This is a guest post by Kevin Ovenden
The announcement by the English Defence League that they intend to march in Tower Hamlets on 7 September is rightly generating a considerable response from within the borough and beyond.
This provocation comes after the spike in Islamophobic attacks following the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and as the Coalition hawks its racist, anti-immigrant billboard vans around multicultural areas of the country.
For the EDL, marching into Tower Hamlets has become a totem. The East End itself has become a target thanks to systematic Islamophobic media coverage aimed at the country’s largest mosque, the East London Mosque, Tower Hamlets independent directly elected mayor Lutfur Rahman (voted in after being ousted by the Labour right as the party’s candidate), and the Bengali community, which contributed so much to that political upset and its precursor, the election of George Galloway in 2005 and 12 Respect councillors a year later.
A broad-based mobilisation by United East End and Unite Against Fascism two years ago prevented the EDL from setting foot in Tower Hamlets and pushed the Home Secretary to ban them from marching. A similar response in Waltham Forest in October last year produced the same result.
A stunt by EDL leader Tommy Robinson at the end of June saw him arrested as he tried to enter Tower Hamlets with his side-kick after local community representatives warned the police that their “walk” would lead to widespread breach of the peace.
All that is very welcome. But as the size of the EDL mobilisations in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich killing showed there can be no complacency about the threat they pose. Ultimately, they were not able to sustain those mobilisations – and they faced systematic opposition – though they were able to pull considerable numbers to Birmingham recently.
Moreover, the political reaction to Woolwich has hardened Islamophobic sentiment. At the extreme end there have been a score of serious attacks on mosques. More generally, Muslim organisations report an increase in attacks. While mouthing opposition to racist violence, much of the political mainstream has conceded, or worse, to underlying Islamophobia.
It was left to the leader of Britain’s largest union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, to visit the Brick Lane and East London Mosques following Woolwich in a gesture of solidarity that ought to have been much more widespread among public figures and Labour politicians.
So the situation is volatile. Although Ukip’s Godfrey Bloom was forced to retract his racist outburst, his carefully chosen “regret” was designed to validate a hardened racist core who will regard him as a hero.
Calibrating the response to 7 September and to the wider growth of racism and xenophobia is vital for the anti-fascist movement and anti-racists.
4 October 1936
Inevitably, the threat of an incursion into the East End by racist thugs summons up references to the seminal Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were halted thanks to an enormous community mobilisation.
Times change, historical analogies can often mislead and there is no substitute for an honest appraisal of actual circumstances. But the overall example of the anti-fascist mobilisation in 1936 does, I think, have value today. Far from elevating a tactic to a strategy and a strategy to a principle, appreciating how it happened avoids some of the false polarisations that might otherwise mar our response today.
The story of the enormous and militant blockade against the BUF on the day is well told. So too – though somewhat contested – is the history of mass agitation in the two to three days immediately before the march. Less well rehearsed today is the massive effort that preceded this.
Mosley’s announcement in late September 1936 that the BUF would hold four marches, including through the heart of the Jewish East End, to converge in Victoria Park on 4 October was not met with cries of “bring it on” by the community. There was fear. Anger, sure, but also fear.
The BUF had switched to targeting the East End, with ramped up anti-Semitism, after Mosley’s core strategy of winning respectable Tory support was thrown back – not least following the shock among the well-heeled at the extreme violence meted out to Communist Party and anti-fascist hecklers at his Olympia rally in 1934.
The summer of 1936 had seen a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people in the East End. Moreover, it seemed as if fascism was on an unstoppable rise across the continent, Italy, Germany and Austria, the consolidation of fascistic regimes in eastern Europe, and then the Franco rising in Spain in July of 1936.
In response to Mosley’s announcement, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, set up by the Communist Party in July 1936, organised a petition calling on the Home Secretary Sir John Simon to prevent – to ban – Mosley’s planned march.
Within a couple of days the petition gathered over 100,000 signatures. It was both an astonishing piece of mass organisation and testimony to the popular feeling in the East End. It was presented to the Home Secretary, who on Friday 2 October – two days before the march – announced that it would not be banned.
For some – the leadership of the Labour Party and even George Lansbury, by then in his dotage – that was the end of the matter and they called on people to stay at home and out of the East End to allow the fascists to march. But the call by the Communist Party, led by its local branch in Stepney, and the Independent Labour Party to gather en masse found an enormous echo. The rest is history.
But an oft neglected part of that history is that it was precisely the earlier campaign and the refusal of a Tory Home Secretary to accede to it that meant there was such an enormous outpouring (that plus a truly massive agitation in East London and across the capital).
