Rob Schofield reports on the recent antifascist action in Leeds
TOMMY ROBINSON supporters were sent home from Leeds with their tails between their legs on Saturday after they were met with an effective anti-fascist mobilisation. Through anti-fascist networks, the Labour Party and the trade unions 600 answered the call to oppose the fascists’ incitement of racial hatred, including chanting racist slogans like “Never trust a P*** with a kid”. The fascists made it less than half a mile along their planned route before they were confronted and stopped in their tracks by a diverse group of leftists, BAME people, young people, LGBTQ+ people and disabled people.
At 12:30pm we assembled at Leeds Park Plaza, 200 of us in opposition to the emaciated numbers of the 100 fascists in City Square. The march route agreed with police would take them on a tour of the city centre (pictured below). Leeds Anti-Fascist Network mobilised with the clear goal of blocking the fascist march in order to prevent them from rampaging across the city.
The fascists set off suddenly, seeming to take the police by surprise. As they moved off the police kettle sealed most of us in, whilst those who managed to break out of it were attacked with police vans and mounted officers. A few of us ducked into a fire escape of the Park Plaza Hotel and I saw a policeman violently slam an activist into the wall, leaving them bleeding but not severely injured.
We swiftly made our way through side streets to head off the fascists across the city centre at Vicar Lane, where the two demos were held roughly 300 feet apart by the police. As onlookers gathered we chanted “From the Pennines to the sea, Yorkshire will be fascist free!” and taunted them with “Where’s your Tommy gone?” as a nearby van honked along to the tune in agreement. The stand off lasted 20–30 minutes, with police telling the fascists to ‘go back and do it another day’. The fascists were eventually allowed to divert onto another street, wrapped in a thick protective blanket of police.
The day was won by Leeds Anti-Fascist Network who demonstrated tactical nous and ran a safe, effective mobilisation that stopped the fascist march. But the march would never have moved off from City Square if the full 600 of our side’s numbers had confronted them directly. Part due to a last-minute change in circumstances, part due to bureaucratic wrangling, efforts were split between two left-wing demos. Separate to the LAFN demo, Stand Up To Racism held a “celebration” on the town hall steps.
Weeks earlier, the goal of uniting Leeds anti-fascism into a single joint effort had appeared more promising, if perhaps due to the sheer urgency of the situation. The Leeds left was still reeling from a surprise Free Tommy Robinson march on Friday 1 June during work hours, where 350 fascists marched unopposed through the city centre shouting racist slogans. Four days later, a mosque and Sikh temple were firebombed in a co-ordinated race hate attack. Fascists had chosen Leeds as a target in response to Robinson’s arrest outside Leeds Crown Court, and were organising a demo at short notice on 23rd June, as well as their larger mobilisation on 7th July.
On 19 June, I was part of a group of Labour and trade union members who met to found Leeds Labour & Trade Unions Against Racism & Fascism. The consensus in this meeting was that anti-fascism should not be left to the opposing poles of SWP-led Stand Up To Racism and the anti-fascists, with the animosity between the two ruling out a joint effort. Labour and the trade unions should aim to play a more leading role in the struggle. However, it was agreed that such a movement would take time to build, and given the limited time working with SUTR was the best way forward. In this meeting we advocated working with SUTR, with the caveat of ensuring this new group would not simply be absorbed and lose all autonomy, which unfortunately is how events unfolded.
Stand Up To Racism meetings were promising at first. We had information that two fascist demos were to take place on the 7th, one by First For Britain at Leeds Crown Court and another by Yorkshire Patriots at City Square. Given the significance of the court in the Free Tommy movement, it seemed sensible to focus our attention there. We were pleased by SUTR’s apparent desire to confront the fascists when they called their meeting point for Leeds Town Hall steps just across the road. Less promising was SUTR’s endless focus on booking celebs, speakers, music acts and other entertainment for the day. To someone walking into the meeting, it might have appeared SUTR were planning an apolitical charity fundraiser rather than action to deny the fascists a platform in Leeds.
In the week leading up to the demo circumstances changed extremely quickly. First For Britain failed to give the legal six-day notification for their march, however Yorkshire Patriots was issued a Section 21 by the council, officially ordering road closures to accommodate them.
It became clear that all the fascists would be meeting at City Square and they would not march to the court after all. We received this information on Tuesday, leaving only four days to mobilise for a new assembly point. LAFN, being a nimble and well-networked organisation, changed their plans appropriately. SUTR chose to lag behind at the town hall, immobilised by the cement of their arrangements with the police and the council.
