Issue 21 of Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine.
Fighting Talk 21 (April 1999)
- In The Area - AFA news from around the UK
- Behind Enemy Lines - BNP update
- Race Attacks and "anti-racism" - Time For Action
- Race Attacks and "anti-racism" - Not Black And White
- Levelling The Score - football
- Anti-Fascist History - development of AFA strategy
- Between The Sheets - mainstream media coverage of fascism
Race Attacks: Time For Action
In December 1998 Anti-Fascist Action was invited to participate in a seminar on race attacks, held in east London. Along with youth and community workers, academics and local campaigns, the meeting was very constructive and illustrated the growing concern that official anti-racist strategies are not working. The following article was AFA's opening contribution to the discussion.
Our involvement here revolves around a number of long standing concerns:
(a) that race attacks are at an all-time high and rising (up another 6% nationally in British Crime Survey figures this year),
(b) that the Far Right are positioning themselves to take full advantage of Labour's abandonment of the working class,
(c) that current race strategies aid and abet in dividing society on racial lines,
(d) the British National Party's change of strategy puts their destiny in their own hands.
Today we live in a country whose citizens believe it to be scrupulously fair but where one in three openly admit to being racist, where the level and intensity of race attacks has been likened to political terrorism, and whose youth has been judged the most reactionary in Western Europe, a country where the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities that die in police custody has been condemned by the United Nations and where electoral support for the Far Right (despite standing less candidates) has risen by over 1000%.
Add to this the reality of Social Democrats attacking their former constituency and the orthodox Left collapsing of its own accord, and you have, we believe, all the trace elements required of a doomsday scenario.
Prior to the Lawrence inquiry, each of these facts might on its own have been regarded an aberration, rather than as part of a general rightward drift. Prior to the Lawrence inquiry, the commonly held assumptions were that racism and fascism were all but extinct in this country at least, and we had multiculturalism to thank for it. Unlike others in Europe, we in Britain had addressed the problem with sufficient vigour, resulting in a society at ease with itself, ran the argument.
Sections of the liberal media even sought to lecture, and draw comparison with our European neighbours France, Germany, Italy and Austria where the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. If nothing else the Lawrence inquiry has hopefully shattered that smug complacency. All available studies and statistics show that racism is very much alive. Race attacks, probably the most reliable barometer are on a par with Germany where the Far Right are again marching in their tens of thousands and have just recently entered regional government.
When addressing the issue of, race attacks the Home Offices suggested that the new legislation “would send message to the likes of Combat 18”. In a way that comment shows badly the Establishment and their advisers have got it wrong. The suspects in the Lawrence case, as in the vast majority of cases are not card-carrying members of Far Right parties.
The Far Right are not a cause in the rise of race attacks, but do hope – and are determined to be the main political beneficiaries. These days more symptom than cause, it was in fact an attack on a white youth, John Stoner, in the early 1990s that encouraged the British National Party to raise the cry of ‘Rights For Whites’ and from the same platform it became in a short space of time the pre-eminent fascist party.
The BNP now regularly condemn race attacks, from a white viewpoint of course, but also generally; making political capital from linking the growth to the reality of races living cheek by jowl. The prospect of legislation that would seek to discriminate on sentencing on issues related to race, as proposed by the government, will have them rubbing their hands in glee, as confirmation of an `institutional unfairness' against the white working class. Next time round when the battle cry 'Rights for Whites' is raised it may well resonate not only in Bethnal Green, but in the political mainstream as has already happened elsewhere in Europe.
Additionally no matter how well shaped, further legislation cannot hope to deal positively with the problem. Race attacks are at heart politically motivated. As militant anti-fascists we firmly believe the issue needs to be urgently addressed but it will take anti-racist policy itself to be redefined to do so effectively.
As for the question of 'unfairness' this is more than a perception. Indeed it often appears that councils go out of their way to suggest a greater degree of bias at a policy level than might actually be the case. Prior to the Lawrence murder, another black youth, Rolan Adams, was stabbed to death in the same area of south-east London. The trigger that time was the deliberate closing of a local youth club used predominantly by white kids, and the simultaneous opening of another nearby designed intentionally to be used predominantly by black kids. Rolan was killed coming from there.
Undaunted, only months later Camden Council closed a 'white youth club' and simultaneously opened one intended for the exclusive use of Asian youth. The combination saw racial tension instantly increase one hundred-fold. On both occasions the BNP responded to the invitation to intervene. Once again the tension eventually led to murder, this time of a white kid Richard Everitt.
In both examples, it was the Labour councils rather than the Far Right who quite deliberately racialised the situation. The latter merely sought to interpret and exploit the opportunity. And it was of course the responsibility of anti-fascism to clear up the mess.
A month ago, on Nov 17th (199B), in a reference to an independent inquiry into the running of Tower Hamlets, an Evening Standard editorial commented:
"Amongst the welter of serious allegations, racism is the most disturbing. It takes some doing to be suspected of being anti-Bengali by the Bengali residents and anti-white by the whites, but the council seems to have managed it. No doubt it will claim that it is the councillors' attempts to be even handed that have led to the criticisms from both sides, but the form of the complaints suggests that it is more a matter of bias - or worse - in one direction or the other."
