You’ve probably heard the news, but if you haven’t, it goes a bit like this: British soldier gets horrifically murdered in Woolwich, by people claiming to be acting “for Islam”. White British fascists fall over themselves to demonstrate how this shows why all Muslims should be kicked out of Britain (or worse). Ordinary people react by telling fascists to **** off.
Well that’s how it went here, anyway. The EDL (English Defence League, not to be confused with, but hopefully soon to be eclipsed by, English Disco Lovers) decided that for some reason known only to themselves, it would be appropriate to march en masse through the centre of a city approximately 180 miles from Woolwich to lay a wreath for the murdered soldier, who was in no way affiliated with the EDL, at the war memorial. And they honestly expected people would see this as a mark of respect, not as a political gauntlet-throwing. Bless. I’m beyond proud to say that people of my city thronged out and stood in their way, and said no, not here.
this meant that they decided to come back the next weekend and try again, this time shipping in their mates from around the country to outnumber the cheeky local public who didn’t want them to. Busloads of oiks, not from this city, travel to this city to tell foreigners to go home. I don’t even know where to start with this one.
Anyway, my parents stood against fascism (in blitzed London and occupied Copenhagen, respectively) so I wanted to stand up and be counted. But as the day came nearer I started to wonder: Why? What can I do? I’d been invited to help carry a ‘Folk Against Fascism’ banner, but when that fell through, I thought, ‘but I’m not a folkie anyway’ (more a folk groupie). So who am I? I don’t play music, so I can’t take that with me. I don’t do angry shouting, or flag-waving, or throwing myself in front of the king’s horse. What do I do? What can I do to demonstrate, peacefully, that I am not ‘one of them’, and their fascist rants on behalf of “England” do not represent me? And the only conclusion I could come to was, I’m an embroiderer. That’s what I do. So I took my embroidery with me, and I went into town. And because I’m also a stubborn cow with my ear to the ground, I didn’t meet up with the main anti-fascist protest in the place where the police had said they could meet, I positioned myself where I knew the real action would be, and I sat on my arse, and I sewed.
A couple of friends, in the official ‘protest corral’, texted and asked why I was there, not here, and then came and joined me. It was a public space, after all, and a lovely sunny Saturday in which to be enjoying it. So when the mob with their St George’s flags and their unimaginative white t-shirts came marching and shouting into the square (escorted by more police than I’ve ever seen, even when the G8 came to town), other people who’d sneaked in leapt to their feet and started shouting back (“Fascist scum, off our streets” was the most popular). I leapt to my feet too, and made a decision – I grabbed my friend and a passing, shouting stranger, and said ‘turn your back’. So we did – there were only four of us (reduced to three when the shouting stranger couldn’t restrain his shoutiness any further and twisted away to give it more wellie), but we turned our backs on the fascists, and all they stood for. We did not engage, and we did not shout “Scum” at fellow human beings. And by Nora did I feel like a right tit.
I’d been stitching when they marched in, so although I’d left my bag (my phone, my wallet, sigh) on the City Hall steps, I had my sampler in my hand. So I carried on stitching. And my friend reached into her bag (which she *had* kept hold of, guess who has the brains in this partnership) and pulled out her English border pipes and began to play. And with the baying of the EDL thugs behind me, and the policeman’s hand on my shoulder occasionally to move me further from the ‘front line’, and the shouts of NAZI SCUM! in front of me, it was hard not to feel just a little, well, ineffective. Insignificant. Foolish.
But like I say, I’m stubborn, and embroidery is what I do, so I was damn well going to do it. My thread came off the needle at one point, and my hands were shaking so much I could barely rethread it, but I stuck it out, and so did my friend. When the EDL had had their fun and were escorted away, then I turned round, and cheered as they left. The cheers died down a bit, but when the EDL had all gone, my friend finished her tune with a flourish, and that triggered another, enormous cheer from the crowd. Which was pretty awesome. She totally ended that protest 🙂
I do not believe that shouting at or fighting with any potentially violent group achieves anything but more fighting. The EDL have chosen hatred and violence as their weapons, and they’re pretty good at using them. There was, sadly, a large contingent of “anti-fascists” who decided to use the same hatred, language and weapons as the people they were opposed to (banners saying “Smash the fash”, “Smash the EDL”, and aforementioned shouts of “Scum”, amongst other, more sweary exhortations). Slow clap to them – how that kind of thinking will ever move this world forward is beyond me. I believe that violence, in the words of Jonathan Schell, is “always a mark of human failure, and a bringer of sorrow” (from: The Unconquerable World, 2003)
So yes, I responded to the fascist invasion by turning my back and stitching. I brought some pretty, and some calm, to counter the ugly mood. And so I looked a bit silly, but so what, I still feel proud (and not a little amazed) of what I did. I may not be able to change the world, but I can stop the world from changing me. And that feels good.
And as my friend said when I expressed my feelings: Hey, at least you weren’t playing bagpipes.
***Edit to add*** An encouraging, similar form of protest has in the last few days emerged in Taksim Square, Turkey. You see, it’s a lot more effective when more than three people do it