Members of Manchester rs21 report on the counter-demonstration to the Democratic Football Lads Alliance on Saturday 2 June 2018.
The Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a split from the Football Lads Alliance, called a demonstration in Manchester on Saturday 2 June to mark the anniversary of the Manchester arena bombing in 2017.
The event came after Tommy Robinson, a founder of the English Defence League, was arrested last week for a breach of the peace outside Leeds Crown Court, and the arrest marks the latest in a series of police attempts to limit his presence outside mosques and courts, where he frequently records anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant videos for his 192,000-strong YouTube audience.
The DFLA invoked the idea of ‘free speech’ to mobilise supporters this weekend, arguing that Robinson’s right to free speech had been undermined by his arrest. More generally, this builds on past far-right mobilisations, since Manchester has become a target for a series of supposedly “anti-extremist” marches against Islam following the arena bombing.
On Saturday 2 June, counter-protesters assembled in St Peter’s Square, central Manchester, from 11am, staying until around 2pm to oppose the DFLA.
The counter-demonstration was attended by around 500-600 people, who stood around banners spread across the square and listened to speeches by Labour councillor Ahmed Ali, speakers from Stand Up to Racism, and many grassroots anti-racist campaigners. The protest was fairly calm, though when the DFLA appeared to be marching in the distance, protesters gathered along the barriers at the back of the demonstration to chant slogans including the classic pro-refugee chant popular in 2015: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”.
The DFLA demonstration, estimated to have between 1000 and 2000 attendees, bypassed central Manchester with a police escort, and so the two protests did not come into contact. The only moments of verbal confrontation happened when small break-off groups from the DFLA walked past, but these did not develop into anything significant, and policing remained fairly hands-off.
Counter-protesters brought banners and flags from various different organisations, including Stand Up to Racism, Unison, Unite and Manchester St Pauli. One attendee noted that the labour movement presence was strong, since many trade union banners had been brought and there were representatives from Momentum and Labour present. Nevertheless, there did not appear to be much of a community response to the callout, since very few members of Manchester’s large ethnic minority population had turned out, and many demonstrators had come in via coach and appeared to be mostly members of the Socialist Workers Party.
All in all, the counter-protest felt enthusiastic but not particularly dynamic or energetic, and being outnumbered by the DFLA was worrying, especially following large mobilisations in Manchester multiple times in the last year. What was missing was a significant Manchester-based community turnout. In contrast to the Yarls Wood solidarity demonstration in the same location this March, the demographic on this protest was less culturally diverse, less local, and therefore less likely to carry momentum forward into any further Manchester-based anti-racist projects or events.
rs21’s Dave Renton argued earlier this year that the DFLA are a growing threat even though they are not yet a fully fascist organisation. Renton suggested we need to continue watching and reassessing the (D)FLA’s role in the UK far right, and begin to foster “local cultures of anti-fascism”, organising in an inclusive and rooted way to combat the potential threat posed by groups on the constantly-shifting UK far right.