As activists mobilise for UN Anti Racism Day, Brian Richardson assesses the state of racism in Britain and across Europe, and asks what anti-racists' priorities should be in the coming period.
The late Labour prime minister Harold Wilson is widely reported to have declared that “a week is a long time in politics” during a period of economic crisis in the 1960s. Literally speaking this well-worn cliché is, of course, wrong. There is, however, some truth in the dictum that sudden and unexpected events can dramatically transform the political landscape. Such has been the case both in Britain and across Europe over the past 12 months.
A year ago in Britain we were in a period of phoney war ahead of the official start of the general election campaign. With good reason we anticipated that racism would be a central feature of that campaign. A year previously a vicious anti-immigrant offensive had delivered a stunning victory for the racist populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Union elections.
UKIP topped the poll winning 25 percent of the votes and 24 seats. A similar pattern was seen across the EU, notably in France where the fascist Front National won 25 percent and 23 seats. In the wake of this UKIP’s mainstream electoral opponents, bar none, were desperate to catch up and outflank UKIP. A particular low point in 2015 came with Labour’s production of a campaign mug which promised “Controls on Immigration”.
It was in those circumstances that Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) called demonstrations in Central London, Glasgow and Cardiff on 21 March 2015. These marches were a follow-up to those we called the previous year in anticipation of the events that unfolded during the EU election. Those mobilisations did have some impact in terms of galvanising anti-racist activity. In 2014 the Nazi British National Party was wiped off the EU electoral map and since then it has faded into oblivion. Meanwhile last year UKIP’s anticipated Westminster surge was nipped in the bud. Its smug leader Nigel Farage was defeated and the party lost one of the two seats it had gained in by-elections in the intervening year. This was in no small part due to the determined efforts of anti-racists, including those gathered around the Stand Up to UKIP campaign.
While we could breathe a sigh of relief about this, we cannot labour under any illusions. UKIP did secure some 4 million votes, which would have translated into 83 seats if parliament operated on the basis of proportional representation. Clearly racism did play a key role in the distribution of votes if not seats. More broadly, the election outcome particularly in England appeared to confirm the view of analysts such as Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford that there had been a discernible, long-term move to the right on key issues including immigration.
Fast forward just three months from the depressing events of May and the landscape looked dramatically different. On 12 September 2015, SUTR convened another demonstration, this time at just two weeks notice. An estimated 80,000 people marched past the newly re-elected prime minster’s residence demanding that the government should open Britain’s borders to welcome refugees. As Socialist Review has regularly reported in recent months, the widespread outpouring of humanity by ordinary people has been inspirational. Across the length and breadth of the country people have collected provisions in schools, colleges, workplaces, among faith groups and in local communities. Workers and students have collected money and taken delegations over to the refugee camps in France and Greece with their union banners in displays of solidarity.
Nor has this been confined to Britain. Across Europe ordinary families have offered refugees a warm welcome. Where the authorities have refused to allow asylum seekers in, activists have risked their own liberty by organising transport to ferry them across the borders. In January it was a privilege for me to attend a meeting in Greece where participants spoke about families cooking extra food in order to provide a hot meal for refugees; this in a country which has been ravaged by austerity imposed by the institutions of the EU and World Bank.
Such solidarity has even been on display in some unlikely quarters. Those of us who are football fans are often on the defensive about the macho and offensive behaviour that frequently emanates from the stands. Yet even here the hoardings of football stadia have been draped with banners declaring “Refugees Welcome Here”. Furthermore, a match between two Greek sides, AEL Larissa and Acharnaikos, was briefly halted when players from both sides sat down in protest at the treatment of Syrian refugees.
This crisis is not new; stricken refugees have been arriving on Europe’s shores for years. So the question arises as to why there has been such widespread support now when previously refugees have been treated with hostility and suspicion. The plain truth is that these unsung episodes of generosity give the lie to the notion that ordinary people’s ideas are static. Their brains are not simply sponges that absorb and retain the poisonous ideas that are pumped out by politicians, the press and media. Instead they are capable of thinking for themselves and responding to the world around them. Compare that with Eton educated David Cameron’s dismissal of those enduring France’s appalling camps as “a bunch of migrants”.
Our cynical and selfish rulers have been forced to react as a result of a number of things: firstly the horrific sight of increasing numbers turning up dead or traumatised on coastal beaches; and secondly the determination of those who have arrived to break through the barriers and assert their right to asylum. The third factor has been that huge outpouring of support.
German chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that Germany was willing to take in up to 1 million refugees last year was hugely significant. It should be noted, however, that this apparent generosity was tinged with opportunism. Merkel has an eye on the long-term economic benefit an inflow of migrants might have on a country with an ageing population. Germany’s EU partners have been nowhere near as accommodating and Cameron’s government was initially stubbornly opposed to allowing in a single refugee. A sudden reversal was forced on him by the image of the toddler Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach and Cameron realised that he was on the wrong side of public opinion.
These are the changed circumstances in which SUTR has gone from being simply the banner under which the March demonstrations were called to being a critically important national organisation. Since then it has played a leading role in delivering solidarity and bringing together many of the individuals, agencies and organisations that have been active in supporting refugees. It is vitally important that this work is not limited to offering charity, important though it is to provide people with material goods. Our efforts cannot be restricted to supporting people to live in slightly less misery in camps like Calais’s infamous Jungle. Our central demand must be political: the borders should be opened.
Cameron was forced to revise his intransigent position but the commitment to allowing in 20,000 refugees directly from Syria is pitiful. Cameron’s argument that providing refuge to those already in Europe will act as a “pull factor” encouraging others is arrant nonsense. The people risking death to reach these shores are doing so because they are desperate — not because they are attracted by the miserly offerings available here. As war and poverty continue to ravage their homelands more people will be pushed out.
