By Sabby Dhalu, Unite Against Fascism Joint Secretary and One Society Many Cultures Secretary
The demonstration against the English Defence League (EDL) on Saturday 3rd September 2011 in Tower Hamlets was a huge victory for the anti-fascist movement and all those in the community who had worked together for months to stop the EDL coming to the Borough and to organise an anti-fascist, anti-racist event in response to their attempts to divide and intimidate the local community.
The attempt by the EDL to hold a demonstration through the heart of one of the most multicultural areas in the country, aimed at the East London Mosque, one of the key centres of London’s Muslim communities, was always an evident racist and Islamophobic provocation. In the event the EDL could not hold any kind of event in Tower Hamlets, while a large, peaceful anti-fascist event went ahead on Whitechapel Rd.
The key to this success was the unity of a number of political and other forces locally and nationally: the national anti-fascist movement in Unite Against Fascism; the local response brought together in United East End that included faith representatives, trade unions, local community activists of all backgrounds, students, LBGT groups and many others; the East London Mosque, the London Muslim Centre and key local Muslim organisations like the Islamic Forum Europe; and the leadership offered by Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman and his office.
This unity was based on agreement around two key elements of the necessary response: firstly, a political campaign that the EDL should not be allowed to march through a multicultural, predominantly Muslim, community with the aim of threatening and intimidating; and secondly, that the EDL must be countered by the broadest possible mobilisation of the local community and all anti-fascists to assert the multicultural unity of Tower Hamlets against the politics of hatred and division.
The unity in the community that the EDL should not be allowed into Tower Hamlets eventually forced Theresa May’s hand. She responded to this pressure by placing a month-long blanket ban on all demonstrations in 5 London boroughs. The possible implications of this for legitimate public protest on a range of unrelated issues led some to argue that to call for a ban had been wrong.
The case in principle for a ban is straightforward. The right to freedom of expression and assembly does not extend to the right to intimidate, threaten, whip up hatred against individuals or communities, carry out violent assaults and drive other people off the streets. This is a classic example of the case made by JS Mill in his seminal work, On Liberty, which laid down the principles of the limits of action of the state in a liberal society – that the state had no right to place any limit on the actions of human beings, including specifically the right to freedom of speech or protest, except insofar as these actions would lead to harming others.
It is on the basis of this liberal understanding of the limits to ‘free speech’ that the anti-fascist movement has traditionally called on the media to refuse to give a platform to fascist views and organisations, called on student unions to adopt a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists, supported legislation outlawing incitement to racial violence, and called on the courts to prosecute those who do so.
Progressive movements have called on governments and the state to introduce laws outlawing discrimination against women, black people, ethnic minorities, gypsies, LGBT people, and many others. In the same way, there should be constraints on the right of the EDL to march into communities with the aim of inciting hatred and violence. This is not to call for all EDL activity to be banned or the organisation proscribed – but to confine its activities to areas where it does not present a real and present threat of violence to others.
This is the same argument whereby the Orange marches in the North of Ireland have not been banned, but inhibited in their right to march provocatively through nationalist communities.
At the same time, this does not mean that a ban on a march or protest is sufficient to stop the fascists or the EDL.
Firstly, the state will only be persuaded to act at all if the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement is sufficiently strong, mobilised and united. This is why those sections of the anti-fascist movement that have implied that calling for a ban is an alternative to organising mass protests against the EDL are wrong. Only the knowledge that the anti-fascist movement and local community will be massively present on the streets has persuaded the police to determinedly keep the EDL away from their target communities, let alone argue for a ban on their marches. Experience shows that where there has been no anti-fascist response – for example where the local community has been persuaded by the police in particular that it should oppose such a presence and call on businesses to shut and people to stay at home – then the policing of the EDL has remained light and they have been free to riot and rampage through towns.
Secondly, as we saw with the ban on the EDL on 3rd September, the ‘ban’ itself was limited and did not stop a so-called ‘static protest’. That this ‘static protest’ by the EDL would not be permitted within Tower Hamlets itself was far from certain right up until the day. The work carried out by Mayor Lutfur Rahman in pressuring the police to not allow the EDL in Tower Hamlets and the fact that the anti-fascist movement and the local community were present in large numbers, ensured that the EDL was kept outside the Borough.
And finally, as we saw in the blanket ban on all marches imposed in this case by the Home Secretary, the Tory government wants to pretend there is an equivalence between the EDL thugs and anti-fascist movement, and that the marches have to be banned to prevent ‘disorder’ rather than to stop the intimidation of Muslim communities. Maintaining the anti-fascist mobilisation rejects this reactionary logic of the Tories.
Saturday’s event organised by United East End and Unite Against Fascism (UEE/UAF) was a brilliant, peaceful display of unity with trade unions, faith communities, LGBT and other communities showing solidarity with Muslim communities against Islamophobia, racism and fascism.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman not only opened the event, but stayed with the community right to the end.
The lessons of 3rd September are clear. The EDL can be defeated through unity of the community under attack in insisting that they should not be allowed to enter an area to threaten its residents with violence. This can force the government and the state to take action to prevent the EDL’s provocations, but their action cannot be relied on and has to be accompanied by the broadest possible, peaceful, mobilisation of the community and wider anti-fascist movement on the streets to counter them.
Celebrate diversity, defend multiculturalism, oppose racism, fascism and Islamophobia
Called by UAF and One Society Many Cultures, sponsored by SERTUC
Saturday 15 October, TUC Congress House, Great Russell Street, London