EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Founding of the London Anti-Fascist Assembly
I breathed in the cold night air, my breath billowing out like clouds of smoke as I strode forward. It was winter in London. The cold was biting, but I was comfortably warm, protected from the elements in a warm coat and scarf. I was on my way to a secret meeting. A meeting that could signal a sea-change in the fight against the far right in London.
My destination is an undisclosed location somewhere north of the Thames where a coalition of anti-fascists were coming together to form the London Anti-fascist Assembly or LAFA. LAFA will hold its first public assembly on the 10th of February.
I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I like to get an idea of the area I’m in so that I can plot escape routes and clock exit points in preparation for any potential fascist attacks. As I walked into the room, I cast my eyes around taking everything in. A row of tables stood along one wall, opposite the tables sat a small huddle of anti-fascists drawing up their introductory notes. I was one of the first to arrive.
A young family sat in one corner, children happily playing together. The room we were in was pleasantly warm and a palpable air of determination radiated around, filling the space. It had taken me two buses, two tubes, and a brisk walk to reach the meeting.
Slowly the numbers of those not planning to attend the meeting dwindled and the remaining anti-fascists filtered in. They were a mixed group drawing from a diverse range of intellectual and cultural backgrounds; anarchists, socialists, feminists, trade unionists, anti-racism campaigners, grassroots Labour activists, and the odd undercover police officer. Those present were not uniform, but they were unified. Other than the cops all present had one overriding motivating goal in common: a determination to oppose fascism.
Many Roads Lead to LAFA
The first half of 2018 caught many on the British left by surprise. The far right was marching again and in numbers not seen for many years. Far right marchers drew strength from a recent spate of terror attacks, fears about Brexit falling through, immigration hysteria conjured up by public figures with the assistance of a milieu of competing media, and the exposure of horrific grooming gangs (and the misleading news resulting from this). Finally, there was a valid - though misdirected - frustration with the current political institutions and policies.
The United Kingdom is not the only country where fascism and the far right have been on the rise recently. The far right presence in global politics from the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to the actions of Viktor Orbán in Hungary also served as a stark reminder that if left to its own devices fascism will devour and consume all that is good, and blacken human hearts.
Early forays against the far right in 2018 left anti-fascist and anti-racist activists outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by the combined numbers of the far right and the stifling police presence. Anti-fascists were met by an opposition composed of warring ideologies from at least two different groups: the traditional far right and the meme-right. The meme-right is my name for a conglomerate of the alt-right, slick modern far right hipsters, and both groups slightly less fascist hangers-on. Naturally some figures in each faction - even leading figures - may fit under more than one label although that concept may reek too much of intersectionalism to them.
The traditional far right was led by figures like former EDL founder and leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon a.k.a Tommy Robinson, Anne Marie Waters, Gerard Batten and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (or DFLA) who split from the Football Lads Alliance after disputes about finances (yeah… it’s complicated).
Meanwhile the meme-right was represented by such an array of organisations and figures that merely listing them could take multiple paragraphs (and did in an early draft of this article). Most notably 2018 saw the rise and then decline of Generation Identity which has been described as “one of Europe's fastest growing and most prominent far right groups” by Al Jazeera and “a racist movement that calls for 'ethnopluralism', which in practice means separating and segregating people along racial lines” by the anti-hate organisation Hope not Hate.
Fault lines in the far right began to appear all the way back in May following the massively expensive (and moderately successful) Day of Freedom protest outside Downing Street organised by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon complete with flashy graphics, slick video production, a big screen, an elevated stage, and boring speeches. Following this protest and some of its fallout the movement partly fragmented. Funds also appeared to dry up somewhat leading to a general decrease in the turnout and impressiveness of the physical infrastructure organised by the far right.
In late May Tommy Robinson - a man with a collect ‘em all approach to criminal convictions - was arrested for contempt of court almost precisely a year after being arrested for the same offence. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment pushed his oft-times drunk (or near drunk) supporters onto the streets around Downing Street and Parliament in large numbers (though never quite as large as they claimed). Yaxley-Lennon’s conviction was later overturned for procedural abnormalities and referred to the attorney general for further consideration.
The apparent decline in cohesion and motivation on the far right and the equal and opposite rise in motivation on the left came to a head on October 13th 2018.
The DFLA had planned a protest and march to oppose “Islamic extremism” in central London. However, on the day their march was blocked and diverted by a more diverse and far larger number of anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigners led by a strong feminist bloc. This counter-demonstration was organised by over 35 different groups, and on the day the diversity of the groups and their tactics contributed to a decisive victory. This was an important victory for the anti-fascists who resoundingly proved that their chants of: “whose streets? Our streets!” were not just empty words.
In an attempt to harness this newfound anti-fascist strength and momentum the aforementioned secret meeting was convened in late November 2018. The meeting was attended by representatives from what I estimate to be at least 15 different groups.
The First Meeting
The First Half
The meeting began with brief introductory notes acknowledging both the strengths and weaknesses of recent anti-fascist work in London. Thought was given to what the next three to six months were going to deliver, i.e. Brexit related madness, and UKIP's ramped up presence. One salient point from the introduction was the observation that much of the anti-fascist activity in London was geared towards opposing specific events rather than building a larger movement and that this meeting would lay the foundations for this movement.
After these brief remarks, it was time to begin some group work. This consumed about half an hour, and much of interest was discussed. Within my group alone, one attendee noted that while the concept of Brexit is good, the far rights hijacking of it is not. Another suggested that a new anti-fascist organisation should create more positive events such as concerts and festivals rather than just responding to fascist violence. Yet others stressed the importance of migrant solidarity, the necessity for a diversity of tactics, and a variety of options to counter the far right ranging from “smashing” them to building solidarity in our communities.