Once again council policy, in the name of anti-racism presumably, appears to be pro-actively engaged in pitting communities against each other. From this and other evidence, it is now our belief that the flaw is systemic. While the damage to inter-community relationships and the cause of anti-racism/anti-fascism is often irreparable.
Fascists are made not born, and in all of this the Far Right are positioning themselves in formally socialist terrain as champions of the underdog. For them of course the dogs are all the one colour. That they succeeded in getting just under 10,000 votes in just three constituencies in this part of east London in May 1997 shows a resonance for their ideas not electorally evident since the mid 1970's. That in May next year they expect to have between 6 to 10 million leaflets delivered free door to door, courtesy of putting up candidates to the tune of £50,000 shows the extent of their ambition.
This new-found confidence is a result of both a continuing deterioration among the Left generally, and is complemented by their abandonment in 1994 of the 'marches, meetings, punch ups' strategy in vogue since the 1970's. The upshot is that by and large their political destiny is for the first time in their own hands, in that their strategy now is not to seek out conflict with their opponents, but to take strenuous steps to avoid it.
The incentive for British fascism to jettison the once cherished profile of a 'party of strength' was two-fold. First, their wish to emulate the success of the Euro-Nationalist strategy on the continent, which in effect means `putting votes before principles in order to attain the power to put principles into practice'. Second, a recognition that in the largely clandestine war of attrition between Left and Right they were the heavy losers. In political terms they found themselves in a hatchet fight without a hatchet.
In that the most serious damage on a national level, particularly between 1990 and 1994, was not only to public image or their ability to recruit, but to their infrastructure; their cadre. Inevitably targets for the opposition, and invariably `head first in' they were all too often carried feet first out, and eventually lost to the Party.
Recently a leading strategist explained the mindset:
"Since the opposition actively seek confrontation, it follows that we must continue with the policy of avoiding it wherever possible, putting our efforts into grassroots campaigning rather than high profile public activities announced long enough in advance to allow our opponents to mobilise against them. If AFA can be 'persuaded' to leave our candidates, canvassers and leafletters alone that is all we need to win".
According to the current BNP leadership, the difference between winning and losing now is assiduously avoiding rather than seeking out confrontation. That this change of strategy is being rigorously implemented means that for the moment militant anti-fascism has been outflanked. It is precisely because it is unable to lay a glove on them that they are gradually building an infrastructure and electoral expertise virtually unhindered. This in time, they believe, will allow them to compete on a level playing field in terms of resources and expertise with the major parties, beginning with selected by-elections.
This ability combined with the other ingredients will, they consider, complete the 'normalisation' of their position within the political mainstream. All importantly, mainstream success is dependent not so much on their ability to painstakingly create an audience, but to draw instead from the vast reservoir of reaction whose existence is acknowledged by both sides, but is so far largely untapped. As we see it the counter-strategy designed specifically to drain off this reservoir must be two pronged.
Race attacks are the sea in which the Far Right swim. It is self-evident that the ad-hoc race attacker of today, given the opportunity, will become the organised fascist of tomorrow. Consequently we consider that the cutting edge of an effective counter-strategy at this juncture would be a broad-based and national anti-race attacks campaign, designed both to politically highlight the hidden epidemic, and reverse the isolation between victim and perpetrator at a grassroots level. Clearly, this process of 'draining off' can only be successful if, and when, other government sponsored race initatives are encouraged to consider how they might inadvertently be 'feeding in'.
Since the early 1960s across Europe, by appropriating the arguments of the Left, fascism has astutely been exploiting the right to maintain racial and cultural differences, to the extent that the concept of race as the only, or primary, dynamic in a multi-cultural society cannot any longer be left unchallenged. The political situation demands that in the name of anti-racism that premise is confronted head on, and now is the time to do it.
Otherwise, as Machiavelli noted:
"political disorders can be quickly healed if seen in advance, when for lack of a diagnosis they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognise them, remedies are too late."
Race Attacks: Not Black And White
When Michael Mansfield QC announced the setting up of a Civil Rights Movement after the Stephen Lawrence enquiry it presented anti-fascists with a challenge. If the Far Right could capitalise on the growing level of race attacks it would give them a major boost and so any movement set up to deal with the issue will have an impact, one way or the other, on the anti-fascist movement. AFA has been discussing the possibility of launching a new initiative around race attacks for some time (see previous article), and the new Civil Rights Movement has forced the pace.
Below we reprint a copy of the leaflet London AFA distributed at the founding conference.
In Britain the Far Right have been forced, through physical confrontation, onto the margins of society. As we all know, conditions are very different in the rest of Europe. Here the absence of an electoral profile for the Far Right has allowed government, media, race relations and political circles to regard race attacks as no more than another form of anti-social behaviour. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry has highlighted the limitations of the analysis and calls for a more fundamental review of racism in society. Race attacks are at an all-time high. Estimates based on British Crime Survey figures, put racially motivated incidents at between 2,500 and 3,000 a week and rising. The recent Joseph Rowntree report suggests that this figure needs to be adjusted upwards due to even greater levels of under-reporting than previously feared. Moreover, it is clear that racist violence has been on a steadily rising curve since 1982.
THE FAR RIGHT, MORE SYMPTOM THAN CAUSE?
