When the EDL Came to Colchester and What Came After – Reflections on 22.05.2016

“So many people forget that the first country the Nazi’s invaded was their own.”

Abraham Erskine, Captain America: The First Avenger

In a real sense of course, it is not strictly true: after all, to suggest that the Nazi’s invaded their own country requires you to ignore 300 years of history. From the Enlightenment that brought a new wave of racist anti-Semitism, to the increasingly anti-Semitic nature of mainstream media in Germany at the turn of the 20th century and how all this helped pave the way for the growing influence of Hitler in the 1920’s. His first failed attempt at a coup in 1923 with General Eric Ludendorff didn’t prevent the formation of the Brownshirts (SA), his eventual rise to total dominance, and the building of Dachau, the first of the concentration camps, in 1933: it was less an invasion than it was the collective failure of a societies moral compass and its loss of humanity for the lives of others.

Considering how much had to happen for Hitler to take control, it is far more accurate to say that at the very least it took a great many people to look the other way – and to keep looking the other way – for the Nazi’s to come to power.

But if you are naïve enough to assume that everyone is going to stand up to white supremacy and fascism, and challenge it every time they see it, then I think I understand the sentiment.

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Last Sunday, 22nd May on the third anniversary of the brutal murder by extremists of Lee Rigby, the English Defence League had what they called a ‘memorial’ and wreath laying for the 3rd year running at the Colchester War Memorial outside the Castle Park, despite the Rigby family repeatedly calling on the EDL (and similarly Britain First and any extremist political group using the murder for their own agenda), to refrain from doing so.

Local groups, who have recently organised to help to actively welcome refugees, arranged for a friendship picnic for that afternoon and during the morning local people, unions and other groups stood in defiance of the EDL’s racism, bigoted rhetoric and the utter disrespect shown to the memory of Lee Rigby and his family.

The morning went as was expected: the police kept the 2 groups apart (13 EDL and 50 locals): the locals chanted and speeches were made. The EDL did their thing, and then were escorted away: some locals – myself included – walked over to the memorial and one of them picked up the wreath the EDL had lain, and talked about how it would be more respectful to remove it. The police asked the person who had picked it up to put it down (which they did). Unforunately that incident was reported in the local press rather inaccurately.

During the friendship picnic that afternoon, the EDL (who had been escorted out of town) returned to try and intimidate the many families there, knowing the police would not be present.  A good summary of the day can be found here.

EDL wave flags at children in Colchester Castle Park 22.05.2016
EDL wave flags at children in Colchester Castle Park 22.05.2016

 

A number of local people since then have been subjected to online and offline abuse, intimidation and harassment: for reasons I cannot discuss at this time, I am all too well aware of it. And whilst the threats and intimidation (which have also been targeted at people who were not in attendance at either event that day) is appalling, without justification and (of course) rampantly misogynistic in much of its practice, what is important is what those of us here in Colchester who seek to stand up to the racism that comes from outside of (and within) its Roman walls, learn from it.

Firstly, the abuse that has been metered out to local people – almost exclusively from people who do not live here – is, whilst frightening and unpleasant, not as violent or as relentless as that which our Muslim neighbours, and the families who have come as refugees in need of shelter, are exposed to every day.  The dominant narrative, that Muslims are dangerous and that refugees are invaders who will steal our homes, lives and identities, is a lie that is meant to dehumanise and demonise; it is meant to frighten our neighbours who are Muslim, our neighbours who have escaped bombings, depravation and fear: it meant to set them apart from us.  We might think that the intimidation of the last week gives us a flavour of that: it doesn’t. Being treated as traitors is not the same as being treated as not human.

Second, the abuse and intimidation, online and offline, (and which has been orchestrated by people almost exclusively from outside of Colchester), is a silencing tactic: the message is clearly – shut up, be quite; if you stand up to our racism and bigotry in your own home town, we will try and shut you down. Whilst the EDL (and similarly other extremist right wing groups) are very practiced at presenting a ‘respectable’ face to the police ahead of any organised event, this cloak of respectability in reality drags fear and violence in its wake. During the demonstration in September, plastic pigs heads were waved, and lots of chanting called openly for the burning of mosques – at the very same time that a mosque in London was under attack from arsonists.

Thirdly – Colchester has been increasingly targeted by right wing extremists for a few years now, and we as a town and community must confront this and recognise without flinching that there are reasons for this. Whilst much of that attention is coming from outside our town, there are many within it who believe that refugees should be feared, who think that we as a town lose by providing sanctuary to others, who cannot even believe that refugees have any real reason or need for that sanctuary in the first place.  If we can stand up and say no to the most violent and extreme of racists, then we must not be afraid to say to our friends and neighbours: we are never so impoverished that we cannot share what we have with people who have less.

Because whilst it is tempting to see the right wing extremists who come to march through our streets as invaders (and when they mostly come from outside the town, I certainly understand the inclination), they exist not because they lack freedom of thought but because people are willing to look away and say: ignore them – they will just go away if you ignore them.

But that is not true. History teaches otherwise, and whilst the conditions that allow for unchecked Islamophobia are specific to the era, the use of scapegoats by those violent extremists who wish to dominate society unchallenged, is not.

If the local authorities allow the threatened march in July (and I believe absolutely that they would be very wrong to do so), it will feel less like an invasion if we – as a town – stand up together and say: your violence, your hatred and your bigotry are not welcome here.