As neo-nazis and anti-fascists prepare to head to Dover this weekend, Ed Goddard takes a look at the importance of violence as a tool in the anti-racist toolkit both in the struggles of the past and present.
The far-right are mobilising yet again for a demo in Dover and yet again anti-fascists are heading to the south-coast town intent on stopping them. The day looks set to be a repeat of January’s chaotic events, which saw hundreds of anti-fascists and openly neo-nazi demonstrators clash, throwing punches and paving stones with serious injuries racked up on both sides.
While the left is comfortable decrying fascist violence, it is noticeably more unsure when it comes to its own. Those who dish out beatings to far-right mobs are ritually accused of “stooping down to their level”, of being “as bad as the fascists”, or even of actually being “left-wing fascists” themselves for successfully using violence against their political opponents.
Though in a sense understandable due to the nasty nature of violence and the fact we’re often the first to condemn it in the form of wars or police brutality, it fails to take into account the nature of the racist gangs mobilising for Dover, not to mention the current threat to multiculturalism1 in Britain (as well as across Europe). Moreover, it completely ignores the significant role violence played in establishing multiculturalism as a reality in so many British cities in the first place; that, as well as promoting peaceful coexistence, anti-racism2 has always involved physical opposition - whether organised in racist groups or not - to those who would threaten that coexistence.
The nature of the enemy
First up, it needs to be said that the groups coming out for Dover are not your traditional right-wing nationalist political parties. They’re not like UKIP, they’re not even much like the BNP under Nick Griffin, and the difference isn’t just over politics.
The key difference is practice: while even hard-right political parties focus primarily on seeming respectable to try and win at the ballot box, these groups reject respectability in favour of a focus on violent street confrontations. A successful demo is one where members get pissed and start aggro with counter-demonstrators or, failing that, any non-white locals.
Yet this is what people misunderstand about these groups, laughing at them for being inarticulate pissheads who couldn’t string a sentence together let alone influence government policy. But their goal isn’t to affect policy or produce provocative think-pieces for The Spectator. Their goal is to intimidate. Their organisational model is not the political party, it’s the hooligan firm.
This is why an approach that rejects physical confrontation cannot work, why even chanting ‘there are many many more of us than you’ makes no sense. The South East Alliance have the words ‘sometimes outnumbered, never outgunned’ emblazoned on a St George’s Cross. They love being outnumbered as long as they get home safe enough to brag about it. It validates their self-image as brave defenders of the nation taking on crowds of irate (though ultimately soft) student lefties.
More than being outnumbered, the politics they understand is when they are outviolenced. Indeed, so comprehensively outviolenced that they can’t even put a brave face on social media (as they will inevitably always try to).
Nazis duck missiles as they are held behind police lines for their own safety during failed 'White Man March' in Liverpool, 2015.
So events like Liverpool in 2015, when National Action ended up hiding in a lost luggage department for their safety while a multiethnic crowd of Scousers chucked bananas at them, or Walthamstow 2012 when the EDL’s march was blocked by crowds hurling bottles and bricks and chanting “If it wasn’t for the coppers you’d be dead”. Events like these rupture their hardman self-image. They set off organisational disarray and internal recriminations as they start rowing amongst each other about who ballsed up what and who’s never turning up again to anything organised by whoever else. And they discourage those who were thinking about coming down for a laugh and a ruck, when they realise the reality means being shepherded behind police lines for their own safety or taking a kicking as their mates run for their own safety.
Fighting racism: a historical snapshot
All this is nothing new. Yet to a large extent contemporary anti-racism has been sanitised, reduced in the popular imagination to ‘I have a dream’ and Benetton adverts, or worse, not being able to order a black coffee in case someone gets offended. Even the collective memory of Nelson Mandela makes him seem just a kindly old man who once met the Spice Girls rather than a Communist revolutionary who spent 27 years in prison for involvement in an underground guerrilla organisation.
Yes, it’s true that multiculturalism was created by the increasing interactions - cultural, social, romantic - between people of different ethnicities and, yes, it’s true that those interactions have been based on basic humanitarian principles like ‘peace’, ‘love’ and ‘unity’. But it must always be remembered that those interactions and those principles had to be defended and the capacity to use violence against those who would threaten them played a significant part in that defence.
So when fascists attacked London’s black community during the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, themselves thought to have been triggered by a group of white people attacking an interracial couple, the West Indian community formed its own self-defence groups. As Jamaican community activist and participant, Baker Baron, describes:
The men, well we were armed. During the day they went out and got milk bottles, got what they could find and got the ingredients of making the Molotov cocktail bombs. Make no mistake, there were iron bars, there were machetes, there were all kinds of arms, weapons, we had guns.
Black man is searched by police during the Notting Hill riots, 1958.
Eighteen years later, Notting Hill’s black community would again be on the frontline fighting racism on the streets: black youth revolted, this time against racist policing at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, resulting in officers taking “a real hammering [...] knocked over like ninepins by volleys of bricks and bottles”.
