hard line or conservative Islamists but at Arabs, Asians, and brown-skinned outsiders. Muslim is simply a convenient term to sidestep allegations of racism and, as they are the official enemy offered by the state today, a good way of playing to populist fear-mongering in order to gain support.

Working class people, of all colours and creeds, must be aware of this. The English Defence League offers no solutions to the root problems ailing our society today. Nor does it even offer an effective opposition to Islamism, their indiscreet racism and violence more a boon than a burden to the likes of Anjem Choudary. By promoting "patriotism" and nationalism, they offer not a radical alternative to the incumbent power system but apologism for it and distraction from its crimes towards convenient hate figures.

The James Larkin march offers us an image of international working class solidarity in the face of crisis and oppression, whilst the continuing workers' struggles around the UK and the world show us what is neccesary when organising for resistance. In contrast, the English Defence League's example is one of violent sectarianism, one that will only strengthen the status quo and lead the working class to division and defeat.