This weekend, the EDL are attempting another incursion into Tower Hamlets. Local community groups campaigned for a ban on the racists' march. This was a miscalculation. The government was never going to stop the EDL from coming to Tower Hamlets. At best, they would impose a ban on marches and permit the EDL to hold a static protest. In such circumstances, EDL members don't tend to have difficulty breaking out of any police pen and causing a ruckus. But I doubt anyone anticipated that the Home Secretary would actually opt for something as unacceptably draconian as banning all marches in five London boroughs for thirty days. This is an absolute gift to the government, who know very well that marches are coming up, and they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. As it is, my understanding is that the EDL intend to handle this by gathering at their various 'muster points' and 'walking' (ie marching under police protection) to their 'static' protest point. So, in effect, they get their march through this symbolically important place for them, under police protection.
Let me be clear that from my perspective, this is not a 'free speech' issue. The EDL are about physically terrorising people. Their mode of organisation, involving squads of football casuals, is predicated on the expectation of physical violence, and they habitually do all they can to fulfil this expectation. As Nina Power puts it in this piece:
"It is clear to everyone that the EDL's motivation for marching in Tower Hamlets is far less about exercising its right to freedom of expression than it is to harass and intimidate the local Muslim population. The EDL itself has no qualms about attacking other protesters. The EDL's leader, Tommy Robinson, explicitly threatened student demonstrators last December, and the group violently attacked an anti-racist meeting in Barking in May, hospitalising a female NHS worker."
Nina's examples are hardly exhaustive, and I recognise and defend no right on their part to do this. The problem with the banning strategy is not that it's 'illiberal', but that it is ineffective, counter-productive and demobilising. It never results in a ban on the EDL, but always on all marches. It never stops the EDL from showing up in the communities they intend to target. And it undermines counter-mobilisation by local communities, especially if people get the misleading impression that the EDL have actually been banned (which they haven't). Worse, the government's ban on all marches in five London boroughs, affecting a range of legitimate protests, is not simply a random consequence of the ban call. There is a wider strategic issue on the Left and in the labour movement about how to respond to a whole range of problems, from cuts to racism. The call for a ban segues into the broad strategy of 'winning hearts and minds', which in practise means avoiding confrontation or controversy. This argument is made at length by bat020 here:
Despite all the hype about bans from the home secretary, in both Bradford and Leicester the EDL protests went ahead as so-called “static” demos. All that was banned were proposed marches that the EDL had applied for permission to hold.
In fact, the banning orders made no specific reference to the EDL, instead banning all marches in the city – including any anti-racist ones. So the EDL got to hold their static demos as they had done on every other occasion, including Stoke-on-Trent where they ran riot. In fact, it is common practice for the police to “escort” the EDL to their assembly point – thus creating a de facto march even when the protest is officially a static one.
Moreover, once the EDL has assembled for its rally, police efforts to contain them have been patchy to say the least. On almost every occasion groups of EDL have broken out of their pen and attempted to go on the rampage – in Stoke, Dudley, Bradford and Leicester.
Moreover, when legislation is passed giving the state powers to control protests, it is invariably framed in terms of “public order” rather than being deployed against racist or fascist groups. These supposedly “neutral” formulations are then used to crack down on the left and the right, or on the left rather than the right.
We can see this logic at work in the bans on marches mentioned earlier. We can also see it in historical examples. The 1936 Public Order Act banned political uniforms and required police consent for political marches – measures ostensibly directed against the Blackshirts. In practice these measures were deployed primarily against the left, striking workers and Irish Republicans. We can expect an identical pattern today.
But there is a deeper problem with the strategy of calling for state bans, above and beyond the documented ineffectiveness of such tactics and the risks of strengthening the state’s repressive apparatus.
The problem lies in the very gesture of appealing to the authorities to “do something”, rather than looking to our class’s own power. Capitalist society tries to structure our lives as powerless individuals, and capitalist ideology encourages us to think of ourselves as powerless individuals. Revolutionaries face a constant uphill struggle to counter these processes and instil collective self-confidence into the working class.
This is why the “common sense” position adopted by much of the left – that of supporting both counter demos and state bans – is problematic. In practice, the first of these works to mobilise a mass movement, while the second demobilises it. That is why those who formally adopt the “common sense” position in practice always tip one way or the other.
Searchlight’s latest policy shift moves from implicit to explicit demobilisation. They are now openly trying to dissuade people from attending counter demonstrations and undermine those who attempt to organise such protests. And Searchlight’s allies in Bradford and Leicester have gone further, branding anti-fascist counter demonstrators as an equivalent threat to the EDL.
The administrator of Hope Not Hate’s Facebook page for Bradford sent out a message on the eve of the demo declaring that “the UAF are just as dangerous” as the EDL. In Leicester, a councillor working with Hope Not Hate told the local paper: “People will have heard about the EDL’s plans to protest in Leicester on Saturday, and about the counter-protest planned by UAF. There is nothing we can do to prevent these demonstrations, but what we can do is to make it clear that any organisation that promotes hatred and fear is not welcome here.”
In fact Searchlight has for some time now been arguing against any anti-fascist tactic that involves mobilising large numbers of people. It opposes anti-racist music carnivals, claiming that such activity “drains and diverts activism away from local campaigning”. It opposes “rallies, marches and pickets” against the fascists on similar grounds – they are, allegedly, “a distraction from the real work required in the communities”. The nature of this “real work” is never very clear. In Bradford it involved getting people to sign a statement against the EDL that did not even mention the word “racism”.
But as the October 2010 issue of Searchlight makes clear, this strategy of demobilisation is not intended to be restricted to anti-fascism. Nick Lowles and Paul Meszaros write: “This debate over strategy reflects a wider debate in the trade union movement over direction and tactics. At the TUC conference there were clear lines of disagreement between those who preferred a strike-based approach to opposing the cuts and those who believed the focus needed to be on winning the hearts and minds of union members and then taking the campaign out into the community.” The tactics being used by Searchlight to demobilise anti-fascist activism are a test case. The intention is to use the same tactics to choke off militant action against cuts and job losses. “Winning hearts and minds” in a nebulous “community” becomes the excuse for scuppering strike action by actual workers.
So, we now have a situation where a very intense 'community' campaign did in fact win many 'hearts and minds'. A petition calling for a ban was signed by tens of thousands of people. The local political establishment largely supported the campaign, community groups ditto. The government responded as they always do, by implementing a ban that seems to be far more aimed at the anti-fascists and anti-racists than the far right. And now there are people claiming success, and many people believe that the EDL has been banned from 'protesting' in Tower Hamlets, which it hasn't. The strategy has been a complete disaster. In fact, the reality is that it has been a gift to the EDL, because the only circumstances under which they were going to be able to march through Tower Hamlets was if the government imposed a 'ban'. That is why it is so important that the UAF counter-demonstration is going ahead.