When you think about soup kitchens, you probably think good thoughts of charity, volunteers offering a warm meal on holidays, and—maybe at the most cynical—padding your college application with community service hours. But what's going on right now in Scotland and the rest of the UK may have you rethinking every assumption you ever made about the intentions behind food banks.
As VICE revealed earlier this month, a far-right English neo-Nazi party has teamed up with a fascist Polish group to create a food bank in Glasgow for "whites only." In a new low, these blatantly bigoted groups are said to be hiding behind a charitable front to peddle their ideology. Some say it's part of a trend of hate groups attempting to normalize their rhetoric via community outreach and have dubbed them "soup kitchens of hate."
National Action is an extreme-right youth group in Britain that lionizes Hitler, Mengele, and their ilk; their target audience is said to be disenfranchised white college students; They are promoting the soup kitchen as an example of "whites helping whites," and have also stated that the soup kitchen provides "a small glimmer of hope on the streets of Glasgow… to feed and clothe the white homeless population." The group has partnered with National Rebirth of Poland—Holocaust deniers known for vandalizing the homes of Jewish people, and who are now playing an increasingly active role in the post-Brexit UK Nazi scene.
Are soup kitchens the new recruiting stations for neo-Nazis? Could the rise of bigotry in food kitchens and other forms of charitable community outreach be used by opponents of the welfare state as an excuse to bolster austerity and reduce institutionalized safety nets? Or is this just a media stunt being pulled off by a few, xenophobic radicals desperate for attention?
We asked Aamer Anwar, a prominent Scottish human rights lawyer, about the development. "These people nowadays are described as neo-fascists who prey on the most vulnerable in our society. Homelessness is not caused by refugees fleeing war torn countries, nor is it caused by ethnic minorities. These wannabe 'master race' types have no place in Scotland—one look at their website reveals their true intentions, their racism, their islamophobia and anti-Semitism," he told MUNCHIES.
But why soup kitchens? "What they are attempting to do is project themselves as a larger organization than they are in reality, which is a handful of individuals," Anwar said. "They know themselves that were they to publicize such events, they would meet robust resistance both physically as well as politically, but there is really no room for complacency as they know with the rise of the far right across Europe, there is a vacuum to fill."
As Anwar points out, preying on the homeless is not a novelty for racist groups: "There is, of course, nothing new about such tactics by the far right, nor should anyone ever forget that Hitler's Nazi's final solution also led to the murder of the homeless in concentration camps."
Similarly, Dr. John Pollard of Cambridge University, an expert on fascist and neo-fascist movements, told MUNCHIES that the strategy is "hardly a new one for fascist/Nazi/neo-Nazi organizations." He points out that Hitler and friends had a program called Winterhilfswerk des Deutschen Volkes, or "Winter Relief of the German People," and he said that today, a group called CasaPound in Italy provides food banks and soup kitchens as a front for their racist agenda. Similarly, the far-right group in Greece called Golden Dawn has also been reported to have held food hand-out events for "Greeks only," even after it was explicitly banned by the government.
Dr. Aaron Winter, a senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at the University of East London, told MUNCHIES that food banks in the UK "have been a hugely contested thing here." He explained that "since the Tory coalition came in, we've had a massive growth in food banks and the elite or establishment right has often said the reason for all the growth is because people know they can get free food—they have separated it from economic need and austerity. Other people are making the argument that there is a growth in them, because immigrants are coming and taking our benefits."
National Action is trying to mobilize pro-Brexit, disenfranchised British whites who blame multiculturalism for their ills. "That sort of grievance politics feeds into this tactic of using food banks," he explained.
But before we jump to the conclusion that so-called "soup kitchens of hate" are a new "trend" in the British neo-Nazi community, Nick Ryan, a spokesperson for Hope Not Hate, offers a word of caution. Hope Not Hate is an organization in the UK founded to "expose and undermine groups that preach hate, intolerance and division whilst uniting communities around what they have in common."
Ryan told us that the recent reports of racially segregated food banks in England are all part of "a publicity stunt with little to suggest—beyond the culpability of media hyping it up—that it is part of a wider trend." According to research gathered by Hope Not Hate, National Action is largely a splinter group formed after the political and ideological decline and fracturing of the British National Party and their youth party, now known as Resistance. The group, although not large, is using the media to promote its ideology through the soup kitchen narrative. Hope Note Hate's research suggests that these groups most certainly know how to manipulate the media and make themselves look larger and more effective than perhaps they really are.
Stepping into the mainstream and attempting to pander to disenfranchised masses via charitable community outreach seems like a strange move for a clearly fringe group like National Action. After all, its leaders believe that even Resistance, the youth wing of the far-right BNP, isn't radical enough. What's more, the group relies heavily on black bloc resistance tactics that first and foremost prioritize the power of anonymity and the illusion of a unified mass to sow dissent. If anything, this recent food bank reveals a massive lack of congruence between National Action's varied tactics.
For its part, National Action told us the following: "We've grown up in the filth left by successive sell-out politicians and don't believe the political system will solve the problems for us... It's what we are about as National Socialists; the NSDAP organized relief to the unemployed in Germany during the Depression, and we are taking inspiration from them."
As it were, it seems like at least some Glaswegians who have dedicated their lives to aiding the homeless aren't all that worried about National Action's use of community outreach. A spokesperson from Glasgow Homelessness Network told MUNCHIES, "Glasgow's great wisdom and humor comes from our working roots and our close shave with poverty and disadvantage. We recognize it, many still live it—and we rarely look in the wrong places to find the reasons for it. But what Glasgow never tolerates is people who think they're better than others. Or idiots. And so we wish these groups luck in their attempts to find accomplices to their message among Glaswegians—we suspect they'll need it."
The comments in this article have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.