Brighton at its best: united against fascism, against the ‘March for England’, and against the English Defence League

Today the centre Brighton came to a standstill as thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators gave the few hundred on the so-called “March for England” a really hard time. Most people know that the March for England is nothing but a front for the English Defence League (EDL).

From reports on Twitter, it sounds as though there were street fights in Church Road and police horse charges in Queens Road. From reports from those on the counter-demonstration it seems as though the police may have lost control for a short while and were heavy-handed, resorting to baton charges and the use of pepper spray. All this on a glorious spring Sunday afternoon in Brighton!

Brighton has a proud record of opposing all attempts by extreme right-wing groups from marching and meeting here. A new book by the veteran anti-Nazi campaigner, Tony Greenstein, catalogues this opposition.

I understand that both the Green Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, and the Green Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, Bill Randall, were on the counter-demonstration. I understand that this was probably the first time in Brighton’s history that both the leader of the council and one of the local MPs have been on such a demonstration. After the appalling massacre in Norway, all anti-fascists, on the left and right, should have been on this demonstration. I’m sure that there were other councillors there and I would have hoped that both Conservative MPs would have realised the importance of taking a stand by being there in order to protect Brighton and Hove’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, inclusive City.

Perhaps readers could let me know which other leading politicians were there today. They, Unite Against Fascism, and the several thousand of other counter-demonstrators deserve our thanks.

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The politicisation of the police

Most people, myself included, would say that in most respects, the police in Brighton and Hove, led by the dedicated and impressive Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett, do a fine job. They are engaged with the community and responses to individual cases are good.

However, there is a growing unease about an aspect of policing that runs counter to that – the policing of political protest. Here there appears to be a different approach, and different leadership.

The policing of the Topshop / Topman protest, that led to the arrest and subsequent prosecution of nine protesters, is a case in point. The protesters were acquitted on most changes although five were found guilty of recklessly damaging two mannequins which had been knocked over as the protesters had entered a window display where they glued their hands to the window. All were cleared of damaging the windows.

Those found guilty were given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £200 towards prosecution costs. The total cost, excluding the policing of the demonstration, is estimated to have been £100,000.

The protest, which was held on December 4th last year, was aimed at drawing attention to tax avoidance by the owners of Topshop / Topman and To cuts to public expenditure. The defence given was that of ‘lawful excuse’, the same defence used by Smash EDO demonstrators at a trial last year. They had been arrested for causing £187,000 damage at the EDO MBM factory in Brighton last year. The jury decided that they had acted, with an honest and reasonable belief, to prevent war crimes being committed in Gaza.

Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion) gave evidence in support of the defendants. Hove MP Mike Weatherley condemned Ms Lucas for giving this evidence, as well as condemning the protesters. He told the Brighton Argus: “I don’t consider the prosecution was a waste of public money and condemn their actions. It is not helpful when protesters are sending a message to the world that people can take action such as this and get away with it on a technicality. They were there to cause trouble and disruption to the retail environment.”

It is important to remember that they were all found not guilty on the main charge of causing damage to the window. Their defence was accepted. And picking up on a technicality of Mr Weatherley’s own protest, much tax avoidance (not illegal itself as opposed to tax avoidance) is often based on a technicality identified by highly paid tax lawyers and accountants.

But going back to policing, Sussex Police seem to have no problem in heavy-handed policing of demonstrations including the ‘kettling’ of young teenagers on student fees and EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) demonstrations, and on anti-EDL (English Defence League) counter-demonstrations. The contrast between day to day policing and the policing of demonstrations are so contrasting one has to ask whether Graham Bartlett, a very decent man in every way, is removed from authority on these occasions.

Policing has always been politicised, but rarely more so than when policing political demonstrations. I conclude with an anecdote told to me by a prominent member of the Brighton and Hove community who was in Brighton Station during one of the EDL demonstrations. He and a row of police officers saw an EDL member giving nazi salutes and shouting abuse at what appeared to be a couple of Japanese tourists who were apparently showing fear and distress. When challenged why the EDL member had not been arrested or even spoken to, one police officer, who had witnessed the incident, said of the EDL group: “They’ve been as good as gold. It’s the other ones who cause the trouble.” I suspect the Japanese couple might disagree and it is unlikely that they will return to Brighton.

As with most things, your reputation is often only as strong as your weakest link.

Sussex Police get policing of ENA counter-demonstration totally wrong

The England Nationalist Alliance (ENA) marched through Brighton today.  About 30 of “England’s finest”, protected by several hundred police, made their way from Brighton Station to Victoria Gardens.  There was at least one police vehicle for every member of the ENA – excluding the police helicopter.

The ENA is not a Brighton-based group and they were made to feel unwelcomed. They could only take to the street protected by the police. I assume that the ENA is just a front for the English Defence League (EDL).

A group of anti-fascist demonstrators (from what I could see made up mainly of 15 and 16 year old girls) were penned into an enclosure around the Mazda Fountain (at the bottom of North Road).  This required a ridiculous number of police officers and police horses.  The biggest threat they posed to public  order would have been a mass Barbie make-over!

The ENA was escorted back to Brighton Station followed by hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators (excluding those in the Barbie-pen). Then, quite inexplicably, the police didn’t escort them onto a train back from where they came, but allowed them to leave by the station’s side entrance and into the New England Quarter and on to Circus Circus.  Staff at Circus Circus served them.  A boycott of Circus Circus is in order, me thinks.

At Brighton Station I spoke to a police officer who described the ENA as “good as gold” and that this was a free country and that they have a right to demonstrate.  (Can we assume that the police will, in future, defend the right to demonstrate for those outside the EDO factory in Brighton.

Three points for consideration:

The excessive deployment of police officers, quite unnecessary, given the numbers from ENA and the disruption caused by the police themselves;

The tactic of penning small numbers of mainly teenage girls; and

The decision to allow the ENA members to get out of the station, thereby prolonging the disruption and (one would suspect) cost of the policing operation.

This was not the finest moment for Sussex Police. It will have had the unintended consequence of politicising a significant number and, regrettably, against the police.

And one final point – where were our politicians?  There was a time when Labour councillors would lead anti-fascist demonstrations.  Perhaps not in today’s world.  But maybe a Green councillor or two?  And from our Green Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, nothing. Oh dear.  Please correct me if I am wrong, but they were noticeable by their absence.