Football fan nationalism and ‘anti-fascist’ theatre

Melvin Dawson witnesses collaboration between the UAF and the police

Fascists tend to be characterised by a love of militarism, artistic displays of historical distortions, control of modern media techniques and, in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, heavy financing by a declining capitalist class. The October 31 English Defence League rally in Leeds revealed very little of these vile attributes - what we had was a sort of dozy, confused, ignorant football mob looking for a fight.

Although the Public Order Act was used to ban city centre marches, both the EDL and United Against Fascism were allowed their separate rallies 250 metres apart - out of each other’s sight and hearing. The EDL event was in City Square, while UAF gathered outside the art gallery on the Headrow. A solid circle of crash barriers and a tight cordon of police in a circular area about 70 metres in diameter penned in the EDL. The city council’s precautionary measures included covering up street furniture and statues, while the Christmas tree put up just a day or so earlier was taken down again. About 200 police surrounded City Square, including 20 mounted officers.

It seems the organisers of both rallies agreed to a kind of voluntary ‘kettling’ - both areas were fenced off, with the police staying outside the barriers and controlling the flow of people wanting to leave. Perhaps in answer to previous criticisms in the mainstream media, portable toilets were thoughtfully provided at both venues. In City Square, the only thing resembling order took the form of a double queue of a hundred or so men waiting to relieve themselves.

The behaviour of the EDL was curious. They just seemed to wander around doing nothing. There were no leaflets or papers on offer to explain what was happening. The meandering mob inside the pen was overwhelmingly male. I counted around 1,200 at one time, although the police report said there were only 200 - but perhaps they made their count after a large group of Leeds United football fans were allowed to leave for the match against Yeovil. A crowd of shoppers, observers and hordes of people with cameras surrounded the pen, like visitors at a zoo, but most people soon got bored with the show.

After all, there was not a great deal to watch or listen to - there were a few failed attempts at speeches over a hand-held tannoy, but they were so indistinct that they were quickly abandoned each time. Audible comments included: “No more mosques in Britain until there is a church in Mecca”, while the allegation that UAF “crave sharia law” was a further example of the slightly deranged Islamophobia on offer. By way of contrast to this anti-Muslim nationalism, an ex-soldier said that one of his inspirations was John Lennon (who, it may be recalled, imagined a world of no countries and no religion).

Some youths had St George cross football flags over their shoulders and many were displaying all sorts of football regalia. But to add to the confusion there were one or two Israeli flags. Large bouncer types patrolled the ‘kettle’ perimeter, talking on their mobiles. They wore the black EDL sports tops which are advertised on the EDL website, and most of them had lettering on the back announcing the wearer’s locality: ie, “EDL Doncaster Division” or “EDL Blackburn Division”. You can also purchase EDL ‘burqas’ via its website, but only two of these were sported and the police made the wearers take them off. It is a very strange garment indeed - a Templar cross on a white shield being featured on the forehead.

For a while there were only two placards on display - one misspelled and the other too small to read. Then, suddenly, a large banner about 10 metres long was unfurled. There was a moment of tense anticipation, as spectators and press waited to see what message it would carry. In letters almost a metre high there were three words: “Pride - passion - belief”. What did it mean? Was this a misappropriation (and misinterpretation) of the pre-match pep talks of legendary Leeds United manager Don Revie? But the sight of the banner seemed to lift the EDL mob. They cheered wildly and started chanting a mixture of “Ingerland, Ingerland” and a range of well known United football chants: “We’re all going mental, fucking, fucking mental, da, da, da, Leeds”; and the equally profound “Time to go, time to go, time to go, oh, oh, oh, oh, fuck off”. A very concise political message, which must have inspired many outside the pen to join the EDL.

Some more youths arrived and others left in ones and twos. But the corralled crowd was becoming more aggressive and their chanting more frequent and intense. Several rushes were made at the barriers and the police raised batons in response, using them once. Six new, professionally crafted placards now appeared, attacking militant Islam, sharia law and the Muslim treatment of women. The raising of these placards provoked more chanting and some salutes - I saw two of the fascist variety, but, most strangely, many more clenched fists.

Outside the pen it became clear that EDL supporters were circulating in small groups amongst the onlookers and several times very hard characters tried to pick fights with individual students who had drifted down from the UAF rally. I was questioned in a casual and disarming way by milder specimens planted in the crowd - they tried to engage me in discussion about immigrants and so on. Both these activities seem designed and planned. There was a tense atmosphere, with the police intervening to stop provocations.

At the allotted time the police cleared the square and the EDL dispersed rowdily in mobs running down the streets and into the railway station. More like Millwall going home from an away match than fascists leaving a Nazi rally.