It should be noted with concern that Britain now has a race attack record on par with Germany, where membership of the Far Right is numbered in tens of thousands, and where fascist parties recently entered regional government. In the past the growth in racial incidents may often have had a relationship to Far Right activity in the area. Today, it is quite incorrect to lay the blame for race attacks with the relevant fringe groups such as Combat 18.
The British National Party have sought to break their forced isolation by shifting towards more electoral models, learning from their European counterparts. With their call for 'Rights For Whites' they have presented themselves as the champions of the white working class feeding off the racialisation of working class community problems. This tactical retreat by the BNP has taken them out of the headlines. They are much less visible to those who don't live in their target communities and their new direction is less newsworthy. In the BNP's own words from 1994: "No more meetings, marches, punch-ups".
Between 1982 and 1998 despite having stood fewer candidates, the Far Right's number of votes rose by roughly one thousand per cent. Now the BNP, which claims a thirty five per cent growth in membership in 1998 alone, intends to distribute recruitment propaganda to an estimated twenty million people as part of its European election campaign in June 1999.
So while the BNP are working hard to position themselves to benefit from the current racial tensions they remain as much symptom as cause.
SO WHAT IS REALLY GOING WRONG?
Despite good intentions, current equal opportunities practice contributes to the deepening racist climate in the country. The orthodox equal opportunity approach is individually focused and morally based. It sees racism as an individual problem or set of flawed personal beliefs. Crucially, it falsely assumes that there is a uniform access to power by all whites and uniform denial of access to power to all blacks. The resulting strategies: anti-racist training, education for young people and advertising campaigns have been rigorously applied. The clear problem is that despite being reached by this model, people's views are not being altered for the better. Instead, many only learn to express racist views where they feel 'safe'.
This doesn't bridge the divides within society, it just builds a wall of silence. The fact that banning racist language in the home is even being discussed is a clear indication that orthodox equal opportunities models have failed to marshal widespread support.
A failure in anti-racist training and education fails all in society. It presents simplistic and patronising identities of many black people (what has been described as the "samosas, saris and steel drum" approach) while many white people are left feeling that a celebration of cultural diversity means any culture other than their own. This situation has been exacerbated by the significant cuts in youth and community services which have resulted in reduced activities and opportunities, particularly in inner city areas. This all allows the BNP to step in and offer a racist identity to the 'cultureless' white working class. So much for fostering better community relations!
The main problem with the orthodox approach is that it over simplifies the problem and divides local communities into 'perpetrators' and 'victims'. This portrays white people, particularly the working class, as inherently racist; resulting in policy that all too often racialises very real social problems: housing, education, access to council services, lack of meaningful political representation, etc.
The genuine grievances about social inequalities, which the white working class share with many of their black working class counterparts, are dismissed through a fear of pandering to the 'perpetrator' community. In a society where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, a policy of redistributing the limited resources available to working class communities on ethnic grounds, can only set the most impoverished against each other.
Racists are not born, they are made. Race attacks are the extreme outcome of this process. Race attacks have become part of a systematic attempt in some areas to make them, or to keep them, 'white'.
As such this race attack epidemic has more in common with political terrorism than street crime. In all areas of policy and practice the government is calling for work to be evidence-based. The vigorous application of orthodox equal opportunities through the Town Halls, should have loosened the grip of racism on each successive generation. On the contrary, according to research in South East London, racist attitudes in school children are more extreme than those held by their parents.
In any other field, such a systematic failure would have led to a questioning of both policy and practice. The race relations industry prevents the necessary debate on its work by accusing its critics of racism. It is vital that such a response must not be allowed to dominate the future Civil Rights Movement.
DOES THE ANSWER LIE WITH THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM?
Despite the total failure of the criminal justice system to respond effectively to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it has been argued that legislation is the solution. There is already a substantial lack of confidence in the police among ethnic minorities. This is based on the dismal clear up rates for racially motivated crime, compounded by the police's ability to only detect a racial element in one in three crimes where a racial motive is later identified. Against this background the notion of 'additional sentences' is simply a distraction: yet again being focused on the individual rather than tackling a wider political problem. Other than providing mouth-watering propaganda for right-wing extremists, it can expect to have no tangible effect.
• Orthodox models of equal opportunities racialise social problems in such a way as to set communities against each other.
• Equal opportunities models which assume that there is a uniform access to power by all whites and a uniform denial of access to power to all blacks must be rejected.
• Anti-racist strategies that are not broadly accepted as reasonable and rational by working class communities (both black and white) are counterproductive and deflect attempts to tackle extreme racism.
• The impact of systematic cuts in youth and community provision and its relationship with the rise of racial tension should be seen as a straightforward case of cause and effect.
• The race attack epidemic is a symptom of a wider problem and cannot be solved by additional legislation.
• Race attackers are made not born.
• Organised and systematic racial violence must be addressed from a political rather than criminal perspective.
1. As a matter of urgency the isolation of the victims of race attacks must be reversed through a pro-active, grass roots strategy.
2. All deaths in police custody to be investigated by an independent and accountable body.
3. The Civil Rights Movement should initiate an independent review of current equal opportunities policy and practice in order to support the adoption of an evidence-based approach.
The History & Development of AFA Strategy
From issue 21 of Fighting Talk magazine, 1999.
From the day Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was founded fourteen years ago, we have always been best known for the use of physical force against fascists on the streets. While being rightly proud of this record the present situation requires that militant anti-fascists develop a political strategy that is just as effective as the physical one has been in the past.
