Not everyone who ‘likes’ the EDL Facebook page is a hardcore racist, or jackbooted Nazi. So not every confrontation between anti racists and the EDL need be a rerun of the fascist battles of the 1930s. And with only around a dozen EDL supporters turning up in York, Cable Street this was not.
There was something terribly British about the demo yesterday. Throngs of anti-racists filled the war memorial, waiting for the EDL to turn up. And gradually within this crowd of trade unionists, assorted left activists and just ordinary folk appeared a few England shirts. A small group of EDL supporters bunched together. While a little tense, the opposing sides initially managed to ignore who was standing next to them.
And as the anti-racists began to hold a two minutes silence, the EDL began a two minute clap. Now, that wasn’t their original plan, but while some described that as disrespectful, a two minute applause is a recognised alternative to the silence used at football matches.
It may have ended like that, until the EDL were decried as fascists and brief arguments ensued. Then chants of ‘Nazi Scum off our streets’. One EDL (not the guy pictured above) clearly there only for the opportunity to pay a respect – no matter how activists may view that – looked bewildered at this, if not offended. Now I don’t care about offending a fascist but when it looks like pouring scorn on an ordinary bloke, anti-fascists need to play their cards better.
But from those arguments, more constructive engagement happened, some more prolonged chats. Hearts and minds were probably not changed this time, but this is what anti-racism has to be. There are times when more militant tactics are necessary, but direct action is a short term disruptive strategy, dialogue is the long term solution. Sure, if 60 football casuals turn up with balaclavas and bottles then a pacifist approach would be ridiculous, but when they don’t anti-fascism has to change tack.
The left however were at their best only when the EDL dispersed. That’s when the message of ‘Make Tea not War’ emerged with the custard creams and bourbons. And that’s when the chant was criticised. This should have happened with the EDL, the time was right, the opportunity appropriate.
Anti-fascist activity has two tracks. Dismantle and disrupt the activities of the far-right. But also build solidarity. And that has to include those that turned up yesterday. The organisation may wither and die, but the people who went will still be in our community so chanting ‘Off our streets’ when the EDL rock up with their kids and a couple of flowers is not good strategy. All we do then is harden division and create the very otherness we decry. Especially when the class divisions between both sides were more than apparent.
Anti-racism in York has a chance to build bridges. Disrupting the EDL’s own actions must continue, but the activity of the left and all those who oppose racism has to broaden to reaching out, canvassing and community work. In short, normal politics. That’s the message of York Mosque’s ‘Make Tea Not War’. It’s time to seize it.