The 1,000 seater Light Auditorium was overflowing for a plenary session at the Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) conference in London today, Saturday. Speakers discussed the fight against racism across Europe. Labour MEP Claude Moraes hailed a “brilliant” conference. “I’m not used to speaking to such big audiences,” he said.
“It’s the best possible response to a week when we’ve had nothing less than the mainstreaming of racism.”
Judith Becker from the German left party Die Linke reported an alarming rise in Islamophobic and far right attacks. Colette Levy, who came to Britain as a refugee from the Vichy fascist regime in France, said, “The fear of fascism is everywhere in Europe.”
Birmingham anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob demolished the Tories’ 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.”
SUTR joint conveyor Weyman Bennett finished the morning with a call to arms. “This isn’t just a conference to talk,” he said. “It is a conference to organise.
“We can be united, we can stand up to racism and we can beat Theresa May.”
People have travelled to the conference from across Britain.
Janaye Gyimah from south London told Socialist Worker, “I’ve come down because I think racism needs to be dealt with.
“Conferences like this help raise awareness. We need local organisations to come out of the conference.”
Engineer Tony came to the conference from Rugby. “The Brexit vote lifted the lid on a lot of things,” he told Socialist Worker. “I’d almost say it’s become the ‘trending topic’ – racism and also xenophobia.
“They are different, but interconnected.”
Workshops this morning covered a range of issues including Islamophobia, refugees, Prevent and Black Lives Matter.
UCU union general secretary Sally Hunt opened a workshop on refugees in Calais. “We could be those people,” she said.
“The trade union movement is not doing enough. We’ve not seen enough words and we’ve not seen enough action.”
She slammed the government’s attempt to delegitimise those migrants in Calais, particularly young men, who aren’t fleeing war. “I’m old enough to remember when Mr Tebbit told people to get on their bikes to find work,” she said. “That, bluntly, is what those boys are doing.”
It was given urgency by the French government’s imminent plans to demolish the “jungle” camp.
Clare Mosely of charity Care for Calais said, “People are going to be put in aircraft hangars, barns and sheds. After part of the camps was demolished in February we had people contact us saying they had nothing to eat. I am terrified.”
Campaigners discussed protests and photo calls for a day of action for Calais on Friday of next week. These include a flashmob at 6pm at the Kindertransport statue outside London Liverpool Street station.
One refugee who spent eight months in the squalid camp in Dunkirk before getting to Leeds this summer, called the government “shameful”. He is not allowed to work or study, and is charged hundreds of pounds he doesn’t have for tests to prove he is related to his family in Britain. “They treat me like I do not have the right to be in this world,” he said.
He also challenged campaigners, “There are people here from lots of organisations helping refugees – you need to get together,” he said.
Another workshop discussed opposing racist violence and defending migrant rights in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union (EU).
Some speakers said leaving the EU undermines such campaigns. Others said the Leave vote was not simply racist. There was debate over whether to focus on defending the right to free movement or migrant rights more generally.
Speakers from the floor spoke of the need to organise against a far right White Lives Matter demonstration taking place in Thanet next weekend.
Zak Cochrane from Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) summed up the meeting. “Racism has been the chief tool for pushing austerity,” he said, arguing for local SUTR groups. “If we build a movement, we can push back the racist offensive.”
Moazzam Begg, former Guantanamo Bay detainee and director of the Cage detainees’ rights group, addressed a workshop on fighting the Prevent strategy.
Prevent targets Muslims as potential terrorists. Moazzam Begg said, “Prevent is not new – we’ve had terror laws over the last 15 years. People are targeted for opposition and dissent against them.”
Shaz, a student from Wolverhampton, said, “We had planned a meeting called ‘Israel – terror state’. It was changed to ‘A talk on Israel and Palestine’ and it was monitored.”
Moazzam slammed David Cameron for smearing south London Imam Suliman Gani as an Isis supporter – as Suliman walked into the workshop.
From the floor Suliman said, “The main concern about me was that I’d shared a platform with Moazzam Begg. I’m here again in a difficult situation,” he joked.
Adik Malik from Luton said the attack on a pregnant Muslim woman in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, was “the end product of Prevent”.
A number of speakers asked what to do when some Muslims and Muslim organisations went along with Prevent. Azad Ali from Mend argued that campaigning against Prevent can give Muslims more confidence.
“When they see that Muslims and others are involved they will be braver,” he said.
Shelly Asquith, NUS Vice President for Welfare, said, “We will support any academic that refuses to implement Prevent, any student union that tries to disrupt it and a student referred to on spurious grounds.
“We will do everything in our power to make it unworkable.”
It was standing room only at the 200-strong workshop on the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Speakers from the platform explained how the movement in Britain is taking up many of the issues of its US counterpart.
Kadisha 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 in this country,” Kadisha told the audience. “What happened to my brother could happen to anybody.”
Capres, a student in London, described how she initiated a 3,000-strong protest at the US embassy following the deaths of black people at the hands of US cops.
“It started with a Facebook event but then spiralled into something much bigger,” she said.
Journalist and Black Lives Matter activist Gary McFarlane was cheered as he called for a “new Civil Rights Movement”.
“Of course we need it in the states,” he said. “But we also need it here because of the sheer number of black people who are being killed by the cops.”
John Carr from Liverpool was among many who spoke and asked questions from the floor. He described how a spontaneous Black Lives Matter protest of over 300 people surprised the city.
“The police had no clue as to what was going on,” he said.
Sonia, a Black Lives Matter activist from Wilmington, North Carolina, addressed the meeting by Skype. She said, “We’re fighting the same injustice as Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King.
“Let me tell you, we are a long way from the ‘dream’ that Martin spoke of.
“We’re getting tired of marching. We’re looking for other solutions,” she added to much applause.
People were sitting in the aisles in the session on the rise of the far right in Europe.
Petros Constantinou from the Greek anti-fascist organisation Keerfa spoke of how they had beaten back the Nazi Golden Dawn. But he said the Nazis were still trying to build around the Greek government’s attacks on refugees.
Petros said, “Now with the European Union policy of blocking refugees, Golden Dawn are building again. They go to the islands, Lesvos, Crete, blaming refugees.”
Speaking from the floor, a refugee who had come through Greece spoke of how seeing Greece anti-fascists fight back gave her the confidence to get involved. She said, “I lived in fear from 2006 to 2008. I wasn’t able to go out. I was in hiding.
“I came out when demonstrations saying refugees are welcome here passed by my home.”
During the discussion some of the speakers blamed the rise of the far right on the vote in Britain to leave the European Union. But one person said, “What I find very encouraging about today is whether you campaigned to Leave or Remain, we’re all here together to fight racism.”
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