There has never been a blueprint for militant anti-fascism, either political or physical, and AFA has had to develop its own strategies. As the general political situation changes anti-fascists need to move with the times. In Britain, where the main fascist threat comes from the British National Party (BNP) who have withdrawn from 'street activities', there is a danger that if anti-fascists don't follow the fascists in to the political mainstream then we will be outflanked.
Some anti-fascists think that adopting a political strategy means the physical side of the struggle has been abandoned, but the key to AFA's future success lies in our original founding statement which commits the organisation to "physical and ideological opposition to the fascists". The physical side of the strategy has been implemented so successfully that the fascists were forced to withdraw from the streets in 1994 - now is the time to develop and implement a political strategy with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
To understand the position we are now in it is helpful to look at the history of AFA as it has developed over the years.
1977 - 1985 The beginnings...
Although AFA was formed in the summer of 1985 the roots of the organisation can be traced back to the anti-fascist squads in the late 1970s. The squads were the physical force wing of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which had been launched in 1977 to counter the growing threat of the National Front (NF).
The NF had made inroads into the white working class, and in 1974 they set up the NF Trade Unionists Association and were actively involved in a number of industrial disputes. This growing support among the white working class led to increased opposition from the Left and the Trade Union movement and when the National Party (a split from the NF) won two council seats in Blackburn, in May 1976, it was clearly time to turn the growing anti-fascist protests into something more dynamic.
By 1977 organised opposition to the NF reached new heights, in particular at Lewisham in south London where an NF march came under heavy and sustained physical attack from several thousand anti-fascists.
Shortly after this the Anti Nazi League was formed by the SWP arid every fascist activity was now opposed.
The ANL strategy combined imaginative propaganda and physical opposition. Popular bands, sporting celebrities and other individuals with a high profile were used to endorse the anti-fascist message, making sure it had a wider appeal than the usual left-wing campaign. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were dished out, badges sold, stickers and posters put up. The message was simple but effective; the NF=Nazis.
In the 70s this message was still effective, bearing in mind that the Second World War had only ended 30 years previously, and Britain was very much out of step with the rest of Europe where the Far Right were small and isolated and could only dream of reaching the level of support that the NF had. Indeed the French FN sent activists over to Britain to study the methods of the NF which they have subsequently put to good use.
The propaganda on its own would never have been enough, and the ANL squads provided the necessary physical opposition. The previous years had seen the NF pursue a traditional fascist strategy of trying to control the streets. Left-wing paper sales were attacked, public meetings smashed up and demonstrations harassed.
Between 1977 and the general election in 1979 the ANL squads systematically turned the situation around - attacking fascist paper sales, meetings and marches. The damage that was done to the NF at Lewisham was methodically reproduced around the country. The middle classes would no longer turn out in public, women and old people found it increasingly dangerous to attend activities and anti-fascist successes in the street battles drove away many more. The tide had turned and the fascists were starting to become isolated.
Many original members of AFA learnt their 'trade' during this period and saw how the effective combination of mass propaganda, carnivals, stunts, and physical confrontation could be However the political situation was about to change dramatically as the Tories won the 1979 general election, playing the race card as Thatcher talked about understanding people's fears of being "swamped" by an alien culture; the NF vote collapsed.
The NF split into 3 smaller organisations and entered a period of reorganisation, but anti-fascists remained active. The first problem to be dealt with was the closing down of the ANL, the only active anti-fascist organisation. The ANL's main sponsors, the SWP, had themselves entered a period of reorganisation and started to close down all the campaigns they had launched which had succeeded in drawing in significant numbers of working class people, like the ANL.
With regard to the ANL, the SWP's argument was that now that the NF vote had collapsed and the organisation disintegrated, the Tories were the real enemy. The squads were to be disbanded and the organisers, many of them SWP full-timers, were withdrawn. The only problem was that many of the activists refused to go. Although the NF was in decline the fascists were still active, and now that their electoral prospects had disappeared there was a new intensity to their violent attacks on the 'opposition'. Apart from attacking political opponents they also maintained high profile paper sales at places like Brick Lane and Chapel Market (in London), held demonstrations, recruited among the disillusioned young working class at football grounds and around the punk/Oi/ska music scene. As well as maintaining this high level of activity they provided the political justification and motivation for the rapidly increasing level of racist attacks.
This provided the 'squadists' with the necessary reasons for keeping up the momentum that had been built in the anti-fascist movement. The fascist gangs could be confronted and beaten and the squads were able to attract working class support. The importance of challenging the racists and fascists in working class areas should not be underestimated, and when the middle class leadership of the ANL/SWP, with absolutely no understanding of the situation on the ground, decided to expel the `squadists' in 1981, the future became much clearer. The so-called 'squadists' were never just `streetfighters' and had always had wider political ambitions - and becoming independent of the conservative Left started the process of challenging the traditional left-wing blueprint of how to achieve progressive social change which now sees AFA in the forefront of a new attempt to build a genuine, independent working class movement.
The early 1980s was a period of intense anti-fascist activity, without the media coverage of the late 70s and involving smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the battle for the streets was still being fought. The ANL still existed in name up to 1982, but the occasional activity they called would simply be a protest march on the other side of town from the fascists. While this sort of non-confrontational activity had no effect on the fascists, it also failed to attract anyone else to the anti-fascist movement.
