Challenging racism on the Kent coast

The need for a mass anti-racist movement in Britain needs to be at the very heart of socialist politics today. Here Bunny La Roche and Ben Millard reflect on the experience of anti-racist organising in Kent over the last twelve months.

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Photo: Kent Anti Racist Network

 

Kent Anti Racism Network (KARN) has been busy over the last year. But it has been difficult organising for lots of reasons. It’s a huge area with terrible transport links, the Tories have held all constituency seats for the last six years and UKIP are the official opposition at Kent County Council, as well as holding the majority on Thanet District Council. Trade union presence is weak. Dover’s Tory MP Charlie Elphicke backed the Conservative Government’s plans for an even tougher Immigration Act with the words ‘deport first, appeal later’. He also equated pro-refugee and antifascist protesters to seig-heiling, anti-Semitic Nazis. He is not alone, as other Kent MPs also echo his sentiments.

Economically, despite the county’s location in the ‘wealthy’ South East, jobs not involving a commute to London tend to be low-paid and insecure. The seaside towns of East Kent in particular still suffer from serious deprivation. Attempts to encourage investment in tourism and culture can only go so far in alleviating poverty. In this context it has been all too easy for the Tories and UKIP, aided by the rhetoric of an increasingly chauvinistic mass media, to lay the blame for the county’s economic woes on refugees and migrants.

KARN was founded by a diverse group of local people in the wake of the increasing amount of Nazi agitation and violence in our area. Collectively we decided enough was enough, these openly fascist and racist thugs were not, are not and never will be welcome.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, KARN has tried to develop a strategy that reaches out to antiracists and antifascists of all stripes. Our group includes Labour, Green Party and Momentum members, revolutionary socialists and anarchists, as well as non-aligned people and groups. Some of our activists have years of experience; some are new to it.

Many of our members came out of the fantastic ‘Stop Farage’ campaign in Thanet during the 2015 General election, which developed a new way of organising and reaching out far beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

Our first meeting took place in early October 2015 in the aftermath of the fascist mobilisation in September in Dover where we encountered bricks, bottles and chains being thrown at us. Many of us were rightly worried about the escalating violence and realised we needed a local organisation not only to defend our streets, but one that could operate in a non-sectarian way and was willing to work with other antifascist and antiracist groups and individuals.

From then on we set up a facebook group and Twitter account and contacted local organisations to join us. We had a fantastic response, organised regular meetings, and made contact with the Anti Fascist Network (AFN) and other antifascist organisations. Our first task was organising a ‘Refugees Are Welcome Here’ demonstration in Dover on 17 October. Over 500 people attended from all over the south east. It was on this day that KARN made the call out for Dover in January 2016. We knew this would be our first real test in fighting fascism on our streets.

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Much has been written about the Battle of Dover. Here is our earlier account of it https://kentantiracismnetwork.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/the-battle-for-dover-september-2015-may-2016/

In addition to our ‘defensive’ opposition to racist and fascist activity on our streets, KARN have taken a positive role in raising money and solidarity for our brothers and sisters suffering across the channel in Calais. The community event ‘Pies for Calais’ in Dover on the 23 April was a particular success. It was held to show solidarity, send much needed food and raise funds for the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais, and it received an excellent reception locally. So much so, in fact, that one local woman who attended her first KARN meeting the week before ended up running the stall. Her first words to us were “I don’t want these Nazis in my town.”

We also hosted our first ever Conference in Canterbury in May 2016 with the aim of bringing together anti-racists, anti-fascists, refugee/migrant support groups and students across Kent and beyond. There were vibrant discussions on how we can build a successful and inclusive movement. There were meetings, workshops and stalls hosted by a wide spectrum of groups and organisations with experience and practical skills to share.

We had a pretty quiet summer as the fascist numbers were down to 23 on their last trip to Dover. It was obvious that they could no longer get sufficient numbers to makes themselves credible even to the most gullible ‘patriot’. Many of them are either in jail, on serious bail conditions prohibiting them from entering Kent or frightened of being picked up and arrested by the state.

The few that managed to stay out of the clutches of the police, decided they would try to rebuild their tiny, tattered forces under the banner of White Lives Matter (WLM). They chose Margate as their next location in Kent, under the deluded impression that their slogan of ‘Stop Child Grooming’ would pay dividends in terms of recruitment.

KARN members quickly joined up with locals to organise a Margate Rocks Against Racism festival and organise an anti fascist mobilisation to stop them. We leafleted in Clintonville as we were aware that the fascists were going to try to target our migrant sisters and brothers who lived there. We had a fantastic response from local shops and people. We also got the message out across Thanet that they weren’t welcome here. Local artists organised banners and took over the WLM hashtag on Twitter, instead using it to say ‘We Love Margate’ – much to the consternation of the fascists. They complained that they hadn’t been able to find out what was going on as ‘the reds have taken over #WLM!’

On the morning of the protest, we organised leafleting early, as there was a huge motocross event on the same day. Margate residents, alongside those from Kent and beyond, responded magnificently to WLM. All press coverage was excellent for our side and really showed that a community united can defeat the message of the far right.

We’re proud of our record of supporting refugees in the Calais ‘jungle’ to challenging fascist groupings bringing messages of hate to our streets. We have endeavoured to organise and mobilise large numbers of people with the aim of bringing our communities together.

We have been resolute in opposing the normalisation of violence and hate that these Nazis attempt to create when they spread their anti-refugee and anti-migrant message. As a result of this, as well as the support of anti-fascists and anti-racists across the country, we have come from a time where Nazi marches in Dover were only opposed by the Anti Fascist Network, to a point where they have been pushed out of the town completely by KARN, the AFN and other anti fascists from across the country.

We’re proud of our record of supporting refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’ and challenging fascist groupings bringing messages of hate to our streets. We have endeavoured to organise and mobilise large numbers of people with the aim of bringing our communities together.

But the battle is far from over. We now have Trump in the White House, a fervently racist National Conservative government here, and the possibility of fascist Marine Le Pen winning the French Election next year. Next May, Kent County Council elections take place. UKIP will be desperate to hold onto their seats – we will organise to stop them.

The Tory cuts are biting harder than ever; wages are stagnating, and the housing crisis and NHS privatisation continues apace. The ruling class will continue to push an agenda of austerity, whilst cynically using migrants and benefit recipients to divide our class over lack of resources. This means we have to organise with other groups, for an antiracist and anticapitalist movement in Kent. It won’t be easy, but we’ll give it our best shot. So if you’re in Kent –join us!

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