As part of Black History Month, Thursday 18th October saw the Stand Up to Racism meeting “Fighting Racism and Fascism Today: Lessons of the Past”. It was attended by upwards of a hundred people, including students from Newcastle and many other universities, eager to hear about the impacts of racism and the far-right in our society today.
With the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and Tommy Robinson, there is no doubt that the racist right has become emboldened in recent years. It was in this context that Chris Wilkinson, Racial Equality Officer at NUSU, answered the question of why. Why decide to focus on activism in Black History Month? Because Black History is a history of activism, whose necessity is felt as strongly today, and only with knowledge of this past can we learn from it and create a united front against racism.
Director of the Research Centre for Film at Newcastle, Dr Ian McDonald, followed with a talk about Martin Luther King, and his demand for a radical solution to tackle the structural nature of racism. This led accordingly into a screening of his film FREEDOM which explores the history of anti-racism. It came in three parts, made to be shown across three screens. The first part was a celebration of present-day activism, with footage of the Antifa activists demonstrating in New York and the gleeful chants of anti-Trump protestors (“We are black; we are white; together we are dynamite!”) in London. The sheer volume alone placed the audience in the heart of a protest. Then, the film moved on to archive footage of workers in Gateshead who came out in support of Enoch Powell, whose 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech stoked racial hatred across the country. It served as a reminder of how the establishment uses racism to divide the working classes and make them turn on each other, so that they are distracted from those in power. It eerily echoed the “I’m not racist, I’m just pro-freedom of speech” rhetoric that is so often heard today within (but not limited to) the Free Tommy Robinson campaign. The film came to an end with King’s historic speech at Newcastle University in 1967, in which he made clear the role of history in anti-racism activism; “Tomorrow is today” he declared – the history of fascism and racism as well as of anti-racist and anti-fascist movements must be known if racism and fascism are to be defeated.[pullquote]She ended her speech with a helpful “How to fight racism” toolkit[/pullquote]
The next speaker was Raj Kumar Murria, representing Stand up to Racism North East. He painted a damning picture of British society, in which migrants are routinely dehumanised (called “swarms” and “rodents”) and scapegoated for problems ranging from housing and the NHS to violent crime. The inadequate police response, as well as the far-right groups that use these misconceptions to spread islamophobia, were harshly condemned by Murria. Given this situation, it is no wonder that religious hate crime has surged by 40% just this year, with over half of cases directed at Muslims. And the stakes seem to be higher than ever, as the IMF predicts a new crisis which can only accelerate the political polarisation, including the rise of fascism. This is especially worrying for the North East, since it is here that Tommy Robinson intends to stand on behalf of UKIP. Will the North East soon be the front line in the fight against fascism? Murria thought it likely, ending with a call to arms: “Live the resistance now, before we die for it later”.
Anna Kerr, another student representing Stand up to Racism, was the next to speak. She had earlier this year, in September, been responsible for organising the hugely effective counter-demonstration to the so-called Frontline Patriots who marched in Newcastle to ban the burqa. She emphasised that racism is a learnt, not innate, hatred, and that we should be aiming for a society of freedom. She left the blame for the surge in racism at the Tory government’s doorstep: the Windrush scandal; selling arms to Saudi Arabia; Boris Johnson’s appalling, racist comments about Muslim women and the failure to condemn Israel. She ended her speech with a helpful “How to fight racism” toolkit, encouraging the audience to call out people when they make casually or overtly racism remarks; to talk about racism to their family and friends; to promote anti-racism on social networks; and put pressure on the government.
Next up was Paul Weston of the Battle of Stockton Campaign, an organisation that commemorates the 1933 battle of Stockton-upon-Tees in County Durham, which saw local communists, trade unionists and Labour Party supporters face off against the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in a violent clash. The BUF was successfully driven off the streets, as their two hundred and fifty some members were met with an anti-fascist opposition ten times their number. However, Weston noted that fascism is growing in popularity, and the scale of a recent fascist demonstration in Stockton is a testament to how well-funded this movement is. To close, he highlighted the importance of holding anti-fascist events, not just counter-protests. He announced that the Battle of Stockton Campaign will be holding a free annual event, which looks to be a vibrant three-day festival with talks, stalls and music. The event is due to be held on the 7th and 8th September 2019 – something for the diary of all Newcastle students wishing to get involved in the struggle against fascism.
Then came Newcastle City Councillor, Dipu Ahad, with a talk about the lessons of history. The Holocaust, he said, started with the demonisation of minority communities, which he compared to the racist, colonialist arguments expressed during the Leave campaign. This total lack of education about the British Empire and colonisation is one factor that Ahad believes to foment racism in the UK, thus backing Corbyn’s demand that this topic be included on the curriculum. He laid into the establishment; not just the current Tory government that backs Boris Johnson’s overt racist attacks and fails to properly address the aftermath of Grenfell, but also the Blairite government’s anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, that sows racial and religious tensions in schools, and, according to Ahad, taught sixth form tutors that Calais refugees were all terrorists. On a personal level, he talked about how he came home one day to find a camera installed by police following death threats from the far-right. These are just a couple of incidents in the greater rise of the far-right which is often mobilised through social media. But Ahad drew on the proud anti-racist history of Newcastle, the first city council to give Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city when the Tory government was still calling him a terrorist, to say that we must be active in the fight against racism.
The last speaker on the panel was Paul Holborow, founder of the Anti-Nazi League, who, after seeing 15,000 marching through London throwing Nazi salutes, believes the fascist threat to be far greater than that of Mosley in the 1930s. He warned of the organisation of the far-right across Europe, with Steve Bannon (Trump’s former adviser) meeting with leading far-right figures across Europe, including Boris Johnson. Islamophobia was highlighted as a massive threat, including April third’s “Punish a Muslim Day” during which hundreds of thousands of Muslim women stayed home from work out of fear of abuse. They suffered racist shouts of “Go home!” and the ripping off of hijabs. Holborow also stressed the dangers of anti-Semitism, noting the terrifying increase in attacks on graves in Jewish cemeteries. This is a time when the rise of fascism can still be stopped, so Holborrow thought the early 1930s an apt comparison, since Hitler was not yet in power and anti-fascist resistance proved effective at clashes like Cable Street. We have seen it with the decimation of the BNP, and we can see it with all fascism with a strong front against racism and fascism. He ended with a focus on the words of Martin Luther King: “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”.[pullquote]Each speaker was proof that the far-right threat can be quashed, as long as we stand together[/pullquote]
The panel then asked for contributions from the audience, where the very real concern of a lack of African people on the majority white panel was raised. The idea of colonialism was also discussed, particularly the view that Britain didn’t just colonialise people of colour; first it colonised the working class of Britain under capitalism. The issue regarding the depoliticisation of student unions was touched upon, as well as movements that people can get involved with in order to fight racism and fascism. One key event is the National Unity Demonstration Against Fascism and Racism, to be held on 17th November in London – an important opportunity to actively oppose racism and fascism.
Stand up to Racism Newcastle’s meeting showed how the political struggles in our country are reaching a crisis point without giving in to hopelessness. Each speaker was proof that the far-right threat can be quashed, as long as we stand together, in solidarity, united. The rise of the far-right has lit the flames, but the resistance that must stop it, that is the dynamite.