Increasingly, independent groups of anti-fascists were taking the initiative, with solid bases in Manchester, Hatfield and London. In Manchester eight anti-fascists were jailed in 1981 for taking a firm line on fascist intimidation while in London a year-long campaign saw the NF driven off their prestigious sales pitch at Chapel Market (see Fighting Talk 19 for the full story). Hatfield, a small town north of London, was an example of how anti-fascists, based in the community, could win popular support for their views and when the ska band Madness played there in 1980 a large contingent of fascist skinheads who had travelled up from London were severely beaten by the locals who turned out in force.
At this time there were also high profile campaigns in support of young Asians in Bradford and Newham who had been arrested for defending themselves and their communities from racist attacks. Although there was no national co-ordination there was militant opposition to the racists and fascists. This increased level of militancy inevitably led to growing police interest in those responsible, causing further problems for anti-fascists who were in danger of being isolated and picked off.
While militant anti-fascists were having increased success on the streets there was no political strategy running along-side that would have allowed them to fill the political vacuum that was being created with the removal of the fascists. Getting rid of the fascists seemed sufficient. After the 'squadists' were expelled from the SWP in 1981 a decision was taken to form a new organisation in order to stay politically active. This group was Red Action and was the link between the anti-fascist activists in Manchester, London and Hatfield. Militant anti-fascism was consistently promoted in the Red Action paper and not surprisingly it was Red Action who, out of practical necessity, were soon to initiate the launching of a new, national anti-fascist organisation.
1985 - 1989 AFA's Early Years
As the fascists started to reorganise (the British National Party was launched in 1982) and with racist attacks increasing, it became clear that anti-fascism needed to be put back on a wider agenda and a new national organisation was required. One incident in particular led to its formation.
In 1984 the Greater London Council organised a large open-air rally and concert as part of their campaign against unemployment. Halfway through a group of 70 or 80 fascists appeared and attacked the audience and the bands on stage. Initially taken by surprise anti-fascists quickly reorganised and drove the fascists off. A retaliatory attack was launched on a fascist pub that evening to make up for the earlier lack of preparedness. The point was that the fascists were getting bolder, attacking large left-wing activities in broad daylight, and Red Action decided this had to be dealt with.
A leaflet was drawn up and circulated to anyone interested and as a result of this discussions took place with a variety of groups about launching a new anti-fascist organisation. A conference was called in the summer of 1985 and attended by 300 people representing a wide range of groups. The militants, represented by groups like Red Action and the East London Direct Action Movement, made a crucial mistake at this conference because although it was their initiative, acting on information received that the fascists would attack the meeting, they spent the whole meeting outside on stewarding duties. This meant that from the very outset the political orientation was being dictated by others.
Political naivety played a part as well, the militants wrongly assuming that regardless of what was decided in meetings everything could be rectified on the streets, and when the fascists were themselves ambushed after the meeting this seemed to underline the point. Despite this error, which wouldn't be resolved until the relaunch in 1989, the new organisation quickly set about achieving some important results.
The first activity took place in November 1985 when AFA took over the assembly point for the annual NF Remembrance Day parade. These parades were an important part of the fascists' activities attracting several thousand at their height, providing an annual focal point for their supporters and frequently gaining media coverage. On this occasion the fascist stewards were unable to remove AFA and the NF march had to assemble elsewhere and was delayed for an hour. Not that dramatic but a signal of intent for the future.
It is worth looking at the Remembrance Day marches over the next few years because they illustrate the differences within AFA. Although the larger left-wing organisations did not join AFA (eg. SWP, Militant, Communist Party, etc.) it was made up of some smaller socialist and anarchist groups, various groups active within the race relations lobby like the Newham Monitoring Project and the Refugee Forum, Searchlight, and non-aligned individuals. It ranged from militant anti-fascists who had seen the effect of physical confrontation on the fascists to groups who wanted to put pressure on the government to change various laws and fund particular projects.
Initially the contrasting agendas worked together and when AFA called a National Demonstration on Remembrance Day 1986 over 2,000 people responded, making it the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation since the 70s. It made the front page of the Daily Mail on the Monday morning which was a significant step in putting anti-fascism back on the agenda. The struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, fought on the streets around the country since the collapse of the ANL, had been almost completely ignored up to this point.
The following year another march was called, basically because the previous one had been so successful and after the NF march a large contingent of fascists would make their way to Trafalgar Square to attack the Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid picket outside South Africa House. The AFA march was a way of getting a large number of anti-fascists into the area to confront the NF, which was successfully achieved.
By 1988 there was an argument about a third march; around the question of what was the point of having the march. The march was getting smaller, the media had lost interest, and it was becoming an annual event with no discussion about its effectiveness. The militants were keen to oppose the NF on Remembrance Day but felt a march wasn't the best way.in the interests of 'unity' the militants-went along with the march again, and scored another notable success against the fascists afterwards.
By 1989 the Remembrance Day march caused a split. The liberals called a march which attracted less than 300 (compared to 2,000 in 1986) while the militants took over the fascists' assembly point and controlled much of the surrounding area. A number of fascists were prevented from reaching their march and the NF were seriously delayed. Such was the pressure they were under, coupled with the defeats they had suffered in Trafalgar Square over the previous 2 years, that for the first time the NF didn't try to attack the anti-apartheid picket afterwards, presumably relieved just to get out of the area in one piece.
