Racist and anti-racists groups tried to clash yesterday. The Police spent tens of thousands trying to stop them.
Let’s not pretend I have any notions of impartiality when writing this. I am antifascist. Always. But, I think that I can still make some valid points about yesterday’s demonstration, called by the South West Infidels, (Infidel meaning “non-believer”) controlled by the police, and opposed by Bristol antifascists.
First off, a bit of a timeline of the day. Anarchist-orientated antifascists started assembling from 11am at the Fountains (here on in the “Fountains mob”, while People’s Assembly and Socialist Party-orientated antifascists assembled at around the same time on Queen Square (“the Queen Square mob”). Both groups numbered around 60-80.
At the same time 10-15 South West Infidels (SWI) were having their first pints at The Mardyke pub. Along the road, at The Bear in Hotwells, about 20 fellow travellers from other parts of the country were gathered with or without the knowledge of the police (certainly not defended by a police escort as the SWI were in The Mardyke).
The Queen Square mob set off on a march, which seemed the same old folly, but in fact turned out to be crucial to the energising of the antifascist resistance. The Fountains mob had cracked out a sound-system and were warily on the defensive against an assumed police plan to kettle them, ensuring city centre traffic flows were not further disrupted. Park Street had already been closed to accommodate a ‘Ring of Steel’ style barrier around College Green which was intended to be the final resting place of the anti-immigration march.
Things initially did not go to plan for the police. When the Queen Square “A to B” march reached “B”, they pushed on to try and link up with the Fountains mob. The police, over-confident in their overwhelming strength in numbers, tried to stop them ‘for the sake of it’, and inadvertently allowed the antifascists to switch the mood from defensive to offensive. As the Fountains mob started to drift down to where the action was, the Queen Square mob broke the police cordon, to great cheers. All of a sudden an assertive, confident mob of 100-150 antifascists started streaming out down Anchor Road and towards The Mardyke.
Simultaneously, the SWI were being shepherded towards their selected grazing spot in the Ring of Steel. News may have got through of the antifascist break-out, as The Mardyke mob seemed to get a bit agitated, and were joined by a few of The Bear in Hotwells mob (most, as old hands, stayed clear of the cordon). Fascists and Antifascists began heading towards each other, with the police forming and re-forming at points in between.
An attempt by the antifascists to block the route at the Bag O’ Nails roundabout was violently smashed by the police with a truncheon charge followed by a line of horses. After a while the SWI were delivered to their final resting place by a heavy police escort. Sources report they were then removed after an hour in police riot vans, to avoid confrontation with the antifascist mob patrolling the fence outside.
So, what were the ‘scores on the doors’ for the teams in this strange three-sided match?
Let’s deal with the easiest one first. For the South West Infidels this was a disaster. To call a national demo about such a hot topic as immigration, at a time when support for closing borders is at a modern-day high, on a dry, sunny Saturday afternoon….. and get less than 15 is a complete defeat. They must have been the laughing stock of their out-of-town supporters. Contained in their oversized steel paddock they were served up as novelty objects of ridicule for the passing shoppers and tourists. And on top of all that, (if the rumours of having to be smuggled out in police vans are true) a complete humiliation that will be hard for even their fanatical band of keyboard warriors to dress up as any kind of success. There’ll have been a few scuffles they may claim a hollow victory from, but deep down they’ll know: yesterday they made themselves irrelevant.
For the antifascists: a good day out. The usual split between anarchist-inspired and socialist-inspired mobs was overcome early, with both sides seemingly happy to work together without friction. The single, simple objective (shake off the police escort and head to the Mardyke) suited the leaderless format of the mob, and they did as much as they could in the circumstances, with only one confirmed arrest. There were lots of new faces, including many European migrants to the city, and a good mix of genders. Overwhelmingly white, but then the SWI is a white problem after all.
What about the cops? On the surface: an easy win. Heads cracked on both sides, ‘The Biggest Gang’ mobs up four counties of coppers and there were “overtime smiles” all round. A good PR job on social media, jokey signs on the Ring of Steel, media feeds of “a soft touch approach” and “protest facilitated”. A victory for liberal democracy against “extremism on both sides”, as the dangerously naive liberal twitterati would say.
But is this the whole story? Whilst the anti-immigration mob was well and truly cowed (especially if the riot van removal story is true…..) the antifascists engaged in enough mass non-compliant behaviour to allow them to regain strength and confidence after a quiet period (in Bristol at least). Too many police lines were broken for the Gold Commander’s comfort, and the youtube videos of the Bag O’ Nails heavy-handedness will undermine the media narrative.
Most of all, the question must be asked: what led Avon & Somerset to so grossly overestimate the
strength of the SWI demonstration, that they ended up blocking off Park Street for 7 hours on a Saturday and, according to Bristol 24/7, spending £100,000 on walls and wages? For a demonstration of 30 people and a counter-demonstration of 150? Can this serious failure of intelligence, leading to an almighty over-reaction, really be justified by a force feeling the front-line effects of austerity? Or, if they are to be reimbursed by Bristol Council, who in the Council authorised the spend? Could the Council have directed Avon & Somerset Police to impose a static demonstration on the SWI – at The Mardyke for instance – and then police that at a lower cost?
Should the police simply be given a blank cheque for these events, to preserve order at whatever cost to the taxpayer, or is there an expectation for an accurate risk assessment to dictate the budget? If an accurate risk assessment isn’t linked to police spending on demonstrations, as a Bristol taxpayer I’d be concerned. If the risk assessment was made and was hopelessly inaccurate, then Bristol Council should be asking questions of Avon & Somerset Constabulary as to how they got it so wrong!