Meanwhile, back at the art gallery the speeches were continuing interminably. Under the slogan “Celebrate and defend one society, many cultures”, the UAF rally was a celebration of multiculturalism - despite the presence on the platform of striking refuse workers, there was no call for united working class resistance against attacks from the ruling class (of which groups like the EDL are to some extent a reaction). One speaker commented that there is nothing wrong with the burqa, but the EDL want to ban it. However, I suspect that many UAFers would support the police’s own ban on the ‘burqas’ seen in City Square.

As well as the binmen, there were speakers from the trades council and local union branches, together with a number of local politicians. Amongst them was a Liberal Democrat councillor - the Lib Dems are in coalition with the Conservatives on the council that is so enthusiastically slashing the wages of refuse workers. But at least we should be grateful there were no Tories on the platform - the Conservatives had directed their members not to attend.

Although there were Muslim speakers, only a very small number from the large Leeds Muslim community attended. There had been a concerted attempt by both the police and the mosque to persuade Muslim youth to stay away. A police statement had urged “particularly young members of the Asian community” not to get drawn into “things they really shouldn’t do”. The police hoped Muslim youth would just “get involved in something else and leave us to deal with the matter” (www.westyorkshire.police.uk/section-item.asp?sid=12&iid=8669). Prominent ‘community leaders’ also warned Muslims to steer clear of potential confrontation. Indeed they helpfully provided them with “something else” to do by organising a trip to Alton Towers.

In order to counter all this UAF had stressed the peaceful nature of its own event - a message that was repeatedly emphasised over the PA - together with the fact that the police had refused permission for a UAF march. It did not seem to occur to the speakers, including those of the Socialist Workers Party, that their demand for the EDL event to be banned completely did not exactly help their case - the police were just being even-handed, weren’t they?

In fact the whole event involved direct and detailed collaboration between the UAF and the police - UAF joint secretary and SWP central committee member Weyman Bennett kept popping over to talk to senior officers. Clearly UAF had complied with the police insistence on a “static demonstration” by negotiating the terms of the kettling - the provision of portaloos and the arrangement whereby the police only stepped into the pen to pick up ‘troublemakers’. On one occasion a demonstrator was handed over to the police by stewards - he was told to leave the city centre for 48 hours. Standing near the platform, he had allegedly made anti-migrant comments. Fingers were pointed at him from the platform, but it was comrades from Revolution, Workers Power’s youth front, who snaked through the crowd, bearing their red flags on bamboo sticks, to confront this enemy of the people. To chants of “Whose streets? Our streets” - initiated by the rally chair, the SWP’s Sally Kincaid - he was ejected.

Demonstrators also reacted with fury to a lone heckler jeering from outside the pen behind the police vans. There were several attempts to rush police lines in order to attack him, causing people to scatter, including a woman with a pram.

This incident provided the first hint of the particular problem the SWP has in relation to the UAF ‘united front’ - how to marry the character of UAF as a broad, respectable coalition against the far right with the SWP’s own dogma that ‘fascism’ can only be defeated by force. For example, on Saturday young SWPers who believe the macho talk soon became impatient with the tame, pro-establishment speeches and steel-fence confinement. Many joined in the constant “We want to march” and “Smash the fash” chants (not to mention “Whose streets? Our streets”) coming from an alliance of anarchists and Workers Power/Revolution. At times these chants drowned out the poor-quality PA system, but neither comrade Bennett nor Kincaid appeared to hear them at this stage.

The Revo youngsters occasionally lit red flares - dropped dangerously in the rally area as well as the streets outside. Most had arrived on one of the feeder marches (which had been allowed) from the university. After a prolonged period of disruption they eventually managed to breach the steel fence and police cordon surrounding the rally area and set off for City Square. They were bent on taking up the offer of a punch-up from the EDL fascistic hard core, but neither side had their wish and instead several would-be street fighters were arrested.

After something approaching four hours of speeches (and a short musical interlude), the crowd had dwindled to just three or four hundred. It was then that comrade Bennett took the microphone and proposed a march to City Square to “reclaim” it from “the fash” (most of whom had by now left, of course). Showing his democratic credentials, he put the proposal to a vote, which he declared to be carried unanimously with no abstentions. This produced a flurry of movement from the police, who immediately tightened their cordon and prevented anyone from leaving at all.

Not to be deterred, the organisers displayed their militancy by defiantly marching within the kettle, from one side to the other and back again. This 10-metre march was pure theatre. But at least the portaloos were put to good use until the police finally relented and agreed to release the remaining anti-fascists.