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Is it time to ban protests?
People who took part in the March For England were clearly shaken by the opposition to the parade and the way in which it was expressed.
Marchers ran a gauntlet of jeers and boos in Queen’s Road, which eventually became impassable as opponents clashed with police.
They came under a hail of missiles and ended up surrounded by two rings of riot police in Victoria Gardens.
When I spoke to Matt Silva, spokesman for the march, on Sunday night, he said he was “appalled” by the events.
He asked: “Why? Why has this happened?”
The simple answer is that, whatever the marchers’ claims that they are not a front for the far-right English Defence League, they have not persuaded the people of the city.
By the organisers’ own admission, the 2011 event had ended up as an English Defence League (EDL) march in all but name.
This year, they pledged to ban anyone unfurling that group’s flags or chanting their songs. They reportedly asked one man who gave a Nazi salute to leave. Police confirmed they did not cause any trouble.
But whether those who take part in the March For England are put on their best behaviour, and told not to display EDL signs or sing far-right chants, is not the issue. The parade remains a Trojan horse for those views.
For example, the chant ‘No Surrender To The IRA’ has never been associated with anything other than far-right hooliganism.
Substituting the letters “UAF”, standing for Unite Against Fascism, for “IRA” at one march, in order not to sound racist, and “Taliban” at another, where there is less scrutiny, does not change the attitude behind the chant or the intimidating effect it produces.
The marchers scrabble for the moral high-ground by associating themselves with the Help For Heroes charity and the Gurkhas.
They declare their opposition to the extreme fundamentalist Islamic clerics who incite terrorism in their preaching, and conflate their street protests against those militant extremists in English towns with the battles fought by the army against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
And their absolutism means that anyone who is injured fighting for the British army must, by definition, be put on a pedestal as a martyr to their own cause.
The EDL’s ideological descent, from opposition to fundamentalism to opposition to Islamic culture as a whole, was as quick as it was inevitable.
It might be possible to insert a cigarette paper between the views of the march organisers and those of the English Defence League – but why bother?
By wading into these issues – even assuming total innocence or naivety on their part – they inevitably end up sharing a political position with far-right extremists.
And by bringing the aggressive posturing of the football crowd into the sphere of street protest, they intimidate and polarise opinions, bringing out anti-racist protests as surely as night follows day.
The counter-demonstrators on Sunday resoundingly showed the March For England it was not welcome.
Pubs showed it by closing their doors, including, notably, the Railway Bell, which had been its pre-parade base in previous years.
Protesters – joined by onlookers – showed it by turning out in far greater numbers than the marchers.
And it was certainly symbolic that when the parade was escorted out of Victoria Gardens, it was through a makeshift “ring of steel” created by parking police vans nose-to-tail along the street.
Senior officers were basically admitting that the parade could only make its return journey by carefully constructing an impenetrable corridor through which it could be escorted.
The March For England is not wanted and should not come back.
The mere fact it was delayed because of disruption to trains is enough to tell us that it is not the people of the city who are making up their numbers.
No less unwelcome, though, are the anarchists who played out another day of confrontation with police in the city centre.
The “black bloc” tactic, in which hardline protesters wear black clothes and masks or scarves to swamp police in “direct action” protests, was successfully used to disrupt the march.
In some senses concealing the face is a consequence of police tactics, in which demonstrators at peaceful events are filmed and files kept on their movements. It has emerged that this kind of surveillance has been commonplace in Brighton and that does the police no credit.
How, a demonstrator might ask, am I to oppose the Government of the day if it uses its agents – the police – to frustrate my aims and stop me sharing my point of view?
But wearing “black bloc” garb is much more than a mere insurance policy against repression.
Anonymity creates a licence to cause chaos. Not everyone resisting the police was wearing masks – that is true.
But the unknown anarchists were in the vanguard and setting the mood for that resistance.
Who is behind the masks? We cannot tell. It is the belief of at least police officers, however, that these are the same people who have taken part in confrontations at anarchic Smash EDO demonstrations in previous years.
Whoever they are, they make for an intimidating sight. Their clothing’s similarity to a uniform makes action in large numbers a powerful visual image.
In that way, both the hard-line protesters and the March For England rely on spectacle, on theatre – the marchers with their flags and raised-arm gestures, the protesters with their black clothes and face-scarves.
But must the city centre be their stage for this performance?
What about people buying essentials from the shops, heading to the beach or simply trying to move around the city in peace?
People with children in buggies should not have to worry they will be trapped in a narrow street yards from a rank of police horses.
Publicans should not have to lock their doors in case of trouble from the far right.
Shops should not stand empty as clashes prevent customers getting in.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent on policing these events.
The marchers’ hobby is marching; the anarchists’ hobby is taking on the police.
Can the rest of us not be left in peace?
There is a solution.
If police fear “serious public disorder” is likely at a march, they can apply to the Home Secretary for the power to allow only a static demonstration. This has been used for larger-scale, overtly EDL events elsewhere in the country. Opinions have been divided over the success of the tactic.
Was what we saw on Sunday “serious public disorder”? Does a child have to be crushed by a police horse, a protester killed by a baton or a police officer seriously hurt by a missile before we regard a situation as serious?
How long, in short, must we indulge these people?
Smash EDO’s “summer of resistance” is beginning in a matter of days, with a demonstration planned on May 1.
Their set-piece march on June 4 is understood to be aiming to gather mainstream appeal, with an anti-war theme and a straightforward route from North Street to Hove Town Hall.
The campaigners are being unusually open about their plans and as such we should take them at their word that clashes and disruption are not their aim.
It would be reasonable, however, for the authorities to hold in reserve the threatened sanction of banning all but a static protest.
If a group – whether far right, far left or anarchist – cannot make its point without shattering the peace, next time it should not be given the benefit of the doubt.