Today, Essex Anti-Fascists organised a counter demonstration against the English Defense League, who, in their first ever appearance in Colchester, had come to town to lay a wreath in memory of Lee Rigby, the soldier murdered in Woolwich in May. They claimed they’d only come to show their respect to a fallen soldier, but anyone who knows the EDL will find that hard to believe, especially when the family of the victim said publicly last week that they don’t want extremist groups using his death to justify their actions.
At 12:30pm we started to gather at the Colchester war memorial – a statue that stands in memory of those who died fighting fascism in Europe in the 1940s – where the EDL planned to lay their wreath and hold a minute’s silence in memory of a man who had nothing to do with their racist ideology. The Castle Pub, which Colchester locals will know stand directly opposite the memorial, had been chosen by the EDL as their meeting point. It was (despite the landlord telling several of us yesterday that they wouldn’t be serving the fascists or letting them meet there) already filling up with the kind of bonehead and thug you can spot a mile off. As our numbers grew, so did the amount of police pulling their usual “oh hello there, what’s this? We’re only here to facilitate your protest” shtick. By around 1:00pm we numbered around 120, had unfurled our banner – reading “No Pasaran! They Shall Not Pass!”- and had begun politely letting the gathered scum know what we thought of them with some classic Anti-Fa chants. Our crowd was many and varied, made up of locals and students, young and not so young, made up of as many backgrounds as this town has to offer. When they finally left the safety of their pub to come taunt us, we saw just what a mixed crowd the ELD ethos appeals to – about 50 heavy set white thug types, mostly displaying the ‘stereotypical racist’ combo of bad tattoos and shaved heads. Of course they had a token black member who they repeatedly grabbed, hugged and pushed to the front every time we called them Nazis to show how not-racist they really were. Oh, and a special mention to the clown in the black polo who tried five times to get us to come and fight him and who gave us the comedy Hitler ‘tache and Seig Heil routine and the man wearing the woolly hat, shades and scarf combo like a Burberry ninja. Classy.
When the EDL spokesman holding their wreath came forward at around 2:00pm, we moved to block him and his crew of drunk racist buddies with a chants of “They Shall Not Pass!”. At this point a heavy police line developed between our two opposing groups. When the police liaison officer asked us if we would mind letting one of their crowd through to lay their wreath we gave him the same answer. And so we were locked in a stalemate that lasted almost 3 hours. A line of fascists on one side, trying to shamelessly exploit the murder of a British soldier for their own gain by laying a wreath on a monument to a war against fascism, and a (much larger) crowd of Anti-Fascists on the other determined not to let that happen. We swapped insults for a while – though the best they could seem to manage was to tell us that we needed a shower, or in one bizarre case that someone should ‘get some hair dye, blondie’.
During this standoff, two compromises were suggested. Firstly a Muslim woman, who was protesting with us, volunteered to take the wreath from the EDL lines, remove the EDL plaque from it, and place it on the memorial so that respect could be paid without a fascist stepping foot on the memorial. While you might think that would make sense to anyone with a genuine interest in paying their respects, the EDL rejected this straight away. Clearly for them this wasn’t about paying respect to a dead man, it was about the EDL being seen to be paying respect. The second (frankly weird) suggestion was that one member of the EDL and one member of our counter demo should jointly place the wreath, with the EDL plaque in place. As if fascists and anti-fascist could just join hands and make peace and let the fascists have their victory. In the interests of democracy we voted on this idea. We rejected it.
All the while more and more police vans had been arriving and police helicopters were flying overhead. While it looked like we might be in for a long blockade, spirits were still high on our side. Then, something changed. A police officer, introducing herself as the ‘senior officer in charge of this police operation’ informed us that she had decided that the purpose of our demonstration was to ‘intimidate members of the public’ and to ‘deter them from acts they had the legal right to perform’. This was of course not true – the purpose of our demonstration was to show a fascist organisation that they are not welcome in our town. Regardless, we were then told to move our protest to the lawn on the other side of the monument, allowing the EDL free access to lay their wreath. We refused. In a space of seconds, the police descended on us with brute force, pushing us backwards, striking out indiscriminately when we refused to be moved. They forced us back on the steps of the monuments, causing many of us to fall on top of each other, trampling on the flowers and wreaths left by others. While the EDL thugs cheered, we screamed at the injustice. With our demonstration cleared out of the way by the brutal arm of the law, the EDL were free to lay their wreath, which they did with the backing of Nazi salutes from at least 4 of their members – including the spokesman who laid the wreath down. In our fury we let the police know how disgusted we were with their actions -they had allowed fascists to desecrate a war memorial, had intimidated and brutalised a peaceful demonstration and proved that they were just as bad as the racist scum we’d come to oppose. The tears in eyes of several police officers (a rare sight if there ever was one) showed that even they, the ones who were ‘only following orders’ knew that what they had just done was fundamentally wrong. When it was over, several of our fellow anti-fascists received death threats from ELD members and the police did nothing. They should be ashamed of what they let happen today.
Clearly it’s time for us to think long and hard about our tactics. Simply outnumbering the fascists isn’t enough when the police will do almost anything to help them. Next time the EDL show their face here, we need to be prepared.
UPDATE: We’ve been told by a comrade who was at the scene after the demonstration that the EDL spokesman who laid the wreath (and apparently gave a Seig Heil as well) had a nice chummy chat with the senior officer who ordered our dispersal. He thanked her for her help and she told him he was welcome. Bit of blatant police collaboration there for those of you who doubted it… The same comrade also received several death threats in earshot of the police (they were told “Tomorrow when I see you in town, you’re dead”) which the cops claim they never heard. That’ll be that famous selective deafness that only seems to affect coppers I suppose.
Also, members of Hope Not Hate who were monitoring and identifying key EDL members on the day (several of whom aren’t from Colchester it turns out) have told us that as people were dispersing, a southern European family who were exiting the park received a mouthful of racial abuse from 2 EDL thugs. Who of course spent the day telling us how not-racist they are. After this, fights broke out in the Castle Pub, (though we’re unsure whether it was between EDL members or EDL members and locals) the upshot of which was 2 EDL supporters being detained and taken away in handcuffs. So at least their day was ruined. Silver linings and all that…