London is anti-fascist: a few thoughts on #stopDFLA

This post is about events in central London on Saturday 13th October, based on my own experience and on reports on social media. First, a brief report of what happened (a fuller account can be taken from my Twitter Moment linked here and embedded at the end of the post), then a few thoughts.

Who are the DFLA (and are they fascist)?

The Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) is a splinter from the original Football Lads Alliance (FLA), itself basically modeled on the likes of the English Defence League (EDL) and its German spin-off Hogesa: its main purpose is to mobilise men on the streets to symbolically take a stand against the purported Islamisation of England. The DFLA claims to be against all extremism, but its focus, as with the EDL and Pegida, has been Muslims, who it primarily frame as terrorist members of grooming gangs trying to impose Sharia law on the UK.

 DFLA marchers 13 October
Image: Wheatley/WENN, via Daily Mirror
Personally, while I don't swallow its "anti-extremist" posturing, I don't think the DFLA is "fascist" as such. To be sure, lots of the individuals who came out for them on Saturday are fascist, veterans of previous waves of NF/BNP organisation, and groups like National Action have a well-documented toe-hold in the movement. But its leadership and many of the football casuals it brings out aren't fascist. Instead, I think it's better to think of the DFLA as "proto-fascist", as a far right street army with the potential to radicalise further, and the very present danger of intimidating Muslim and other minority Londoners that cross its path, as with the Muslim woman bus-driver harassed by participants in the July Free Tommy march. The fact that their presence on the streets, with hardcore Nazis among them, leads to such intimidation is why it is important anti-fascists physically resist that presence, even if they are not strictly speaking a fascist organisation.

On Saturday 13 October, the DFLA held a march in central London, promising thousands of participants. Media reports said the organisers were marching against "returning jihadists", "thousands of Awol migrants", "rape gangs and groomers", and "veterans treated like traitors". The march was meant to be a "silent" protest to commemorate the victims of grooming gangs, but from the get-go was pretty un-silent. At most a thousand marchers - predominantly older men, many of them drunk - turned up.

We go where want: the anti-fascist response

There were two counter-demonstrations. A Unity demo, using the hashtag #stopDLFA, was called by several groups including the Anti-Fascist Network, Women's Strike and Plan C, assembled at Portland Place and, led by women, marched south with the intention of blocking the path of the DFLA. Estimates of numbers for this march are between 700 and 1500, almost certainly over 1000 at peak. Chants included "London is anti-fascist", "Whose streets? Our streets", "Alerta! Alerta! Antifascista!" Home-made placards mixed with black and red flags. There were Kurdish groups, a couple of trade unions, and a group of Brazilian women building for a forthcoming anti-Bolsonaro demonstration.

In addition, members of the Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLAF), co-ordinating with the Unity demo, moved around the area, including local pubs.

A second demo was organised on Whitehall by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) front, Stand Up To Racism (SUTR - also known as Unite Against Fascism, UAF), jointly with Owen Jones and Momentum; this was static and probably peaked at over 1000, ebbing away to a couple of hundred after a series of the usual speeches by SWP leaders, trade unionists, etc.

Around Pall Mall, the Unity demo blocked the path of the DFLA march, and police decided to cut the latter short. Only a handful of DFLA activists made it though to their rally. Others turned violently against the police, a few unsuccessfully tried to charge at the #stopDFLA contingent, and some stood across police lines from the demo and jeered and threw Nazi salutes, while others retired to various pubs.

Militant anti-fascism need not be macho posturing

The #stopDLFA Unity demo was one of the largest autonomous anti-fascist mobilisations in the UK for some time, and was carefully stewarded for maximum safety. While some media reports emphasised "black-clad" and masked up antifa, the contingent itself was colourful as well as diverse. Childcare was organised; the Queercare collective handed out vegan and non-vegan supplies; and a mobile sound system played a mix grime and feminist punk and disco anthems.

The feminist politics and majority female composition of the march were an important departure from the macho posturing that sometimes accompanies militant anti-fascism. Participants of every size, shape and ability, and quite a range of ages, felt confident, safe and empowered.

With street-focused proto-fascist groups like the DFLA, EDL and Pegida UK (as opposed to more "political" groups such as the BNP during its electoral period), muscular physical presence in public space is both the modus operandi and objective. The Proud Boys in the US similarly speak to a desperate attempt to bolster male pride. The DFLA, rooted in Loyalist parade politics and football casual subculture, only thrives (like the EDL before it)when it can give its members the pleasure of mass presence on the street - hence far right groups' use of the football casual slogan "We go where we want". When this is stymied, when they can't go where they want, they lose the glamour that sustains them. When it is literally a bunch of girls that stops them going where they want, the insult to their fragile masculinity is even more humiliating.