For the militants this episode highlighted a key component of anti-fascism - to be effective. There is no blueprint but any mobilisation must have a specific purpose. While the liberal agenda called for protests against fascist violence, for more police involvement, and for the State to deal with the problem of a growing Far Right, the militants were developing a strategy that would stop the fascists being able to operate openly and challenge them in the constituency they had most success in - the white working class. Rather than appealing to the victims of fascism the militant strategy was aimed at the potential recruits.
The first four years of AFA's existence weren't negative, the decline of the NF Remembrance Day parade being one example of AFA's success. In 1986 an NF march in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was so thoroughly disrupted that the then NF leader Nick Griffin (now a senior BNP figure) actually stopped holding demonstrations altogether.
Another area of fascist activity was the NF's White Noise Club, set up to promote fascist bands, but 'financial mismanagement' soon saw the bands break away from the NF to set up their own Blood and Honour organisation (B&H). By 1988 they had established themselves in London's West End, getting two shops just off Carnaby Street to stock their merchandise and using local pubs as meeting places. At this time the European situation was changing rapidly with the Far Right gaining support in many countries. In Europe the fascist skinhead scene was an integral part of these moves and many European delegations arrived in Carnaby Street to meet Skrewdriver and B&H supremo Ian Stuart.
AFA set up Cable Street Beat (CSB) in 1988 to address the problem of B&H and of fascists attacking gigs by bands they considered a problem - the Pogues (Irish), Desmond Dekker (black) and the Upstarts (socialist). Some high profile gigs were organised and got national media coverage which allowed AFA/CSB to highlight the growing problem of fascism at home and abroad, and to promote a strategy to deal with it - no platform.
The key date in the campaign against B&H was 27th May 1989. The fascists had booked Camden Town Hall for a thousand strong rally, which at £10 a head would raise a fair bit of money. AFA discovered the venue and got it banned, despite opposition from Searchlight who wanted to monitor the event, and called a counter-demonstration at the fascists redirection point, Speakers Corner. Hundreds of fascists were attacked and chased off and never made it to the rearranged gig in Kent, and later that evening one of the fascist shops was attacked and ransacked. So on one day B&H's boast of being in control was cruelly exposed to an international audience and the last of their shops was forced to close down. Shortly afterwards lan Stuart moved to the Midlands. Their efforts to operate openly and move into the mainstream had been defeated.-
The other important point about 27th May was the hundreds of anti-fascists who rallied to AFA's call to confront the boneheads. This highlighted another internal problem which was having an organisation but no structure that could accommodate activists. AFA had been 'run' by individuals who represented only themselves. This meant that in London, for example, half a dozen individuals could outvote the two Red Action delegates who represented 100+ stewards!
Apart from the lack of democracy there were other hostile agendas at work, and at the very first national conference in 1986 a Searchlight-led anti-anarchist smear campaign was launched which led to Class War being suspended and all the other anarchist groups and Red Action walking out in solidarity. Red Action returned later to prevent the initiative being lost altogether. The following year there was an attempt to get Red Action expelled on a host of trumped up charges. These were defeated but clearly signalled that there was a fight on for the future direction and effectiveness of anti-fascism.
The 1987 conference also saw a proposed name change for the organisation, from AFA to Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action (ARAFA). The significance of this was that it was an attempt to change AFA from having a very practical, sometimes physical, strategy designed to fight fascism that was meeting with growing success to a more conservative lobbying group, grant-funded and establishment friendly. This strategy is still familiar today, one of putting race above class. This move was also defeated.
By 1989 these internal disagreements had come to a head over the Remembrance Day march and the good response to the May 27th mobilisation showed there was a receptive audience for militant anti-fascism.
London AFA called a conference and relaunched itself around the original founding statement with the additional point that we were not fighting fascism to maintain the status quo but from a pro-working class position. On this basis the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM) rejoined (after the Class War walkout) along with the Trotskyist Workers Power. The liberals withdrew.
So with Red Action, the DAM, Workers Power and non-aligned individuals AFA started to reorganise. Branches were set up to accommodate activists and a structure implemented that meant AFA was run from the bottom up; in other words controlled by the activists. AFA was now democratic and had an agreed strategy.
While the Left spent most of the 80s failing to 'kick out the Tories' the militants in AFA recognised that it was the Far Right who had the potential to recruit in the white working class. The first step in trying to build any progressive working class movement was to remove the fascist influence from these areas. Only then, once the space was created, could the Left fill the vacuum. The Left's failure to prevent the fascists from physically dominating them meant that anti-fascism assumed a key role.
The early AFA years had succeeded in getting anti-fascism onto a wider agenda and as the Far Right started to grow in this country and especially Europe it was an important achievement. This period had also shown that it was not possible to have an effective anti-fascist organisation with two contradictory strategies. The liberal anti-fascist strategy is ‘Anyone But Fascists’ (ABF), as seen on the Isle of Dogs where a Labour council's corruption and indifference to the local working class population led to the situation where the Far Right, in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative, was able to get a councillor elected in 1993 (the BNP's Derek Beackon).
