Yesterday various fascist groups mustered their followers with the intention of frightening the good people of Brighton on a sunny St George’s Day. This was their fourth visit to my home town and, arguably, the most disastrous for them so far. Their numbers were few, their march was pathetic, they were massively outnumbered by counter-protesters. Following the fiasco of the 2012 March for England, Sussex Police adopted a different strategy, namely to separate the visiting fascists from the local counter-protesters. As yesterday’s sunny afternoon turned into a chilly evening, the police were congratulating themselves on a successful operation. From a purely policing point of view, it appeared better than last year, when they found themselves overwhelmed by the numbers of anti-fascists, lost control of their plan for the day and even failed to arrest one fascist thug whom they had wrestled to the ground.
However, that superficial analysis breaks down when the facts on the ground are examined more closely. With a helicopter, approximately 700 officers, some mounted, three dozen riot vans and various roads sealed off with large metal barricades which would be the envy of any commercial event, their advance preparation was better organised. They arranged low level barricades, behind the bannister on the sea front, into a chain of pens which were slow and cumbersome to climb over. Presumably the idea was that the anti-fascists could not disrupt the march by bursting through that dead zone. Unfortunately, the police couldn’t easily cross the barrier either. Despite declaring in advance that protesters would not be tolerated outside their various designated zones, when known fascists entered the anti-fascist zones, the police could not enter it to contain them. I witnessed a group of six flag waving fascists at 12:53pm well inside the anti-fascist zone (opposite the Thistle Hotel). Local people called across to the police to remove them but for several minutes the police just stood around as if they were little more than lollipop men. I shouted over a request that they deal with the situation but the response was, “Stop shouting!” After many requests one police officer wandered over to his side of his barricade and asked the fascists to climb over it. Looking somewhat reluctant, he put a foot on the railing and said, “Are you going to climb out or do I have to climb in?” The fascists argued with him. He did not climb in. Two protest liaison officers were eventually seen strolling up towards the illegal immigrants, as if they had all the time in the world. They were escorted away but not, so far as I can tell, arrested.
This incident was repeated several times before the fascist march began. On the one occasion I witnessed when the police did climb across their barrier, it looked like a training exercise performed by Dad’s Army. When Sussex Police sat down to plan their day (Operation Wheeler), did they not ask themselves how they would cross their own barrier if they needed to?
Prior to the march beginning, known fascists were allowed to wander freely around town, waving flags and chanting “Eng-ger-land”. This behaviour is indistinguishable from their method of protest on their official march. Therefore, it is fair to call it protesting. Yet they do not seem to have been arrested for it. At 1:12pm two flag waving fascists managed to squeeze through a gap between two of the blue police vans shown above so that they could confront the hundreds of people occupying the roads to the North of the roundabout by the Palace Pier. They were pushed back by mounted officers fairly swiftly. Were they arrested? I don’t know, but Sussex Police should be able to answer that question.
More worryingly, no-one in Sussex Police seems to have thought about any form of public address system. With 150 uncooperative fascists and 3,000 angry locals to deal with, the police left themselves with no method to communicate with large parts of the crowd. Instead they seemed to rely on officers barking orders to whoever was in the mood to listen. At one point I found myself in conversation with several of the local councillors and the MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, all of whom were were protesting against the fascists. One of them informed me that the police had promised them that they would have a public address system. Why was this promise broken? Surely it could not have been for want of financial resources?
Perhaps that last question should be directed to Katy Bourne, the Conservative Party Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner. She is in charge of allocating the resources for Sussex Police. Every section of Brighton’s political and social community declared its opposition to the fascists, except the Conservative Party. Sadly, the local Tories spent most of 2011 and much of 2012 concentrating their fire power on whipping up hatred against Traveller groups living on the fringes of the city, with the result that they were widely accused of racism. Their silence on this year’s arrival of the blatant racists echoed their failure to comment the year before. The combination of their refusal to condemn racism on our streets, their encouragement of racist attitudes and one of them now running the police is exactly what people most feared when the Police and Crime Commissioner posts were created. With each step, the police look increasingly politicised. Of course there are some sections of society which will never trust the police. The tragedy is that now many of us, who previously were prepared to accept that policing is a complicated job, now distrust the police because of this politicisation. The Tories tell us that operational decisions remain purely in the hands of the Chief Constable but he can no longer be regarded as independent when a politician has the power to fire him and hire someone else. The Tories could easily have condemned the so-called March for England. That they didn’t must have been a deliberate decision. It sits uncomfortably with the kindly manner the police treated the fascists in comparison to the locals.
