Just over two months ago, on a warm spring afternoon in North London, an unwelcome group made a sudden visit to the Jewish area of Stamford Hill. It was Shabbat, the day of rest for Jews, and most of the area's orthodox community had just left their places of worship. At around 2PM, as they began to settle down to lunch, neo-Nazis from the dregs of the British far right began spilling out of Clapton Railway Station.
Among them were members of National Action (NA), a group of young, self-confident neo-Nazis currently training in "ISIS-inspired" boot camps; Polish expats from the far-right National Rebirth of Poland (NOP) party dressed in matching combats; and the organiser, Eddie Stampton, a middle-aged British nationalist whose ridiculous banner "Equal rights for indigenous whites" couldn't have looked more out of place in a largely introverted quarter of London's Jewish community.
The demonstration was, unsurprisingly, a total flop. Around 30 white nationalists were escorted by the police 100 metres down the street and left to protest incoherently about "Jewish privilege" on the side of the road by Lea Bridge Roundabout. The media largely stayed away, and around 100 anti-fascists – many of whom were kettled – made sure their path was blocked and their speeches heckled.
The non-event was something of a surprise given that just a month earlier the news had been awash with alarming reports about a march called "Liberate Stamford Hill" – the brainchild of a far-right activist we cannot name for legal reasons. When the activist first announced his plan to march on Stamford Hill to oppose what he described as "Jewification", the media were captivated – struck, presumably, by the language of a 1930s Munich beer-hall being applied to London in 2015.
In the end, the plan failed. After sending a series of anti-Semitic tweets to the Jewish, Labour MP Luciana Berger, the man pleaded guilty to a charge of "malicious communications" and was banned from entering London. The media's interest quickly dwindled. But all wasn't lost. Eddie Stampton, a veteran of the far right and a current activist with New Dawn, a British group influenced by Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, stepped in.
This Saturday, at 1PM, the same group of neo-Nazis will arrive in London for part two of their big tour. The original intention was for the rally to take place in Golders Green – another of the capital's big Jewish neighbourhoods – but the location has now been moved to Whitehall after a high profile campaign from various Jewish community groups and MPs convinced the police to force the demo to move.
The organisers had hoped to avoid this by repeatedly denying that what they're trying to do is anti-Semitic. Ironically they made their case to fellow protesters on the Vanguard News Network, a forum for anti-Semites, white supremacists and Holocaust deniers with the catchy slogan, "No Jews. Just Right". The group has said the target of its protest is the Shomrim, a Jewish neighbourhood watch group set up by North London's Haredi community to help the police fight crime. The organisers say their existence is a "special privilege" that "indigenous people" would never be allowed.
The strong response from Jewish communal organisations, who managed to get the march moved, is somewhat surprising. It's a shift in direction for the community whose concern over the far right – unavoidable in the 1930s and 1940s when Jews were being killed across Europe – has been largely replaced by concerns around the anti-Israel left.
While tens of thousands can be easily mobilised in support of Israel when the conflict with Palestine periodically flares up, few take any active interest in the far right, particularly at street level. This was certainly the case in early 2014 when Gabor Vona, leader of the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian far-right party Jobbik, came to London ahead of the country's national and European elections – the Jewish community was largely uninterested. It was also true in April when Nazis came to Stamford Hill.
Whether community groups actually turn up – now that Golders Green is off the cards – remains to be seen. The largest of the counter-demonstrations – called by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism – has now been cancelled after the successful location change. But other groups including Jewdas, a piss-taking, radical-left Jewish group, will be present, along with various autonomous anti-fascists.
How much any of this actually matters remains contested. Anti-Semitic white supremacist groups are small and fractured and the target of today's far right is, by and large, the country's Muslim population. Nevertheless, while the organisers of this particular march may be opportunists, enjoying their time in the limelight, the threat posed by these kind of groups is worth taking seriously.
It was only in 2009 that the far-right British National Party gained nearly a million votes in the European elections, the highest ever achieved by a far-right party in the UK. This was the same year in which the English Defence League emerged, the first time the far right had taken to the streets in numbers since the BNP had abandoned them in the mid-1990s.
Since then, both organisations have collapsed, leaving a rump of a movement, which is fractured and volatile. Far-right street protests are taking place every weekend this summer across the UK – although many will struggle to attract more than ten angry men slowly getting sunburn. Gone are the attempts at respectability – the suits and ties, and the insistence that, "we're not racist, Muslam isn't a race". Back in are the overtly racist politics. The far right is becoming more openly extreme, in part because there is no hegemonic force on the right – no Nick Griffin figure capable of telling the more radical elements to tone down the Holocaust denial for the sake of being allowed on Question Time.
One particularly disturbing group to emerge and thrive in this new political environment is National Action (NA) – some of whom are likely to be present on Saturday's demonstration. The organisation, described by Hope Not Hate as "the most ideological Nazi group" to come out of Britain for decades, emerged from the ashes of the BNP and has drawn together the first generation of far-right activists born in the digital era.
Having been little more than a collection of like-minded internet warriors, they have, in the space of 18 months, moved into the real world, putting their virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric into practice and becoming a pole of attraction to some of the most extreme aspects of the far right. Zack Davies, the loner recently found guilty of trying to murder an Asian dentist, was linked to National Action and connected to several leading figures in the group through social media.
The recent spate of neo-Nazi organising – from Stamford Hill to Newcastle – owes a lot to NA, who have slowly increased their street presence and appear to be going to regular training camps to get better at street fighting. NA are now behind the White Man March series of protests. These have drawn together a coalition of groups on the extreme right for the largest and most explicitly neo-Nazi street protests in the UK since the 1980s.
If far-right groups continue to develop their capacity for violence, while agitating for what they believe is an ongoing race war, the possibility of racial attacks and lone wolf assaults could rise. Two further mobilisations are happening tomorrow – antifascists are planning to oppose the EDL in Sheffield and the splinter group the North East Infidels in Stockton-on-Tees. Meanwhile, back in London's Jewish neighbourhoods, the saga is likely to continue well after Saturday's demo. More "anti-Shomrim" demonstrations have been mooted and flash mobs suggested for the places the group has been banned from. With the British far right so fragmented and disorganised, it's hard to predict whether it will peter out or turn into something much uglier.
Whatever does happen, the Jewish community has a long, inspiring history of opposing the far right that it can draw upon. From the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 to the 43 Group, a collection of Jewish anti-fascist ex-servicemen formed in the 1940s to fight the Britain Union of Fascists, getting numbers on the street to physically oppose the far right was never a problem. Today those times may have passed and the history been largely forgotten – but with the far right back in London intimidating Jews, it's worth remembering.
Peter Jacobs and Jimmy Acaso are the pseudonyms of two anti-fascist activists
More like this: