The Guardian, November 25, 1994
White working class football supporters have always been targeted by the racist
right. But now an anti-fascist group is attracting support on the terraces and
it’s ready to fight fire with fire. David Eimer meets the men and women prepared
to put the boot in for the left cause.
When Beackon won a council seat in London’s Isle of Dogs on September16, 1993,
not everyone was surprised by the British National Party’s success. For the
past two years, Anti-Fascist Action had been warning that the far right was
organized - and winning. And now AFA is preaching a militant form of protest.
Formed in 1985 by veterans of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), it is a nationwide
organisation which promotes a dual policy of confronting the far right ideologically
- and physically. The group makes no apologies about what that kind of work
“It’s political, violence;” says AFA activist Danny “The fascists use it because
they think it works and if think it works, you can’t do any better than doing
it on them, only a lot harder. Whatever’s necessary to cause them to desist
from what they’re doing.”
Danny should know: he’s been involved in combating the far right since the
seventies, when he ran with Reds Against The Nazis, a group of Manchester United
fans who fought the National Front. Now he’s one of the top men (or what AFA
calls “fighting stewards”), responsible for controlling what they claim is anything
from 20 to 150 people in street confrontations. Danny sees the use of violence
as a necessary antidote to what he sees as the far right’s increasing influence
and the corresponding rise in racial incidents recorded by the police: 9,762
in England and Wales last year.
“The whole reason for the violence is that they want people to stay away, to
let them do what they want to do”
Danny explains. “If you don’t attack them, they’re free to organise politically.
But if you attack them, they can’t do that .., that’s the relevance of violence,
it’s not something you want to do.”
Like most AFA members, Danny comes from the constituency that the British National
Party (BNP) tries to recruit from: white working class youths from depressed
areas with a high proportion of ethnic minorities; and It’s their opinions that
dominate the organisation. That, in itself, sets AFA apart from the ANL or Youth
Against Racism In Europe (YRE); AFA is openly contemptuous of the students and
“smellies” who go on marches and then return to their homes in areas where the
BNP tends not to be active.
The ANL and the black-led Anti-Racist Alliance (ABA) were seen as the voice
of the antiracists. With celebrities like Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry backing
them, and with frequent references to their successful campaign against the
National Front in the late seventies, the ANL claimed that the subsequent defeat
of the BNP in Millwall showed that its policy of rallies, marches and gigs was
working. But although the BNP lost its seat, its share of the vote was 30 per
cent up on the previous council election, even though the turnout was 70 per
cent, the highest ever recorded. It is statistics like these that appear to
be prompting increasing numbers of people to question whether the ANL’s tactics
are effective. Also, the ANL is controlled by the Socialist Workers Party -
they share the same leadership - while the YRE has close links with Militant.
In contrast, AFA purport to push no political line beyond the defeat of fascism,
although there is nothing to stop individual members joining other groups.
Instead, AFA challenges the BNP on territory that is closed to the ANL, the
ARA and YRE. So, just as the BNP has always seen football fans as a fertile
source of recruits, AFA is particularly active in and around soccer grounds.
“Our attitude has been that most people aren’t fascists or anti-fascists,”
points out John from Manchester AFA. “They’re in the middle and sometimes open
to persuasion from both. With football it tends to come from the right.”
Manchester AFA tries to redress that balance via the United fanzine Red Attitude;
crucially, though, all such efforts are by AFA members who would be at the football
anyway. “We’re not like Sky TV - here this week and there next week. There’s
no point turning up at a club you don’t support just to peddle politics,” Danny
Football is also where AFA finds most of its so-called “street fighters”. “The
thing is you get people ready-made,” explains Jo, another AFA leader. “If they
come from football, they know how to deal with the police, they understand the
gang mentality, they know how to fight and understand the psychology of the
This is particularly relevant in Scotland, where the far right are closely
tied to Ulster Loyalism; Celtic and Hibernian supporters lead the baffle against
the BNP, who in turn have a heavy presence amongst Rangers fans. “It’s been
a straight physical war,” admits Sean from Glasgow AFA. “If they hit one of
ours, we hit three of them. We’re making it clear that the anti-fascists are
setting the agenda.”
But AFA is more than just a sophisticated football firm. It produces its own
magazine, Fighting Talk, and has links with similar groups elsewhere in Europe,
like Reflex in France and the German Autonome Antaifa(M).
Many AFA members are women. Marion, for instance, is a regional organiser based
in the Home Counties. A former skinhead who flirted with the far right in the
early eighties (“I went through a stage of being a complete racist”), she now
runs one of the numerous AFA branches around the country, gathering and collating
intelligence about the far right in her area, as well as organising meetings
and fund-raising events.
Marion dismisses criticisms that the use of violence, for whatever cause, is
insupportable. “Violence isn’t the issue, it’s a tactic. It’s about disillusioning
and intimidating the fascists,” she says. “You don’t feel guilty about it; politically
it was the right thing to do.”
Their willingness to use violence makes the AFA a clandestine organisation.
Breaking up BNP meetings, kicking its paper sales off the streets and preventing
its bands from holding money-making gigs have brought AFA into conflict with
the law, and at least three AFA members have served prison terms for their part
in such events.
But they claim precedents for what they do. In the thirties, Mosley’s British
Union of Fascists (BUF) frequently encountered physical opposition, most notably
at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when thousands of people turned out on
the streets to prevent them marching through the East End.
And immediately after the second world war, the 43 Group — a collection of
mainly Jewish ex-servicemen - used its military training to play a major part
in destroying the BUF’s short-lived successor, the Union Movement.
As its name suggests, AFA is a negative reaction to the resurgence of the far
right in the UK. The BNP sensed in the Isle off Dogs that a vacuum had been
created which it could fill. Yet the ARA is in the throes of an internal power
struggle that saw its chair, Diane Abbott MP, walk out at the beginning of November
after just two weeks in charge. AFA’s approach has been heavily criticised by
other anti-racist organisations and targeted by the police, but some credit
it with disrupting the BNP’s ability to operate and organise.
Occasionally AFA’s activities reach a nationwide audience, as at Waterloo in
September1992, when it prevented hundreds of skinheads from attending a gig
by neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver, and in the process closed down the station. But
more often than not its work goes unreported and any credits often claimed
by the ANL. AFA sees itself as offering an alternative to the type of people
who might consider joining the BNP, which sets them apart from other anti-racist
groups, and in so doing, has attracted great criticism from many of them. Some
of the other anti-racist groups would like to see them disband. But this is
unlikely. With Derek Beackon planning to stand in a byelection In the Lansbury
ward in Tower Hamlets next month, it seems that Anti-Fascist Action is certain
to be around for a while yet.