Brighton’s local residents and anti-fascists made the fifth St. George’s Day march in Brighton resoundingly unwelcome, seriously disrupting the parade on Sunday 22nd April, 2012. The Portsmouth-based organisers, March for England (MfE), promote the event as a “family day out”, and bring together die-hard nationalists, fascists, and football casuals from across the country to stir up English nationalist sentiments and vilify Muslim communities.
After assembling at Brighton station at noon, the march was greeted with booing and chants of “Nazi scum off our streets!” from locals who lined Queen Street, which must have made punters feel they were on more of a walk of shame than a march for England. At the peak there were somewhere upward of 800 counter-demonstrators – the figure could have been as high as 1,000 – but the mobility of anti-fascists throughout the day made an accurate estimation difficult. Considering the scale of opposition it should be of little surprise that the MfE reacted almost immediately by projecting coins, bottles, and rubbish into the crowds – some of which was returned.
According to the weak BBC report (seemingly compiled almost entirely from police press releases), around 140 people attended the march. First-hand accounts suggest this could be a generous count, although small numbers of supporters were to be found in pubs across the city and on the seafront on the day, presumably anticipating an opportunity to join the march at a later time.
Compared to previous years the turnout was both notably lower and it was even more obvious that the group is predominately constituted by middle-aged men, with some women and teenagers joining them. A small handful of children were brought on the march by their parents. The march appeared to be an exclusively white working-class affair, many of whom can be assumed not to be Brighton residents, having arrived on intercity trains.
Importantly, those who came to drown out MfE’s vicious ethnotribal politics were visibly not just the usual anti-fascist faces: Brightonians young and old came with home-made placards, and the relative absence of socialist newspaper-sellers and Unite Against Fascism banners made for a stringently non-sectarian atmosphere. Trotskyists stood alongside Antifa militants, and Greens with Labourites and even Lib Dems, but overwhelmingly the face of anti-fascism on the day was that of a united Brighton which reflected the local demographic.
The march quickly met a loud Antifa blockade and was redirected by police down Church Street. Opponents of the march were pepper-sprayed, while the unwelcome visitors were left untouched by the police despite continuing to hurl projectiles out of the cordon. Some 150-200 further anti-fascist militants immediately rerouted to attempt to stop the march again, building a make-shift barricade from bins and fences assembled from nearby road-works.
Tension was highest here, with Brightonians continuing to chant against the nationalist march and clashing with police. Without issuing any kind of warning, officers violently lashed out against the anti-fascist crowd with truncheons and shields, even using riding crops against those who – intentionally or not – found themselves at the front of the barricade. Mounted officers grabbed counter-demonstrators by their clothes, lifting them from the ground, and some attempted to manoeuvre horses out of the way by the reins. A number of anti-fascists were injured by the police, and the window of a barber shop was damaged. A bin was overturned, and glass bottles scattered the road – some of which were thrown over police into the march, and broken glass was returned. Nationalists have claimed on Facebook that a 9-year old girl who was irresponsibly taken to the march was injured by a bottle, although this has not been reported elsewhere.
When the march reached Victoria Gardens, the 100 or so marchers allowed themselves to be cordoned by heavy police lines – three officers deep – and were silent as a group for around one and a half hours until they sensed they were to be ushered on by their protectors. When they finally got the nerve to sound themselves – after being goaded on by persistent booing, and chants of “Boring!” and “Get the fuck out of Brighton!” – the chants seemed to be “Let’s go fucking mental!” and “We’re not racist/We’re not racist/We’re not racist anymore!”
MfE members have alleged that “bottles, needles, plates, bags of urine” were hurled at the marchers; to be sure there was certainly an exchange of missiles, but the level of exaggeration suggests that the nationalists felt suitably out of place.
Police numbers were extraordinarily high, with officers being drafted in from Kent, Surrey, and as far as Essex. From the very beginning of the march police horses were present (emblazoned with sponsors for Southend’s Adventure Island) and many officers were equipped with riot shields and helmets. As the march left the station in a moving kettle, early gaps between police officers were not breached by nationalists who were presumably too intimidated, aware that they were heavily outnumbered. Police ignored the marchers, reacting aggressively to anti-fascists who sought to exploit weaknesses in the lines.
Police violence against anti-fascists in defence of nationalists and fascists should not come as a surprise. It was clear from the beginning that the police had been briefed for a fight, expected one, and eventually instigated one by allowing the march to proceed virtually without condition. More than this, it should be clear from the behaviour of police at most “left-wing” protests that the intensity and direction of their violence is not informed by an impartial calculation of the likelihood of any clash. Instead there appears, more logically, to be a political understanding driving the policing of demonstrations.
Put simply, fascists and nationalists do not pose the threat to establishment which left-wing activity does: English nationalism and British fascism feed almost entirely on mainstream political positions (e.g. with regard to immigration) and do not seriously seek to undermine the state or governmental policy but strengthen it, envisaging themselves as protectors or “defenders” of the state from a status quo of mismanagement rather than attempting to agitate and organise towards total social re-organisation.
It is clear why Brighton is the chosen annual location for MfE. The event was publicised as an expression of English “pride” and “celebration” in direct opposition to the left-wing “Morons That Oppose, Hate, And Vilify You For Taking Pride In Your Nationality [sic]”: Brighton is known to be home to a high concentration of anti-fascists. It is clear that the march is a very intentional provocation and is designed to politicise attendees against socialist, communist, and anarchist organisers – part of a project to make fascism seem palatable and rational.
There can be no doubt that the MfE is a far-right group which transplants nationalist and specifically anti-“left” sentiments onto a logical feeling of disaffection with our society. Recent posts by the group’s Facebook page evoke the housing crisis and abandonment of working-class interests by mainstream politics and employ the classic fascist, Mailesque method of fusing real, material grievances with immigrant-baiting, Islamophobic, strawman rhetoric.
This should be obvious given that MfE’s allegiances are already known: e.g., the English Defence League (EDL) – which publically supported the event, Stop the Islamification of Europe, English Nationalist Alliance, and the football hooligan group Casuals United. Their website proudly hosts numerous images of men in EDL uniforms, St. George’s Cross flags daubed with EDL insignia, Islamophobic slogans, and occasionally the BNP slogan “the silent majority”. Sympathies with the small English Democrats Party are also evident, as well as ties to Ulster unionists. Some on the march itself were noted to be wearing clothing which bore explicitly far-right symbols, e.g. the fascist eagle.
In summary, the poignant points to be taken from the nationalist march are:
- MfE now appears indubitably to be constituted exclusively by white working-class men and women. Organisation must obviously continue apace between moments of tension to foreclose the chances of success of such events. MfE is not only an expression of hatred or patriotism, but exploits class issues: especially housing.
- Brightonians are increasingly prepared to take a stance against racist jingoism in their town – either anti-fascist activity is succeeding, the presence of the St. George’s Day march is better known, or hopefully both. Brighton racists evidently have close ties to those in Portsmouth; Brighton anti-fascists clearly must work at cross-purposes to this by giving as much support to Portsmouth anti-fascists as possible.
- The low turnout for MfE may be linked to the decreasing importance of the EDL in the media, and the divides which have become apparent in both the EDL and other far-right groups.
- The march may be a misdirection of genuine grievances by far-right organisers, but the very manifestation of such sentiments must be physically opposed. A dialogue with oppressive ideas is impossible once it poses a physical threat, but if anti-fascist organising depends on a street presence on days like yesterday alone it will never be truly successful. Fascism must be dismantled at its social root.