More than 1,500 people launched a national anti-racist movement in Britain last Saturday. The Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) conference in London united refugees, councillors, students, trade unionists and others —and showed the potential to push back racism.
Labour Lord Alf Dubs hailed the conference as “fantastic”. “I’m proud to be part of it,” he said. “We’ll go from strength to strength and no one can stop us.”
SUTR joint convenor Sabby Dhalu said, “We’ve seen today the birth of a new movement against racism in Britain.”
The conference brought together activists and people new to politics. The main hall was decked with dozens of union banners.
Workshops were full of debate about the reasons for racism and how to resist it. Over 200 people made contributions.
Naampet Dickinson came from Peterborough. “I saw a Tweet about the conference,” she said. “There are a lot of Ukip supporters in Peterborough.
“We need to be better equipped to debate with people.”
School student Ruth came from Lambeth in south London. “I saw the conference on Facebook and thought I should come,” she told Socialist Worker. “I’m interested in politics and particularly anti-racism.”
Engineer Tony from Rugby told Socialist Worker, “The Brexit vote lifted the lid on a lot of things. I’d almost say it’s become the ‘trending topic’—racism and also xenophobia.
“They are different, but interconnected.”
Defending refugees was a key theme. UCU union general secretary Sally Hunt told a workshop on Calais that “the trade union movement is not doing enough”.
One refugee who spent eight months in the Dunkirk camp called the government “shameful”. “They treat me like I do not have the right to be in this world,” he said.
Another workshop discussed opposing racist violence and defending migrant rights in the wake of the Brexit vote.
There was debate over whether to focus on defending the right to free movement or migrant rights more generally.
Some speakers said Brexit undermines anti-racist campaigns. Others said the Leave vote was not simply racist.
Across the day activists pointed to alternative reasons for rising racism.
Adik Malik from Luton said the recent attack on a pregnant Muslim woman in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, was “the end product of Prevent”. The Prevent strategy targets Muslims as potential terrorists.
Activists discussed the rise of the far right in Europe.
One speaker said, “What I find very encouraging about today is whether you campaigned to Leave or Remain, we’re all here together to fight racism.”
And the Leave vote doesn’t explain the growth of racism across Europe.
Petros Constantinou from the Greek anti-fascist organisation Keerfa blamed the “European Union policy of blocking refugees” for helping the Nazi Golden Dawn party to organise.
Other sessions focused on Islamophobia and the Prevent strategy. Former Guantanamo Bay detainee and director of the Cage detainees’ rights group Moazzam Begg said Prevent “is not new”.
“We’ve had terror laws over the last 15 years,” he said. “People are targeted for opposition and dissent.”
Shelly Asquith, NUS vice president for welfare, said the union would support academics refusing to implement Prevent and student unions trying to disrupt it.
Speakers asked what to do when some Muslims and Muslim organisations go along with Prevent.
Azad Ali from the Mend campaign group argued that campaigning can give Muslims more confidence.
“When they see that Muslims and others are involved they will be braver,” he said.
Migrant workers took on the myth that they cause lower wages and worse conditions at work.
The importance of anti-racist campaigning came through again and again.
One refugee said seeing anti-fascists in Greece gave her confidence. “I lived in fear from 2006 to 2008,” she said. “I wasn’t able to go out. I came out when demonstrations saying refugees are welcome here passed by my home.”
Khalil Charles from the Muslim Association of Britain told a workshop on Islamophobia about a racist attack on Finsbury Park Mosque last year.
“The protest in support of the mosque that followed the attack was so important to us,” he said. “It demonstrates exactly the kind of unity we need.”
Kadisha Brown-Burrell spoke movingly about the five-year battle for justice her family has waged for her brother Kingsley.
He died after police forcibly restrained him in Birmingham in 2011.
“If we don’t fight we’ll never have a voice,” Kadisha said.
Journalist and Black Lives Matter activist Gary McFarlane was cheered as he called for a “new Civil Rights Movement”.
The Tories hope to scapegoat migrants for the impact of their austerity.
Birmingham anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob demolished their lies. “If you listen to what’s in the mainstream, I am responsible for the crisis in the NHS,” she said.
“It seems it has nothing to do with years of chronic underfunding.”
Musician and socialist Elva Stevenson added, “To beat austerity you have to fight the scapegoating and prejudice they use.”
Migrant workers took on the myth that they cause lower wages and worse conditions at work. Instead, their struggles can drive wages up and have a big impact.
Students stressed the need to set up Stand Up To Racism groups on campuses. Hertfordshire student Naima said, “We need to link up with other student societies, our students’ unions and our lecturers.”
Rizwan from NUS Black Students told Socialist Worker, “There’s no point coming together like this if we don’t go away and organise.”
Malia Bouattia, president of the NUS, told a final plenary, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes our duty.”
Speakers from Mend and the Muslim Council of Britain vowed to be a part of coming SUTR initiatives.
Many events are already planned, such as a Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) gig in London later this month.
Other activists are setting up workplace SUTR groups. Sam, a health worker from east London, described how she and some Muslim colleagues had run a stall in her hospital in support of refugee rights.
“People were so glad to see us,” she said. “Now we’ve organised for the first Stand Up To Racism meeting in the hospital.”
The conference showed the broad support for anti-racism across Britain and should be a launchpad for campaigning.
Gloria Mills from the TUC general council called on people to join the demonstration on UN anti-racism day on Saturday 18 March.
As SUTR joint convenor Weyman Bennett put it, “This isn’t just a conference to talk. It is a conference to organise. We can be united, we can stand up to racism and we can beat Theresa May.”