This kind of far right mobilisation is a gender issue in another way too. Protecting white girls from male Muslim predators - grooming gangs - is the core rallying cry for the DFLA. If the DFLA was genuinely concerned about the women and girls who are victims of male violence, they would be organising against all its forms, whoever its perpetrators, not just when sexual exploitation is carried out by brown-skinned Muslims. Their fake feminism needs to be exposed.

The two souls of anti-fascism

Dave Renton - anti-fascist historian and former SWP member - wrote a really nice post about the march called "The two souls of anti-fascism". Here's an extract:
There were 1500 people on the march, and the name “unity” is richly deserved... The result of these many small mobilisations was a large and exuberant protest, with songs (“I will survive”), purple smoke from flares, chants. The protest was led by Women’s Strike Assembly and placed women at the front... The unity march was youthful, and vibrant...
The SUtR, protest was very different from the unity march. Small numbers of older men were standing far back from police lines. They were kettled, and making no effort to break out from the lines behind which they were constricted. There were in effect two stages – a DFLA stage on the North side of Whitehall, and a UAF stage on the South side, with two sets of speakers pointing away from each other. A single police helicopter made a desultory pretence of flying over the two. The UAF march did not confront the DFLA nor did the organisers have any intention of doing so. 
The history of the left gives many examples of a campaign which was at once stage hegemonic on the left giving way to a younger, more political and more combative rival... While SUtR was content behind its kettle, and the young were marching elsewhere, they were still chanting slogans first heard on SUtR protests. 
Even SUtR derives its heritage, if increasingly distantly, from the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP of the 1970s, part of whose adoption of anti-fascism was part of a longer-term plan of replacing the ageing Communist Party of Great Britain as the largest organization force outside Labour on the left. From the perspective of generational and political renewal, it is very easy to see which forces are going to be the mainstays of anti-fascism in the decades to come.
I don't think Renton is exactly right though. The two anti-fascisms on the streets of London on the 13th were not just two generations, but two fundamentally different forms of mobilisation. Even when the SWP's Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was generationally ascendant, the form its leadership molded it into was top-down, vertically organised, and non-confrontational. 

Resultado de imagen de cable street fliers
Communist leaflet mobilising members for
the Hyde Park fund-raiser,
with last minute alteration
calling people to Cable Street
The history of anti-fascism is the history of these two warring souls. 
  • In the 1920s, thousands of Italian war veterans, trade unionists, anarchists and socialists formed Arditi del Popolo, people's squads, to fight Mussolini's Blackshirts - autonomous, self-organised groups in working class neighbourhoods across Italy - but the Socialist Party (which signed a "pacification pact" with Mussolini) and the Communist Party both proscribed the squads, and defused the resistance to fascism. 
  • In the 1930s, working class Jews in the East End - the targets of fascist violence - organised militant grassroots groups to combat Mosley's growing movement, as described by Joe Jacobs in Out of the Ghetto. Without pressure from this movement, the Communist Party leadership would not have been at Cable Street in October 1936, as they had a big fund-raiser planned at Hyde Park - and before long the grassroots anti-fascist groups were closed down by the CP. 
  • After the Nazi defeat in 1944, anti-fascist ("Antifa") committees were spontaneously formed across Germany to confront Nazi criminals and Nazi underground partisans. They involved social democrats, Communists and members of the independent Marxist KPO. They were banned by the occupying powers in the West - but also closed down in the East unless they obeyed the commands of Communist Party, for whom a Stalinist version of "anti-fascism" was an official ideology.
  • Again in the 1970s, with the National Front on the rise, autonomous, democratic anti-fascist anti-racist committees were formed across the UK, some black-led, some with close links to local trades councils. The SWP's launch of the totally un-democratic ANL closed down the space for these autonomous groups, sometimes setting up branches in direct competition with them, sometimes absorbing them and setting policy from above. The ANL in turn would be shut down by the SWP leadership when it had served its primary purpose of recruiting youngsters into the party. Those youngsters who actually wanted to carry on fighting fascists were denounced as "squadists" and expelled (an episode whitewashed in Renton's ANL history, When we touched the Sky, written when he was still an SWP member - hopefully addressed better in his forthcoming Never Again).
  • The expelled "squadists" played a key role in setting up Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which combined street-fighting militancy with thoroughly democratic structures. With the BNP on the rise in the 1990s, and increasing numbers of people participating in AFA mobilisations, the SWP sniffed a new market and cynically relaunched the ANL, once again replacing autonomous, horizontally organised anti-fascism with a heavily branded, top-down, non-confrontational version based around mass rallies, mass-produced lollipop placards and tedious speeches by trade union bureaucrats, rather than actual confrontation with fascism. 
In all of these historic periods, in the struggle between the two souls of anti-fascism the autonomous,  militant soul has generally lost out: usually more effective at fighting fascists, it has lacked the ruthlessness and the weight of numbers packed by official structures led by Stalinists, the SWP and/or trade union bureaucrats. I fear that will happen again to the new generation of anti-fascists represented by the unity demo, especially while Momentum and several Labour MPs continue to promote the SWP's SUTR front.

