In the first of what we hope will be a regular feature, a member of Leeds AFed reports on last Saturday’s counter-demonstration against the English Defence League in Sunderland.
In spite of the forecast, Saturday morning turned out sunny, and stayed bright well into the afternoon. That’s about the best that can be said for last weekend’s antifascist demo, which saw a poor turnout; tight police control; and cowardly and dishonest behaviour on the part of the organisers, who actively worked to undermine any possibility of real resistance against the EDL demonstration.
The enemy demo – which was also supported by the Scottish Defence League (SDL) and EDL splinter group North East Infidels (NEI), as well as the local EDL – was an attempt to cash in on local opposition to the building of a new mosque in Millfield, Sunderland. Protests against mosque-building are a favourite tactic of the EDL and their fellow travellers, allowing them to drum up support amongst locals on the basis of “defending our culture” whilst stirring up racist and sectarian violence in the local community. Effective opposition to these sorts of demonstrations is an important part of opposing racist and nationalist politics within our communities. Unfortunately what materialised on the day was anything but.
The counter-demonstration, organised under the banner of Sunderland Antifascist Coalition, was scheduled to meet near a local library, opposite Sunderland University, at 11:30 am. By the early afternoon only a few dozen people had showed up. Amongst those present were individuals from North-East Anti-Fascists, York Anarchists, Leeds AFed and others, along with a handful of trots and liberals, plus a few Asian lads from the local area. The large presence of militant antifascists, carrying anarchist and antifascist flags and banners, was good to see, but the small size of the demonstration overall was disappointing. Once it was clear that this was going to be it as far as numbers went, the march moved off, accompanied by shouts of “ALERTA ANTIFASCISTA” and “EDL OFF OUR STREETS”, as we made our way to the main demo site.
We arrived a full hour ahead of the enemy march, and were herded into an alleyway and boxed in by coppers with horses, dogs and riot vans. We passed the time until the other side showed up standing around shouting increasingly hoarse chants at a handful of locals who had gathered nearby to watch the spectacle. The organisers repeatedly appealed to us to leave, despite a straw poll of all those present showing overwhelming support for staying, at least until the nationalist demo actually showed up. Around 1:30 pm, a lone SDL member tried to start on us, and was swiftly bundled into a van by the piggies, to gleeful shouts of “IF IT WASN’T FOR THE COPPERS YOU’D BE DEAD” from our side. A few more from the SDL turned up a little while later, complete with Saltires emblazoned with nationalist slogans, but it was obvious from the heavy police presence that we weren’t going to get near them without most of us ending up nicked or battered. So we stood our ground and waited for the main EDL contingent to arrive.
As the minutes dragged on, and more and more cops showed up, word spread through the ranks that the police were threatening to arrest the lot of us if we didn’t move on before 2 pm – which would mean us leaving before the other side even got there. With the SAFC organisers firmly on the cops’ side, an argument ensued, with the more radical and militant antifascists demanding we be allowed to stand our ground. Despite the craven attempts of the demo organisers to force a retreat, we managed to hold our position, surrounded by increasing numbers of cops, until the main EDL demo finally rounded the corner into the park opposite.
EDL sources put their numbers between two and six hundred, while antifascist news site Hope Not Hate claimed “less than a hundred” nationalists turned out on the day. But whatever the actual numbers – most likely somewhere between the two estimates – they significantly outnumbered the tiny antifascist presence. It was obvious at this point that we stood little chance of successfully confronting them in these numbers, even without the heavy police presence. Dispirited, and under threat of arrest, the counter demo moved off back along the route to the Murray Library where the protest began. While our lot managed a few rounds of “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE: FUCK THE POLICE” as the cops marched us away from the site, the organisers’ attempts to re-start the lively chants from earlier were met with stony silence from the rest of the demo. Upon arriving back at the library, the majority of the protestors left the demonstration almost immediately. People were obviously not in the mood to spend any more time listening to what the SAFC organisers had to say.
On the positive side, we took no arrests and no injuries, either from fash or from the filth. The high turnout of militant antifascists, relatively speaking, was also a good sign. Nevertheless, saturday’s demo was a clear win for the EDL and their allies. They had the numbers, we were forced off the site minutes after they turned up, and even without the dishonest and cowardly behaviour of the SAFC, realistically we were powerless to stop them. We need to recognise these facts and try to learn what lessons we can from them. Sunderland underlines the need for militant antifascists to take the initiative. Too often, anarchist and radical antifascists leave the organising to liberals and reformists, and then complain when our movements are co-opted and betrayed. But often, as on this occasion, the liberal wing of the antifascist movement prove themselves to be actually shockingly bad at mobilising against fascism at all, even just getting people to prop up placards at one of their ineffectual and passive counter-demonstrations. We can, we must, do better than this. By calling our own counter-demonstrations, independently of the police and groups like SAFC and UAF; by building meaningful links with local communities; by agitating for a radical, militant antifascism based on serious opposition to the threat posed by the EDL and other racist organisations and groups; we can spearhead a fightback against the resurgence of the far right in the UK.