Following recent terrorist attacks, the subsequent ‘Unite Against Hate’ demo in Manchester – one of the largest and most violently Islamophobic right wing demonstrations many of us had seen in years, and last week’s attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, Saturday 24th June looked like a potential shit show in central London. While the EDL demo in Whitehall was not going to be much to worry about on it’s own, especially after anti-fascists recently smashed them again in Liverpool; another march within walking distance planned for the same day presented a more serious concern.
This second demo was organised by the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ (FLA) a group formed after the terrorist attacks in London Bridge, inspired at least in part by Millwall fan Roy Larner, dubbed The Lion of London Bridge, whose heroic story of fighting the attackers was splashed all over UK media. The FLA quickly attracted a huge Facebook following, and there were concerns that it was this group that attracted so many racist marchers in Manchester two weeks ago. But while FLA are clearly attracting members of the far-right, they are not organising as a fascist group. In the weeks leading up to the demo organisers of FLA posted explicit warnings to say that fascists would not be allowed on their demo, and also tried to emphasise that they were protesting extremism rather than Islam. However, with such unclear organisational structures, a huge following, evidence from Manchester just two weeks earlier, and clear support from (now probably pissed off) fascists, there was no guarantee how the march would be on the day. Further to this their original call-out, before the torrid events of Manchester, had in fact been planned to march on to London Central Mosque in Regents Park.
Central London is not a community, it is the playground of the police. Public call outs are rarely successful even when the target is clear. On this occasion, with so many unknowns and variables, anti-fascists in London decided to mobilise privately, to monitor the situation comprehensively throughout the day and be prepared to act as and when necessary. What follows is our report from the day, along with analysis and conclusions for future action.
FLA numbers were around 2,000, maybe 3,000 – sizable, but nowhere near the 10k being celebrated on certain far-right social media platforms.
We were in and around the area from 11:30am and on the march itself until it disbanded at London Bridge.
During the demonstration we had overheard several conversations from attendees, the main topic of which was around other “firms” that were coming down and a worry that things might kick off. One group of fans in a coffee shop were communicating with some other members over the phone and discussing how they were dressed casual to ward off any potential issues with rival firms, especially Millwall.
In terms of well-known football firms, Millwall, Chelsea, West Ham and Tottenham who were well represented on the demo were the most likely to bring with them football related violence. The area around London Bridge is considered Millwall territory.
Due to the nature of the crowd, suspicion of police violence were also high, police had intel on specific persons attending the demo, and names and back stories being mentioned by police on the peripheries of the crowd were heard. The police had large numbers of officers in reserve but kept a low(ish) profile on the demo and intel pre demo was consistent with their approach on the day.
We observed that the FLA appeared very organised: the march started on time and as soon as St. Paul’s rang noon attendees started crawling out of the nearby pubs and cafes to head towards where the speeches were being held. Due to a poor PA system at the rally point, it was hard to hear a lot of what was being said by the speakers, but the general vibe and bits that we heard were directly challenging Islamic extremism. Although, one speaker did say that they were against all forms of extremism and it was nothing to do with religion and that all religions were welcome. That being said, there was no explicit mention of the recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by the far-right or fascist sympathisers, such as the killing of Joe Cox last year and the brutal murder of Muslims outside a mosque in Finsbury Park just a few weeks ago. Despite their attempts to remain neutral it certainly seemed they were nodding to a particular manifestation of extremism over another.
The crowd were overwhelmingly aged between 30 and 60, predominantly white and many sporting English nationalistic tattoos, which considering that they would be travelling English football fans is not a sign of anything latent politically, except the usual flavour of patriotism that plagues much of football culture. There were smatterings of children and small groups of “youngn’s” (firm youth wings).
God Save the Queen, football chants of England, England and England ‘Til I Die rang through the crowd at various points, but aside from this and random moments of spontaneous applause, no other chanting of any other kind took place, the demo proceeded down the preassigned route at a steady pace, police were amongst the crowd, and the street cleaning staff were on hand to clear up behind the march. The police allowed free movement and groups to disperse throughout the demo, deploying a very soft touch crowd control.