The ABF response was to campaign vigorously for the Labour Party in the next election, which succeeded in unseating the BNP, but leaves the situation unresolved with Labour back in power who were responsible for the problem in the first place. The militant strategy is more ambitious: create an independent working class alternative to Labour and the BNP.
Although this example is more recent, it summarises the contradictions that existed in the 1985-89 period. It is often wrongly assumed that the difference between liberals and militants is simply about the use of physical force, but in AFA's case it was a political difference.
With three national organisations on board it was now planned to expand AFA's field of operations. Although there were other AFA groups around the country the only group outside London organised around a militant strategy was in Manchester. Of the other groups the two best known were Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (funded by the local council) and Leeds, both active but following a Searchlight pro-State agenda.
Almost as soon as AFA had been relaunched the BNP initiated their Rights Far Whites campaign (RFW) in 1990. Starting in London's East End when a white boy was stabbed by Asians, it soon spread around the country and focused on the bad conditions experienced by an abandoned white working class. The BNP started to work in local areas, dealing with local issues, and by August 1990 they won 25% of the white vote in a local election in the East End. While the electoral strategy showed a level of support for the Far Right, because the BNP held public election rallies and meetings it allowed AFA to play havoc with their organisation on the ground.
In September 1990 3 AFA activists were jailed for a total of 11 years for an attack on a prominent fascist skinhead; clearly meant as a deterrent. The level of fascist violence against AFA was also increasing, with a bomb being thrown into an AFA public meeting in east London in November 1990. (No one was injured.)
The BNP had completely overtaken the NF as the dominant fascist party now and their activities started to cover the whole country. In Scotland they became active focusing on support for Ulster Loyalism rather than the traditional anti-black racism south of the border.
As the temperature increased it was obvious the rest of the Left would become involved. Left-wing paper sales, especially the SWP, were being regularly attacked throughout the country and as the fascists continued to pick up support the Left would suffer if AFA was seen to be the only organised opposition. Initially AFA's attitude was to approach these groups with a view to co-operation. Although there was no intention of surrendering AFA's independence or strategy it was felt the increased forces available to these groups could, if working to an agreed plan, increase the pressure on the fascists and help to stop the State picking off the militants. AFA's approaches were rejected out of hand by the entire Left.
Despite this, 1991 saw AFA's most ambitious campaign to date being launched in east London, which had been made a national priority by the BNP. 60,000 leaflets were distributed on the estates, work was done with schools and community groups, the Unity Carnival attracted 10,000 people, the fascist paper sale at Brick Lane was put under pressure, the BNP were forced out of local sympathetic pubs and in November 1991 a 4,000-strong AFA demonstration marched through Bethnal Green - the supposed BNP heartland - completely unopposed. Young white Eastenders had seen the 'lefty' stereotype challenged and the BNP turned over, and contact was made with groups of young Asians. As 1991 drew to a close the situation looked promising, but all that was about to change.
The Left did get involved, but not with AFA, and having withdrawn from anti-fascist politics since the 1970s they now launched their own anti-fascist [organisations]. Instead of filling the political vacuum they simply tried to duplicate what AFA was doing. The SWP relaunched the ANL, Militant set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), and the Labour Party, Communist Party and black careerists established the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).
April 1992 saw the national relaunching of AFA which was now vigorously pursuing the strategy particularly in Scotland and the North West. The BNP were very active around Rochdale, Oldham, and Burnley, towns just outside Manchester's fascist - free zone. The success of AFA in disrupting the BNP's efforts can be seen by the response of the police who arrested two AFA organisers the night before a planned activity in Rochdale. They were released without charge once the day was over.
The level of confrontation was very high during this period, which included the now famous Battle of Waterloo in September 1992. B&H and the BNP were working fairly closely together at this time and had hoped a successful gig (pre-gig interviews were arranged with the Press on Waterloo Station) would enable B&H to operate openly with all the political and financial advantages this would have created for the fascists. The anti-fascist victory once again put paid to their plans.
AFA had deliberately adopted the single issue approach because when it was relaunched in 1989 around a pro-working class position the political composition of the organisation ranged from Trotskyist to Anarchist, Stalinist to Social Democrat. To keep the necessary unity on the streets for the important battles at the time there had to be an agreement that AFA's role was to create the space for a progressive working class organisation to fill; it wasn't AFA's job to fill it. By the time the BNP had won a council seat in 1993 it was becoming increasingly clear that no one was willing or able to fill the vacuum. This was underlined by the Left's support for Labour in the subsequent election 6 months later which saw the fascists lose their seat. The wheel had turned full circle, the Left had capitulated.
Although the BNP lost their council seat they actually increased their vote by 30%. This continuing electoral success led to a radical change in policy by the BNP, and in April 1994 they called what in effect was a ‘cease-fire'. They issued a statement saying that there would be "no more meetings, marches, or punch ups." They would now concentrate on a Euro-Nationalist electoral strategy, hoping to emulate the success of the French FN.
The intensity of this period proved too much for some of the groups in AFA. For some the physical demands proved to be too much, but politically it was becoming clear that AFA would have to break with the traditional Left and this also caused problems. It was Labour's indifference to the white working class that allowed the BNP to appear as the radical alternative, and yet most of the Left wouldn't break with Labour. Those that did had absolutely no credibility; to illustrate this point the Communist Party of Great Britain (formerly the Leninist) got 1/10th of the BNP's vote when they stood in Tower Hamlets in the 1992 general election.
