This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Remembrance Sunday is the high point in the UK white pride calendar—a day for the fascist National Front (NF) to parade past the Cenotaph, sullying the day with their presence, while others try to peacefully pay their respects to those who've died at war.
This year there was a split among the NF ranks, meaning there were two separate marches and the slim chance of confrontation. However, thankfully, it turned out to be a relatively low-key event—not like NF marches in the past.
In the 1980s, the Remembrance Day march was a much bigger deal, drawing thousands of racist boneheads to London. As such, people who hate fascists wanted to oppose it. And over a period of a few years in the late-1980s, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), a militant antifascist organization, was able to significantly reduce the number of people attending the National Front's annual march through a combination of audacious organizing matched with gratuitous violence.
I recently caught up with Joe, a former organizer for AFA. We chatted about beating up Nazis in pubs and burger bars, and he explained how AFA was able to bring the number of people going on the march down to a tenth of what it was at its peak.
VICE: You opposed the National Front Remembrance Sunday parades for several years in the late-80s, causing the numbers attending them to plummet. Why?
Joe: Well, AFA was set up in July of 1985 with the express purpose of meeting with the National Front and other far-right groups on the streets. One of the obvious areas of neglect was the Cenotaph march, where the NF were allowed to parade through central London utterly unopposed. At their high point our estimate was they'd be 2,000 strong, so that became an area of interest for us. I'm sure they were marching more or less permanently between the end of the Anti-Nazi League and the beginning of AFA, but it started to increase because it was a kind of meet 'n' greet. This was where any [prospective members] would be encouraged to come take part in the yearly big event. [With] no opposition [it looks] too strong to be defeated. For young kids it's impressive.
Opposing the NF Remembrance Sunday parade in 1985 was among the first occasions Anti-Fascist Action took to the streets. What happened?
We went there and we tried to occupy their rallying point around Victoria station. We were at the back of the station, which is where they used to group up. There were probably about 80 to 100 of us, not all of them fighters—[some of them] ordinary antifascists, if you like. The police were there, then after about half an hour [the NF] appeared and saw the mixed social demographic from the group.
They looked like wolves—their tongues hanging out. The coppers were quite happy, absolutely insouciant. But then, as they got closer, the people who were less keen were moving back and the others were stepping forward. By the time they got close, there was a look of keen anticipation to attack. Eventually they didn't, but if they'd have kept going they'd have probably won the day. Ian Stuart Donaldson [lead singer of Nazi-punk band Skrewdriver] actually stopped at the bus stop and joined the queue.
At the end of the day, the police were disgusted with them, obviously—letting down the white race. Eventually they got out of their vans and started to push our side around. The National Front then had to go around, having failed to do their basic stuff, which was taking their place to form up. They then had to find a new place to form up. That was a kind of tick in the win column. Obviously we couldn't have done that a second year.
The following year you held a march—why was that?
We thought we needed to do something more high-profile, so the idea came up for AFA to do a march itself, in direct opposition to the NF. In fact, we were actually marching toward them.
Our first march attracted about 2,000 people, which was considered a success, much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail, which was disgusted by antifascism being involved with the Cenotaph—it was just something which was anathema to them. The following year we went to repeat that success, but a group of 80 to 100 [Chelsea] Headhunters [football hooligans] attacked the back of the march. That's when we realized the Achilles heel in having a student-led, student-dominated demonstration, because apart from two women stewards the whole demonstration ran to the front. The stewards were struggling to get back and had to get through people dropping banners and all that—absolute disgrace. All the Headhunters did was wheel past, really; they didn't really get into the nitty-gritty.
What was the fallout from that attack?
It was enough for us to look at the whole AFA structure and kind of go, "We obviously have a problem here." In the sense of, what was the point of being an antifascist if, as soon as you meet the opposition, you leg it? You might as well just describe yourself as a non-fascist. You're in a neutral corner—that's where you're happiest, that's where you're most comfortable.
Even though AFA was marching, you were still involved in clashes with the NF around central London through the course of the evening. There was one occasion mentioned in the book Beating the Fascists, where it kicked off in a Wimpy. Can you explain what happened there?
That was a devastating blow for them, because that was their leader guard. They were just not paying attention or sufficiently focused. They thought that because they were in King's Cross they were out of harm's way. But we used to redeploy—we used to pull our people off the streets after there was plenty of activity. The police were looking for us, but we'd suddenly go to ground. We'd have scouts out all the time, and they'd come back with something. Or, when the time was ready, we'd reappear, 150-strong, and just go hunting. That was how some of our people came across the fash.
So you're in the Wimpy, with these NF members...
The funny thing was, right—Euston Road, even on a Sunday evening, is still pretty busy. We were on one side of the road and they were stood outside a Wimpy bar on the other side. Two or three of us came down the steps from St. Pancras. They knew who we were straight away. They couldn't recognize us, but they understood the body language. They had a huge advantage—they had all the brass-tipped flagpoles and all the biggest brutes they could find; 21-inch necks.
Even though we outnumbered them, if they stood their ground it would be such a tear-up that the police would be bound to turn up within minutes, because we'd be right across the road and all that. But their courage failed them and they decided they'd go into the Wimpy: "It'll be alright, and it might not be them anyway, and there's no need to panic."
It was perfect, really—you can't use a flagpole in a Wimpy. There was a right old John Wayne tear-up. It went all the way over the counter and into the kitchen. Customers all fled, and most of the staff ran away as well. That was a coup, because they knew everybody and everybody knew them. By the end of the week everybody internally would know it was a PR disaster for them.
