EDL Outnumbered in Colchester

Last week, while the rest of the country was going to the polls, the EDL decided to demonstrate in Colchester town centre. Once again, they were opposed by a large demonstration of students and local anti-fascists. George Venizelos, Participation and Involvement Officer at University of Essex Students Union and activist with Essex Radical Platform, reflects on the day and its lessons.

Anti-Fascist hangs banner on Colchester War Memorial.

Anti-Fascist hangs banner on Colchester War Memorial.

On Thursday 22nd May the English Defence League (EDL) returned to the streets of Colchester to lay a wreath in memory of dead soldier Lee Rigby. Around 100 antifascists, members of the local community and university students, were gathered next to the War Memorial to oppose less than 30 EDL members.

Antifascists arrived first, hoping to block the memorial and prevent them from achieving their goal, something we had managed last year. The police, though, said that we could only protest behind the memorial in a space that was specifically guaranteed for the anti-fascist counter-protest. We were given two options: protest in the appointed place and so be unable to prevent the EDL from marching, or get arrested. The EDL appeared to be the ones legally protesting on the day while we looked like the ones trying to disrupt public order. Meanwhile, we tried to engage with locals who passed by, explaining the reasons why they should join our side. Some of them even asked if we were “Muslims”.

Highly protected by the police, a mob of 30 hooligans arrived. They tried to look sad while we chanted: “No EDL, no BNP, Colchester is racist-free’’, “racist scum off our streets’’ and pointed out the fact that even the family of the dead soldier did not want them to hijack his murder for their own political gains. After less than 5 minutes of silence they quickly left the memorial, achieving the shortest fascist demonstration in history.

After they left, we were eventually able to go to the memorial and place our own banner, though we were again prevented by the police from approaching very close to the memorial for no clear reason. We then held an assembly to discuss ways of resisting the rise of racism, neo-fascism and the far-right, and how to create networks between university students and the local community.

It was clear from the day that the EDL appears to be, unfortunately, pretty convincing for some at the bottom of society. The victimisation of immigrants as part of the crisis discourse seems to work and the ‘logic’ of racist and nationalist groups looks appealing. The far-right has taken advantage the political vacuum; where mainstream politics seem not to have an answer, the far-right seems to have the pill. Helped by the mainstream media, their influence is increasing dangerous. For instance the Colchester Daily Gazette’s front page reads ‘Protesters chant as EDL lays wreath to murdered soldier’, picturing the EDL as the victimised side which is even denied free-speech. Whilst antifascists outnumbered the EDL, the day’s election results showed we are not winning the anti-racist argument; we get on the streets, but are marginalised in electoral politics.

The left needs an answer to this, and can only do so by changing its approach. The populism of the far right provides apparent ‘answers’, whilst the left uses algebra, codes and outdated manifestos. The left too often finds itself unable to relate to the same people who are attracted to the far right, something we certainly experienced in Colchester. ‘To overcome this we need to build a movement that posits popular unity before the unity of the left, and be willing to abandon some of our own dogmas, or at least re-interpret them in new light. Otherwise, we will not achieve the broad and, most importantly, relevant movement that will be the driving force for change. The examples of SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain show what can be achieved when the left builds a genuinely popular movement on the basis of a clear alternative. We need to set a programme -a unified agenda- that will at least set us on the way to reclaim the struggle because we have locked ourselves out of the communities we have traditionally appealed to. Their democracy is rotten, neoliberalism is normalised and fascism is rationalised. The left is still searching for its own identity in its dusty books.

There are 2 comments

  1. RayB

    I’m not sure what the poster of this article is arguing but it sounds like Colchester anti-nazis did an exemplary job and the reaction of the (usually Tory/liberal media) are responding negatively to protest as they usually do and have done since The Battle of Cable Street. If Colchester is an example of the left doing something wrong then it would be helpful to provide specific reasons for this analysis and offer alternative strategies. Stating that Syriza and Podemos do things differently and better (which is open to debate) is an unhelpful generalisation. I’m not sure what Syriza’s initial reluctance to unite in anti-nazi campaigning and then its subsequent involvement has to do with Colchester? I assume that the Colchester demo constituted activists from different organisations, including Labour, which follows the same principle of the anti-nazi campaign in Greece.

    The evidence of the effectiveness of UAF and other anti-nazi campaigns is that not only the BNP but also the EDL have lost a vast amount of the momentum they had only a couple of years ago. Without being complacent there has to be some credit given to anti-nazi activists and the left for that. That doesn’t mean we can sit back and rest on our laurels because many millions voted for UKIP who are not nazis. But even there, Farage has struggled to be viewed as respectable and electable because there has been a sustained anti-racist campaign by the left.

    There is also now a much stronger countervailing left movement developing in the form of Corbyn’s support which has pushed the agenda of anti-austerity and anti-racism to the fore for the first time in decades. While I disagree with his reformist agenda there are many things I agree with in Corbyn’s politics and his success is a very important outcome of the years of consistent anti-racist and anti-austerity campaigning by the likes of activists in Colchester and elsewhere. This will undoubtedly offer and alternative pole of attraction to former Labour voters who voted UKIP. But then fighting racism and the nazis is not simply limited to electoral politics which is the whole point of the Colchester demo and explains the reaction of the local paper who believe political engagement should be limited to people voting every five years.

    Returning to the liberal presses’s concept of free speech – we can respectfully disagree with giving nazi a platform to minimise the Holocaust. Our no platform position does and will continue to win support regardless of whether a director at a local commercial news paper disagrees with it. The nazis are unable to grow at the moment because we have adopted this position. The last thing we need is to drop this principle in the unlikely hope of popular support from the liberal media. Nor are we going to win them to this position if we don’t promote it ourselves. Historically the liberal media has usually supported the nazis claim that it’s their right to defend the Holocaust and other despicable acts in the name of free speech so, rather than wasting our limited resources on the unlikely possibility of convincing the liberal media otherwise, our priority must be to work with local communities, Corbyn, anti-nazi activists, TU’s and the rest of the left to continue to build a strong anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic movement locally and nationally that can challenge those who want to give the nazis a platform and respond to any nazi activity. It’s an ongoing process and there will continue to be debates about tactics and strategy but I think the principle of no platforming nazis is still a very effective way of marginalising them.

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