Saturday 13 June was a disastrous day for the far right. The racists’ Westminster demo – ostensibly to “defend” war memorials from Black Lives Matter protestors – made headlines across the press and social media as they hurled racist invective at black families and violently attacked members of the public.
One participant was photographed urinating next to the memorial to the police officer killed in the 2017 Westminster terror attack.
Their actions have sparked widespread revulsion against the far right Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) and other extreme groups – so much so that the DFLA has now announced its withdrawal from the defence of war memorials. What was a defeat has turned into something of a rout.
The dramatic growth and impact of Britain’s enormous Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has shaken up social and political attitudes to racism and is transforming the popular understanding of the country’s history of slavery and colonialism.
But last Saturday, we also saw how the huge mass BLM movement has sparked a desperate, bitter and angry reaction from the far right racist thugs of the DFLA.
The fury and violence on display when the DFLA gathered in Parliament Square, and in other towns and cities that day, is a product of this bitterness – and the desperate realisation that although their mobilisation was the largest for two years, they are being marginalised politically.
The DFLA’s mobilisation, while large in their own terms, was massively outnumbered by the huge BLM demos in central London over the past few weeks and the unprecedented number of antiracist protests in cities and even small towns up and down the country.
Even on the day of the DFLA demonstration, numerous local BLM protests took place around the country, while Stand Up to Racism organised a counter-demonstration in central London and a large group of young mainly black activists physically confronted the far right in Trafalgar Square and other central London locations.
The DFLA’s mobilisation
Estimates of the number that turned out for the DFLA in Westminster ranged from 2,000 to 5,000. Its numbers were boosted by a call from fascist “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), who retains substantial pulling power on the British far right, before he suddenly abandoned his planned appearance.
Also present were ex-forces veterans and small groups of supporters of a variety of other far right and fascist groups, including the rump of the old English Defence League and Britain First.
The DFLA (the winning faction from a split in the original Football Lads Alliance formed in June 2017) is made up of football hooligan firms – and many of these firms gathered separately before joining up in Westminster. Some firms had travelled from as far as Chester, Nottingham and Middlesbrough to join the London demo.
Unusually, the DFLA was able to bring these numbers into central London while also mobilising in a number of towns and cities on the same day, supposedly to “protect” war memorials and other monuments.
There were sizeable mobilisations in Leeds, Bolton, Portsmouth and Newcastle, where racist thugs tried to physically attack a BLM demo – see photos below. Hundreds of far right and Loyalist demonstrators also turned out in Glasgow on Sunday 14 June – and then attacked a demonstration in support of asylum seekers on Wednesday 17 June.
Smaller gatherings also appeared in Brighton – where they were vastly outnumbered by a huge BLM protest of more than 10,000 on the seafront – Nuneaton, Grimsby, Rochdale, Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Gillingham, Leicester, Sunderland, Bristol, Heywood and Torquay.
Return of the racist street fighters
The original FLA pulled several thousands to its first two demos in 2017, capitalising on the terror attacks and a racist, Islamophobic backlash to mobilise and bring together the football hooligan firms. Its model was similar to that of the old EDL, a primarily Islamophobic street movement based on the hooligan firms, which under Tommy Robinson’s leadership later widened its targets to other minority groups and the left.
But in March 2018 the FLA split. Its leader John Meighan kept the FLA name while the rival DFLA formed around Phil Hickin. The two groups staged rival demos in Birmingham – and the DFLA came out stronger.
The split weakened the FLA / DFLA, with West Ham’s hooligan firm – a major component of the original FLA alongside other London firms – effectively withdrawing.
The DFLA has an on-off relationship with Robinson, preferring to keep its own identity. But it turned out to build his huge demo in May 2018, where groups like Generation Identity, a nazi group that wants a whites-only Europe, were also present
A month later the DFLA and Robinson supporters between them were able to pull substantial numbers together at short notice in different parts of the country
But by October 2018 the DFLA was in trouble. As with other far right and fascist groups, the DFLA is very unstable. Tensions over strategy and the fragile coalition between rival football hooligan firms emerged into the open as antifascists succeeded in blocking the DFLA on the streets.
The DFLA appeared to be a busted flush and had not been able to produce a demonstration of anything like its former strength in nearly two years since then.
But rightwing mainstream politicians opened up space and provided legitimisation for the racist and fascist thugs with their response to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
In the US, president Donald Trump has set himself in virulent opposition to BLM, launching regular tirades against the movement and threatening to proscribe Antifa – in reality a loose antifascist movement – as a terrorist organisation.
Here in Britain, prime minister Boris Johnson has also railed against the BLM protestors who pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and the widespread questioning of Britain’s grim history of slavery and colonialism.
His government pledged to bring in fast track court proceedings to allow “violent protestors” to be jailed within 24 hours.
The Tories zeroed in on the graffiti left on Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square after an enormous BLM protest, which pointed out – accurately – that Churchill was a racist.
Ministers are now discussing plans raised by Tory backbenchers to impose 10-year sentences for desecrating war memorials – a measure on which Labour leader Kier Starmer has shamefully signalled his agreement.
