On Saturday 21 September, around 300 EDL supporters descended on Lane Top in Sheffield.
There hasn’t been a suburban or estate-based demonstration by the racist English Defence League (EDL) in South Yorkshire before and the location brought a greater immediacy to the threat of violence to local Asian residents.
The excuse for this racist display was a plan to convert a disused pub, The Pheasant, into a mosque. The Muslim community group that had made enquiries about the property had already dropped the plan before the EDL protest.
Unexpectedly, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) broke with tradition to call a counter-demo at the same location as EDL. This was a positive alternative to their tactic of holding politically empty “festivals” without any intention of hindering the EDL’s physical progress.
It was also the first time that a network of independent anti-fascists had organised a separate march, prepared with scouts and leafleting sessions in the area in the week before. This happened despite attempts by EDL members to intimidate and prevent a planning meeting, which avoided violence only by a last minute move of venue.
On the day, the independent contingent made up around two thirds of the anti-EDL protestors, but there were still only around 150 opposing the far right group. Mounted police effectively coaxed the march along to the UAF’s demo, which was topped and tailed by five police riot vans and three lines of police covering the 200 metres to the junction where the EDL were set to demonstrate.
There’s a tactical question here, especially when there numbers are too small to drive EDL off the streets and to protect Asian residents from racist violence.
Can we do more than make a symbolic display of opposition? Even with the best political slogans and banners, marching to a static demonstration is not enough, especially when local people are curious about what’s happening or see little more than two opposing groups shouting slogans at each other.
The most productive part of the day was talking to people shopping in Firth Park. Without preaching or dismissing people who were sympathetic towards the EDL, we talked about inequality, cuts and a lack of political representation.
The anti-fascist initiative is really positive and there are already plans to meet again to discuss next steps. It’s vital that a network maintains momentum, and that it moves away from mostly internet-based organising which can be too exclusive. There seems to be some consensus to mobilise against racists based on working class unity to address underlying social grievances that EDL exploit, rand avoid broad, bland and wholly negative approach of other strategies.
With greater numbers involved in the planning of action and a wider willingness to physically confront the EDL, there could have been small groups breaking off through side streets and between houses to bypass the police kettle. But to do this from the static protest point would have been impossible.
An anti-fascist campaign must be outward-facing and engage in the slow trudge of listening to, and arguing with, working-class people who are the target of the EDL’s racist populism.