The transformation we have witnessed has been heartwarming but there can be no room for complacency. Scapegoating is so important to rulers who need to divide and rule that it should come as no surprise that a counterattack is in full swing. In November there were unsubstantiated claims that one of the assassins responsible for the murderous attacks on Paris revellers used a fake Syrian passport to get into Europe. Then in January came the allegation that a series of horrific sex attacks in Cologne had been carried out by marauding groups of refugee men. It has since emerged that only three of the 58 men arrested over the attacks were actually refugees — two Syrian and one Iraqi. Not surprisingly, Islamophobia, the dominant form of racism since the turn of the millennium, has been a central feature of the backlash. These claims have been deployed to argue that this is indicative of what will happen if Europe’s “progressive”, Christian culture is polluted by an influx of people from predominantly Muslim countries.
In recent weeks politicians throughout the EU have been squabbling over the Dublin Regulation and rushing to dismantle the Schengen Agreement, which abolished border controls within the EU (except the UK and Ireland, which remain outside the Schengen area). The former determines the process for examining asylum applications while Schengen is the supposedly sacrosanct provision regarding the free movement of people. Merkel’s “naivety” is being denounced, including by members of her own party, while Hungary’s previously under fire government asserts that its decision to build fences has been vindicated. Meanwhile Cameron has exploited the crisis to wring concessions out of the EU, which he hopes to use to his advantage in the forthcoming referendum.
There is some evidence to suggest that this stoking up of racism is having some impact. In Germany 222 refugee shelters were burned last year. In Britain asylum seekers in Middlesbrough whose front doors were painted a uniform colour of red, and others in Cardiff who have been forced to wear red wristbands, have been targeted and attacked. More broadly a ComRes poll for BBC Local Radio suggests that attitudes towards allowing in refugees from Syria and Libya are beginning to harden.
This should come as no great surprise in circumstances where politicians and their friends in the media are pushing a hard racist agenda. In January’s Socialist Review Saba Shiraz addressed the toxic impact of the Prevent agenda. Since then the Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph have gone on the offensive against anyone, particularly the teaching unions, NUS and Muslim groups, that seek to challenge it. Not content with a policy that has signally failed for over a decade, the government intends to go further still by introducing an Extremism Bill aimed at “vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values”.
Elsewhere Cameron’s announcement of a £20 million fund for language classes was accompanied by the threat of sanctions and an offensive claim that Muslim mothers’ inability to speak English is somehow linked to the “radicalisation” of a handful of individuals.
An important footnote to the reactionary counterattack is the renewed impetus that it has given to the far-right who are always lurking in the shadows ready to exploit mainstream vacillation. The German Islamophobic organisation Pegida has been emboldened to take to the streets in places like Leipzig and Cologne.
In Britain erstwhile EDL Nazi Tommy Robinson has been trying to establish an English offshoot and a small but extremely violent band of unreconstructed Nazis have rampaged in towns such as Dover. In order to counter them we need to remember the methods of building mass opposition that have served us well in the past.
The SUTR demonstrations on 19 March provide a critically important opportunity for anti-racists from across the board to stand up and be counted. They coincide with UN Anti Racism Day which was initiated to mark the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in apartheid South Africa. Symbolically important though that is, M19 is not simply a commemoration and certainly not a celebration of a moribund institution. Rather it is part of an international day of solidarity. The initial call came from the Greek organisation KEERFA, which continues to do vital work fighting racism and isolating Golden Dawn.
M19 has the potential to be much bigger than previous mobilisations because of the upsurge of support for refugees and the wider radicalisation we have witnessed. Jeremy Corbyn is one of the small band of principled Labour MPs who opposed his party’s opportunism on race and immigration. It is a measure of the man that his first public act as Labour leader was to speak at the 12 September demonstration. Since then he and shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott have given SUTR their enthusiastic support.
We must stretch every sinew to build broad networks of anti-racists in every locality that can both build the demonstrations on 19 March and continue the struggle after that to turn the tide against the racists.
Greek anti-fascist, KEERFA
We don’t accept this argument that the European Union is pushing now which says that all refugees are suspected terrorists, ISIS supporters. The EU leaders want to close the borders. All the racist arguments are coming now: there’s no place for them; there aren’t enough jobs and homes; they bring diseases.
So we are opposing all this — we are fighting against austerity, poverty and cuts. The anti-racist, anti-fascist movement must go hand in hand with workers’ resistance — and we demand the government and the EU provide shelter for the refugees, give them food, give them education, and so on.
It is also very important to fight against fascism because people are angry about austerity; they are looking for alternatives. The Nazis provide false solutions. We have to close that door very firmly.
And our movement is very strong. What we need is international coordination. So for us the international day of protests against racism and for refugees on 19 March is very important.
We also have to connect with the anti-war movement. We have to say to them stop bombing Syria — this is not the way to stop ISIS. This is the way to build support for ISIS! Stop supporting Erdogan’s government in Turkey. Erdogan is murdering the Kurds, he is attacking the left, attacking the trade unionists.
It is not a solution to give money — three billion euros the EU is giving now — to stop the refugees coming. The refugees are welcome; migrants are welcome — they all have rights. I’m going to fight against the government, against the European Union, to call for open borders. And this is the way to stop the Nazis and the fascists too.
19 March is the best opportunity for the whole movement around Europe to mobilise a lot of people who are not political, who are not currently in the left milieu, who are not even trade unionists. We have to go to these people and get them out on the streets. It’s a big opportunity to send a crucial message to our leaders: open the borders; refugees are welcome; we’ll stop the Nazis, and stop the war.
This is an edited extract from Petros’s speech at the Unite Against Fascism conference, London, 6 February 2016. Petros was speaking on behalf of KEERFA, the Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat.