Last Saturday’ anti-EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlets successfully kept the fascists out of the borough – but at a heavy cost. The police used powers under the Public Order Act to mass arrest anti-fascist protesters, journalists and even legal observers. David Renton’s Lives; Running blog has published the following commentary from an anti-fascist activist currently on bail (who has to remain anonymous for obvious legal reasons).
Solidarity to all those arrested for being an antifascist on Saturday. It’s still not clear what the numbers are, and to be honest the number isn’t the point. After a while, talk of figures can become an abstraction and lead us to forget that every single one of those arrests is an injustice with a human cost.
I wasn’t at the demonstration. Bail conditions forbade me because of a previously heinous crime of standing in a road. Either way I didn’t think I’d get back in town in time. Ironically the coach that me and my partner took back to London ended up going directly down the Whitechapel Road, right past Altab Ali park. From the windows we could see hundreds of people we’d stood with dozens of times before and we banged in the window to get their attention, but they couldn’t hear. A couple from Seattle turned round and asked why there were so many cops, so we tried our best to explain what the EDL were, who Altab Ali was, and why free speech was no way to justify racist violence. They seemed impressed, albeit a little more concerned about whether they’d be safe in Victoria, and the group behind us that had been mocking demonstrations changed the subject. But when they asked why we weren’t on the demonstration I changed the subject, because I was ashamed to admit I was on bail. I thought it would undermine my argument. That was a mistake, because its precisely what these policing tactics are designed to do.
It is meaningless to begin ‘solidarity with those arrested on Saturday’, if you follow it up by saying, ‘even if I disagree with their tactics’. Solidarity is affirming collectivity in the face of victimisation. Solidarity is recognising that the ruling class uses the state to divide us with a box of material and psychological tools. And therefore solidarity is about placing legality within a historical context and not treating it as a distinction of value between antifascists.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with someone because they’ve been arrested – just don’t dilute solidarity. As ever, our movement needs debates about how to fight fascism, and we should continue the productive ones we’ve been having. Critical support is not at odds with solidarity. But in that moment, as the dust settles and hundreds are in cells, getting out of cells at 5 in the morning – that is not the time for that criticism. Even worse is being silent.
This isn’t a criticism of a particular group or tendency. You see it regularly amongst different groups to differing degrees – not because we have no moral, political or ethical integrity but, because we remain alienated, we reside in an alienated era in which we are systematically discouraged from being human. Our collective action is always a counterpoint but never a circumvention to that fact. The solidarity that we do show, in particular the incredible time and work of volunteer legal teams like Green and Black Cross, is a reminder that a world without alienated social relations is at least a possibility.
With that in mind, it’s crucial to recognise that these policing tactics, especially the Public Order Act, play to those effects of alienation. They are designed to make us forget the human side of arrests, and think instead about numbers. They are designed to be ‘lenient’ enough to prevent the successful drumming up of sympathy. Yet at the same time, they are bureaucratic, drawn-out and sufficiently stress-inducing to exhaust or scare off a layer of people from being active.
What Saturday apparently shows, alongside the Palace Gardens arrests earlier this year, is a return to the style of policing we saw around the student demonstrations. That is, the police using mass arrests to criminalise huge numbers of activists and delegitimise the movement. If that includes arresting legal observers and passers by, then so be it.
Those months on bail will have their effect. The use of mass arrests is unjust. Solidarity isn’t about criticising each other but about working together to challenge an increasingly aggressive state. My heart goes out to all those arrested.