East Midlands Anti-Fascists have an interesting report on attempts by the far-right to stir up racial tensions in the Thurnby Lodge estate in Leicester, where a disused scout hut is set to be turned into a Muslim community centre, although As-salaam, the group set to take the building over, claim that it’ll be a resource for the whole local community. Not being a resident of the local area, I can’t say too much about the specifics of the case, but I think it’s worth trying to work out a few general guidelines to how we should react to these sorts of situations, since they’ll keep on happening for as long as multiculturalism continues to be an official state policy.
The first obvious starting point is that the BNP, EDL and Casuals United won’t have anything positive to offer, and they need to be made unwelcome. But if we’re going to have any influence over the people they’re trying to reach, anti-fascists cannot afford to be seen as the activist wing of the local council, or footsoldiers for As-salaam. Of course, white nationalists don’t have any particular respect for the truth, so they’ll try to portray us as servants of Islamism and the Labour Party whatever we do, but we need to try and behave in a way that’ll make their smears seem openly unbelievable.
At this point, some people might be tempted to suggest that we should line up with the protesters, and demand that the scout hut itself should be taken away from As-salaam and turned over to another group in the name of secularism and equality rather than of Britishness. Again, this is hard to comment on as an outsider with little knowledge of the area, but I’d feel really uncomfortable with this as well – siding with white working-class people against Asian working-class people is no better than doing it the other way around. Instead, I think we need to reject the logic of austerity altogether, and start trying to find solutions that point in the direction of everyone being able to get what they need. If there is one thing we don’t have a shortage of at the moment, it’s empty buildings, so space is not an issue – there’s no reason why there can’t be a centre run by As-salaam, and a boxing club, and a general community resource in the area.
Making this argument would be a good first step, but it’s still not enough – after all, 1001 groups have come up with brilliant ideas that they’ve suggested to the local council, and then been ignored, because that’s the way the system works. The traditional leftist strategies of “put pressure on the Labour council to do the right thing” and “vote for us to run a socialist council, and we’ll do the right thing” are worthless. I think that if we’re going to decisively win people away from the far-right, we need to demonstrate that, while our enemies on the right are ultimately just another set of politicians-in-waiting, we’re actually willing and able to do practical things to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. Normally, I’m quite skeptical of social centres as a strategy, because they take a lot of time and effort to run and can often just end up as social clubs for activists disguised as “resources for the community”, but in situations like this one, where people are already actively demanding community resources, I think trying to set up an independent social centre might be a good route to go down. Depending on the situation on the ground, squatting an empty building might or might not be a good route to go down – people are often put off by the idea of a squat, so they need a lot of work to be welcoming, and they often get evicted before they can establish any roots, but in situations like Thurnby Lodge, they might be viable as a kind of anti-fascist propaganda, sending out the message that while the BNP might say they want a new community centre, it’s anti-fascists who’re prepared to try and do the work to make one happen. Aside from that kind of relatively exciting short-term work, the only way to head off the racists is to do the time-consuming, tiring, and deeply unglamourous work of getting involved with the boxing club and other community groups who want space, helping them raise money, fill in forms, and look for suitable premises. If people stick around in these kind of groups, and put in enough work, then eventually they’ll be able to find a hearing when arguing against the “us and them” mentality that sees Muslim groups and white-dominated groups as rivals. It’ll take a lot of work, and at the end of the day you might not have anything much more interesting or radical than a boxing club to show for it. But it’s better than lining up on one side or another of a racial divide, or just chasing round after big one-day strikes, protests in London and international summits while the far-right recruits on our doorsteps.
Other stuff: Department for Work and Pensions contact centre staff are out on strike this Monday. As a general rule, I’m pretty much in favour of supporting any and all industrial action, but I think this dispute is one that it’s especially important for claimants to show solidarity for. I don’t romanticise jobcentre workers, because anyone who’s spent much time on the wrong end of their desks knows how problematic their job can be, but this strike is at least partially over demands that would directly improve claimants’ lives – the PCS union are asking for “Urgent recruitment of new staff to ease the pressure on staff and to enable CCS to provide a proper customer service”. At the moment, anyone becoming unemployed has to face lengthy waiting times on the phone when trying to get in touch with the jobcentre, and can face a wait of around a month between making a claim and getting any money. Joint action between claimants and DWP workers around these issues could be a good basis for practical unity based on seeing each other as equals, rather than just supporters or charity cases. Although this dispute is important, we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the chances of success, as the PCS themselves boast that “It is over 14 months since the last industrial action in this dispute”. Links between militant claimants and DWP workers could be a first step towards the kind of unruly, uncontrollable action that’d actually have a real effect.