I arrived at the seafront hours before the march began. The first thing I did was ask a policeman with a camera to photograph me and take a note of my identity. I explained that I done the same thing the year before and that, consequently, the police had been able to safely ignore various unfounded allegations made against me online because they knew that the fascists had identified someone else as me (someone who threw an empty plastic water bottle). This year the policeman I spoke to refused. I was struck by them failing to understand my request. I had to explain it and the reasons for it three times. The officer with the camera told me, “We are only photographing people where a crime is committed or there is a risk to public order.” I suggested that, as with the year before, police time need not be wasted if they photographed me again. This generated a different response, “We’ve got a problem with our batteries and cannot take too many pictures.” Police officers should tell the truth, so it’s fair to presume that this wasn’t some petty lie to get me to go away. That’s another question for Katy Bourne to answer. She can talk to the officer who refused to photograph me because his colleague allowed me to photograph his number instead:
Later on, another police officer with a camera photographed me when I suggested to the fascists, through my megaphone, that having turned around to march back to the Palace Pier, they were now facing Mecca. Then I played them the Call To Prayer, which they didn’t seem to enjoy but with hundreds of police and their barrier separating us, it couldn’t possibly have been described as a threat to public order.
After the march, the police allowed some fascists to roam around town looking for fights, just like last year. Predictably, there were outbursts of violence around the town well into the evening. Some people blame the violence on Antifa, who were out in strength. However, Antifa only exist to prevent the fascists from taking to the streets. They don’t demonstrate on their own. Had the fascists not been given a licence to demonstrate wherever they wanted, there would have been no trouble. They were even escorted to a bar in West Street to enjoy a drink! The police showed the Antifa activists little mercy and repeatedly attacked them. At one point one of them was wrestled to the ground because he refused to take off a face mask. Yet I saw plenty fascists covering their faces. Again, it is now very hard not to see the police as a politically motivated force, much as they were in the Thatcher years. Further proof of police bias to the far right comes from the fact that Sussex Police paid for at least one coach to bus the fascists to the start of the march. I’ve been on plenty of demonstrations in my time but I never heard of the police sorting out protesters’ travel arrangements before. This is another question for Katy Bourne to address.
On the plus side, Brightonians excelled themselves in their mockery of the fascism. Unsatisfied with screaming abuse, all manner of creative counter-protest dominated the day. The top prize for sheer good humour goes to the new EDL. If you follow that link, you’ll see that it doesn’t go to the racist English Defence League but instead to the English Disco Lovers. Already they are close to their stated aim of being the first result in online searches for the EDL. Their disco danced its way along the seafront all day and proved the value of good humour as a challenge to hatred. After some of the fascists had been bussed out of the town centre by the police, I went off to speak to them. It would be inappropriate to reveal the details of that conversation now but suffice it to say that we can be confident the fascists will not dominate St George’s Day in Brighton next year. 2013 was their final march. Watch this space and the EDL website for more information. The English Disco Lovers appear at 0:53 in this video:
Yesterday should have seen all of Brighton united against fascism. Of course, no-one could have been surprised by the Tories’ attitude but the real shock of the day was seeing the local Labour Party’s official tweeter attempt to make political capital out of the fact that the Green Party administration of the City Council had previously declared itself supportive of the lawful right to protest. Early on in the afternoon, @BHLabour, tweeted, “Businesses closes and residents terrified as @BHGreens proclamation that we are a city of protest brings March for England to our city #labour“
This tweet was met with a storm of protest from all sorts of people, including several prominent Labour Party members and local trades unionists, many of whom could not be described as sympathetic to the Green Party, such as Caroline Penn. Ever since 1936, whenever the fascists have taken to the streets in Britain, everyone else has put their differences aside and united against fascism. Aside from the nonsensical nature of the tweet (the fascists came to Brighton before the Greens won power in the city), much offence was caused by it. Who on earth was on Labour’s Sunday shift on twitter last week? It wasn’t just a single tweet. Here’s another, at 2:26pm.
And another, at 3:48pm:
The decision to allow the march was made purely by Sussex Police. There is no mechanism for a political party to “apply to have march banned.” It wasn’t just three divisive tweets. Here’s another at 4:44pm:
Did the Labour Party ask Sussex Police to ban the fascist march? No, they did not. By 7:18pm, the local Labour Party seemed to have come to its senses. It offered this apology:
Some people complained that this apology appeared to attempt to shift the blame onto those offended. Seeing the logic of that, Labour offered another apology, at 7:46pm:
At the time of writing this blog post, the first tweet has been removed but the three subsequent tweets, shown above, which make similar points and cannot be described as in the spirit of unity are still on twitter, for all the world to see. The Brighton & Hove Labour Party has a proud tradition of opposing fascism. It has long been involved in anti-fascist movements and must understand what unity means. Its insistence on abandoning unity against fascism is a very sad development indeed. Recently the local Labour Party suspended one of its local councillors (Anne Meadows). Will it now suspend its twitterers, who have chosen to create division rather than unite against fascism?