And almost exactly a year after Notting Hill, it would be the National Front’s turn to feel the full force of militant anti-racist mobilisation as they attempted to march through Lewisham. Anti-fascist activist Steve Tilzey recounts his memories of the day in which, apart from one group of nazis being “pummelled to the ground by fists and boots”:
All along the route of the march the NF were getting serious problems as fighting and skirmishing broke out between the two sides. At one point the march was smashed completely in half as hundreds of anti-nazis broke through the ranks of police and engaged the Front in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
An anti-fascist lays into a National Front member during protests in Lewisham, 1977.
All these represent the fight of communities, whether against the encroachment of fascist groups or of racist police, to exist both socially and culturally in Britain. Yet even these remain a handful of spectacular events in the history anti-racism in Britain. While multiculturalism took root among those who welcomed it in those environments where different ethnicities mixed freely, it was imposed on those who didn’t want it through thousands (or hundreds of thousands, potentially millions even) of minor scuffles, struggles and conflicts whose only record is in the memories of those who experienced them.
One such memory is that of my older sister who remembers being slapped in the face by an older white boy for playing football with a group of black kids in the park behind our house when she was little (which must have been as late as the early 1990s). They leapt to her defence, gave the boy a slap and chased him off. My sister continued playing in the park, as did I when I got older, but I don’t ever remember seeing that boy.
I don’t include this anecdote because it’s particularly exciting (I sometimes even wonder whether the kids who backed my sister up even remember it). The opposite, actually: to show the kind of everyday physical defence of simple coexistence which took place in British cities in order for multiculturalism to become a reality. Those kids fought for their right, and my sister’s right, to play with whoever they want in our area. The innumerable stories of playground punch-ups and public altercations which won’t make history books, in large part because there are just too many of them and their unspectacular nature make them interesting only to those who know those involved.
When looked at together, however, as part of a generalised fightback or movement, they become more interesting. The fantastic Young Rebels documentary on the Southall Youth Movement does just this in recording some of these stories of young Asians growing up in 1970s-80s Britain. One SYM member, Jagdish Banger, remembers “coming out of class, all these white people just jumped on me, started beating me up and there was another Jamaican boy with me [...] and he ran off and I thought ‘Ah, that’s nice.’ But what he did two minutes later: he came back with a load of Jamaican black people and we had such a big scuffle.”
In the same documentary, Jaswant Hunjan, recalls:
We were young, we formed a gang. And like, what the skinheads were doing, they always shouted ‘We’re going Paki bashing today! We’re going Paki bashing today!’ So we were going skinhead bashing. Coz most of the time, at night time, they’ll come, in cars and everything, you know, just to swear at us, and find someone on his own and beat him up. Well, there was quite a few of us and, we just stood round corners with bottles and bricks and when you see the cars coming… let it go.
The struggles which Southall Youth Movement members engaged in with local racists were inseparable from the wider issues of racism the group took up. Indeed, it was the assault and murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar by a racist gang that led to the the group’s creation, with its dedication to “physically keeping racism off the streets of Southall” as well as the “lack of youth provision in the Borough”. The climax of Southall’s youth activism came in 1981 when the community stopped a far-right skinhead concert, torching the pub it was due to be held in and attacking fascists while police were helpless to stop them. As Jagdish Banger explains: “It was a proud moment, we stood up for ourselves saying ‘We’re Southall’. Yes, alright, it’s full of Indians but we stood up for ourselves.”
Facing the threat ahead, not just with violence, but certainly not without it
For anyone who opposes racism, there seems an endless cause for alarm these days. In Britain, UKIP finished the election with almost four million votes, 27% of the total and the third-highest of any party. Meanwhile, hate crimes between 2014 and 2015 increased 18% and Islamophobic attacks in London went up a worrying 70% while EDL-splinter groups are able to mobilise hundreds for demonstrations under nazi flags for the first time since the early 1990s.
The rest of Europe is equally worrying, if not more so: Greek neo-fascists Golden Dawn remain the third most popular party while continuing to carry out attacks on migrants. Xenophobic Eastern European governments continue to use barbed-wire fences and the inflammatory language of ‘invasion’ to keep out refugees. In Calais, France, fascist groups frequently abduct, strip and beat refugees living in the ‘Jungle’ encampment while French police frequently make incursions with batons and teargas while between 2014 and 2015 Germany saw a 500% increase in attacks against refugee centres. And with every ISIS terror attack such jingoistic nationalism becomes further entrenched.
While there was never any ‘Golden Age’ of multiculturalism, we certainly are seeing a return to cruder, more explicit (which in turn enable more vicious) forms of racism. This is not to say that violence is the only ‘true’ form of anti-racism or that the problem of racism can be tackled only with violence. In the end, the only long-term solution is to build a movement which can oppose both the racist narrative and the social injustices it conceals, a task which involves a wide range of activities and tactics.
But while there are those who act out the politics of ‘race’, with all the violence it entails, there will be those who will respond in kind. Multiculturalism may have been created in the spirit of peaceful coexistence but it was defended with a violence strong enough to overpower its enemies. And for that, we make no apologies.
- 1By 'multiculturalism' I mean the fact of people from different cultures and ethnicities living alongside each other rather than state-run multiculturalism as local government policy.
- 2My use of 'anti-racism' in this article is as a catch-all term for all those movements that can be said to oppose racism, though here mostly what has been called 'anti-fascism' and 'black liberation'. This is not to say the two are reducible to each other nor that they are the only things which have been called 'anti-racism' but that they share anti-racism in common.