The mainstream media cannot report militant anti-fascism

One of the ways in which top-down anti-fascism out-organises autonomous militant anti-fascism is that it is able to cultivate contacts in the mainstream media in order to generate publicity. And another is that, spending money donated by unions on branded placards means they are able to dominate the visual narrative.

The mainstream media coverage of the DFLA counter-protest, exemplified by this dreadful article by Damien Gayle in the Guardian, managed to get more or less everything wrong, giving the false impression that SUTR stopped the DFLA from marching, reproducing a hackneyed version of the unity demo as "black-clad anti-fascist protestors", and writing out the role of women in leading the resistance.
The summer of 2017 - the events of Charlottesville and the eruption of "Antifa" into the mainstream consciousness - showed clearly how the media don't know how to report autonomous, militant anti-fascism. With rare exceptions (Jason Wilson and... well, probably that's it), journalists from normie publications had no idea what to make of it. Their misreporting - making it seem like a single organisation with members and leaders, for example - helped fuel right-wing conspiracy theories.

This failure of the mainstream media is particularly dangerous when various forms of "alt" media offer plausible and appealing hyper-partisan (and often fake) counter-narratives.

What next?

The Free Tommy march in June saw over 20,000 participants - ten or twenty times Saturday 13th's piss-poor offering. It is not unlikely that, with Yaxley-Lennon's endorsement, one of the right-wing street movements can mobilise that (and more) again. As the country becomes more polarised around Brexit, the far right has huge growth potential. We had the numbers to defeat them on Saturday, but we will have to work hard - and reach out beyond the activist scene - to outnumber a crowd of 20,000 or more. As David Renton has written this week:
While the left were right to see the protests against the DFLA as a step forwards, we need to grasp that the biggest threat is not a clapped out bunch of football hooligans organising in the style of party. Rather it’s the online right, the people who are surfing the moment around us by talking about culture, about Muslims, the people with their alternative facts who have a passive aggressive streak a mile wide and who shift from street to electoral politics without settling down in either. The ones who deny that they are political and organise as a social movement. 
The greater the influence of their ideas, the less we are heard. And the other side are far ahead of us…
Another danger is in the recent attempt by UKIP leader Gerard Batten to court the DFLA. UKIP's bid for electoral respectability and the hooligan fascist image of the EDL have in the past meant that the street army side of the new far right and the suit and tie version have not managed to coalesce before. After the Brexit referendum meant UKIP needed re-purposing, and with the street army lacking the baggage of the EDL brand, a convergence is now more likely, offering the potential for something more like Germany's AfD, no doubt cheer-led by the pseudo-intellectual idiots at Spiked/UnHerd. Antifa-style street politics cannot counter that kind of threat.

And the rage and resentment DFLA feed off continue to be stoked by the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that mainstream politicians, mainly but not only on the right, continue to peddle. Again, the challenge of building an everyday anti-racist culture that can resist that is far bigger than the one-off challenge of getting activists on the street, and will require us to win over allies from far more mainstream milieus than we reached on Saturday.

We can celebrate our victory now, but I fear for the future.

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Waterloo Sunset said…
Few thoughts.

This is definitely a positive outcome. Of particular import is a) the diversity of the unity demo you mentioned and b) the fact that FLAF are the most significant squad we've seen for decades.

The fact that SUTR could, at best, only match the numbers of the unity demo is very telling. Especially as they had the support of the great and good. The SWP's dominance of antifascism is over. And Momentum rank and file may jump; the younger members have no love for the SWP and even the older ones mostly just seem nostalgic for the ANL MK1 of their youth.

We do need a serious debate about masking up and the whole black bloc thing. I'm normally reluctant to criticise AFN types (because there's nothing worse than middle aged anti fascists bitching about things being done differently than in their day). But I'm worried it's become as much of a subcultural thing as a tactic. Necessary some times, but resorted to too quickly.

You seem to be less mistrustful of Renton than I am.

There have been attempts to link up the traditional and far right before (NF speakers at Tory meetings etc.) and physical confrontation (if not open street mobilisation) did stop that. Few of UKIP are really prepared for that kind of consequence.
bob said…
I agree about the Black Bloc thing. It is obviously sometimes necessary, but it sometimes feels like just a kind of identity signaling, plus it makes it easier for the fash to portray us as the violent bad guys.

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