rs21 members report from yesterday’s protest, which aimed to stop the EDL marching in Walthamstow, north east London
On 9 May the nazi English Defence League (EDL) returned to Walthamstow, the scene of one of their biggest humiliations in 2012. Three years ago, over 4,000 people, overwhelmingly local, rallied and marched against the nazis, occupying both the route of their march and their rally point. It was a great victory for anti-racists, and a massive humiliation for both them and the police, who simply didn’t have the numbers to stop us.
This time it was different. There were up to a thousand anti-fascists mobilised on the day, again overwhelmingly local, but not in one place, and not well organised enough to try to stop them. And the police were everywhere, in huge numbers – more of them than there were of us. They had learned from 2012, and were determined to control the day, which they did. To borrow a Scottish expression, Waltham Forest was hoachin’ wi’ polis, in what was effectively an occupation.
Unite Against Fascism/We are Waltham Forest called a static protest at Waltham Forest Town Hall, where the EDL were planning their rally. There were some 500 people at this at its height. The police handed out Section 12 notices under the Public Order Act (which allow them to tell demonstrators what to do, and to arrest anyone who doesn’t do as they are told), and got very heavy handed in pushing protesters back – there were as number of arrests, most made after some stone-throwing gave the police an excuse to charge the crowd.
The police were much more accomodating with the EDL – at least one bottle was thrown from their ranks, and several people had ball-bearings thrown at them.
London Antifascists had called for a mobilisation at Blackhorse Road tube station, where the EDL were assembling. This was much smaller, and most of the antifa got kettled, but it was also where the most significant confrontation took place. As the EDL set off, over a hundred people took to the road ahead of and to the side of them, an overwhelmingly local crowd, black and white, male and female, with a small number of anti-fascists among them.
The chanting reflected the mix, with “Black and white, unite and fight”, and “Racist scum, off our streets” alternating with “You’re not English any more” and the football chant “Oo are yer?” Our numbers grew as the march went on, although the overwhelming police numbers meant that we could do no more than harass them, and briefly stop them once or twice. And the police had enough numbers to kettle off several groups of antifascists along the route.
By the time the EDL got to their meeting point there were large groups of antifascists kettled behind at least four police lines, so they were left in no doubt about local opposition, but the sad truth is that they achieved their aim. Completing their route was a victory for them, and their mood showed that as they marched back to Blackhorse Road. But it was a bigger victory for the police.
In the conversations we had with angry young Muslim residents as we “escorted” the EDL back to Blackhorse Road, they were saying things like “we showed them that they can’t get an easy ride in Walthamstow”, “let them come back after dark when the police have gone” and “we gave them an East London welcome”. They understood that it was the massive police presence that allowed the EDL to march, and in general didn’t seem that demoralised by it. We were outnumbered by the police, but not defeated. This video gives a good sense of that.
A number of activists have been critical of UAF for simply sticking to the static rally, and not getting people to directly confront the EDL, and it could have been possible to use the back streets to get out of the kettle – as a handful of UAF activists did. Successful anti-fascism has always relied on a combination of community mobilisation and direct confrontation, and unfortunately different forces supplied different parts of the combination. And to UAF’s credit, they did excellent work in supporting the arrested anti-fascists in the face of very real threats of violence on Saturday night.
The real problem was our numbers, and the police’s. The local turnout was much smaller than last time for a number of reasons: only a month’s notice; many campaigners spending that month engaged in the election campaign; and the police ban on UAF marching forcing a last-minute change of assembly point.
There were also two other significant events in London the same day: several thousand people demonstrated against the new government in central London, and there were numbers of campaigners out in Tower Hamlets to kick off Rabina Khan’s mayoral campaign.
And while our numbers were down, the police’s were way, way up. We humiliated them in 2012, and they were determined that this would not be a repeat. One of the Nazis most persistent chants was “We’re the famous EDL, we go where we want”, but the truth is it took something like ten police for every one of them to force the march through a very unwelcoming area. The EDL came and they saw, but they did not conquer. Walthamstow’s streets are still our streets, not theirs.