The English Defence League (EDL) suffered a significant blow last month when they attempted to march through the heart of Tower Hamlets in East London. Instead of being a day spent intimidated the local Muslim community and its allies, the EDL found itself unable to set a foot inside the borough.
This is an important victory in the wake of the partial revival of the EDL since the killing of Lee Rigby in south east London in May. The Islamophobic backlash that followed his death coincided with the electoral breakthrough by Ukip in local elections. The response of the Tories was to further stoke up racism.
All of this combined to create the perfect environment for fascist groups to grow again, just as fascist and far-right groups have been able to grow across Europe.
The EDL’s chosen route through Tower Hamlets was the same one Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists planned in 1936 – from Aldgate and down the Whitechapel Road. The EDL wanted to then hold a rally in Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bangladeshi murdered by racists in 1978.
A key target for the EDL was the East London Mosque – long demonised by sections of the media. The mosque is one of the most integrated into the local community, it has hosted mass strike meetings by local council workers and teachers.
Why were the EDL so decisively thwarted in Tower Hamlets?
The key was an alliance between socialists, anti-fascists, trade unionists and, crucially, Muslims, together with the independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman, and the Labour Party. This coalition, based on the spirit of the united front, was willing to stand in the street and, if necessary, block the EDL.
Such a commitment was also a repudiation of the government’s Prevent strategy that has sought to intimidate Muslims and demand they stay at home. Behind this lies the reality of disproportionate punishments for those who do protest.
So in a number of places, including Birmingham, some in the Muslim communities have been afraid to join protests at the EDL marching in their city.
A number of factors prevented this happening in Tower Hamlets. Anger among many Muslims has been rising about the backlash that followed Lee Rigby’s murder.
The burning down of the Muswell Hill Muslim Centre and a string of other attacks on mosques have seen very little outrage among politicians or the press.
East London also has a powerful tradition of anti-fascist activity – from Cable Street to the battles around Brick Lane in the 1970s and the 1990s. A number of leading figures in the East London Mosque were involved around the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s, for example.
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and United East End were able to articulate the argument about the need for collective resistance. They also argued that a state ban would not stop the EDL.
Police had initially expressed a willingness to take the EDL down the Whitechapel Road, but as the sheer scale of the-opposition to this became apparent, they changed course sharply, instead deciding to the keep the EDL out of the borough entirely.
But the police still placed restrictions on the UAF/UEE protest in the name of being “even handed”, that is equating fascists with anti-fascists. So when a group of protesters left the anti-fascist demonstration, the very heavy police presence made itself felt with around 180 arrests.
What lessons can we draw from all this? There have always been three arguments about how best to fight fascism.
The first method has been to look to state authorities and legal methods to curb their advances. This has often combined with an approach of semi-ignoring the fascists. The failure of such an approach to stop the Front National in France is all too clear.
A second approach is for small groups to physically confront the fascists, often acting with great courage, but in ways that leave the mass of anti-fascists as by-standers.
The third approach is to look to mass mobilisations that stop the Nazis organising and building momentum. From Cable Street in 1936 to Lewisham in 1977 to Walthamstow and Tower Hamlets in 2012-2013 this has proved the most effective method.
The key is broad based mobilisations with the organised working class at their heart and which link up with the oppressed and their organisations.
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