This is the story that the news should be telling you, but probably isn't. I was there, so I will tell you (photos and footage will be posted shortly). I have rarely been so heartened in my political life. The English Defence League, whose marches have been wreaking chaos in Luton and Birmingham, attempted to target a mosque in Harrow today. Their official aim was to demonstrate outside the mosque in opposition to 'Islamic extremism'. That this mosque has no connection with Islamic extremism tells you that any mosque would have sufficed for their purposes. As their organisers have explained, they believe that Islam itself is inherently extreme. I believe that only a few dozen of their activists actually made it to Harrow, but I can't say for certain, because I never laid eyes on a single one. Where these fascist provocateurs intended to 'protest' were thousands of antifascists attending the UAF's counter-demonstration. It was a very large, tremendously militant, multiracial gathering. But the leadership came from local Muslim kids. By contrast, the only signs of the organised left and labour movement that I saw were 'Unite' flags and Socialist Worker - which is a pity because this should have been a priority for the left, for reasons I will come to. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that the government felt obliged to send the Minister for London, Tony McNulty along, to join the protest. He looked very uncomfortable, but the fact that he was there means that New Labour feels under pressure on this issue.
The EDL might have had reason to feel confident, despite the thrashing they received in Birmingham. They had the permission of the council to demonstrate, and the Metropolitan Police were determined - so we were told - to ensure that the protest went ahead. They had riot police ready to start smashing heads if they needed to, and the usual crowd control barriers erected. Yet, I swear, there was no way the police had any real control over this situation. I believe that if they had tried to march these few tens of fascists down that road and outside that mosque, the EDL members would have been torn to shreds. I am not talking metaphorically. Every time there was even a rumour that these scumbags were spotted heading toward the mosque, thousands of these kids bolted toward where the action was presumed to be. They moved like fucking Olympic athletes, vaulting over the barriers and fences, circumventing and breaking through lines of riot police with aplomb. I stress that these weren't big men, like the chunky thugs that the EDL brings along, or the big lads that riot squad retains (probably quite a few fascists among them as well, by the way). They were young men, in some cases not yet men, but they ran with courage and confidence toward a ruckus, risking a beating not only from the fascists but also from the police, because of their numbers and because of their absolute hatred of the fascists. And based on what I saw, I believe they would have prevailed easily, without question. They would have taken on those thugs and turned them into sausage meat. As someone said to me today (quoting the late David Widgery, I believe), if socialists like to think of themselves as the vanguard, this was the avant-garde.
Because of those kids, the EDL could not get anywhere near the place. Perhaps one or two observers managed to wander through the protest looking for faces to remember, but that was it. They otherwise stayed pent up in some pub, getting drunk and thinking about who was going to get their face smashed in on the way home. The EDL went home, frustrated, because the police could not guarantee their safety. They could not take control of the streets outside the mosque. Even to just open the road to move a few out of service buses, they had to persuade mosque leaders to plead with the crowd to vacate the road for a few moments. What did this show? It showed that fascists cannot go looking for trouble in Muslim communities, and if they do try it they risk getting a hiding. It showed that they can't attract enough of a periphery to back them up in their efforts.
This is crucial: what did the EDL want, and why would they come to an area with a big Muslim population and try to target a mosque? I think it's this. For years, the fascists haven't been able to engage in any meaningful street politics. In the 1970s, their Honour Guard terrorised black people, the left, trade unionists and Jewish people. If you were at a socialist meeting or even a trade union branch meeting, you might exit to find a few of those 'guardsmen' waiting for you with baseball bats. They had cadres of violent men who were able to control the streets, to an extent. They have been itching to get back into doing that. They have wanted to turn the BNP's electoral gains into street gains. They have wanted to use Islamophobia as a lever to achieve that. If the official aim was to protest "Islamic extremism", the unofficial aim was to incite a race riot. They hoped to attract young white racist street-fighters to come and fight on their side, beat up some Muslims and create headlines about 'racial tensions'. Some while back, the BNP's legal adviser made a speech explaining that as the BNP were unable to do street politics for a while, this role would have to be fulfilled by their some time rivals, the National Front. He said they could be 'very useful' in this respect. I think the division of labour thus becomes: NF activists and the usual array of thugs from C-18 and various football gangs try to instigate polarisation along racist lines in local communities; if they succeed, the BNP then go on television and radio, at the invitation of producers who evidently think they're the 'experts' on this kind of issue, and say that Muslims are causing racial tensions, and it's time to end the madness of multiculturalism and build 'peace walls' separating the 'comunities'. This is not really an optional extra for them. The BNP will not be able to grow unless large numbers of white people feel so threatened, so deranged with fear and loathing, that they don't just want to vote for the fascists but join them and become part of their activists base. Unless there is 'evidence' on the streets of racial polarisation, and of some putative threat to 'indigenous' people, they may hit a glass ceiling. So, they need violence and chaos to build.
This is why confronting the EDL directly is a priority for antifascists and the left. Moreover, if you're on the left and you don't want to talk to the people who were on that counter-demonstration, you might as well give up. The next time the fascists try to target a local community, the Left should be there in numbers, and visibly. They should be at the forefront of these struggles, repeatedly beating back the EDL until they get the message that is just not possible for fascists to take over the streets they way they used to.