With far right plans to cause disruption and violence over Black Lives Matter protests this weekend, Nick Lowles looks at what they have planned and how communities can come together to oppose their hate.
This week, our national conversation has been rocking on the waves created by the statue of slaver Edward Colston being thrown into Bristol harbour. Across the country, the complicated histories of figures such as Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill and the brutal occupation of slavers such as Robert Milligan and Sir Thomas Picton have become hot topics.
It’s not surprising this debate over national symbols has aroused passions on all sides. Statues and memorials are plugged into national emotions, identity and culture – they tell us who we think we are, what we value and where we came from. Whilst the sight of the Colston statue coming down was a triumph to some, to many seeing other attempts by isolated, fringe demonstrators to damage the Cenotaph or daub light graffiti on Churchill’s statue will have caused pain and upset. Having just commemorated VE Day, it doesn’t need saying that these memorials represent an important part of our culture and history and are emotionally linked to our national identity. Our national symbols should be a talking point, not just a flashpoint.
Whilst mostly everyone kept calm, the lone Cenotaph protestor talked down by the police and the Churchill statue graffiti washed off by a street cleaner, and carried on, the British far-right spluttered with rage. Football hooligan and far-right street gangs, who have been in steady decline of late, whipped themselves up into a faux-patriotic rage on social media. Over the course of the week, they declared themselves the defenders of these monuments and pledged to book coaches to London to guard local memorials, and as bandwagon jumpers such as Britain First piled in, called for a far-right unity rally in central London at the same time as a peaceful Black Lives Matter had scheduled a protest. In doing so, many on the far-right who tried to pretend they didn’t care about race, only culture and identity, let the mask slip and openly started talking about whiteness and race again and threatened to pull down the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.
But what was intended as a symbolic act of intimidation almost immediately started to look embarrassing after Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) gatecrashed the moment, releasing a bizarre selfie video where he ranted till he was red in the face about racial conflict and for some reason the pop group Little Mix. But as per usual, his trademark combination of dangerous rhetoric and ludicrous persona only managed to inflame the situation to his own sides’ disadvantage whilst also making a joke of himself again.
But by trying to steal the tough guy limelight, he ramped up tensions beyond a handful of thugs posing outside and put everyone into an impossible and dangerous position not of their own making, as fears of real violence have now grown. Whilst the hooligan elements are violent and crude, there is a limit to their stupidity and many are not even on the far-right at all. Nervous messages circulated as they realised they might have seriously miscalculated and the more sensible amongst them advised others to stay at home.
But whilst many are still expected to travel down on Saturday, their crude plans to cause disruption and provoke conflict and violence with peaceful protesters have been artfully sidestepped by the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the course of the week, artists such as Vic Santoro and Akala called out the transparent tactics of the far-right, telling the truth that the movement was too smart to get sucked into the far-right’s pathetic game, and urged protestors to keep their eyes to the bigger prize and avoid a confrontation. Last night the organisers denied the far-right the conflict they were angling for by cancelling the Saturday march, saying “We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend” and that they didn’t think “it will be possible with people like them present.”
The far right’s plans are up in the air, so while it is likely that a few will still turn out in London on Saturday, the police should also prepare for far right and football gangs to stay local and cause trouble in their own areas . The authorities have boarded up a number of statues in London, including the Cenotaph and Churchill’s statue, to protect them, but this is unlikely to stop those racists whose agenda is simply to stir up trouble. We mustn’t ever let the far-right, hooligans and fascists distract us from the important national conversation we are now having about racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has been an overwhelmingly peaceful protest, conducted in a spirit of unity with people of all races coming together to protest against injustice – and that is perhaps the most important national symbol of all.