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A fascist bookshop is not the cause of racist murders in south-east London, and calling on the authorities to close it is certainly no solution, says Kate Lawrence

Far right and wrong

On 22 April a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by racists in south-east London. It was the fourth racial killing in the area in two years, and it sparked a tide of anger from the black community.

However, since violence broke out at a demonstration called by two Militant-backed groups, Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) and Panther UK, anger over Lawrence's death has been displaced by a bitter row between rival anti-racist groups.

In the wake of Lawrence's murder, three different groups have called demonstrations in the area. Militant's march was followed by a demonstration called by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), reformed two years ago by the Socialist Workers Party. The Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), made up of members of the Labour Party and officials from trade unions and local government, has also called protests.

The row between these groups erupted after Militant's march ended in violence, when a handful of protesters escaped the attentions of Militant stewards and attacked a British National Party (BNP) bookshop in the area where the racist murders have taken place. Immediately Marc Wadsworth of the Anti-Racist Alliance accused the 'white left' of stirring up trouble. 'Their actions', Wadsworth told the Independent, 'led to black youths being beaten and arrested by the police' (15 May 1993).

Political ends

At the heart of Wadsworth's attack lay the accusation that the 'white left' was using the death of Stephen Lawrence for its own political ends. 'The justifiable anger of the youth who attended the demonstration... was exploited by the organisers', he wrote in a letter to the Guardian (18 May 1993). In case anybody thought that ARA might be hoping to use Lawrence's death for its own political ends, Wadsworth carefully pointed out in his letter that the ARA campaign 'has been guided by respect for the wishes of Stephen Lawrence's family who...publicly disassociated themselves from the destructive demonstration on Saturday 8 May'.

Wadsworth's attack on the 'white left' was rather ironic given that he is a longstanding member of the Labour Party - more white and with a worse record on race than any left group. In fact, ARA's primary motive in the row had little to do with politics. It was concerned that the violence which followed the Militant march should not be allowed to upset its own attempts to become the official voice of the black community, with special negotiating rights with local authorities and the police.

The message of Wadsworth's attack on ARA's rivals was that these groups have illegitimate political agendas. But the real problem with the Anti-Nazi League and the Militant-led groups is that they share the same dubious brand of politics as the Anti-Racist Alliance. Behind the mud-slinging, ARA, the ANL, Panther UK and Youth against Racism in Europe are all squabbling over who should have the franchise for a campaign against the 'fascist threat' in Britain. Whichever set of initials it is fronted by, such a narrow anti-fascist campaign does more harm than good.

The obsession of the left with a handful of fascists is an evasion of the real problem of racism in Britain. All of the campaigns in south-east London have focused on the presence of a BNP bookshop in the area. But south-east London has a long history of racial violence which predates the BNP presence and has nothing to do with any bookshop. This violence derives from racist attitudes which are entrenched in British society.

Top down

Racist ideas are commonplace in Britain because nationalism is at the heart of mainstream politics. Hostility towards foreigners is institutionalised from the top down, in legislation such as immigration controls which are supported by every major political party in Britain. The message behind the Tories' current Asylum Bill, for example, is that immigrants have no right to British jobs, housing and welfare. The consequence is that black people in Britain are regarded as aliens and seen as a legitimate target for attack.

Even in Germany, where the presence of far-right groups is far more significant than in Britain, the primary problem is the state clampdown on immigration. The recent government moves to impose tougher laws against immigrants and asylum-seekers has created an anti-foreign climate in which racists can feel free to launch attacks like the firebomb murder of five Turkish people in Solingen.

In Britain, where the far right is confined to a handful of boneheads in Bexley and elsewhere, it should be far clearer that it is the British state which poses the most serious threat to black people. The racist climate created by the authorities has ensured that you do not need to support the far right in order to see black people as a problem. Indeed far more racists vote Labour than BNP. The British 'fascist threat' is largely an invention of the left.

The rival anti-fascist campaigns in Britain are not only focusing on the wrong target. They are even asking the authorities which have institutionalised racism to lead the fight against it.

Over the past 25 years some 80 black people have died at the hands of the British police and prison authorities. The police force acts as the front line in the state's silent race war, occupying black inner-city areas in semi-military fashion. Yet ARA, the ANL, Panther UK and YRE appear to think that the authorities will be good enough to defend black people from attack. Each group has called on the local authority to close down the local BNP bookshop. The Anti-Racist Alliance is quite explicit about its willingness to negotiate with the police about how they can play a greater role within areas of racial tension.

Use a Condon?

Even the Socialist Workers Party, which sponsors the Anti-Nazi League, has resorted to calling on the police force responsible for violence and discrimination against blacks to fight racism. A recent edition of Socialist Worker asks why the police have failed to deal with the neo-Nazi group Combat-18. 'Combat 18's bulletins have pictures of Hitler on the front with "Race War" and "Armed Resistance" headlines', noted the editorial statement: 'Paul Condon, London's police commissioner, says the police tackle the Nazis. So why is he not organising the arrest of Combat 18 leaders?' (15 May 1993)

Raising expectations that the Metropolitan Police could deal with racists lends legitimacy to the Force that has brutalised the black communities of London on a scale which far-right sects can only dream about. Condon the anti-racist was in charge of Notting Hill police in the late eighties when they regularly swamped the area, systematically harassed black youth, and turned the annual street carnival into a massive training exercise for riot police methods. Even if Condon were to do as Socialist Worker requested, and arrest every member of the tiny Combat-18, it would do nothing to protect black people from violence and discrimination. But it would do a lot to improve the public image of Scotland Yard.

The demand shared by all the anti-racist groups for the authorities to close down the BNP bookshop in Bexley is equally dangerous. It not only trivialises the fight against racial violence by reducing it to a question of local council by-laws. It also gives the authorities carte blanche to decide what political activities are and are not to be considered legitimate. Such powers will inevitably be used to the detriment of the left. When the ANL followed up the Militant march with its own demonstration calling for the closure of the BNP bookshop in Bexley, the only thing which was banned by the authorities was the route of the march designed to pass by the bookshop.

Loss of faith

By calling on the police and the authorities to deal with racists, all of the rival campaigns risk arming the official sponsors of British racism with greater authority, while disarming anti-racists with the idea that the fight for black rights can be entrusted to the state.

The left's obsession with fascists, and its invitations to the police and the authorities to lock up neo-Nazis and ban their books, can be interpreted as a loss of faith in its own ability to lead a campaign against racism. Rather than risk unpopularity by tackling the difficult task of combating respectable racism in British society, much of the left now appeals to the British tradition of patriotic anti-fascism, and calls on the authorities to fight the Nazis on the streets of south-east London.

Meanwhile the squabble over which group can or cannot march in Plumstead has set up anti-racists everywhere for an attack on protest as a legitimate form of struggle. In the Guardian, leading black conservative Joseph Harker has used the squalid row between ARA, ANL and the Militant-led groups as an argument against demonstrating and activism. Rather than taking to the streets, said Harker, the way forward for blacks is through mainstream political progress and behind the scenes lobbying - in other words keeping their mouths shut. (14 May 1993)

The danger of narrow anti-fascist politics is that it essentially endorses the reactionary consequences of Harker's view. After all, if a handful of fascists is the problem, and Commissioner Condon is the solution, then once the police have rounded them up, what else have we got to complain about?

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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