Press coverage of the anti-‘Tommy Robinson’ march was wildly different to my own experiences

London Anti-Fascist Assembly banner at demo
Glen Black

I hadn’t planned to report back on Saturday’s march opposing the ‘Free Tommy’ rally in central London. I attended as an anti-fascist, not as a journalist. But mainstream reporting of the day sorely lacked some key details.

London is anti-fascist

After judges jailed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA ‘Tommy Robinson’) on 11 July, a Free Tommy event was inevitable. Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters set up two Free Tommy events in London during his prison stretch in 2018. That prison sentence, much like the one he’s currently serving, resulted from Yaxley-Lennon’s broadcast from a court that nearly collapsed a series of grooming gang trials. The English Defence League founder will serve little more than nine weeks in jail because of his 2018 stint on the inside. However, his supporters still took to central London on 3 August under the Free Tommy banner.

Two groups organised demonstrations opposing the Free Tommy event. One was Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), which has close links to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This has been a problem for many anti-fascists because the SWP reportedly sided with a senior party figure accused of rape. Anti-fascists have also pointed out that SUTR’s preferred strategy of avoiding direct confrontation with the far right is “totally ineffective”.

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The other organising group was London Anti-Fascist Assembly (LAFA), a coalition of independent anti-fascist groups. I turned up to LAFA’s meeting point, the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, at 10.30am. There was some chanting and brief talks while Queercare handed out water, snacks, and earplugs:

 

SUTR also arrived at Piccadilly Circus by 11.00am, standing on the other side of the road. The two groups moved off about half an hour later, coming together to march along Regent Street. LAFA headed up the march, notable for its large ‘London is anti-fascist’ banner, while people that turned up as part of SUTR joined at the back.

'London is anti-fascist' banner by Shaftesbury memorial fountain, Piccadilly Circus

“Effective media relations operation”

However, mainstream media coverage appeared to sideline the key role that LAFA played. The Guardian, Independent, Mirror, Evening StandardITVMetro, and Daily Mail only named and quoted SUTR. Meanwhile, the Sun barely even mentioned a counter protest. And the BBC didn’t even cover the protests, despite Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters holding their event at the BBC building in Portland Place.

Sarah Dorman, an organiser with sex worker rights group Decrim Now, called Damien Gayle out for the apparent bias on Twitter. Gayle, who co-authored the Guardian‘s report, explained it was the result of not having a reporter present:

Gayle also said that SUTR’s “effective media relations operation” meant it got top billing in the news despite what happened on the ground:

I’m not going to attack Gayle personally for his coverage. Having spent some time writing about hunting and hunt sabotage, I understand how an “effective media relations operation” is helpful for journalists covering grassroots campaigns. But it also exposes the establishment media’s in-built flaws. And it reveals the need for independent media that reflects the voices of those on the frontline of struggle.

LAFA

I asked LAFA for its point of view on the day’s events. It said:

[LAFA] took to the streets to oppose a group of far-right activists who had come to Central London. Groups from the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN), as well as several anti-fascist and anti-racist groups from other cities and towns, came down to London to support the demo…

The far-right gathering, though protected by police, was repeatedly blocked from moving by the manoeuvring of our bloc of anti-fascists. The far right tried to attack our bloc several times, but were unsuccessful… While no anti-fascists that we know of were arrested, the police’s resources – as is usually the case – were dedicated to kettling our bloc while the far right ran wild. Despite antagonism from the police, including the use of police horses, the anti-fascist bloc maintained its discipline, kept together and stayed focused on blocking the far right. When the far right attempt to mobilise in London, we will oppose them. We will not stand by as they attempt to spread their messages of hatred and division. LONDON IS ANTI-FASCIST!

Confrontation

After leaving Piccadilly Circus, the LAFA-led march faced police lines attempting to redirect it away from the Free Tommy event. It rerouted past Hanover Square before coming into contact with roaming Tommy supporters at Cavendish Square. Despite one such supporter charging into the anti-fascist march, there didn’t appear to me to be any attacks. At this point, some pushing broke out between the march and the police but it quickly died down.

However, LAFA told me that:

police pushed a female anti-fascist protester into the far-right demo, seriously endangering her safety. There was also one police officer in particular who went to attack stationary protesters who were on a path with no prior warning. He had his baton ready to go and was pushing protesters to the ground. This resulted in folks including our stewards asking him to chill out and question him as to what on earth he thought he was doing.

While we were at Cavendish Square, an anti-hunting ‘Stop the Cubbing’ march was gathering in the park. Attendees at this march, who included families with children, told me that several Tommy supporters shot verbal abuse at them. Thankfully, contrary to an earlier report by Hope Not Hate, nobody was attacked.

Line of police between Free Tommy protesters and anti-fascist protesters

LAFA’s march reached the corner of Portland Place, outside the Langham Hotel, metres from the BBC building. It remained there with police officers on foot, on horseback, and in vans tightly circling the protest. Dozens of Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters were unaccompanied by police, at one point circling around the BBC building and attempting to approach the counter-protest from behind. A police line eventually stopped them.

The two demos dispersed around 3.15pm, with those from the Free Tommy event going on to abuse the public throughout central London:

Platforming the unheard

Grassroots anti-fascism is essential to halting the spread of racism, nationalism, and other forms of oppression. LAFA is an inclusive, flexible, and anti-authoritarian network that can empower people. But SUTR is ineffective at best and hugely problematic at worst. However, the structure of mainstream media means SUTR’s slick PR machine gained it the media’s spotlight.

That’s why media willing to platform the voices of those who otherwise go unheard remains utterly essential.

Featured image via Glen Black

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  • Show Comments
    1. We could do without sectarian crap like this. Stand up to Racism is supported by the Labour Party, several unions and prominent individuals as well as the SWP. You allowed your contributor to smear the SWP by saying that we sided with a man accused of rape, an ambiguous statement that does not help to foster unity in the anti-Fascist movement.

    2. In summary, all parties involved in demonstrations had a good day out. Meanwhile, everybody else continued to lead their mundane lives.

      Yaxley-Lennon as source of entertainment has greater value to his backers when in prison than when enabled to rant and pose for pictures on the street.

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