One firm agreement was that the far right has mastered the digital eco-system. They don’t need to hand out fliers or go door knocking because they can stream their videos right into houses up and down the country. A conversation developed from this questioning how anti-fascists could generate the same influence; the greatest difficulty would be protecting any digital or media ambassadors from far right violence. One key issue raised was that anti-fascists need to be able to match the far right where they draw their biggest numbers: online and in central London.
One attendee made the point that it is not just immigrants who are under attack, it is British people such as single-parent families and the working classes. The far right threat effects everyone, not only minorities. They do not just attack individuals, they attack communities. As a result, a unified force is all but essential to help crush the fascist virus. Several activists made the useful distinction between the hardcore far right thugs and softcore concerned citizens who are drawn in. The former group needs to be rooted out of our communities, the latter needs to be shown the truth.
Much was made of the fact that anti-fascists in Berlin can draw crowds of hundreds of thousands of supporters, while in London numbers rarely rise above the very low thousands. Proposed solutions to this were supporting bottom up, rather than top-down trade unionism, and promoting the excellent work of feminist anti-fascist activists who are doing great community work. Some also recommended focussing more efforts on dealing with social issues such as drug addiction and suicide.
Other solutions to help streamline counter-demonstrations were ideas to create a toolbox for setting up the demonstrations and highlighting that a diversity of tactics is not just tactically useful but a necessity.
The Second Half
With the group work done individual groups were asked to report back key points raised to the broader group. Most groups appeared to have covered fairly similar issues to the one I had been in.
Many groups highlighted the global conditions that lead to the far right and agreed that the feelings of mass alienation need to be addressed. Others noted that the hollowing out of the left, and sparsity of compelling visions has contributed to far right recruitment. The discussion of potential counter-measures to respond to the feelings of alienation included ideas about creating celebrations, marking anniversaries, and rebuilding or working within communities.
Questions of how to best draw in undecided people were answered with suggestions which included creating shareable videos and online content, stalls in high streets, and working on political education through online and physical mediums, for example, distributing a paper or creating workshops for schools. Broader solidarity was also discussed as an essential requirement.
The difficulty of perfectly defining and delineating fascism and the far right and their supporters was raised. “We need to find a language to counter Jewish and Islamic fascism too,” one of those present remarked. With the far right having an increasingly international network those present agreed that any counter network based must be based on international solidarity of anti-fascists.
The majority of those present were keen not to alienate the supporters of similar anti-hate groups some of which have problematic histories. Rather they hoped LAFA would offer a more effective alternative based on grassroots, autonomous, local and bottom-up approaches. The importance of getting people involved rather than just lecturing them was also stressed. LAFA is seen as a potential brand to help mobilise the smaller groups that make it up and provide support to the broader anti-fascist movement.
Initial LAFA Aims
The next half hour was dedicated to discussing the aims of LAFA. This led to a spirited but ultimately productive discussion.
By the end, the consensus was that LAFA should aim to be a militant organisation with a working-class orientation designed to disrupt fascist organising. This is to be achieved using both direct action and a ramped up communications network to disrupt far right recruitment by offering an inspiring alternative.
Mechanisms to keep LAFA accessible and to prevent it from becoming another group full of “the usual people” were touched on. There was a general consensus that militant feminism and migrant solidarity were important issues to centre.
Concerns about ensuring that LAFA had the flexibility and ambition to scale effectively and safely were examined. One person remarked that “in LAFA we are organising but not an organisation.” Others disagreed with this commenting that unless people felt like they were part of something they would feel like they lack a stake in the movement.
What was certain is that those present aimed for LAFA to be open and inclusive to peoples of all genders, ethnicities, and anti-fascist traditions. It is a broad tent filled with a mishmash of ideologies but with one clear goal: combatting fascism and the far right using a diversity of tactics. This commitment to unity is written out in black and white (with a sprinkle of neon yellow - or is it green?) in LAFA’s first public statement which along with an invitation to the first public assembly boldly says: “We are all anti-fascist!”
Following the meeting representatives from a number of the gathered groups congregated and collated five key points of unity which included support for using a diversity of both proactive and reactive tactics to oppose all strains of fascism as well as a stance of being independent of the state.
During December further smaller meetings were held. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend these meetings. The next major meeting I did attend occurred in early January at the same venue as the first.
The Second Meeting
This time discussion was focused more narrowly but still managed to cover much ground. The balance of the first hour was filled with talk about the agenda for the first public LAFA meeting. Debate on what to include went back and forth and was eventually delegated to an assembly planning working group.
It was decided that transparency, accountability, and democracy should form key backbones of the coalition. LAFA has no leader, no executives, and no hierarchy. At the time of writing it currently has working groups dedicated to getting the assembly off the ground (through a variety of means). Following on from the assembly it is understood that four regional groups will be created to allow for dynamic and autonomous decision making that is local and based on relevant contexts. Those present at the founding meetings made clear they don’t want to “parachute LAFA” organisers into communities that they have no understanding of but rather let communities make their own decisions.
One thing that these early organising activities did highlight is that the accusations of anti-fascist groups being a slick operation funded by billionaires like George Soros is false. The initial email list took several attempts to get going and on the occasions that the conversation turned to funds one of those present would inevitably remark: “let’s not worry about raising funds yet - even big groups can organise without funds.”
The early January meeting ended with an agreement to meet again in late January. Many of those present also filed into one of the initial working groups.
Further meetings were held in late January, but as these concerned the event and security measures it would be unwise to cover these meetings, but any fascists be warned: your presence will not be welcome.
It remains to be seen whether these meetings will signal the sea-change their planners hope, however the palpable sense of optimism that the anti-fascists exude cannot be denied. The times they may be a changin’.
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