Anti-fascists kick off

Mark Metcalf, acting secretary of Sunderland Fans Against Racism, gives a sober assessment of the August 18 anti-fascist mobilisation

Saturday August 18 2001 should have been a great day for football. It marked the start of the premiership with ?the lads? (ie, Sunderland football team) at home to Ipswich. Instead the day was ruined by the National Front and, in particular, by their decision to try and mobilise and organise local racists and football fans against refugees, asylum-seekers and - of course - anti-fascists.

In this article I take a look at the response of those opposed to the National Front. It is a personal view, but many of the opinions expressed do reflect the views of a large number of people that I personally spoke to on Saturday evening and throughout Sunday August 19.

Sunderland Fans against Racism first got to hear that the National Front were intending to march in Sunderland, via very good contacts inside a community organisation, on August 8. It was another couple of days before this became public knowledge, leaping onto the front page of the Sunderland Echo on August 11 with its ?Parade storm? headline. Leaders of black community organisations wanted the march stopped and were requesting that it be banned. The police, from the start, were supportive of this request.

SFAR were asked to write a letter to the home secretary requesting a ban - we refused. It would be nice to say that we did so because we were so confident that local forces would be able to crush the NF without the kindly help of the state. Sadly, we were not.

SFAR, along with the Unity Organisation, agreed to try and coordinate a meeting of groups and individuals opposed to the NF. This we did very successfully and almost 30 people attended on the Tuesday, including representatives from the largest black organisation in the city - the Bangladeshi Community Centre. Before this meeting took place the Anti-Nazi League, which does not have a functioning branch in Sunderland, had called a ?counter-demo?. Indeed, it had already printed and distributed leaflets headed, ?Stop the Nazi NF march?. E-mails from the group reported they were going ahead after speaking to the Labour leader of the council, Colin Anderson, who said that, whilst the NF march would be banned, fascists would still come to Sunderland and therefore having a counter-demo was a good thing (incidentally, he did not turn up on August 18). The ANL did not consult with any black community group or refugee association before taking its decision.

The ANL were invited to the Tuesday meeting and given time to put their case for a mobilisation at the train station, where the NF march was due to start. By Tuesday the local press was full of lurid stories - with the Sunderland Echo of that night going particularly overboard with its ?Flashpoint Saturday? headline and taking as fact the NF?s exaggerated claim to be bringing some 200 to 300 members. Hence, the group was able to dominate the local papers, TV and radio stations with hardly any opposition until August 15-16. The NF had thus achieved one of its main aims in picking Sunderland. Publicity.

1-0 to the NF.

Discussions at the meeting concerning whether to support the ANL activity or not were conducted as democratically as possible, with considerable weight given to the representatives from the Bengali Centre and the Unity Organisation, as they have by far the largest black membership of any of the groups in Sunderland.

The major fear was not the NF, but whether taking a large number of black people (mainly of Asian origin) could or would lead to fighting with football fans. It is worth pointing out that as the numbers we were talking about involved 200-plus black people, this would have been the largest political  mobilisation of black people ever to have taken place in the city centre. Everyone was aware of recent events in Bradford and Oldham and wanted to avoid fighting between blacks and whites.

It was also agreed that areas where black people lived should be defended and people were appointed to coordinate this. At the meeting each group represented agreed to give a list of stewards to the elected chief steward. Everyone who attended agreed that the meeting had been a positive one and a decision was taken to meet again in a few weeks time to set up a more permanent organisation. In fact, the provisional name of Tyne and Wear Against Racism was used in two subsequent press releases, both of which got very positive publicity in the local papers and radio stations. A spokesperson was featured on Tyne Tees Television on August 18, stressing that the NF were anti-working class - it was also pointed out that the reason why some of TWAR?s members and supporters would not be in attendance at the actual rally/counter-demo was because they were involved in defending their own areas from the NF and its hangers-on.

In the next couple of days the police visited and met with the Unity Organisation and the Bengali Centre and promised that they would deal with the NF - reassuring them that the NF would not cause any problems for their communities. As it so turned out, these ?promises? were kept. After this talk with the police, Unity Organisation stated that it would be using its resources and people in a defensive fashion - employing them in areas which could be considered likely targets by fascists and local racists.

The Bengali Centre asked for advice from SFAR, seemingly suggesting that if we said they should come, then they would. SFAR felt it would be better if they employed the same tactics as the Unity Organisation and said so. We also made contact via a third party with the ANL and told them to speak direct to the Bengali Community Centre. The ANL did not contact them.

On the Wednesday the NF march was banned - but the ANL said they were coming anyway. Colin Anderson, council leader, was right! The police then started to threaten the counter-demo and even at one point said they would arrest the local MP, ex-miner Billy Hetherington, if he turned up and spoke.

By the Friday we ourselves knew what was happening. Local contacts who knew NF sympathisers had revealed that some were coming from Birmingham. It was supposed to be a couple of cars - in fact, it was a small coach of 20. The coach was stopped on a slip road into Sunderland by the police and turned back. If the NFers had any sense, they would have gone to Middlesbrough and caught the train up to Sunderland from there.

As the demo approached , it became obvious that stewards were pretty thin on the ground. We had lost a good contingent with the withdrawal of the Unity Organisation. SFAR withdrew from stewarding but agreed to attend. Meanwhile we utilised some of our contacts with known hooligans to ask whether the different gangs were planning anything on Saturday. We found out that they were not.

