Anti-fascists and the left should derive no pleasure from the prison sentences handed out to English Defence League supporters for disorder at a demonstration in Walsall in 2012.
We have consistently organised to confront the EDL, and while we won’t be organising prisoner solidarity for these individuals, we cannot applaud or welcome the role of the state in fighting fascism and far-right nationalism.
A total of 60 years jail time was handed down to around 30 EDL supporters. LAF has stated since our inception that we are completely opposed to state bans on far-right organisation and activity, and to heavy-handed policing of demonstrations. The same state that locks up asylum seekers, that looks to cut benefits to the most marginalised people in society in the name of profit, and which routinely harasses and even kills people in black working-class communities cannot be relied on to deal with the far right.
As anti-fascists and working-class activists, we have also felt the strong arm of the state in recent years – from pre-emptive and political arrests of activists around the Royal Wedding in 2011 and the Critical Mass protests at the London Olympics, the mass arrests at the Whitehall and Tower Hamlets anti-fascist demonstrations and subsequent draconian bail conditions, to the police violence against student demonstrators at the University of London. We also remember the political arrest and imprisonment of comrades from the Antifa group.
Political policing, pre-emptive and mass arrest, and draconian bail conditions are increasingly becoming part of the “normal” experience of many activists. For black and Asian working-class communities, police harassment and brutality has been part of the reality of day-to-day life for decades. The state behind all of this cannot be an ally in the fight against racism and fascism.
We should also think about why the 30 jailed EDLers ended up on the side of the racists in the first place, and whether being chewed up and spat out by the prison system is likely to dissuade them from their beliefs, or merely galvanise their sense of injustice.
The English Defence League feeds off feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement amongst (mainly) young, white working-class men. They are right to feel disenfranchised, frozen-out, and brutalised by the current system.
All over the country, working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds are finding it harder to make ends meet. The EDL and other far-right nationalists give white working-class people an easy scapegoat — Muslims, or “immigrants”. Locking up EDL supporters, or banning their marches, will not make the social issues they exploit go away. The working-class movement must provide alternative, anti-capitalist, anti-racist political answers to undercut the poison of the EDL.
Distinctions of “race”, ethnic identity, or immigration status are exploited by both the far-right and the state to keep us divided. For us, the key dividing line is the one that divides the vast majority of us — black, white, British-born, and migrant — from our bosses and their state: class. We will deal with the EDL by confronting them wherever they organise, and by helping develop working-class political alternatives, in our workplaces and communities, that can cut the roots of racism. A class-based anti-fascism must understand the state as part of the problem, not the solution.
We shouldn’t shed tears for imprisoned fascists, but the same draconian laws and police powers used to imprison EDLers could be turned on anti-fascists and the far-left just as easily.