It is impossible to understand the scale of the Cable Street mobilisation without appreciating the level of carefully focused agitation in advance, not only against Mosley but also over European fascism, housing, anti-Semitism and the impact of the Great Depression, conducted by a left that was in tune with mass sentiment in the area while also prepared to confront reactionary forces and ideas.
7 September 2013
The mayor of Tower Hamlets and the broad range of community organisations and trade unions represented in the United East End coalition are calling on the police and Home Secretary not to allow the EDL to set foot in Tower Hamlets – to ban them – and at the same time pledging to demonstrate the multicultural opposition to the far right in Tower Hamlets on that day.
This was the same approach that brought an important victory two years ago. Then Theresa May announced a ban on all marches. However, the reality was that the EDL were heavily policed and did not enter Tower Hamlets (barring a coach that lost its way after the event) while anti-fascist forces were able to gather, protest, march and ensure the EDL was kept out. And the markets and daily life of people were not shuttered down in fear.
Of course, there were those from the rump Labour right in east London who counter-posed calling for the EDL to be banned to building broad public opposition to them on the day. For some that was associated both with a virulent sectarianism against the mayor and independent councillors, and a deeply reactionary equation of anti-fascists and community organisations allied with them to the EDL themselves.
Such a counter-position is destructive – whichever way round it comes.
The call by large community, tenant and trade union organisations in east London to ban the EDL marching through the heart of the area is an expression of just how much people see them as a threat.
Sure there are some establishment figures who will seek to limit popular mobilisation. But this call is coming mainly from those who not only are in favour of a mass show of opposition but without whom no such mobilisation on the required scale can take place.
For them, and for the Muslim community directly under threat, saying that the police and Home Secretary should not insist on forcing violent racists through a multicultural area where they will attack and intimidate people is not an alternative to building mass opposition to fascism and racism. It is part of it – as it was in September and October 1936. Understanding that is crucial to the many tactical discussions and considerations as events play out.
The revelations about the police infiltration and smearing of the Stephen Lawrence campaign should underline to any opponent of racism that it is not possible to “rely on the police”. (That’s leaving to one side the impact of stop and search not only directly, but also in creating a wider racist climate and all the other manifestations of institutionalised racism.)
The fact that the government’s anti-migrant billboard vans have been criticised even by Ukip is an indication that far from tempering racist sentiment, the Coalition is not only creating the conditions for it but deliberately fanning the flames – over Islamophobia too.
But there is a world of difference between saying we should not rely on such institutions to confront fascism and saying we are indifferent to how they respond to it.
There was an outcry two years ago when a senior officer of the Metropolitan Police said that he did not consider the EDL to be a violent racist organisation, but rather one expressing legitimate concerns. What should be the response of the anti-racist left? To say, “That’s the police for you”? Or should it be to demand that he is removed or made to change his stance, to campaign for the Met and every other public authority to designate the EDL as violent racists who do not have a “right” to storm into multicultural areas?
It is progress over the last three years that campaigning by UAF and others has created a climate in which many local politicians and police forces regard the EDL as illegitimate rather than misunderstood voices of “the white working class”, with anti-fascists seen as equally or more so the “troublemakers”.
That situation is very uneven and it is not static. Such are attitudes in the police in particular that many share certain sympathies with the EDL. Events such as the Woolwich killing can provide sudden opportunities for fascists and the racist right to re-present themselves and win both a wider support and claw back some legitimacy.
But that means that political pressure on the institutions of the state not to give them that legitimacy is strategically vital. As well, of course, as seeking to win the broadest possible ground against racism, Islamophobia and xenophobic tirades against migrants.
An intelligent, united and focused campaign in opposition to the EDL’s adventure on 7 September can play an important role in pushing them back and boosting the wider fight against racism.
That requires a broad and militant movement. Broad in drawing in the widest forces against fascism and racist violence. Militant in not yielding a millimetre to their arguments and in refusing to accept that they have a “right” to organise, march and terrorise – being prepared to oppose them.
And as Cable Street showed, there is nothing more militant than the mass, collective mobilisation of people – especially when the oppressed and targets of racist terror are at its heart.
Anti-fascists should avoid a false polarisation of bans versus mobilisations to democratically close down the far right’s space. Cable Street was an example where agitation with the tactic of calling for a ban boosted the tactic of mass mobilisation – all according to a thought out strategy to throw back the far right and racism.
Kevin Ovenden is a national officer of the Unite Against Fascism campaign