I would estimate that at the counter-demo there were - at most - 150 people, though The Northern Echo of August  20 said it attracted ?more than 200?. SFAR were the only ones to provide anything substantial. We had 11 people - just enough for a football team, but with no reserves! We also had a number of people in the main body of the rally, one of whom spoke. There was nothing approximating stewarding, and the activity lacked focus. Speakers could not be heard and there was a sizeable police presence. No one from the ANL appeared to be responsible for ensuring that - in the event of a fascist or racist attack - we would be able to defend ourselves.

Gangs of lads going to the match, not drunk by any means but ?with a drink on them?, made a number of derogatory comments. There were some verbal clashes between us - in our Sunderland tops - and them. In general it was all pretty good-natured, but if the police had not been present there would have been some sort of fighting. The crowd which had assembled to protest against the NF would have been smashed. Afterwards everyone in our group, as well as a good number of others I spoke to, agreed that it was fortunate after all that large numbers of black people had not come in to the city centre - the ?counter-demo? would have come under quite serious attack: of that I am sure. Seeing how one of the major aims of the NF must have undoubtedly  been to see fights between football fans (almost exclusively white) and black people, the fact that this never happened was a good thing.

So a 1-1 draw at this stage.

At the end of the rally the ANL suddenly marched off to the police station - where permission had been given for the NF to hold a protest rally at the denial of their right to promote racial hatred and violence. By doing this, the ANL took with them the majority of those still in attendance (which was under 100). A few people asked us if we were going and some went to the police station after hearing that we were planning to. In fact, not all of us went. We stood out like sore thumbs, especially as the only black face in the crowd was with us. A number of known hooligans saw us and nodded - lucky for us they were not ?hard?! The atmosphere was hostile in the approach to the spot where the NF was due to assemble - though of course they were not there by then as they had already been stopped by the police and sent home. We took a tactical decision and left - it was after all less than an hour to the first match of the season.

Reports from those who made it to the police station detailed how they got increasingly anxious as crowds began to gather. In a local pub about 30 blokes made clear whose side they were on - and it was not the anti-fascists (or the ?anti-Nazis?, as the ANL call themselves). We had the situation where there were fascists standing in the middle of the anti-fascists and actually nothing was done to remove them. Then again, nothing could be done - they simply outnumbered us. As the number of fascist sympathisers grew, the number of anti-fascists declined in proportion until people started asking the ANL when they would be leaving too.

Result? Just before 3.30pm, an ANL speaker called the day ?a great success? and everyone left. An ANL representative confirmed to me on the telephone that they thought it had gone ?pretty well?. All of those I have spoken to subsequently could not agree with this judgement.

If we assume that one of the purposes of the NF was to prove that they were harder than the anti-fascist opposition, then they won. Even though the NF did not turn up on the day, the mere fact that they said they were coming was enough to bring out its local sympathisers, who could easily have routed the anti-fascists. There was no hope in hell that we could have put into practice the ?no platform for fascists? line.

2-1 to the NF, it seems.

There were no reports of fascist activity in the city afterwards and no problems were reported by those who did not go to the counter-demo/rally, but who hung around all day prepared to respond to any provocations or attacks. This was good. The fact that people were willing to do this was a plus point for the day and is - hopefully - something that can be built on.

All in all, it was not the best of days. First the positive points. As we were able to get so many people and groups together in the first place, it will surely be easier to coordinate future work. Also, the fact that the various groups and individuals engaged with each other democratically can only be a good thing. The work involved in ?defending? possible fascist or racist targets was beneficial - and the decision not to mobilise large numbers of black people in the city centre during match day was clearly the correct decision to take at the time, and it is to the ANL?s credit they did manage to mobilise a few people to come to the rally.

The negative points, however, heavily outweigh the positive ones. They are that the NF were able to get their message over unchallenged in the media for a good three to four days before anti-fascists eventually got their act together and came out with a working class response. More alarmingly, it demonstrated that the NF - even though it does not have a functioning group or any base in the city - were able to mobilise a relatively substantial number of sympathisers, who clearly would have participated in any of the NF?s planned activities had they had the chance to do so.

Other negative points are that the ANL counter-demo/rally was unprotected from possible attack, and the decision to go essentially unprotected to the spot where the NF were due to protest. This would have placed many anti-racist and anti-fascist protestors in serious danger of being hurt. Finally, there was not a chance that if the NF had turned up they could have been driven off the streets by the forces opposing them.

What about the ANL then? A SFAR member summed them up on Saturday night when he described them as adventurists who place people in danger and hence lead to the impression - at least in the eyes of the working class - that anti-fascists are weak and pathetic. We agreed that it might be more wise to ?no-platform? the ANL before we can even start to ?no-platform? the fascists! Before anyone thinks I am joking, I am not.

Sunderland Fans Against Racism welcomes the opportunity to work with anti-fascist groups in rebuilding the working class tradition of militant anti-fascism. The north-east branch of SFAR was set up five months ago, has regular meetings of 20 or more, and will shortly be opening an office - in addition, it is developing a stewards group for the defence of all meetings and events, and will be leafleting and organising activities amongst football supporters this season.