‘Five-nil to the BLM’
After Edward Colston’s statue was toppled on 7 June, far-right agitators such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a Tommy Robinson), the English Defence League and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance called for a mass mobilisation on Saturday, 13 June to ‘defend’ the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. They labelled it the ‘Day of the Patriots’.
Midway through the week, the official UK Black Lives Matter organisers called off their own protest for Saturday, citing concerns over clashes with the far right. Local BLM groups were encouraged to have small peaceful rallies in their area. On WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram, activists debated the pros and cons of going ahead with our march in central London on Saturday, despite UK BLM’s advice. Akala went on Instagram Live to discourage people. The momentum shifted towards not turning out. On Friday, 12 June, the world heavyweight boxing champion, Anthony Joshua, encouraged us to stay at home because of fears about fascist violence.
I talked with a small group of long-term anti-racist activists and we all agreed it was more important than ever to go out on the 13th. Why should we let the far right dictate to us when we could march? Isn’t the whole point of anti-racism to confront racists? How could we let fascists swagger around unchallenged in the streets of London?
I met with two other activists in Vauxhall at one o’clock. We had planned to link up with a hundred others in Trafalgar Square, to make our presence know to the far right who were gathered in Parliament Square. We knew we were grossly outnumbered, thanks to the campaign of discouragement during the week, and wanted to avoid a full-on confrontation. Getting into Trafalgar Square, however, took nearly two hours. As we walked there, we passed gangs of men with swastika tattoos, making Nazi salutes, and knocking back glass bottles of beer which would later be used as weapons. As we walked past one group, a man said loudly: ‘I feel sorry for you if you’re Black today.’
Mounted and unmounted police had formed a cordon around Trafalgar Square, not letting anyone in or out. We were getting text messages from the small group of protesters next to Nelson’s Column. The far right were periodically breaking through police lines to go after them. The BLM contingent – some were only teenagers – held their ground for two hours and reported only one injury.
We went through Covent Garden, where we came across more stranded and frightened BLM protesters. A few dozen of us rallied on Pall Mall East, where the atmosphere was convivial. Most of us were Black and Asian under-thirties. A lot of people said they felt they’d been sold out by the official BLM organisers, by the Labour Party, by all the major ‘anti-racist’ organisations. What would come after this, we weren’t (and aren’t) sure, but we were asserting ourselves and refusing to be bullied off the streets. A friend suggested we were clearing the streets of fascists so mainstream voices could swoop in next weekend and claim the victory for themselves. I wouldn’t disagree.
Eventually the police let us through to join the protest in Trafalgar Square. From the Charing Cross Road side, another fifty BLM protesters emerged with a boombox. There were more cries of ‘Black Power’ than ‘Black Lives Matter’; the music was NWA and Public Enemy rather than grime and contemporary hip-hop.
Over the next two hours we engaged in small battles with hovering fascist groups. There were only around three hundred of us, so we kept together. We ran up Charing Cross Road to Leicester Square where a few young far-right men were attacked but managed to escape behind police lines on Whitcomb Street. Unlike on 31 May, protesters were keen to avoid confrontations with the police, with most agreeing that we were here to show up the neo-Nazis, not the Met. We backed off and stood in the grass in the centre of Leicester Square. Bemused tourists looked on with their phones out. As we sauntered back to Trafalgar Square, the police moved in to kettle us. I shouted ‘kettle’ and dozens of us rushed backwards to open up a clear exit path through the police. Two laughing boys asked me: ‘What’s a kettle?’
Back in Trafalgar Square the music restarted and a couple of people made speeches. Two neo-Nazi types had snuck in and stupidly decided to provoke a couple of Black teenagers. Within seconds they were on the ground getting kicked. The police rushed in on horses, formed a protective circle around the two men and dragged them away to safety.
After these skirmishes, and with our numbers now at around five hundred (still fewer than the white supremacists down the road), morale was high and the loudest voices suggested we should head out onto the streets and make our presence felt to the self-declared ‘Patriots’. At around half past four we headed up the Strand with some minor police resistance. As we reached Waterloo Bridge, excited shouts of ‘take over the bridge’ filled the air. We did exactly that, the warm sun breaking through the clouds, music blaring, bus drivers honking their support. As always, we let ambulances through.
We soon abandoned the bridge when reports came in of more groups of ‘Patriots’ at Waterloo Station. Protesters charged towards the station, where several suspected fascists were thrown to the ground and kicked. One man who fought back with a glass bottle got a particularly violent beating until a photojournalist stepped in and called for a halt. The protesters stopped. The photojournalist stood by the man until the police came in to protect him.
A couple of fascists had escaped up the steps into the station, pursued by anti-racists. Two police officers tried their best to break them apart but were caught up in the scuffle. A group of racists stood at the top of the steps, launching beer bottles. BLM supporters threw back whatever they could scour. Riot police came in from the side and forced their way through, forming a human barricade at the bottom of the steps. Protesters ran up the narrow road to the bicycle racks and tried to pull down the security gate into the station. Outside the main entrance, hundreds of riot police appeared with shields and batons at the ready.
As the police geared up, and with the white supremacists recovering inside the station, we jumped around under the nearby railway bridge singing ‘Five-nil to the BLM,’ parodying the football chants of the EDL and DFLA. To get away from the police we headed to the South Bank. It was at this point that a scuffle broke out with a lone fascist and a Black protester was photographed carrying him to safety.
Outside the National Theatre we decided to cross back over Waterloo Bridge. We began singing ‘Fuck EDL’ again. ‘If you want EDL,’ someone joked, ‘don’t show up five hours late.’
It was now a quarter past six, more than an hour after a police curfew had been imposed. The Met had issued a Section 60 order, which meant they could stop and search whoever they liked. Reports later confirmed that all around the area, as far north as Euston, police were stopping every black person in sight, along with anyone who looked like a potential BLM protester. The police had blocked off the south end of Waterloo Bridge. As we reached the north side of the river, those of us at the front noticed a unit of officers bouncing up the stairs to try to block us off. We called for people to run forwards as quickly as possible. The police managed to hold us back for a moment, but we soon broke through. People began dancing around in celebration. It was premature. At the traffic lights up ahead, a dozen police vans came screeching in.
We called for people to run for it, as fast as they could, any way they could. Only a couple of dozen of us made it past the police lines before they could effectively assemble. We watched from the other side, at a cautious distance, as the riot police began swinging their batons and making arrests. A number of protesters were dragged out and pinned to the ground under the knees of three or more officers.
The whole day we’d been guided by the principles of ‘stay together’ and ‘no one left behind’, but as I spoke with a few others who had made it out, we guiltily realised there was nothing we could do. With the Section 60 order out, all we could do was somehow try to make it home without getting arrested.