LAST week the far-right group Scottish Defence League (SDL), a sister organisation of their more infamous English counterparts, held a demonstration in central Edinburgh. The SDL gathered in a crowd of about 200, but were vastly outnumbered by both police and protestors at a counter-demo organised by their arch rivals Unite Against Fascism (UAF). UAF protest every time far right groups take to the streets, and have lobbied the government to ban any and all protests by the EDL, which often end in violence. In fact at the Edinburgh march the SDL was denied permission to march by the city council. UAF did, however, cry foul when a blanket ban on marches across London was enacted by Theresa May in August.
I have been on EDL counter-demos before and they’re incredibly ugly. The far right protestors, even while under anti-fascist flags, are riled into Nazi salutes, vicious racial slurs and often brute violence. Though based in a blind, thuggish strain of nationalism, the EDL maintains an international solidarity of hate, championing Dutch xenophobe Geert Wilders and flying a patchwork of flags of different nations including Israel and the USA. There’s no denying that in their protests the various ‘defence leagues’ intend only to engender hate and fear, directed particularly at Muslims and Muslim institutions. Their public statements on religion and race are as confused and inarticulate as those of their political equivalent, the BNP. The protests themselves are chaotic, teetering between vaguely apocalyptic fear mongering and drunken punch-ups.
But what of the UAF? Shortly after the protests I came across this image:
Though it’s the first time I’ve seen this on a banner the slogan can be heard at every UAF demo, along with “Nazi scum, off our streets” and “Master Race? You’re having a laugh.” The truth is that far right groups can’t be held entirely responsible for the ugliness of these kinds of demonstrations. Both groups inevitably get spitting mad, invoke broad attacks of class and race and turn to violence. This generally leads to the police beating everyone back, further convincing protestors on both sides that their civil rights are being denied by the state.
The image is so disturbing because it begs the question: what is the UAF actually for? The answer appears to be little else than to rise to the challenge of a street fight. Rather than avoiding a violent confrontation or protecting communities, counter-demos mainly consist of provocation – whether it’s shouting the problematic and provocative insult “scum,” or going equipped to target specific fascist individuals. If they are really concerned with combating fascism, is it really helping to function basically as a street team? Given that limited parameter of operation, the logic of eradication on display in this banner inevitably follows.
After a recent demo in Tower Hamlets, east London, a coach full of EDL supporters was pelted with missiles after it broke down. A video was released of a woman, belonging to the EDL, being isolated and beaten up. Another video had two UAF protestors giggling at the event, gleefully proclaiming: “Never hit a woman, but do kick a dog.”
There is a widely held conviction amongst many on the left that when it comes to fascism anything goes. Individuals who are otherwise defenders of human rights and civil liberties will not hesitate to wish death upon scores of people for their far right views. British fascism is a threat, and one to be tackled, but it does not make sense to try to shout down or exterminate an ideology whose most basic foundation is fear. The left correctly exerts a lot of energy combating crude caricatures and harsh punishments directed at individuals, as was seen after the recent riots. Why can’t this broader look be applied here? How can the further alienation of a minority of extremists be considered a useful tactic? If any of us had two thousand people telling us to kill ourselves, we might get a little scared too. The UAF can’t hope to win while the fight against fascism is contained to the streets.
This is, of course, symptomatic of a much larger problem. In this country, and others, the most pertinent issues are framed wherever possible as a conflict between two parties at loggerheads. Whether it’s on the street, in Westminster or in the media, a problem is reduced to a spectacle. This ugly trend reinforces the myth that an argument is something to be won rather than resolved.
We live in a time of ten-minute TV debates and crucial soundbites. With no time accorded to really engage in discussion, any understanding granted to an opponent is seen as weakness or confusion. Identity politics consistently polarize debate and, ironically, create further extremism. Compassion is deeply unfashionable at the moment, in a country that turns more cynical every day. It is, however, the most vital thing we have to really combat fascism in all its forms, when most people seem to think that BBC’s Question Time is the best kind of debate we can have. If fascism is to be dealt with, it will be through education and engagement. I can only hope that anti-fascists choose to drop their romanticism and reject these messages of violence and fear.
This piece was first published at Damfino.