Once the march completed at London Bridge, the crowd split off into various pubs across the area. We attended several and found no obvious signs of fash, no chanting and no violence. A few conversations were heard in nearby pubs about “needing to remember what it is to be British”, but overall the demo seemed ideologically vague, and even confused at times. We did observe several known people on the peripheries of the demo during the day that I believe were associated to fascist groups like Pie and Mash, but no attempt to infiltrate or rally to a cause, and no literature was handed out. Just a few pathetic tweets on social media that fell on deaf ears.
There was a fascist presence, but it was practically invisible. Had the organisers not explicitly discouraged a far-right association, and had there been any visible left-wing opposition we believe it might have been different, including but not limited the meager fascist presence sporting their banners and explicit racism. We observed several visibly Muslim women wearing hijabs walking through the area and past many of the tail end of the demo; there was no sign of any confrontation or words spoken, despite zero visible anti-fascist presence at that point. The fascists who were there tried to claim the numbers on the demo as a victory but were visibly disappointed in the overall tone and attitude and did not wish to stick around in the area afterwards.
Although intimidating and a high testosterone level, with firms being itchy about police and possible attack from anti-fascists, the march seemed well-tempered and nationalistic with a small ‘n’. This is not to suggest soft nationalism is okay, but simply to make the observation that the tone of the demo was deliberately avoiding overt, in-your-face hard nationalism that could be perceived as inciting racism.
From our standpoint, the tactic of non-confrontation and being on hand and in numbers close by to react to any potential (as well as looking for active far-right) was spot on.
This is not the start of a new fascist street movement, but rather evidence that there are still large numbers of nationalist, racist football fans who were spurred into action when a recent attack involved one of their own. What is of more concern to us is the way far-right figures like Tommy Robinson are trying to use these numbers to jump start a new movement. There were a lot of Tommy Robinson fans amongst that crowd. He is now attempting to connect this demo to the UK Against Hate campaign he is pushing with Anne-Marie Waters, UKIP MP, who has just launched her campaign for leadership. Tommy Robinson seems to think he is playing a clever game, clearly not happy with the association to the violence and hooliganism recently played out in Manchester under his name, and so waited until this demonstration was not a repeat of that before attaching himself to it. Tommy Robinson is attempting to reinvent his image and his brand as a legitimate, ‘respectable’ and more palatable flavour of racism and anti-Muslim hatred than previously associated with the thuggish hoolies of the EDL. Moreover, his relationship with Canadian alt-right media platform Rebel Media, whose UK contingent includes the likes of Milo wannabe Caolan Robertson, and alt-right racist and anti-feminist Lucy Brown, is one to be weary of and to target. They have been consistently disseminating vile racist, far-right, extreme nationalist and anti-Muslim propaganda, opportunistically using recent terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS in London and Manchester to spread their hate for “other cultures”. Whipping up this kind of popular anger into something insidious and dangerous, leading to the most recent terror attacks against Muslims in Finsbury park, and lone wolf acid attacks against Asians in east London. It is not necessarily the FLA we need to be weary of, but the wider proliferation of nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-migrant feeling present in the UK today, that can be taken advantage of by the far-right like Tommy Robinson and his ilk.
It is also necessary to point out that the EDL were planning a march to Parliament on the same day. However, due to the knowledge that the EDL are barely functioning as a street movement, we did not feel it would have been an effective use of our numbers to oppose them. And we were right. Their tiny numbers were instantly dwarfed by police for their own protection, who ushered them quickly through central London, and escorted them onto the train station as hurriedly as they’d come in. Movement for Justice had called for a public mobilisation, as did the UAF, but the lack of community or ordinary working class people who actually occupy this part of London always meant it would be difficult to mobilise large numbers. They were able to regroup and hound the EDL as they were scurried away. We hope in the future to work more effectively with MfJ so that we can play to our strengths, combining their community facing organising with our militant anti-fascist experience.