Last week, while the rest of the country was going to the polls, the EDL decided to demonstrate in Colchester town centre. Once again, they were opposed by a large demonstration of students and local anti-fascists. George Venizelos, Participation and Involvement Officer at University of Essex Students Union and activist with Essex Radical Platform, reflects on the day and its lessons.
On Thursday 22 May the English Defence League (EDL) returned to the streets of Colchester to lay a wreath in memory of dead soldier Lee Rigby. Around 100 antifascists, members of the local community and university students, were gathered next to the War Memorial to oppose less than 30 EDL members.
Antifascists arrived first, hoping to block the memorial and prevent them from achieving their goal, something we had managed last year. The police, though, said that we could only protest behind the memorial in a space that was specifically guaranteed for the anti-fascist counter-protest. We were given two options: protest in the appointed place and so be unable to prevent the EDL from marching, or get arrested. The EDL appeared to be the ones legally protesting on the day while we looked like the ones trying to disrupt public order. Meanwhile, we tried to engage with locals who passed by, explaining the reasons why they should join our side. Some of them even asked if we were ‘Muslims’.
Highly protected by the police, a mob of 30 hooligans arrived. They tried to look sad while we chanted: ‘No EDL, no BNP, Colchester is racist-free’, ‘racist scum off our streets’ and pointed out the fact that even the family of the dead soldier did not want them to hijack his murder for their own political gains. After less than 5 minutes of silence they quickly left the memorial, achieving the shortest fascist demonstration in history.
After they left, we were eventually able to go to the memorial and place our own banner, though we were again prevented by the police from approaching very close to the memorial for no clear reason. We then held an assembly to discuss ways of resisting the rise of racism, neo-fascism and the far-right, and how to create networks between university students and the local community.
It was clear from the day that the EDL appears to be, unfortunately, pretty convincing for some at the bottom of society. The victimisation of immigrants as part of the crisis discourse seems to work and the ‘logic’ of racist and nationalist groups looks appealing. The far-right has taken advantage the political vacuum; where mainstream politics seem not to have an answer, the far-right seems to have the pill. Helped by the mainstream media, their influence is increasing dangerous. For instance the Colchester Daily Gazette‘s front page reads ‘Protesters chant as EDL lays wreath to murdered soldier’, picturing the EDL as the victimised side which is even denied free-speech. Whilst antifascists outnumbered the EDL, the day’s election results showed we are not winning the anti-racist argument; we get on the streets, but are marginalised in electoral politics.
The left needs an answer to this, and can only do so by changing its approach. The populism of the far right provides apparent ‘answers’, whilst the left uses algebra, codes and outdated manifestos. The left too often finds itself unable to relate to the same people who are attracted to the far right, something we certainly experienced in Colchester. ‘To overcome this we need to build a movement that posits popular unity before the unity of the left, and be willing to abandon some of our own dogmas, or at least re-interpret them in new light. Otherwise, we will not achieve the broad and, most importantly, relevant movement that will be the driving force for change. The examples of SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain show what can be achieved when the left builds a genuinely popular movement on the basis of a clear alternative. We need to set a programme -a unified agenda- that will at least set us on the way to reclaim the struggle because we have locked ourselves out of the communities we have traditionally appealed to. Their democracy is rotten, neoliberalism is normalised and fascism is rationalised. The left is still searching for its own identity in its dusty books.