Fascists came out in Carlisle and it was in doubt whether anti-fascists would pull together forces to counter this xenophobia on the street. Joe Sabatini and Elaine Bromley report.
The stand-off in Carlisle. Photo credit: Elaine Bromley.
On Saturday March 4 in Carlisle, a group of local Nazis calling themselves ‘Save our Streets’ mobilised and marched through the town centre before picketing a local hotel hosting refugees.
This is first sign of open fascist mobilisation in the city since the demise of the British National Party, and many of the activists were known local fascists. Around 100 or more Nazis mobilised at mid-day Saturday and marched in broad daylight. The route took them past most of the city’s ethnic minority owned businesses, with many closing on police advice, and the city’s mosque, whose prayer time was moved forward to protect the community.
Rather than re-routing the march away from ethnic minority premises and the mosque, the police opted for the racial profiling tactic of making ethnic minorities suffer while shepherding the fascists.
During the week, local refugee support groups, anti-fascists and others learnt about the demonstration and there were debates as to whether to respond. There was a deep split between charities and NGOs who provide refugee support and claim to be “anti-racist” and political groups with experience of fighting fascism.
On Wednesday a joint press statement was issued by group of NGOs which stated:
‘Despite a strong desire to counter-protest from many; we have been advised by the police not to. This has been a difficult decision for the organisations involved as our natural response was to come together to visibly show our solidarity. However given legitimate safety concerns we cannot in good faith ask our volunteers to attend and as such we will not be officially counter-demonstrating. We of course cannot stop people from attending or organising their own counter protest as individuals.’
Signatories included the following organisations:
Anti Racist Cumbria, Cumbria Race Equity Network, AWAZ Cumbria and those working directly with people seeking asylum and refuge here; Carlisle Refugee Action Group, City of Sanctuary Carlisle, M-Unit Carlisle, Penrith & Eden Refugee Network, West Cumbria Refugee Support Network (WCRSN), Carlisle One World Centre, Groundworks NE & Cumbria and Furness Multicultural Youth Club and Forum.
In response Carlisle Trades Council, Carlisle Against Racism, the Socialist Party and trade unions, with the support of rs21 members and various others, called for a counter demonstration to assemble an hour before the fascists at the starting point for their demonstration. With less than 48 hours-notice about 60-80 counter demonstrators mobilised including socialists, trade unionists, anarchists and even 6 local councillors (5 Labour and 1 Green). There were also a handful of students, but the demographic was overwhelmingly made up of veterans of previous anti-fascist campaigns in the city. There were also small contingents from Newcastle and from West Cumbria who showed up in solidarity. With more time and mobilisation, we could have got people down from the Scottish Borders.
It is clear that if all organisations in support of refugees had mobilised, the Nazis would have been outnumbered. Nevertheless, the counter demonstration was noisy and showed that there is a real basis for Anti-Nazi mobilising in Carlisle, but it will have to act in a polarised city.
After an hour’s stand-off in the town centre, the fascists marched in the direction of the hotel under police escort. The organisers of the counter demonstration called for everyone to stay together and held a mini-rally. They tried to ensure everyone was safe and that they would disperse in groups. A few younger people wanted to march immediately to the hotel and confront the fascists but, given the balance of forces and the approach of the police, everyone stayed together.
Later two of us went to the hotel to witness the fascists in a stand-off at the entrance to the hotel, but by 2pm they had dispersed. Sadly we witnessed many drivers honking their horns and showing support, and people had gathered in support to watch on the opposite pavement. This demonstrates the danger of fascism when it becomes an open street movement.
There is no doubt that the Nazis are emboldened and Carlisle risks being seen as a soft target. Strategically more will need to be done to outflank the organisations that have gained hegemonic position with the local refugee support movement, by appealing past them to local ethnic minority groups, Carlisle United supporters, students, public sector workers and the rank and file of trade unions.
Collectively there is a capacity to put more pressure on the police, the new Cumberland Council (which forms in April, and has a heavy Labour majority), and NGOs to protect the people they claim to be supporting, and to stop further fascist mobilisations. But after today it is going to be an uphill struggle.
As the counter-demonstrators chanted ‘the workers united will never be defeated’, we couldn’t help muttering the inverse – ‘the workers divided will always be defeated’. Let’s hope that does not become the final word.