Our rights threatened too
Although Britain’s far-right yellow vests are an obnoxious assortment of racists, xenophobes and odd-balls, we must defend their right to protest, says Eddie Ford
Over recent weeks the media has been paying special attention to the yellow vests protests in Britain - beginning with the few dozen who blocked Westminster bridge in December. The name is derived, of course, from the gilets jaunes movement in France, which was originally predominantly petty bourgeois in nature, but started to attract elements of the working class outraged by Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies and the French establishment in general.
In Britain the yellow vest has become a symbol, fought over by the pro-Brexit far-right and the pro-Brexit soft left. This was on display at the People’s Assembly demonstration in London on January 12, which was addressed by the likes of John McDonnell and was dominated by chants of ‘Tories out!” and “General election now!”. According to Tom Griffiths, an organiser of the protest, it was “not too late” for the left to be the dominant force in Britain’s yellow vest movement and insisted that the “thousands” who rallied in Trafalgar Square vastly outnumbered the hundred or so who rallied outside St James’s Park tube station under a pro-Brexit banner on the same day.
There were even minor clashes in Trafalgar Square as well known far-right activists attempted to stage a provocation. They claimed that the People’s Assembly demonstration had “hijacked” the true spirit of the gilets jaunes. Along with yellow vests there were anti-Islam and anti-immigration placards and a few union jacks. Naturally enough, this rivalry has found expression on Facebook. One page - ‘liked’ by more than 2,300 - is badged around opposing austerity and slightly oddly describes itself as the “official branch of the yellow vests”; while another, with over 14,000 ‘likes’, is promoting a “great British betrayal rally” about Brexit on March 30 and hosts various anti-migrant videos.
On the same day, about 50 pro-Brexit yellow vest demonstrators gathered in Redcar to demand local Labour MP, Anna Turley, quit over her call for a ‘final say’ referendum vote. Meanwhile, some pro-Brexit activists have used closed social media groups to discuss how to single out ‘remainer’ MPs and “get them out of office”. If you are lucky enough to live in Leeds, you can always attend the yellow vest “static demonstration” on January 19, where you can join “the fight against the establishment, bankers, the elite and globalism” - further demanding that “British folk be put before migrants”, closed borders and so on.1
As readers will know, a character named James Goddard features with increasing frequency in the stories about yellow vest protests. Goddard was detained outside St James’s Park station in an arrest related to “incidents that took place in the Westminster area” on January 7, according to a police spokeswoman - ie, for confronting Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a strong and thoroughly unrepentant pro-European Union ‘remainer’. Goddard’s supporters claimed he had been about to “hand himself in” at a local police station.
On that occasion he was part of a small yellow vest group shouting “Nazi” at Soubry during a live BBC news interview - earlier that day, she had faced sustained barracking by these protestors, as she walked to parliament. They also shouted sexist abuse at Sky anchor, Kay Burley, and yelled at Channel Four’s political editor, Faisal Islam, that he was “not British” and “a rapist”.Back in December, when Soubry tweeted that the protestors had expressed support for Hitler, Goddard replied by saying: “Lying trollop, I personally told you that you’re doing the dirty work of Adolf Hitler, you morally repugnant scumbag.”
For all the professed hatred of Adolf Hitler and his “dirty work”, Goddard has been floating around far-right circles for many years. In June he gave a speech at a pro-Tommy Robinson “day for freedom” rally at Downing Street. He has posted near endless virulently Islamophobic messages and videos on social media, especially the far-right site, Gab - which describes itself as a social network that “champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online”. Typical postings from Goddard, who has called for the mass deportations of “illegals”, include: “… wherever Islam exists, you will find murder and rape”; and “It’s about time the indigenous people of Great Britain were put first”.