The situation in London was slightly different from the rest of the country, partly because the BNP felt they could build on the political base they already had without the public activities, and partly because AFA was more established. The battle on the streets continued elsewhere for about a year. After B&H got smashed in London on May 27th 1989, Ian Stuart moved to the Midlands to run the B&H operation from there because the fascists were relatively strong.
By 1994 the tide had turned and both east and west Midlands were being fiercely contested with AFA setting its own agenda. In the North West the experienced BNP organiser 'retired' at the beginning of 1995 due to the continual pressure from AFA and later that year the BNP's public activities ceased in Scotland and the Midlands. To some it may seem that the war had been won, but the reality was that the conflict was simply moving into a new arena.
The BNP's change of strategy inevitably meant that AFA needed to adapt to the new situation, but the emergence of Combat 18 (C18) kept the prospect of street confrontation alive. Although it is now clear that C18 were set up by the State, primarily to examine links with Loyalist paramilitaries, there was also an attempt to divert AFA away from addressing the major political issue of the BNP's growth by getting involved in 'gang warfare' with C18. Although they had previously existed as the BNP's stewards group from the outset they were promoted by Searchlight and the media as something new and extremely dangerous.
Something didn't add up. C18 published hit lists and bomb manuals that broke every law possible and yet they were allowed to continue. It was clear the State were pulling the strings and it was also clear that Searchlight and their supporters were heavily involved.
AFA helped discredit the myth of C18 on the ground, in particular by disrupting the Ian Stuart Memorial concert in 1994 and a UVF march in Central London in 1996, but the role of Searchlight in promoting them showed a greater allegiance to the State's agenda than the anti-fascist movement.
As pressure on the street forced the BNP to make political adjustments, by 1994 AFA was also making changes. AFA recognised it was a three-cornered fight against the fascists, the State and the conservative Left. The damage that groups like the ANL did to anti-fascism has already been mentioned, but when they started claiming responsibility in their propaganda for AFA victories like Waterloo it was felt they must be publicly attacked. A 4-page leaflet called 'Don't believe the hype' was produced to answer their lies and expose their strategy as being counterproductive.
From this point on AFA was quite prepared to attack the conservative Left. In the past AFA had been reluctant to get involved in what were seen as being internal arguments, but the result of this was that AFA was either written out of history or completely misrepresented. When John Tyndall (BNP leader) stood in an east London by-election in the summer of 1994 AFA produced a leaflet which took 'anti-fascism' as far as it could go. It described the BNP as being ultra-conservative and showed their policies as being to the right of the Tories.
In an area where people don't vote Tory this was the best propaganda AFA could produce, and yet it was becoming increasingly clear that AFA was fighting the fascists with one hand tied behind its back. No progressive working class forces were moving in to fill the political vacuum that existed in working class areas aid just being 'anti' BNP was not enough. On top of that the police actually prevented AFA from distributing this leaflet while the BNP were allowed to canvass door to door. Militant anti-fascism was being criminalised.
As the BNP's public activities petered out, where there were clashes the police came down hard on AFA. An AFA mobilisation in Kirkby in the Midlands (April 95) was attacked with extreme force by riot police, one activist's leg being broken in 5 places. In Edinburgh shortly afterwards a plainclothes police squad attacked a small group of AFA activists and only revealed their identity when they started losing. Ten AFA members were arrested.
More recently public AFA activities have been subjected to heavy policing -suspected activists stopped in the street and photographed, special squads assigned to monitor AFA, coppers on the street armed with mugshots of suspected organisers, AFA groups surrounded on the street and held for hours.
Interestingly, an anti-fascist protest in Central London (May 98) called by the ANL but not supported by AFA, had a very low key police presence; precisely because AFA wasn't there. So although there is very little public fascist activity, when there is, a great deal of time and money is spent by the State to prevent AFA from making an impact.
Politically AFA addressed the problems thrown up by the BNP election successes, particularly in east London, by developing a new strategy. 'Filling The Vacuum' was agreed in May 1995 and still remains the key to the future. Essentially `Filling The Vacuum' recognises the limitations of only being 'anti' fascist and not being 'for' something else. Now it is up to the anti-fascists to take the initiative and fill the vacuum in the absence of anyone else. The alternative is to allow the fascists a free run.
The 'single issue' aspect of AFA, introduced in 1989 to maintain unity as we entered an intense period of street activity, has run its course. Although AFA will always maintain its independence, militant anti-fascists must now see it as their duty to ensure that the vacuum is filled. The election of a Labour government in 1997, with the Tories discredited and divided after 18 years in power, gives the BNP the opportunity to pose as the radical alternative.
The battle for the streets has been replaced by the battle for hearts and minds, and it is in the direct self-interest of militant anti-fascists to get involved. The 'revolutionary programmes' of the Left are not relevant to working class people and the fascists know this. An independent working class movement can fill the vacuum if it addresses the concerns of ordinary people as its priority.
In different parts of the country AFA activists have got involved with, or initiated, campaigns around working class issues. This is the territory that the BNP have chosen to work in, as the Front National has successfully done in France, and this is where the new chapter of anti-fascism begins.