Although BLM has issued no threats against war memorials, the issue has been seized on by a spectrum of rightwing and far right opinion as cover for their opposition to the growing antiracist movement.
As the Guardian noted in a piece examining links between the home secretary Priti Patel and the admin of a Facebook page dedicated to “volunteers” protecting war memorial, “explicitly racist language has gone unchecked”.
This wider rightwing campaign has allowed far right and fascist elements like Robinson and the DFLA to couch their opposition to BLM using the pretext of “defending” or “protecting” war memorials.
It was the spark the DFLA needed to regroup.
Nationalism and cheerleading Britain’s military and imperialist exploits are, along with Islamophobia and wider racism, key parts of the ideological glue that holds their supporters together. The war memorials issue provided a convenient peg to hang the DFLA mobilisation on, without stating outright their opposition to BLM.
Build-up to the day of chaos
In the week before Saturday’s debacle in Parliament Square, two smaller hooligan mobilisations set the tone. On 7 June a group gathered at the war memorial in Plymouth, a navy town where young people staged a BLM protest through the town centre. They were hostile to individual BLM protestors who encountered them on Plymouth Hoe.
But on Monday 8 June the hooligan firm that associates itself with Tottenham Hotspur and includes leading DFLA figures, staged a much more threatening 100-strong counter-protest against a BLM demo in the small Hertfordshire town of Hoddesdon.
The town is part of the borough of Broxbourne, once an area targeted by the fascist British National Party and where it was able to make some gains in local elections. But the breadth and impact of the BLM movement meant local young people staged a BLM demo in the town.
The BLM protestors, mainly young women, were heckled and abused by the racist thugs, with shouts of “Go back to Africa”, “All lives matter” and chants of “Get your tits out for the lads” in scenes that shocked observers. Tottenham Hotspur issued a public statement dissociating itself from the racist hooligans.
Ok so for those who say racism doesn’t exist… this was at a recent BLM protest in Hoddesdon,a town in the Broxbourne borough of the English county of Hertfordshire, watch the thread pic.twitter.com/a4shMfiQ7i
— Medina (@Miss_Meddy143) June 8, 2020
It was a foretaste of the ugly mood at the DFLA’s Westminster demo on the following Saturday, and it provoked some dissent in the DFLA’s ranks.
The DFLA, like the EDL before it, has long claimed that it is “not racist”, despite its Islamophobia – and the regular memes targeting figures such as prominent black Labour MP Diane Abbott. Although it is an overwhelmingly white organisation, its constituent hooligan firms have a few black members.
And as the BLM movement itself has swept up millions of white as well as black people who want to see an end to racism, there were contradictory pulls on some DFLA members, who are clearly happy to march against Muslims but, sometimes for personal reasons, don’t want be seen to attack BLM.
Immediately ahead of the demo, the DFLA leadership put out a video, claiming to be supporters of BLM who had “no problem” with “the black lads”. It was an admission that harder racist elements within the DFLA were in conflict with its softer adherents.
But the events in Hoddesdon – and numerous racist posts over the multiplicity of “defend war memorials” social media sites that have sprung up – gave the lie to the claim that the Westminster demo was anything other than deeply hostile to BLM and everything the movement stands for.
And on the day, the bitterness and hatred of the racist DFLA protestors burst into the open. While on previous demos the DFLA leadership has attempted to rein in the behaviour of their followers with a stage, organised speakers and stewarding, this time there was no such organisation.
Instead the thugs chanted Tommy Robinson’s name, fought the police and attempted to attack the small number of BLM activists in Trafalgar Square.
Last Saturday was definitely a major setback for the DFLA. Its formal announcement that it is withdrawing from the war memorials campaign, in order to avoid tarnishing military veterans with their own reputation as far right racist thugs is an admission of defeat.
The DFLA’s turnout on the day, in London and around the country, despite some internal dissent, shows how unstable fascist and racist street movements can go into decline but still pop up again when they sense a pretext.
But there has been a sea change since the huge far right mobilisations of both the FLA / DFLA and the movement around Tommy Robinson between 2017 and 2019. Then the far right, racists and fascists were on the upswing, buoyed by the rise of the far right internationally. Antiracists were faced with building opposition to the largest far right mobilisations Britain had ever seen.
Now, Black Lives Matter has transformed the social and political climate. The uprising across the US has found a loud echo in Britain with a movement that hugely outnumbers even the biggest far right mobilisations of the past few years. Young black people are leading a mass movement that is sending out earthquake ripples through society.
This is a confident mass movement, involving hundreds of thousands of white people as well as black, that is not waging a defensive struggle against an established racist or fascist party – as movements such as the Anti Nazi League did in the past – but is going forward on the offensive, challenging and changing attitudes to racism, slavery, colonialism and history across British society.
Today, books challenging racism top the UK bestseller lists. The statues are coming down and institutions are publicly reviewing their connections with slavery and colonialism.
The racist thugs of the DFLA can be dangerous – physical violence is the hooligan firms’ trademark, and their desperation makes them more vicious, as we have seen.
But their reach is nothing like that of BLM. The boot is on the other foot now. Black Lives Matter has and is profoundly changing the landscape.