Militant anti-fascism and the Occupy movement
On the very first night that Occupy Liverpool set up camp, at the base of Wellington’s Column, members of the English Defence League showed up. This wasn’t unexpected in the context of previous and continued hostility by the EDL towards the Occupy movement, but it did raise some concerns. In particular, with the 24/7 nature of the camp meaning that security would have to be almost entirely left in the hands of the permanent residents, the attitude of the occupiers towards violence and physical confrontation would have to be addressed.
I was at the camp for the fascists’ first appearance, and my experience then was indicative of these concerns;
Soon after dark, I was alerted to the fact that there were five lads standing outside the camp shouting up at a woman standing by the tent facing them. Nobody else appeared to have noticed, as there was a group of tourists asking questions of the occupiers whilst others were sorting out provisions or chatting amongst themselves. However, from the lads still kept their distance and though at first I couldn’t make out everything they said, their tone was clearly mocking or goading.
I exited the area in which the camp sat, enclosed by pillars connected by chains, and walked around to where the lads were stood. As I came along and leant against one of the pillars, one of them looked up at me and said “alright Phil.” This pretty much confirmed who they were, alongside the pointed question “what do you and Liverpool Antifascists hope to gain by occupying a war memorial?” Only fascists take such obvious pleasure at knowing on sight who a “red” is, and whilst we had shown up yesterday because of the threat of fascists, LiverAF had never previously made any mention of Occupy Liverpool and the local EDL were the only ones to make any connection between the two things.
There were some words exchanged between us, with them – all in their early twenties bar one who looked about twelve – claiming that we were disrespecting a war memorial before denying being any part of the EDL or fascist groups. However, this was quickly belied by their parting shot that they would return later with petrol bombs to “warm our feet up.” Pointing out that throwing petrol bombs at Wellington’s Column was somewhat more disrespectful then camping by it, I got the reply “the petrol bomb’s for you, you cunt.”
During the exchange, a couple of people had come up and asked me not to antagonise them. I was also told that “if you ignore them and don’t rise to it, they’ll go away.”
After I made a point of arguing against this notion, and a later intervention by other anti-fascists at the General Assembly, the point appeared to have been made. They set up rotas for security, and though there were a number of people there who were incredibly politically naive – including more than one who had never heard of the EDL before – there were also a fair few who seemed quite switched on.
However, several days ago, a group of between 9 and 12 EDL turned up at the camp. They had previously tried to nick the camp’s banner, but this time one of the campers approached them and tried to engage a discussion. For his troubles, he was punched in the face and earned a black eye and split lip. I’ve since heard that the attacker was caught on both CCTV and hand-held camera as well as spotted by a cop, who subsequently nicked him. However, following the incident another fascist turned up later on, videoing people - and people still tried to engage with him, and answered his questions! Clearly, the threat they pose still hasn’t sunk in.
The argument over how to deal with fascists, and particular the contrasting liberal and militant approaches, is an old one. If you look around the internet, you can find a number of pieces covering it – including my own on violence and censorship. However, the issue here is not about selling the Anti Fascist Action approach as superior to the Unite Against Fascism / Hope Not Hate one (though I will contend that it is). It is about a group of people who are in the sights of the far right, including some more vulnerable or less experienced than others, believing that “if you ignore them and don’t rise to it, they’ll go away.” That is a dangerous notion which needs to be debunked.
As such, I would make several points very strongly:
1. Fascism is a violent ideology. We are not talking about people who have come to the camp purely to engage, who have since been provoked into a scrap. The English Defence League was born of football hooligan gangs. It has been violent from the offset, even to the point of fighting amongst themselves when there are no reds to scrap with. The Liverpool Division, as if that wasn’t enough, have gone “rogue,” because the national EDL wasn’t racist and violent enough for them. Opposing those they see as communists is now their driving motive, and they see Occupy as the epitome of everything they stand against.
That opposition doesn’t take the form of leaflets and well-written political rebuttals. It is physical, in the form of confrontation, intimidation and – where they can get away with it – assault. The fascists want to hurt you.
2. You cannot reason with them. It may be the case, in certain situations, where engaging fascists in argument can de-escalate a situation, or at least buy time until there are more people who can chase them off. However, those who have mobilised on the streets to oppose you are not wavering in their commitment to fascism. Liverpool Antifascists does a lot of work leafleting working class estates during elections because there are people swayed by far-right arguments on the basis that there appears to be no alternative, and in doing so we have seen the BNP’s support fall. But this is not the same situation and the people threatening to petrol bomb you are not floating voters.
Even if engagement and de-escalation are the best tactic, don’t let your guard down. As we’ve seen, that will only get you a split lip.
3. You cannot rely on the police to protect you. At the least, this is because they cannot and will not be at the camp 24 hours a day. But through experience most anti-fascists know that it is more than that. We have seen the police protect British National Party marches and stalls, shake hands with fascists and facilitate their events, even turn a blind eye to acts of violence by fascists. Those at Occupy will also have seen police violently evict protesters, kettle peaceful marches and use unprovoked force against the left.
The police are not on your side. If you rely on them for protection, you essentially leave yourself unprotected.
4. Conceding ground to the fascists only makes them stronger. The strategy employed by the EDL and its off-shoots is a typically fascist one – to control the streets through force. If we back off for fear of confronting them, we effectively concede to this strategy and allow them to grow in numbers as they grow in confidence. Whereas, if they are not allowed to go unchallenged on the streets, those less up for physical confrontation will fall away from them.
Adolf Hitler put it most bluntly whilst in power;
Only one thing could have stopped our movement. If our adversaries had understood its principle, and from the first day had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
For those in Occupy, the key point here is that if you do not want the EDL to keep resurfacing and attacking your camp, you have to be prepared to confront them and chase them away. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical violence – anti-fascists have managed to run the BNP out of Liverpool City Centre without a single punch being thrown – but it does mean that non-violence should not be fetishised. Though useful in some situations, it is dangerous in others and should not be an absolute principle.
Most of all, I would argue that when dealing with fascists the key should be security, not engagement. What to do in these kind of situations should be discussed among everyone as far as possible, so that nobody is in the dark either about the threat posed or how to act when it arises.
When confronted, it is vital that you stand together. The task of confronting the EDL or other hostiles should not be left to a small, specialised group. Not only does this leave that group bearing all of the risk, but it also makes others more vulnerable to attack should the fascists get past them. Confront them as a group, keep the most vulnerable safe, and don’t take your attention from the fascists until you know they are gone.
Anti-fascism is neither a game nor merely an intellectual exercise. The far-right pose a significant physical threat, more so in fact now that their electoral support is deteriorating, and those they have chosen as targets need to be able to defend themselves. You cannot ignore them and hope that they’ll go away, as this only makes you more vulnerable. But you can talk to those experienced with anti-fascism, who will always be willing to offer help and support where we can. If you find that the presence of these goons pisses you off enough, you may even want to join us!