The next blow came on Thursday, when the fascists misled the press by informing them that the demo was cancelled due to the England game against Sweden. This was a clever calculation on their part, allowing them to pre-emptively excuse their small numbers on the 7th, but also to convince the public that the demo was cancelled, thereby reducing the number of counter-protestors.
Working with LAFN I created a viral video to disseminate the new meeting location of Park Plaza, highlighting the recent hate attacks and emphasising the urgency of the situation. Between the video being posted at Thursday lunchtime and the day of the demo, we achieved 80,000 views and 800 shares on Facebook. We also sent a press release to local news outlet Leeds Live prompting them to publish another piece confirming the fascists would still be marching, with a quote from LAFN that we planned to block the march.
SUTR as well as some Labour and union representatives pushed back hard against LAFN’s change of meeting location, including accusing us of being ‘undisciplined’, ‘sectarian’ and ‘undermining Labour’. On the day a few individuals even came down to Park Plaza behaving in a confrontational manner and telling our attendees they were ‘on the wrong demo’.
On the day, the SUTR demo was 400 people at the start (ignore the SWP’s typical Trumpian crowd size reporting) and dissipating to around 200 by the end. Reports paint a picture of a restless crowd being forced to listen to an endless line of speakers in the punishing heat, with one attendee requiring emergency first aid at the demo. Many in the crowd seemed keen to go and confront the fascists but they only marched after around 3pm by which time the fascists had already dispersed.
Across the globe, fascist groups are a dangerous and ascendant force at this moment in time. In 2016 an MP was murdered just a few miles from Leeds by a neo-Nazi. In June, we saw co-ordinated arson attacks against a mosque and gurdwara directly following on from a Tommy Robinson march. The Tommy Robinson supporters will be returning yet again once the 2018 World Cup has finished to mobilise their full numbers and hit back after their humiliation on Saturday.
The time has come for a mass, democratically organised anti-fascist and anti-racist movement with Labour and the trade unions playing a pivotal role. This is the only way to counter the rise of fascism in this city, in this country and internationally. Labour must stop outsourcing its antiracist campaigning to SUTR. They have proven to be an ineffective organisation more interested in celebrity speakers and cooperating with the police, than building a militant, self-organised and self-confident antiracist united front.
We can’t trust the police to protect us. We shouldn’t trust the police forces that oversee anti-fascist demos any more than we should trust the police force that murdered Mark Duggan, or battled at Orgreave, or crowd-managed Hillsborough. Engaging in a dialogue with the police to glean information from them and prevent getting attacked by them is common sense, but LAFN proved that we don’t need to ask for express permission to assemble in our own city. With a Labour and trade union coalition working alongside organisations like LAFN there is no question that we can stop these fascist marches completely.
We also categorically reject the warrantless accusations from SUTR about LAFN ‘endangering children and elderly people’. There were a wide range of ages from teenage to 80 on the demo and both abled and disabled comrades were present. Anyone of any age or ability who doesn’t feel able to take part in this kind of action should obviously in no way feel obligated to do so, and nor should they be shamed for taking that decision. Personally, I’ve experienced a wild spike in my anxiety since Saturday that I’ve only just managed to get under control, so I understand the comments from some comrades saying they felt more comfortable attending a non-confrontational rally. A practical solution would be to set up a support office in future, a base of operations where people can retreat to if necessary, and where those who don’t feel they can confront the fascists can still support the effort. The question is where the mass majority of people, as directed by Labour, the unions and other organisations are directed to go.
I have been there in LAFN organising meetings. They put in a massive amount of meticulous planning work into keeping everyone safe, that is a top priority. This was vindicated by the fact they ran a safe demo on Saturday: the only violence reported was that of a policeman being injured by a bottle thrown from the fascist ranks. I think if my fellow Labour comrades have concerns about safety they should meet with LAFN to discuss some of the techniques and precautions they use, I’m sure they’d be happy to pool their knowledge.
In the final analysis, the effectiveness of any anti-fascist action hinges on the adherence to a simple two-word slogan. To Labour representatives working with SUTR I ask: when the fascists return will you allow the fascists free reign of your city to chant racist slogans and terrorise the BAME population? Or will you stand in the way to deny fascism a platform and refuse to let them pass.