‘Apathy and evil. The two work hand in hand. They are the same, really…. Evil wills it. Apathy allows it. Evil hates the innocent and the defenceless most of all. Apathy doesn’t care as long as it’s not personally inconvenienced.’ – JAKE THOENE
If you’re one of the people who didn’t turn up to counter protest the racist EDL in Preston city centre today, then not much. The English Defence League are an organisation who routinely band together to spew race hate on the streets of England . They hijack the St George’s flag and the Union Jack to make their point, in turn subverting the symbolism, giving the flags a whole new meaning. In my opinion, when they turn up to your city, strong anti-fascist opposition is needed. For want of a better phrase- when racists are involved, you’re either for or against them. I and other UCLan students turned out to counter protest this morning because we felt that we had to take a stand.
When I woke up this morning, I had a quick glance over the regular social networking websites. Some planning to attend the counter demo were angry and excited, ready to vent. Some statuses were those of keen journalism students, anticipating a significant news story in their university town. Others were just plain scared. I on the other hand, felt none of those things. It was an overwhelming sadness that settled itself around my shoulders early this morning. Sad at the fact that we even have to oppose racism in this day and age. Sad at the fact that these people felt the need to stir up tension in a city with a good race relations record. Sad at the fact that I had to warn my brown friends to be careful on the streets. These people seek to oppress and divide, and it almost felt like the liberation movements I eagerly learnt about all those years ago amounted to absolutely nothing.
Of course, in the face of far right extremism, a defeatist attitude amounts to nothing. So it was with a heavy heart that I trudged onto campus with a few friends to our designated meeting point, incredibly grateful for those who turned out to take a stand against such virulent, racist views. There were roughly 20 of us from UCLan altogether, and I was proud of those of us who were there.
On reaching Preston city centre, we were greeted with live music, but that didn’t hide the fact that we were pretty much penned in by barriers for our own safety. Thanks to police restrictions, the anti-fascist side of the demonstration had exactly one hour to speak and play live music in the hope of celebrating multiculturalism, before we were asked to disperse.
One hour of anti-fascist action on a day where racists rampaging through the city felt like a proverbial drop in the ocean. It was freezing cold, but I was glad I was there. Myself and a friend broke off from the crowd, darted through the back roads, and positioned ourselves in the middle of the waning English Defence League crowd. There were points when I couldn’t determine if I was shivering, or shaking in anger. The youth of some of those protestors was the most chilling factor of the day- predominantly white, predominantly male; some looked like early teens, some looked like children, whilst others were nearing their thirties. There were numerous reports of the EDL setting off smoke bombs, throwing fireworks and fighting each other. Clutching cans of alcohol; they wrapped themselves in St George’s flags and Union Jacks.
There was a strange, uneasy atmosphere in Preston today. Since moving to the city to study, I can safely say the number of racist comments I’ve had to suffer has been minimal. And I’m not even the EDL’s main target. But today, an invisible, suffocating feeling of fear blanketed the streets. It was easy to feel intimidated by groups of white men with black scarves covering their mouths and concealing their identities.
Sometime I think we live in an upside down world- a world where a person holding a sign that proclaims ‘peace and love’ is asked if they’re ‘looking for trouble’ by the police. This happened to a friend of mine who was asked to drop the placard before walking past the pub that the EDL congregated in this morning. He was warned by a representative from the same police force that allowed an organisation spreading race hate to march in a diverse city in the first place. Of course, there’s the safety factor- you could argue that we were penned in for our own safety, that my friend had to drop his placard for his own safety, and that my university’s student union didn’t promote the counter protest for student safety. But I often think that if we keep ourselves paralysed in fear, our good intentions will be rendered inert. Doing anything you can to take a stand is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.