Friday, 30 September 2011

BNP day of action drowned out by local opposition

Today was the BNP's much-vaunted day of action against the BBC and Question Time. As part of their "Operation Fightback" to challenge "corruption and prejudice" against them, they would descend on the show being recorded in Liverpool and make their voice heard. Unfortunately for them, it didn't quite work out that way.

Taking this picture, the BNP were to my immediate right. The "sterile zone" for anti-fascists is behind the steel barricade at the back of the picture.
I arrived at the counter demonstration just after 5pm, having heard that about 50 BNP members had already been in town handing out leaflets. However, I hoped, there had been enough publicity about the counter-protest to guarantee a sizeable opposition to their presence and thus no chance that they would be able to air their views without objection or challenge. One of the local UAF organisers had also told me that they had been publicising it heavily and, whilst I have issues with UAF's politics, I had no reason to doubt this particular person's word or their commitment on this.

The fly in the ointment, however, turned out to be Alec McFadden. Alec is the President of Merseyside TUC as well as the President of Hope not Hate affiliate Merseyside Coalition Against Racism and Fascism (MCARF). The problem with this is that MCARF has no members, and has not been a functioning anti-fascist organisation since at least 2008.

This little fact didn't stop the police inviting him to negotiate the location of tonight's demonstration, or him accepting and presuming to make representations to the police both on behalf of and without informing Liverpool Antifascists and Liverpool UAF. That's without getting into the fact that LiverAF objects in principle to negotiating with the police since our aim is to disrupt and confront BNP demonstrations and the police's aim is to ensure that the opposing sides are kept apart.

The validity behind our principle became evident very quickly when the police insisted that anti-fascists demonstrate at a distance not only from the BNP but also from the venue in which Question Time was being filmed. This was met with surprise, as it was supposedly the "first time in 21 years" that the two sides hadn't been able to reach a compromise. But those with a long memory will remember when, in 2008, both Alec and UAF joint secretary Weymann Bennett took the cops at their word and declared "victory" in demonstrating against the BNP whilst the police were able to keep them out the way and the fascists marched unmolested through Liverpool City Centre.

When I got to Greenland Street, it looked like we were set to see the same again. Despite insistence that nobody had agreed with the police's suggestion, it had been followed to the letter. The anti-fascist counter-demonstration was far enough away from the BNP that you could not identify individuals from their gathering, and both a steel barricade and a line of police stopped anybody even going into the shadow of the Question Time venue. Though this didn't seem to phase those gathered, with banners aloft and megaphones out ready to defeat the far-right with a repertiore of about four different chants.

Thankfully, there were people who would rather get in the face of the BNP than stand away from them to have a sing song. When we were told that people had bypassed the police presence by going down the next street, I and a few comrades decided to follow suit. Sure enough, when we got to the BNP's protest we found a small but growing crowd of anti-fascists, youth, and local residents having a go at the fascists.

The strengthened line of police protection for the fascists once it became clear the anti-fascists wouldn't keep our distance
It was telling that the police, who had insisted that anti-fascists be shoved out of the way where nobody could see them, had allowed the BNP to hold their demo right by were people were going in to take part in the Question Time audience. There were several police vans between the "official" anti-fascist demonstration and the BNP, and both the officer in charge and police liason officers in blue hi-viz jackets continually went over to speak to the party's members. They also studiously ignored both an assault on a black man who lived nearby and had joined the counter-protest and BNP goon Andrew Tierney/Brennus telling the man whom he'd been arrested for assaulting that he was going to saw his head off.

Every movement by anti-fascists was met with a response from the police. If we took one foot off the curb, someone rushed over to tell us to get off the road. If we paced about, they appeared to tell us to move back. We were continually told to return to our "sterile area," and when we refused we were told that we would be moved soon anyway.

I made a point of telling them that Liverpool Antifascists had not been consulted and had not agreed to any sterile area and that we would thus continue exercising our right to free assembly. I also demanded to know why we were supposed to stand in a cage whilst fascists had been allowed to wander over and take our photos and their "Truth Truck" was freely moving through the streets blasting out a recording of Nick Griffin. It didn't take long before an extra line of coppers appeared and put themselves between us and the BNP, but fortunately by this time the gathering had grown to a point that it was clear we weren't going anywhere.

Meanwhile, the BNP contingent comprised about 30 people at its height. This included members from outside Liverpool, a few purported Liverpool EDL members, and a crew of local youth who had been involved in various smaller neo-Nazi outfits like the British Freedom Fighters and the Liverpool Front. Their main rallying cry appeared to be calling everyone "paedophiles" and saying "Google the Labour 25 paedophiles." Local BNP crone Hazel Hesketh decided to announce my arrival by pointing and saying "here's Phil Dickens, the one who whips up all the trouble and gets people to hate us." Which prompted national organiser Adam Walker to sum up all of his wit in order to declare "here's Phil Dick...ens," which honestly just blew my mind.

That may have been the height of the political debate on offer. I responded to a claim that the BNP would stop privatisation, cuts and job losses by asking "where are the BNP when Sure Start Centres are being closed? When libraries are being closed? When people are striking for their jobs? We're fighting for that whilst you're just stirring up shit about immigrants." Peter Tierney's considered reply was to rub his crotch and gyrate with his tongue out.

As the demo wore on, the jeers, heckling and banter on the anti-fascist side - much of it from the youth who used the nearby skate ramps and people who lived down the road in Toxteth - only increased and it was clearly eaing away at the fascists' morale. As they descended into sullen silence, barring the occasional piss-poor attempt at goading people, the opposition only became more lively. A huge cheer went us as Tranmere Rovers Anti-Fascists unveiled their huge new banner, and leaflets from Liverpool Anitfascists were gratefully received. Soon enough, even those behind the "official" demo cottoned on to what was happening and deigned to join us.

Not long after, the BNP and their various hangers-on got fed up and packed away. It was about half an hour before recording of Question Time was due to finish, but clearly they'd had enough. Some tried to look defiant as they left, and Peter Tierney continued to act like somebody in need of serious help, but ultimately they left. There's no point in overstating this as some grand victory for the anti-fascist movement, but it's clear that it's more than we would have gotten by obeying police orders and staying at a safe distance whilst the BNP got a free platform.

This message was lost on precisely the people who would have done just that, though, as they chose to push their banner to the front of the crowd once they cottoned on to the fact that nobody was content to stay behind police lines and subsequently led a "victory march" towards Chinatown. In reality, it was the liberal anti-fascists yet again obeying a police instruction - i.e. "go that way or you'll all be arrested."

Rather than march behind the banner of an anti-fascist organisation which exists in name only, I decided that this was about the right time to head off. It was clear when I raised the issue that the potential damage wrought by negotiating with police wasn't a lesson some would ever learn. There was no point in dwelling on that. The main point was that confronting the fascists in defiance of police instructions was what sent them packing, and that those who were there had seen this for themselves.
The unofficial anti-fascist gathering - photo credit Chemical Oli