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With Brexit Won, Black Lives Matter Is the Next Battle in the Far-Right's Culture War

The BLM movement shouldn't have to fight a culture war, but the far-right and the UK's nationalist government are intent on dragging it into one.
14 June 2020, 2:36pm
all lives matter sign london
Photo by the author.

On Saturday, hordes of far-right demonstrators marched to Parliament Square under the guise of defending the Winston Churchill statue from vandalism. But within hours, Nazi salutes were brandished, bottles were hurled at the police, bystanders were attacked and the memorial to PC Keith Palmer was urinated on. It quickly became clear that this had nothing to do with preserving "history", "culture" or "Winston".

In fact, the Churchill statue has been defaced several times in the past – at a May Day protest in 2000, and at a student protest in 2010. Yet neither of these incidents caused anything like the far-right backlash we saw this weekend. It was only when the statue was damaged during a demo by the black community that the extremists saw fit to mobilise in force.

Wisely, the BLM groups – whom the far-right had originally intended to oppose – chose to cancel their events, meaning the fash were left with just the police and themselves to fight, until later in the day when there were various small clashes with anti-racism protesters around Waterloo. The afternoon quickly descended into chaos, throngs of bald men charging from one police barricade to the next, spewing beer, hurling bottles, chanting "ten German bombers". Incensed, entitled, indignant.

The protest was made up primarily of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, the umbrella-group of football fans that sprung up as an anti-Islamist faction in 2017. The Chelsea, Millwall and West Ham fans marched in separately from different areas of the capital, while fans of other clubs (Rangers, Middlesbrough, Glentoran, to name a few) turned up of their own accord.

But aside from the loose grouping of the DFLA, it was a notably unorganised event.

There was a small contingent from Britain First clutching a wrongly spelled "Britian First" flag. Paul Golding, their leader, mooched around in a "White Lives Matter" T-shirt. Anti-extremist research group Hope Not Hate reported that current or ex-National Front and BNP activists, as well as those with links to the neo-Nazi groups British Movement and Combat 18, were also present.

Normally, poster-boy Tommy Robinson would be there to give a vague sense of leadership and direction to proceedings. But, as per the excuse-video he stuck online, in which he looks either nervous or fucked (or both), he chose not to attend in order to avoid stoking "racial tensions".

As the afternoon wore on, some groups managed to cross the police blockades and roam through London. One entered Hyde Park, on a hunt for the peaceful anti-racism protest that had been there earlier, and harassed a small group of bystanders having a picnic, kicking and spitting on them. By the evening, many splinter groups began skulking the streets around Waterloo, looking for clashes with the peaceful anti-racism protesters who had assembled at Trafalgar Square in the mid-afternoon.

It was clear that this protest was different from the numerous far-right demos we've seen in recent years. It wasn't about Brexit. It wasn't about sticking it to the establishment. Aside from the obligatory police brawls, it was the complete opposite. It was about defending the establishment from the perceived threat of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Under Boris Johnson, the power dynamic has shifted. For years he's harnessed the far-right’s support, offering Brexit as a convenient issue for them to pin their flag to. But now they have essentially won that battle, and the fascists have been left with no mainstream argument to tack onto. The only issue they can find to cause outrage is the one that campaigns against what they believe in: racism.

Government statements in the week preceding this march were intentionally designed to placate the far-right. On Friday, Johnson wrote on Twitter that Black Lives Matter had been "hijacked by extremists intent on violence". On Saturday evening, Priti Patel claimed it was merely a "small minority" of the far-right protesters who'd caused violence throughout the day.

Both of these statements are untrue. Last weekend's BLM protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, with a truly small minority engaging in violence. This weekend’s far-right protest was dominated by clashes, instigated by a vast majority of hooligans who had turned up laden with booze and drugs, openly looking for a fight.

The government's aim is to draw a false equivalency between the peaceful movement that is BLM, and the racists who form the far-right. They seek to present themselves as the neutral arbiters between two equally dangerous groups that the normal people of Britain are stuck in between.

This deception has been compounded by the media's determination to call the far-right anything but what they are: racists. One media outlet labelled them "anti-anti fascists", while many used the term "counter-demonstrators". This squeamishness is symptomatic of the wider problem. That Britain – in both its political and media class – simply does not want to have an honest conversation about race.

The scenes from last weekend, when BLM protesters spread across London and those in Bristol tore down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, created a moment in which Britain was collectively forced to reckon with its horrific past, and the issues of colonialism and the slave trade.

But now the country finds itself at a precarious juncture. BLM is an anti-racist movement that shouldn't have to fight a culture war, but the grim fact is that Britain currently has an emboldened far-right paired with the most brazenly nationalist government it has seen for generations – and together, they seem intent on making it part of one.

@tjbenno