The far-right's creepy hijacking of Lee Rigby's death continued this weekend with more exploitative nationalist gusto. As well as a number of small demonstrations by the English Defence League, the British National Party took a befuddled step out of political obscurity and onto the streets. Nick Griffin's party – the electoral wing of British racism – has been in freefall for some time after reaching their zenith back in 2009, when they somehow managed to gain two MEPs in the European Elections.
Since then, one of those MEPs – Andrew Brons – has walked out of the party, claiming that 90 percent of its members and activists had deserted them. And, until now, the BNP had stayed off the streets in the belief that people will be more receptive to your racism if you wear a suit and don't spend your weekends brawling with the police. However, rising Islamophobia and the surge in support for the EDL in the wake of the Woolwich killing was obviously enough to convince them that now is the time to start marching once again.
The BNP had originally planned to march in South London, from near the scene of the murder in Woolwich to the Lewisham Islamic Centre. But those plans were scuppered when the police banned the march, saying they feared “ugly scenes”. It was unclear whether the "ugly scenes" they were referring to were a bunch of fascists getting beaten up by anti-fascists, Nick Griffin using a tragic situation to stir up racial hatred and political capital or just scenes like the one above.
Initially, Griffin threatened to defy the police ban and extended his bigoted, repulsive olive branch to EDL leader Tommy Robinson to come and get arrested with him. But he was rebuffed. Imagine how disheartening it must be to know that you're so bad at rallying racists that you need to desperately ride on the coattails of Robinson's relative popularity, only to be shunned in front of an entire country that already hates you.
In the end, Griffin realised that getting arrested wouldn’t be great for his political career, and the BNP held their rally in Westminster instead, marching from Parliament to the Cenotaph.
I arrived at a square next to the Houses of Parliament to find a few BNP supporters stood around a sound system playing tinny renditions of “Rule Britannia”. Generally speaking, their tactic seemed to involve placing themselves beyond the bounds of satire by holding placards that read, “HATE PREACHERS OUT,” while saying racist, hateful things.
That, or harrumphing about how anti-democratic they believe Islam is while demanding that it be banned.
Their numbers were pretty small, but David – a BNP organiser from Rochdale – told me that the party has seen a surge in interest since the murder in Woolwich.
“Our office is inundated with new requests for membership and information,” he said. “Membership has absolutely gone through the roof. We’ve got old members who were disgruntled with the party and had left – they’re coming back in their droves.”
Across the road, Unite Against Fascism and independent anti-fascists gathered to oppose the rally. They blocked the road, adamant that Griffin and his gang weren’t going to reach the Cenotaph.
Some of those in attendance devalued their cause a little by acting like 15-year-olds at their first Reading Festival, hopped up and blissed-out on watered-down Carling and herbal pills.
Others were more direct with their message.
Bizarrely, the anti-fascist numbers were swollen by a bunch of people protesting against the badger cull. Chants of “Save the Badgers! Smash the BNP!” were heard, and Twitter Colberts cracked one-line puns about badgers being black and white. I guess the crossover between hating fascists and loving badgers is pretty high, because both groups got on like a badger on fire.
The BNP supporters I spoke to had varying levels of media smarts. I spoke to one guy called Harry, who – a few beers deep – was dawdling around the lower rung of savvy.
“I hope it all kicks off today so that we can have a little bit of payback,” he said. What did he mean by that? “A tear up, mate. You know what I’m talking about – a fucking fight.” Who did he want to exact his revenge upon? “I don’t care – all them over there. Socialist Workers, whatever you want to call them. They’re all pussies, mate.”
I asked if he thought all Islam was a problem, or just a minority of fanatics. “White supremacy,” was his blunt response. “That’s it, as far as I’m concerned. If they want to take us on, take us on. Any fucker on the other side of that road, I’ll fucking smash them, mate. That’s me, end of story.” Was he afraid of Sharia law? "Who? I don't know her." Genuinely.
Having overheard the conversation, an organiser came over and told me that Harry wasn’t a BNP member and wasn’t to be reported as such. So for the record, Harry is not a member of the BNP – he's merely a guy who comes to their events and thinks they’re great.
Having been absent at first, Nick Griffin eventually turned up, flanked by security goons and seemingly wearing a bulletproof vest. I asked him whether he was happy to have attracted openly racist people to his rally and he refused to distance himself from them. Apart from that, he said some stuff about starting what he called a “sensible, rational debate”.
For me, a sensible, rational debate would probably start by ruling out white supremacy as a legitimate line of discourse. But each to their own, I guess.
He went on to invoke gay rights as a reason to hate on Islam, despite the fact that the recent gay marriage bill was opposed by white Christians Tories in the face of support from five Muslim MPs. Oh, and the other fact that BNP uses Christianity to justify its own rampant homophobia. That argument in full: White religious gay-bashing good, brown religious gay-bashing bad.
Meanwhile, cops were announcing to everyone on the anti-fascist side that, because the area the they were occupying was outside of their police-designated playpen, everyone had to leave or face arrest.
The thing about anti-fascists is that they really, really hate fascists, and opposing them is kind of their MO (the giveaway is in the name), so it was going to take more than the threat of arrest to make them go away. Never ones to be accused of making idle threats, the police sent in snatch squads. Protester after protester succumbed to being knelt on by the police and having their hands bound with cable ties.
The arrested anti-fascists were then put on specially drafted buses, with each arrestee sat next to a police officer for the duration. It reminded me a bit of a school trip.
This guy presumably couldn’t bear to make any more small talk with the cop who'd arrested him, so started trying to turn himself into a Lucian Freud painting to pass the time/impress the girl sitting behind him.
Eager to avoid the same fate, the anti-fascists linked arms and held on to each other as the cops tried to grasp at them.
Eventually, things came to a bit of a stand-off – a wall of death transplanted from the main stage at Download into central London; police and the joint force of antifa and badger benefactors equally pissed off at each other's lingering presence. However, after a while, news filtered through that the BNP weren’t going to be allowed to march to the Cenotaph, so the anti-fascists dispersed.
Overall, 58 anti-fascists were put on the bumout bus and shipped off to police stations across London. Activists have reported that the arrestees’ bail conditions include not being allowed to protest until mid-July, which has prompted speculation that the police are taking the opportunity to pre-emptively clamp down on any protests around the upcoming G8 meeting.
Overall, the anti-fascists who had managed to evade arrest seemed relatively content with how the day had gone as they headed to the pub or off to police stations to pester cops into setting their mates free. The BNP had a thoroughly miserable day – banned from marching in South London and unable to even complete a tiny march in Westminster – which is what they were all there for in the first place. Now I suppose they can turn their attention back to warding the EDL away from harvesting even more racist souls post-Woolwich.
See more of Tom's work on his website.
More on the murder in Woolwich: