Up to 5,000 assorted Islamophobes, racists and fascists marched through central London today, mobilised by a rightwing coalition of football hooligan firms called the Football Lads Alliance.
It is the second time in a fortnight that such a sizeable march of this type has taken place. It follows the “UK Against Hate” demo in Manchester on 11 June, led and promoted by former English Defence League leader and long-time fascist Stephen Yaxley Lennon, AKA “Tommy Robinson”. This one was called “Unite Against Extremism”.
One swallow does not make a summer, but two large scale mobilisations in the space of two weeks clearly shows that the far right are finding new ways to organise. We have not seen anything on this scale for more than five years – since the EDL was broken into tiny splinters after a campaign of counter-protests by antifascists.
The new developments strike worrying parallels with the early days of the EDL.
It’s important to understand how they are regrouping. What we are seeing is a reconfiguration of the same elements that made up the EDL – the football firms providing the feet on the street, the Islamophobic ideologues, and the nazis and fascists seeking to gain influence and build within the new formation.
The FLA, which organised today’s demo, is made up of “football lads” – football hooligan “firms” connected with different clubs. These “lads” are experienced at fighting, and at organising under the radar.
Hardcore groups of football thugs such as the former Casuals United (now calling themselves the “Pie and Mash Squad”), with a nazi following, have been quick to try to move in. At the same time FLA activists are trying to draw in more ordinary football fans, via club messageboards.
The FLA demo – eyewitness report
Events began early, with gatherings of different football firms in pubs in and around central London, including large numbers in Stratford.
The demo assembled at St Paul’s Cathedral and marched to London Bridge, scene of one of the recent terrorist attacks. Unlike the Manchester demo, where the thugs broke through police lines and threatened counter-protestors and others, this was a very disciplined event.
Organisers and marchers have sought to learn lessons from the rapid degeneration of many EDL demos into drunken violence.
Those on the FLA did not wear colours or carry flags – important both to maintain the unity of the many different football firms involved and to keep the fascist element under wraps.
Some fascist organisations, such as the nazi “Pie and mash squad”, formerly Casuals United, had been asked by FLA organisers to publicly state that they were not organising the event – although they made clear they would turn up anyway in plain clothes. This is a similar tactic to the early EDL’s barring of BNP members – it works in exactly the same way now.
Although the FLA organises mainly through a secret Facebook group to keep it under the radar, it was clear – worryingly – that the strategy of promoting the demo on forums used by genuine football fans from various clubs had succeeded in pulling in a number of ordinary football fans.
Before the march, there were speeches, including a token Sikh – remarkably, exactly the same token Sikh, Mohan Singh, who spoke at Lennon’s demo in Manchester a fortnight ago.
The strategy of including token minority group “representatives” is well understood by the more experienced marchers: “That’s good – it’s so we can’t get Nazi-ed off,” as one said.
Another speaker was Toni Bugle, founder of the far right Islamophobic organisation Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia (“Marias”) who has previous links with the EDL.
Watching as the march began, it became clear that it was very big – clearly a boost to the marchers themselves. There were a handful of black people and women, but the turnout was overwhelmingly white men.
Despite the recent racist terror attack at Finsbury Park Mosque, there was no sign that Muslim organisations had been invited – and the amount of general Islamophobic abuse being bandied around would have made this a very dangerous place for Muslims to be.
That was the main note of hostility, at what otherwise felt like an event whose participants were lifted by the realisation of their own numbers.
There were no flags or banners, save a single England flag and the banner at the front of the march, and almost no chanting other than a few rounds of “England, England” and “Rule Britannia”.
On London Bridge itself, the march stopped for a minute’s silence – then the chant “FLA, here to stay” broke out. Some marchers left wreaths in football club colours among the flowers and candles marking the spot where the attacks took place.
This has been a successful day for the FLA and the fascists in its midst – they have held a huge mobilisation that succeeded in looking “respectable” and allows them to attract more people in future.
With the EDL, we saw a regular “hardening up” process as the fascists try to build their influence among the softer demo supporters. That is what they will be trying again.
The Manchester and London demos have involved slightly different but largely overlapping configurations of individuals and organisations, and Stephen Lennon was quick to cheer the FLA event and BF’s Birmingham demo via his very substantial social media following.
The rump of the EDL had called its own demo elsewhere in central London today – a “coincidence” that allowed one-time EDL adherents to make a late switch to the FLA event. The official EDL managed to put only a few dozen on the streets as the main event was obviously elsewhere.
And in Birmingham, fascist group Britain First pulled a few hundred protestors together – a far higher number than the 20 or 30-odd that BF used to attract.
A definite shape for a new racist and fascist street movement has yet to emerge, but all the elements are in place and two very big demos have shown the danger ahead.
It will be important to watch developments closely, to start to expose the fascists at the heart of the newly forming organisations in order to deter softer supporters – and to mobilise against these demos just as antifascists did against the EDL.
We have to try and split the soft core racists from the hardened Nazis, by exposing the leadership’s real agenda. This is not the first time the fascists and far right have tried to organise football firms.
In the 1970s and 1990s the National Front and BNP tried to organise on the terraces. Antifascist groups and supporters’ clubs set up antifascist fans’ groups to drive the fascists off the terraces. Likewise when the EDL tried to do the same, antifascists also organised mass anti-EDL leafletings.
After the Manchester demo, we included in our report an outline of how the EDL was defeated. We make no apologies for including it again below. And it is important to note that far right street movements can grow very fast. Speed is of the essence in the antifascist response.
How the EDL was broken
When the campaign to stop the EDL was launched by Unite Against Fascism and other groups, back in 2009, some organisations argued that it was not a threat and that it should be left alone in the hope that the street movement would wither on the vine.
But the EDL’s strategy echoed that of street fighting fascists through the years, including in the BNP before Nick Griffin steered it towards electoralism. That strategy was then dubbed “march and grow”.
At the beginning campaigners described the EDL as a far right, single issue street movement.
But as the EDL’s protests got bigger as they showed their strength – on occasions they were able to put up to 3,000 people on the streets. Worse was the fact that the protests became more and more violent – and as fascist elements worked to harden up the racist street thugs, their targets widened.
The EDL threatened to break up the anti-capitalist Occupy Camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. EDL members attacked trade union meetings in Liverpool and London and they also attacked anti-racist meetings in Brighton, Barking and Newcastle. It was during this period campaigners recognized that we were no longer dealing with just an anti Islam movement, but one which had now morphed into a fascist type organisation.
The campaign against the EDL involved two main elements. First, a campaign to expose its fascist connections and challenge its Islamophobia and racism.
Second, whenever and wherever the EDL attempted to march, antifascists staged counter-demonstrations to oppose it.
To build the counter-protests, antifascists built a broad coalition to oppose them, including local antifascist and antiracist groups, trade unions, Muslim organisations and other minority ethnic and LGBT+ community groups.
The big anti-EDL protest in Bolton in March 2010 was a major turning point. It was one of the first times that antifascists significantly outnumbered the EDL. And importantly, despite police arresting large numbers of antifascists, the court cases against them collapsed – preventing the police from treating antifascists and fascists as “two sides of the same coin” on future demos.
It was this unity – and the huge numbers of local people who joined the counter-protests – that eventually broke the back of the EDL after its miserable failure of its repeated attempts to march through east London’s Tower Hamlets and its crushing defeat when thousands of antiracists blocked the fascists’ route in nearby Walthamstow in 2012.
A key feature of all racist and fascist street movements is that if left unchecked they can grow very fast and create a climate of fear and wider racism in society.
But where they are opposed, and their marches outnumbered or blocked, their members quickly become demoralised and turn inwards on themselves. This is what we witnessed with the EDL, which broke up into tiny splinter groups.
Now as the racists and fascists reorganise, we must recognise the danger – and use the experience of the past to help us drive them back again.