Anti-fascists explain the importance of anonymity on demonstrations

Anti-fascists protesting Patriotic Alternative in Newquay as the Guardian legitimised the group
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This article was updated on Thursday 9 March 2023 to clarify that the demonstration happened in Newquay.

Fascist group Patriotic Alternative (PA) has been mobilising around the UK, and anti-fascists are increasingly organising counter demonstrations.

Campaigners are organising against PA in their local areas, and it’s clear that anti-fascism is strongest when it’s rooted in local communities. It’s also clear that PA are mobilising racists from around the UK to travel to wherever demos are happening. So anti-racists need to be ready to travel too, to back people up.

Black-bloc

Ten days ago, PA held a demonstration in Newquay, targeted at a local hotel, where refugees were being housed. But local group Cornwall Resists got there first, and occupied the space around the hotel for the duration of the day.

Cornwall anti-fascists organised themselves on the day as a ‘black bloc’.

Cornwall Resists were serious about the identities of people on the demonstration. The day before the protest, the group tweeted a list of what to bring, and what not to bring – including a mask, and dark unidentifiable clothing:

Read on...

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A statement from one person who joined the black bloc explained why they felt they needed to protect their identity. The statement came after fellow anti-racists levelled criticism at them for covering their faces. They said:

there has… been criticism from some… campaigners, who’ve questioned why we wore masks and complained that it made us look threatening. But while the far-right refuse to accept that communities will come together and resist their vile nonsense, it feels important to set out clearly for others why we dressed the way we did and concealed our identities.

The anti-fascist continued, explaining that wearing a mask is a way to protect yourself from organised racists, who often harass and attack their opponents. They gave the example of the threats made against Cornwall politician Nicole Broadhurst:

Firstly anti fascism, particularly militant anti-fascism, is dangerous. There are some very nasty violent racists around who spend a lot of time trying to find out our identities. The threat when they do this is very real. In 2021 we saw this locally when Penzance mayor Nicole Broadhurst received racist threats and had to have a panic alarm installed in her house. We live in our communities, some of us have children or live with vulnerable people. We will not, and should not be expected to, put our safety or the safety of our loved ones at risk.

Surveillance

The statement explained how wearing a mask is a good way to protect yourself against police surveillance, too. Both as a protection against overt filming by police, and more covert intelligence gathering tactics:

we hide our identities to resist police surveillance. Police surveillance takes many forms – from obvious police filming, to drones to body worn cameras to the [insidious] tactics of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) who were out in force on Saturday. PLOs are intelligence gatherers, masquerading as the friendly face of policing (no such thing!)…Clear messaging from Cornwall Resists before and during the protest aimed to alert those attending to their presence.
The antifascist’s statement went on to argue that masking up is all the more important in the context of the ever-increasing repressive state legislation that targets us when we organise on the streets:
New protest legislation is criminalising many forms of protest. Anti-fascists are labeled aggravated activists by the police, and you don’t need to have a criminal record to be added to a police database. Simply associating with a known person and going to several protests is enough to justify an entry. This information has, in the past, been used by the police to harass and intimidate campaigners.
No-one should face police intimidation for standing up to fascists. Meanwhile, when the Public Order Bill comes into force, protesters who haven’t even committed an offence, can be issued with Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. These are essentially banning orders that will prevent people from attending protests, stop them seeing named people, prevent them from organising online and can even be enforced by electronic tags.

Not organising with the cops ‘is a red line’

Cornwall Resists also took a stance of not negotiating with the police prior to their counter demonstration. The antifascist said that if the group had liaised with the cops, then their organisers could have been targeted. The Public Order Act allows the police to charge ‘official’ protest organisers who don’t comply with police restrictions. However, if no-one comes forward as organisers, the police can’t do this.

The campaigner insisted:

We will not allow the police to set the terms or the boundaries of our resistance – and we will not allow them to target and threaten named organisers as a result. And let’s face it, had [our] protest been organised by a group that had negotiated with the cops, it wouldn’t have happened in the same way.
They also argued that:
Not liaising with police is a red line. It keeps every one safe. And it is this collective solidarity that keeps our movements strong

Solidarity

Another anti-fascist – who attended the demo in Newquay – told the Canary how empowering it was to be part of the black bloc:

I knew I was protected and in a team with people I can trust because of us all in bloc. It made me feel so much safer knowing who was on my side.

They spoke about the feeling of solidarity that they felt with the people who joined them to protest:

Solidarity. That’s the biggest thing. Obviously solidarity with people we’re protecting, our fellow humans who deserve love and protection, but also solidarity in black bloc with comrades.

Finally, they emphasised the importance of getting out on the streets and confronting the fascists in person.

I needed to tell the fash what’s what, and that we won’t stand for them on our streets . Fuck, there’s more of us than them (fash and state) and we need to prove that in person

We need to be prepared to defend each other

This new wave of demonstrations by PA, which is hot on the heels of the group’s bigoted response to the Drag Queen Story Hour tour last year, is a challenge for our anti-racist movements.

We know from the past that if we don’t protect our identities, then we are vulnerable to being targeted by fascists. In fact, PA even targeted the Canary‘s Steve Topple online for reporting on the counter demonstration in Newquay.

Wearing a mask on demonstrations, and refusing police attempts to control us, are just some of the steps we can take, so that we are more prepared to defend ourselves and each other.

Its important to recognise that not everyone can hide their identities so easily on demonstrations. Its much harder for people of colour to stay anonymous (assuming the crowd is majority white), and it can be very difficult for people who have an easily distinguishable body shape, or physical disabilities too.

Crucially, people of colour are vulnerable to racism all the time. Not just during fascist demonstrations. And the answer to tackling fascism isn’t just to confront Patriotic Alternative when they mobilise. Its to build a strong permanent left wing and anti-racist presence in all of our communities. One that is rooted at the local level, but with connections across regions. We need to develop networks of solidarity – based on real personal connections –  that can defend themselves should they need to.

Featured image via Cornwall Resists (with permission)

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