Yesterday saw the annual James Larkin Society march and rally in Liverpool, under the banner of "Working Class Unity Against Racism and Fascism." The theme was chosen in defiance of rising far-right activity in the city, most notably a mobilisation in February where 200 fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers were able to turn an Irish Republican march away from the City Centre. This time, the march was not turned back - but by the same token neither were the fascists convincingly repelled.
In February, what happened was definitely a surprise. At that point, Liverpool BNP were still ticking over but virtually dead on their feet. The North West Infidels had yet to establish a presence in Liverpool, since the fascists engaged in low-level harassment of Occupy Liverpool still had one foot in the EDL camp. February 18th was definitely a turning point in that regard.
I've already analysed in depth the unfortunate circumstances and tactical errors that gave the fash their victory in the report from the day, and see no need to labour the point here. But following from that, Liverpool Antifascists were able to rally and prevent them from capitalising. In particular, we prevented them from attacking an Occupy Liverpool general assembly, shut down the BNP's last attempt at a stall, no platformed all of the fascist candidates for Liverpool mayor, picketed the shop owned by the National Front candidate and saw off an attack on a PCS picket line.
But these actions were still largely defensive and reactive as the fascist street violence gradually escalated. The main issue for Occupy was harassment, whilst on the day of the cancelled mayoral debate we came to blows with the fash. And whilst they were deterred on the Bootle picket line, they felt safe to assault a young musician and his father and girlfriend ahead of our most recent benefit gig.
This is the context within which the James Larkin Society chose their anti-fascist theme and, effectively, set the stage for another confrontation with the forces of fascism and loyalism. The only other options were to cancel the annual march or hold it under a publicity blackout, both of which would have only given further weight to what happened in February, clearly not an option. The question now was whether or not the march organisers and anti-fascists could live up to the task, or whether the fascists would be able to credibly claim another victory on the streets of Liverpool.
I don't think that today could be marked down as a fascist victory. But by the same token anti-fascists have absolutely no room for complacency following on from this. If anything, the atmosphere on the march and it's anti-climactic ending demonstrates just how far we have to go.
The march began at Combermere Street - a tiny, almost non-existent side street in Toxteth that was the birthplace of the trade unionist Big Jim Larkin. Officially, the march was assembling from 1pm, but at noon there was already a presence from the James Larkin Society and Liverpool Antifascists occupying the assembly point. There were also several small gatherings of local loyalists, loitering and glaring across the road. As time wore on, our numbers swelled, but so did theirs. Eventually, two of them felt confident to come across the road and ask if any of us had "ever set foot in Ulster," adding that we were a "shower of shites."
He was soon told where to go and the police, wary of a flashpoint occurring so early, moved him away. However, this emboldened others. Shouts of "remember Bloody Friday" met with "remember Bloody Sunday" told us that - despite the heavy presence of trade union and anti-fascist banners - sectarian tensions would still be what drove the opposition.
The escalating war of words soon threatened clashes, and the police forced the march to kick off half an hour early. At this point loyalists, now joined by the fascist group Combined Ex Forces, attempted a sit down protest to block the road. However, they were soon dispersed by the police and the march continued, now with the far-right marching parallel and hurling abuse.
Numbers on each side were about 100-150 apiece. The fascists are claiming they had 400 out on the day, but when the march began (and unlike last time) there was no visible trace of any gathering of them elsewhere, no matter how many laps of the area our scouts did. There were a small number in a pub called Kavanaghs just outside the City Centre, but they were nicked and thrown in the back of police vans before the march reached them. Virtually their entire strength dogged the march, and there was no point at which they outnumbered it, let alone 4-1.
The problem is that the numbers on the march weren't too impressive either. There were plenty of trade union banners, but less so union members. And whilst the youth in Toxteth - LIverpool's most ethnically diverse area - were out and about when they heard that "the BNP" were marching, and eager to go confront them, the local community's presence on the march itself was lacking.