That was the kind of thing we relied on—being sharper than them, anticipating where they were going to go. Appearing where you weren't expected. It was all part of the AFA portfolio. You'd start off with ten times less than them, but you'd keep redeploying the same 100. You'd hit them about six or seven times without any casualties and just a few nickings. They think they're fighting an army. They don't know it's the same 100. It's just carnage. That was a nice finish to the day, I think.
After a couple of years of marching, and clashes before and after, you decided to go back to Victoria to oppose the NF directly—the tactic you used in 1985. Why was that and what happened?
We felt we could repeat the original formula, but about five times stronger. Instead of putting 150 in the field, you put 500-plus in the field—but mainly fighters, which wasn't the case the first time we went down there. So that's what we did. They had a pub right on the Victoria concourse, which was used by the Chelsea Headhunters. We just took that over. That became our base of operations, which made a perfect honey trap for them, because that's where they would make for. You'd see them come and they'd get splattered. Whoever got away, got away. But then more would come, because you're talking about hundreds of people coming from all over, and they'd be—bang, bang, bang bang bang.
Weren't there any police about?
The coppers weren't really on top of it. They hadn't anticipated it and couldn't distinguish our side from the fascists. There was no particular distinguishing feature—there was no social demographic like there was with the first march. [At the 1985 there were] obvious students and lefties against obvious hooligans and fascists, so you separate them out and you've got a law and order situation. But this was completely fluid.
There was one situation where a particularly notorious and soon-to-be member of [neo-Nazi organization] Combat 18 decided to march into the pub with one or two others. He took about two steps inside the door, got hit with an ashtray, staggered on, got hit by a chair making for the other door, took a pint pot straight over the nut and then staggered out the other side. It just kind of summed it all up. He was a big old brute—he was up for attempted murder charges at some stage later. It was the kind of thing they thought they could get away with, but obviously not to any great degree. He didn't repeat it.
What effect did this have on the National Front?
That was a low point for them, obviously. Their own organization hadn't anticipated that. They weren't prepared for us. The police weren't prepared for us, either. A lot of this organization is done word of mouth; it was prior to mobile phones and email and all that, so you didn't get that kind of a trap where you've got a chain of evidence and people can build up an intelligence picture. There was nothing—it was done word of mouth.
Also, the plans would change in the day at the discretion of the chief steward. You could only broadly anticipate what AFA was going to do, and AFA was also marching, so police were all geared up for the march. Five hundred-plus police went to Victoria, and they had people at Trafalgar Square, anticipating and trying to prevent another attack by the far-right, when in fact it was the far-right which was being attacked. They couldn't seem to move their feet quick enough—they couldn't adjust. It was a good day. The fascist recriminations went on and on after—who was to blame, etc.
The ramifications of that kind of humiliation just ripples through the organizations for months, if not years, afterwards. Sometimes they never recover at all. I think Richard Edmonds [formerly] of the BNP [and now a NF member] said later that they had a contingent there, [but] that there was no point in going to Victoria because it was just full of reds. That was his own direct experience—the BNP never took part in Remembrance Day after that at all, not even as a token force.
The BNP weren't the only group you persuaded to stay away—there was a clash with the Chelsea Headhunters on Embankment. Do you think that stopped them returning?
They had a lot of young football hooligans with them for the day for a jolly, to attack the lefties and get the blacks and all that. They ended up meeting AFA instead. Just the look of horror on their faces... even though the tube had closed—the doors were closed when AFA charged the train—they were trying to get out of the carriage AFA was trying to get into, breaking the windows with fire extinguishers. They just scrambled all over each other and you just knew they'd never come back.
The irony was that the ones who did manage to escape the carriage then got hit with bottles and other bits and pieces as they went from one carriage to another. If they'd just sat there and read the paper they would have been fine. But they couldn't... it was just terror, sheer terror. Which, for what we were trying to do, was pretty edifying, because for everyone who got hit, there were ten who would know it could have been them. That meant none of them came back, ever. It ended their whole political career. We used to say it's the first big lie—that lefties are all old men in duffel coats and sandals. That was what they were told, but instead they met the very opposite. It was just devastating—they just knew they'd been mugged off, and before they'd been blooded they were the ones who were bloodied and exited the stage.
By the end of the 80s the numbers going on the NF Remembrance Sunday parade had dropped to about a tenth of their peak—around 200 marchers. You then stopped opposing them. Why was that?
There was a strategic decision then to say, "Well, this will be the hardcore [members]—you won't be able to reduce them any more." So AFA redeployed to East London and got stuck into the BNP instead, and basically left the NF to it, saying its function as we saw it—an introduction to fascism—no longer served its purpose. We could deploy, but if the police had 500 coppers, there were two uniformed police officers for every fascist, and you could only do incremental damage after that. There was always going to be a hardcore that would continue, but the fellow travelers—the kind of people who would be the next generation—had been removed, so we moved on.
That was basically four years, and they were kiboshed. This was at a time when people were saying, "Fascism isn't a threat; the Tories are the real enemy; this is a deviation from the class struggle." The reality: right, but if you've got 2,000 fascists marching unopposed, that there is a major problem. It's what they represent, not what they could do. They were never particularly competent, but they represented something, and there was a continuum from them to the success of the BNP to the success of UKIP now. Now, people are seeing the size of the reactionary reservoir that the NF were trying to tap into at the time, 25 years ago.
That was the point. They knew there was something there to feed off. They were feeding off the march and the strategy of Oswald Moseley in the 1930s, which was to use violence. If nobody had stopped them, they could have done it.
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