Last year he uploaded a video saying he wanted to “ban Islam from the west”, as it is “a threat to every man, woman and child in this country”, adding that “people who believe in child marriage and terrorism should not be in the United Kingdom, or Europe for that matter” - and “as long as that book [the Quran] exists, there will never be peace in the west”. When asked what all this actually meant in practice, Goddard said: “I wouldn’t blow them up. If I ever got into power, I’d give you all £5,000 to £10,000 and ask you to leave” - after all, “this is a Christian country”. If they refused to leave voluntarily, Goddard mused, “then we’d have to think of a legal way that we could do it”.
He and his cohorts constantly refer to Theresa May and other government ministers as “traitors” who deserved to be hanged. Yellow vests are often daubed with various English Defence League slogans and “No surrender”. On January 5 a smoke bomb was set off on Downing Street, as dozens of protestors ran up Whitehall and clashed with police officers, with Goddard live-streaming the event on Facebook - filming himself shouting: “If they want a war we’ll give them a war. Let’s give them a fucking war”. Later, they set fire to an EU flag, as people screamed “Spit on it!”
Unsurprisingly, Goddard is also a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump and Israel/Zionism, messaging on Gab that “America is our oldest ally and strongest friend - so why on god’s green earth did we vote against recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?” Obviously, for Goddard, “the political class in Britain needs removing from power now”, as “they care only for themselves and their moronic, progressive Islamic-appeasing views”. Showing his dedication, in November he gave up his job “to focus on highlighting the hypocrisies of our so-called representatives”. Helpfully, he has listed opposition to “political correctness, cultural Marxism and forced adoptions” as core values of the British yellow vest movement. Strangely enough, he did not mention anti-austerity or workers’ rights.
Don’t insult MPs
Now, it need hardly be said that communists oppose the far-right nationalism and Islamophobia of people like James Goddard - pure poison for the working class movement, which first and foremost needs to be internationalist. Nevertheless, there are some troubling aspects to the way that the far-right have been treated with regards to free speech and democratic rights.
Communists are the strongest and most militant defenders of free speech, even for obnoxious creatures like Goddard or Robinson. By defending their right to free speech we are defending our own right to free speech and protest, as the state is the main enemy - not fringe, far-right or fascistic groups. By definition, the right to free speech has to include the right to shout an insult at an MP. Yet this right appears to be under threat.
As mentioned earlier, Goddard was arrested after an “incident” in the Westminster area (where he called Anna Soubry a “Nazi”). You could argue that this is a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black, but at the end of the day Goddard or anybody else should have the right to hurl insults at a politician - verbal abuse is part and parcel of politics; they always have been and always will be, especially when passions are roused. Similarly, people should have the right to demonstrate and protest outside Westminster or any other governmental building. To erect safe spaces around politicians is to essentially neuter political struggle.
Alarmingly then, Scotland Yard has confirmed that it has opened an “investigation” into whether any offences had been committed by the chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” on Abingdon Green. A day after the so-called incident, police outnumbered protestors outside Westminster, promising to respond to any “future incidents”. Over 100 MPs have written to the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, asking for “extra” protection - after the Commons speaker, John Bercow, urged officers to do more to protect MPs and Soubry criticised the lack of police action over the “abuse”. The MPs’ letter to Dick states that “after months of peaceful and calm protests by groups representing a range of political views on Brexit”, an “ugly element of individuals with strong far-right and extreme-right connections” have “increasingly engaged in intimidatory and potentially criminal acts, targeting members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public”. It claims that “there appears to be an ongoing lack of coordination in the response from the police and appropriate authorities”.
Goddard himself has had his Facebook pages closed down, the company declaring it “will not tolerate hate speech”, which “creates an environment of intimidation and which may provoke real-world violence”. His PayPal account was suspended too, not to mention his Patreon account. The same has happened to other prominent far-right protestors in what can only be described as a major curtailment of democratic rights. Doubtlessly others will be found guilty of “hate speech”.
If this can happen to a raggle-taggle of far-right misfits, then imagine what could happen to militant members of the organised left mounting a genuine challenge to the establishment and capitalist class.