A Tale of Two London Protests

 
by Ravi Bali

 
“Carnival of Resistance” to Trump hits London

Tens of thousands of people turned out in London and elsewhere around the UK to protest Donald Trump’s visit here from 12 to 15 July.

Of the two protests in London on the Friday of Trump’s visit, the first was a women’s march that was billed as a “casserole” protest. Women banged together pans and kitchen utensils while marching. This noisy protest, reportedly a form originating in 1970’s Latin America, expressed a subversive turning of the symbols of women’s domestic servility into a means of loud defiance. The women marchers gathered before the main march and left as a separate contingent, rather than being physically part of the larger procession. They were cheered by those on the main march, as they made an early departure to the same rally point.

The second and main march, which left from the same starting point a few minutes after the women’s march, was officially co-organised by an anti-racist campaign. This march had an intermingling of issues that has also characterised the US resistance to the Trump’s regime. There were climate change activists, those protesting the use of torture, those opposing the immigration policies, including the detention of children in cages, the women’s rights groups, LGBT groups, anti-racist and anti-war campaigns. There were Palestinian solidarity groups highlighting the effect of the Trump administration having recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Latin American people and others protesting the border wall idea and the racist actions of the American immigration enforcement agency, ICE, and many others highlighting specific grievances with this president.

The left, though present on this protest, were far outnumbered by ordinary people. This was also expressed in the number of homemade banners and placards that people brought with them. There was also a conscious effort of people to leave behind the placards they had initially accepted when they were handed out by left groups. People seemed to have an aversion to be seen as aligned with any of the organised left political groups.

On an uncomfortably hot day, people were in good spirits and were willing to talk to us, despite us having a “Marxist-Humanist Initiative” banner on our stall and promoting a pamphlet with our organisation’s name clearly spelled out. That MHI are relatively unknown in the UK suggests that it might be direct experience of left groups rather than the association with a “Marxist” tag that explains people’s wariness toward the left. One man approached me and declared himself a humanist but wondered why we declared ourselves a “Marxist” variety of it. I explained we were better understood as a humanist strand of Marxism rather than a Marxist variant of humanism, suggesting that Marx’s original writings were deeply imbued with a humanism that has since been lost in official Marxism and indeed by most of the critics of official Marxism.

While not many people referred to #TheResistance that has millions within the US opposing Trump, they were aware that the majority did not go along with Trump and cited him losing the popular vote and only retaining under 40% support in the polls. There was nobody that I spoke to that said the US population were stupid for voting for him. When asked how he won, only one made reference to Russian hacking and nobody mentioned the Electoral College. One protestor thought media bias was in favour of Trump in the way the mainstream media here historically tends to be pro-conservative. This contrasts with most of Trump supporters in the US, who (rightly) believe that most US media is critical of the president. A few people on the march stated that they thought Trump was now the most dangerous man on earth.

 

 
The demonstration was large and lively, far exceeding the 50,000 people that organisers had expected to show up. I estimated at the start of the march as it went past our stall, around 100,000 people, but newspaper reports used the organisers’ estimate of 200,000 people in total.

It was billed as a “Carnival of Resistance” and lived up to the party vibe promised, with drummers, choirs and sound systems throughout the length of the protest. After the rally in Trafalgar Square, people in costumes were dancing in the raised fountains. It was a serious protest but that did not stop people trying to keep the mood positive and even celebratory.

On the day after Donald Trump arrived in the UK, he managed to annoy people with his praise of Boris Johnson, the just-resigned foreign secretary. Johnson had quit over how Brexit was being watered down in its implementation by the Theresa May government. Trump said Johnson would make a good leader of the country. Trump also criticised the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, saying her handling of Brexit negotiations might “kill” the possibility of a US-UK trade deal and claiming that he “actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me. She wanted to go a different route”. Johnson had also recently praised Trump’s diplomatic skills, and said they were the kind needed in negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. This is a possibly sufficient reason that Trump likes him.

Trump made these remarks in an interview with The Sun newspaper, only to then dismiss it as fake news. When The Sun then made available the recording of the interview, predictably it was Trump once again who was proved to be lying.

The US President unsurprisingly announced he would this time stay well clear of central London, where even the announcements of previously planned trips provoked massive opposition. On the actual visit, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, refused to ban the flying of a large orange blimp of a baby Trump wearing a nappy. Trump has made several attacks on Khan, accusing him of being soft on terrorism. Trump’s attacks have been taken as indicative of the president’s racism. Khan is a Muslim and non-white, which is seen by many as the true reason for Trump picking on him, rather than any specific policy criticism. Trump’s tough-on-terrorism pose also generates fears that if and when America next experiences some kind of terror attack, Trump will be very keen to demonstrate his “strong” response, as an expression of his determination to show his seriousness, as though determination is all that is required to deal with terrorism.

