Today, national mobilisations of the British National Party, the English Defence League and the Infidels descended on Liverpool. Ostensibly there to draw attention to the trial of a suspected paedophile gang, they were in fact exploiting the case to promote their respective brands of nationalism. Their presence was met with opposition by local anti-fascists.
When members of Liverpool Antifascists arrived at the Crown Court, there were already a number of union flags flying and groups of BNP members milling about. The former Liverpool Division of the EDL, now disaffiliated, was waving a white nationalist flag. We were the first anti-fascists on the scene and soon drew the attention of the fascists. But, bar some heckling, they largely kept their distance at that point - whilst our numbers were small, so were theirs.
A police liason officer quickly came over to inform us that the "designated area" for Unite Against Fascism to protest was beyond the Victoria Monument. "Closer to the court," as he sold it, but also entirely out of sight of the public whilst the fascists were free to peddle their propaganda. We declined, and set about handing out leaflets to passers-by.
In response, the fascists gathered together in a more orderly fashion - producing signs saying "fight grooming gangs" in mock Arab lettering, and a banner declaring "our children are not Halal meat." As numbers started to grow, the Liverpool Division lads also started being more confrontational, calling us "rotten cunts" and accusing us of being "paedophile supporters." We stood our ground, as at that point we had people leafleting on either side of the fascists, but the war of words only made the police more anxious to fully partition the two groups. Initially, we resisted this, but ultimately they got their way and two lines of police stood between the rival groups.
Unite Against Fascism had by now joined the anti-fascist demonstration and there were lots of crossed words between the two groups. However, the effect of multiple fascist groups mobilising nationally was that the fascists ultimately mustered around 150 people against around 40 anti-fascists from the local area. Given that it was a smaller-scale call-out, and that it was a week day, it was a good turnout. But in the context of that many extremely vocal fascists, it left something to be desired.
Throughout the day, the same argument came up again and again - "why are you supporting paedophiles?" Our answer, of course, is that we weren't and don't. Child abuse is a horrible crime, whoever commits it, and many of the anti-fascists demonstrating had children. We were there because we recognise that paedophiles come from all backgrounds and wanted to highlight that - far from being the defenders of children - the fascists were there only to exploit the issue and promote themselves. The most overt form of this being the BNP, whose logo was stamped across almost all of the material the far-right had to hand and whose signs declared that the answer to the problem of child abuse was to "join us."
Most of the general public recognised this, taking our leaflets and engaging in conversations with us about why we were there. Where they didn't, it was down to the presence of opponents screaming "these people support paedophiles," and at one point openly lying by saying that those up in court were our friends. But even that backfired as often as it put people off, with many seeing through the lies and taking our leaflets anyway.
On the other hand, most of the fascists couldn't see past their own blind rage, and in the face of this continued to scream and shout obscenities. As well as accusations of being paedophiles or paedophile supporters, there was also some disgusting racist, sexist and homophobic abuse thrown about. At one point, a woman in the fascist demo screamed "paki lovers" at anti-fascists, whilst later on some Asian lads walking past were met with shouts of "potential Muslim bombers." An Irish anti-fascist was accused of being an IRA supporter and told to "fuck off back to Ireland." One woman was faced with chants that she "takes it up the arse," and a male anti-fascist was asked if he "liked to bum men." Unperturbed, he responded "if it offends you, I do."
During the day, I did have some interesting conversations with EDL and British Freedom Party supporters. I came across three EDL who were staying on the other side of the road from the main demo because "I'm against paedophiles, but I don't want to stand with the BNP and that white power shite." We engaged them in fairly length conversation and, though I doubt that we'll "build bridges" - as one police liason officer over-optimistically suggested after eavesdropping - it did illuminate the contradictions that still exist in the EDL.
Likewise, a conversation with Peter Stafford - formerly of the BNP, now of the British Freedom Party - indicated how uneasy the day's alliance was. Stafford faced homophobic abuse after splitting from the BNP, and I pointed out that the BNP and others have a history of equating paedophilia with homosexuality in the same way they were today equating it with Muslims. He remarked that this was why he was staying across the road (though he later joined the main demo) and throughout the conversation seemed visibly uncomfortable with the scenario. His discomfort only increased when Hazel Hesketh of the BNP appeared and said hello to him, which can't have been too pleasant since she was still with those who had dismissed him and the rest of the splitters as "queers and trannies."
There was a flashpoint at the height of the fascist demo, when the majority of those present charged towards the court. They remained there for about twenty minutes, lobbing eggs at anti-fascists who tried to see what they were doing, before returning and having to be physically restrained by police to get back on their side of the grounds. Rumour is that they were able to attack the suspects in the case, though this has as yet not been substantiated.
As the hours wore on, the far-right's numerical superiority disappeared, and eventually they were down to about twenty people packing up. They did so slowly, but there could be little doubt that they were leaving. At which point UAF decided that all the anti-fascists should leave as one. Not a bad idea, in the abstract, though in practice it meant retreating from the courts even as a depleted far-right packed up and prepared to leave. This led to the absurd scene of being ferried towards the Town Hall by police, with local boneheads following us and heckling from across the road. Not a wise move, either tactically or in terms of publicity.
This fits in with a lot of UAF activity around today that I have issue with. Such as the popular frontism of getting people like Joe Anderson to support the demo - not only unlikely to win over working class people who are suffering Anderson's cuts, but of no consequence in terms of turnout - and the stubborn refusal of UAF speakers to address the issue at hand, instead choosing to go on about Holocaust denial. As a response to the revival of street fascism, liberal anti-fascism is at best ineffective, at worst actively counter productive.
Ultimately, the day wasn't a defeat but it definitely wasn't a win either. What it demonstrates is that the battle against fascism isn't won simply by standing in a police cordon and shouting. The revival of street fascism must be met with an equivalent revival of militant anti-fascism, willing to face down the far-right both physically and ideologically, if we're to get anywhere.