By Nick Fredman
The 50,000-strong October 16 rally on the south-east London headquarters of the fascist British National Party (BNP) showed the anger of ordinary people against the rising level of racism in Britain.
When I was in Britain in July and August, there was a growing concern among activists and young people that Britain's social crisis and the rise of the far right in the rest of Europe might breed a revival of racist and fascist politics.
The threat was highlighted by a number of racist murders and beatings, including the murder of a Jamaican woman, Joy Gardner, by deportation cops, outbursts blaming Britain's woes on immigrants and non-white communities by Tory MP Winston Churchill (grandson of the famous right-wing bigot) and a new asylum bill that further restricts immigration.
A sense of urgency was put into the building of the demonstration after the BNP's recent council by-election victory on the Isle of Dogs by a mere seven votes. Previously a Labour right stronghold, the area has gone through a period of deep social decline which allowed the BNP to build up a tiny base in the area.
That's given an impetus to the anti-racist campaigns. The New Musical Express, a major youth weekly, carried 10 pages of anti-racist coverage in the issue leading up to October 16.
Activists see mobilising in south-east London and driving the fascists out of the area as particularly important, because it is the centre of renewed fascist activity. "Racist attacks have increased in the area by 80% — and that's the ones that are reported", Ruth Fensome of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), one of the groups behind the demonstration, told Green Left Weekly.
"It's where the BNP have their HQ. They manage to attract young working-class people who are victims of poverty and the political climate, and so black people are at a greater risk."
In the late 1970s the ANL organised large mobilisations, and with Rock Against Racism, huge festivals that stemmed the advance of the National Front and drove it underground. ANL was re-formed early last year to meet the growing fascist threat.
Unlike some anti-racist groups, the ANL focuses almost exclusively on defeating organised fascism, though Fensome explained, "Obviously on demos and in campaigns the ideas that racism and fascism are products of the institutions of society and the state, and that they won't go away until society is changed, will come up and be discussed".
Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), also building October 16, see anti-fascism as part of a general movement against racism. They have demands around stopping racist immigration laws, ending police harassment (police and prison authorities have killed 80 black people in the last five years), against cuts to education and services and for more jobs and housing.
"We've organised demos under the slogan Jobs Not Racism", Steve Raine of YRE told Green Left Weekly. "We attack the economic policies of the government as encouraging racism. But it's not just the Tories — the Liberal Democrat council in Tower Hamlets blames the Bangledeshi community for their housing shortage, when they've only built one housing block."
Tower Hamlets is the council that covers the Isle of Dogs, and many blame racist Liberal Democrat slogans in previous elections — such as "Island Homes for Island People" — and the refusal of the Labour Party to campaign against racism for the BNP victory.
The October 16 march was billed as a national unity action for what has been a divided movement. The disunity reached farcical levels in May, when the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a young black resident of south-east London, was followed by three separate demonstrations, organised by ANL, YRE and the Labour Party and union leadership-backed Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).
After police provoked violence at the YRE-led action of 8000 people, ARA leaders attacked the "white left" in other groups for stirring up trouble for communities and using the issue for their own ends.
Raine admitted that anti-racists have had a tendency to march loudly into an area, denounce racism and then leave the local community to deal with antagonised local racists. YRE is taking part in activities such as protecting families suffering from harassment and building a base in local areas and housing estates to help communities themselves combat racism.
Activists I spoke to expressed a desire for a more united movement, and cited the successful campaign that forced French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to cancel a conference for far right European MP's in Edinburgh and then Dublin in early July.