 

 
That there was no hostility from the main protest towards the women wishing to independently self-organise and make their own separate distinct style of opposition to Trump, showed a lack of the sectarianism that might have been there in former years. Everyone seemed willing to make space for everyone else to able to make their point in their own way, without trying to insist on a forced monolithic unity. It seems Trump’s articulation of authoritarianism, his ability to tap into an already existing streak in US society and now give encouragement to it, has not only been repudiated by #TheResistance in the US. The solidarity from people on these protests in the UK, who are equally horrified by Trump, shows that this global turn to authoritarian, racist politics, causes people all over to take action in opposition. We need to help this opposition movement to develop in a consistent way along the liberatory path that it already shows clear signs of forging, and not to be distracted or diverted from its implicit goal of freedom for all.

 
The Unity Protest against Tommy Robinson, Trump and the Far-Right

On the following day (the Saturday of Trump’s visit), there was an anti-fascist counter-protest to a “free Tommy Robinson” march and rally that had been called by sympathisers of the imprisoned fascist organiser, Tommy Robinson. The counter-protest was not allowed to get anywhere near the original gathering of the fascists, which is possibly fortunate for us, as we were apparently outnumbered. Our counter-protest was just a couple of thousand people, called together by the campaign arms of the British left and supported by the traditional trade union movement.

The contrast between this and the huge anti-Trump demonstration was not just in size or even in who made up the protest, but it was also a much more sombre and serious affair, with very little in the form of independent home-made placards or banners. There were no music or costumes, and the marchers were happy to carry the “official” placards of the organisers. It was thus lacking the spontaneous expression displayed in the “Carnival of Resistance”.

This counter-protest was billed as a “Unity” march “against Tommy Robinson, Trump and the Far-Right”. It was organised through the traditional channels of the left which showed to have a much narrower appeal than the anti-Trump demonstration of the day before, even though those attending both demonstrations share many of the same concerns.

 

 
It is unusual that the fascists would ever outnumber those who opposed them on a nationally-called demonstration. This is in part due to a smart rebranding by the far-right, called the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), tapping into the fringe racist elements that have long existed around football crowds in Britain. The English Defence League (EDL) is a miniscule organisation and was formed and led by Robinson, who broke from the British National Party. The EDL’s activities have featured harassment, intimidation and threats of violence towards Muslims, along with the obvious incitement to racial hatred that is the staple of all far-right groups. The FLA seems to have been created as a recruiting vehicle for the far-right. The FLA’s raising of Tommy Robinson as a victim of the state’s repression has gained some traction. This in part
is because Robinson’s usual defence of white, Christian people in his largely mythical vision of the less diverse Britain of yesteryear, has now been rather effectively combined with a scare around foreign paedophiles, which has proved to have a wider appeal.

Tommy Robinson is a pseudonym used by the leader and founder of the EDL. Under his real name, Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, Robinson was arrested, charged and imprisoned for contempt of court. This was for consciously trying to disrupt an ongoing criminal trial by putting on his website a film of a group of Muslim men entering court as defendants on charges of running a sex grooming gang.

Robinson is also an admirer of Trump, recognising their common white nationalist outlook. This was echoed by one Trump’s ambassadors who called Robinson “the backbone” of the country. Trump has tweeted in defence of Tommy Robinson and railed against the US media for not reporting on his case; Trump, in his Tweet, spoke of the reporting ban that was placed on coverage of the case by a British court (to prevent prejudicing an ongoing trial), as a conspiracy to hush up exposure of Muslim crimes.

The other feature of the “free Tommy Robinson” rally was that the leader of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Gerard Batten spoke at it. UKIP were a major factor in pressuring the call of the referendum that resulted in Brexit, and their former leader Nigel Farage was famously at a Trump election rally in 2016. Gerard Batten in his speech at this rally spoke in defence of Robinson, and called Muslims rapists and paedophiles.

The blurring of the distinction between far-right and “respectable right” has now made its way to our shores. It already marked the relationship between the alt-right, populated by self-declared Nazis, and the Trump administration. There is a realignment of politics on the right going on in this country that fits the global pattern of the rising prominence of the far-right in political life.

 
 

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