Nevertheless, the march made it to the City Centre despite the fascists. Again and again, they charged ahead of the march in an attempt to block the road, and again and again they failed. However, it eventually tested the police's patience to the limit as they kettled the fash and forced the anti-fascists to hold their rally at the Metropolitan Cathedral rather than letting the march proceed to the planned finish at Derby Square. Here, a considerable number of fascists were nicked for spitting and hurling abuse at the rally.
What followed was an anti-climax. Speeches were had, then buses took those who wanted to go outside of the city centre. The rest of the crowd dispersed. The fascists retreated to the pub. Driving around town not half an hour later, the whole thing might never have happened, proving that ultimately it was the police who won the day.
The two most important lessons from this boil down to organising and stewarding.
In terms of the former, there was an attempt to build for the march so that the numbers were there. The area surrounding the assembly point was leafleted several times over, trade unions were called upon and anti-fascists from different parts of the country came down.
But the impact in the local community was lessened by practically taking it for granted. Of all the thousands of leaflets Liverpool Antifascists have ever dropped through letterboxes, not one had previously been delivered in Toxteth. In part this is down to the limited resources, in part tactical - we have always targeted the white working class areas where fascists have attempted to build a base. But it was still a shortcoming, and links need to be built with the local community - and with the community organisers that the response to the riots show ed us do exist in the area - before anything of this nature is tried again.
Likewise, although major trade unions came out, we cannot expect the numbers that they can muster if our only contact is with the union tops and bureaucrats. Marches built in branches, by rank-and-file members, attract impressive numbers at short notice - especially on strike days - but Merseyside TUC's annual May Day march struggles to attract the professional left. Again, resources are an issue, but sending an email to a bureaucrat you want to give a speech won't get their members out in droves.
This is where the real work is. Not in one burst ahead of a set-piece march, but as a constant effort. Workplaces need to be leafleted and contacts made with key shop stewards and militant workers. Communities need to be engaged with and empowered. We should not be looking at maximising attendance for one event, but at building a movement.
In Liverpool especially, the opportunity to do this is prime. LiverAF is longer standing and far more active than Unite Against Fascism, and in terms of consistent activists there are more of us. This means, in organising the kind of anti-fascism that is needed to face the far-right - rooted in the working class, militant, ready for physical as well as ideological confrontation - we should have the edge on our more liberal, passive, popular front counterparts. That advantage needs to be pressed.
On the second point, a key component lacking in modern militant anti-fascism is the Stewarding Group that was at the heart of Anti Fascist Action. Stewarding in general is a consistent issue and yesterday's march was no exception - with UAF members taking on the role to collaborate with police, interfere in de-arrests and even remove the hoods of anti-fascists trying to remain anonymous. Clearly, there is a need for those whose focus is safety and security rather than peace keeping to supplant such people.
But, with the fascists clearly having returned to the politics of street violence, there is the need for a dedicated force which can repel that. Militant anti-fascism in general involves physical resistance, but not just that and when people are leafleting, marching, holding benefits, etc, there needs to be a group whose sole responsibility is to ensure they do that safely. Not only by directly shadowing them, but also by heading off potential trouble elsewhere if possible and making sure that fascists are re-routed before they can get to and attempt to disrupt whatever we're doing.
The march on July 21st was perhaps never going to be a complete turn around from February 18th. But the lessons from that day have been learned and I'm confident that the lessons of yesterday will be learned as well. There are plenty of hard working people committed to the militant anti-fascist cause and building for the future. Meanwhile the fascists, though more violent now than they have been in a decade, are organising almost exclusively through the internet and cannot drum up the numbers without spinning a populist message - like pretending that their opponents are "the IRA."
I'm almost certain that violence will continue to escalate, and that a wider range of activities by the organised working class will come under threat. But I'm also confident that this challenge can be met - as long as anti-fascists don't lose focus or become complacent.