A few months ago I had an encounter with four charming members of the EDL in a pub in Devon. It came after their impotent protest in Plymouth as they took the opportunity to canvass disinterested pub-goers while enjoying a post-protest beer.
Our dialogue wasn't particularly interesting (it's hard to foster gripping debate with a neanderthal) but the gist of it was them claiming to be against homophobia and violence towards women, and me asking them what they actually stood for, rather than against - a question that repeatedly left them perplexed.
I listened to their predictable rhetoric of 'British values' being undermined, the tautological and mythical threat of Sharia Law, and how one of them had fought "for them" in Afganistan; a point he seemed to think gave him a moral right to decide who should and shouldn't be welcome in this country.
Eventually he grew tied of my counter argument, said to his fascist sidekicks, "f@#k him, he's UAF" then turned to me and said in a way I knew was secretly affectionate, "we'll see you in Tower Hamlets".
I attended the anti-fascist counter protest in Tower Hamlets on Saturday, eager to keep our 'date', but alas, it wasn't to be. The government's pseudo-ban on all marches in five London boroughs for thirty days, along with a civil refusal to let them form a starting place or 'muster' points meant the EDL were reduced to gathering in a Liverpool Street car-park and a static demo in Aldgate, outside of Tower Hamlets.
However, despite what seems like an overwhelming victory for anti-fascism on the face of things, I can't help feeling a little stood-up. This was no victory for 'people power', as in effect, the 'power' of the people to voice opposition to the far-right's ideology was as curtailed by the blanket ban as much as the EDL's. In truth, many anti-fascists did march while the outnumbered EDL received what was effectively a police escort to and from their rally point where Tommy Robinson made an appearance dressed as a Rabbi in breach of his bail conditions. But this was a counter demonstration with wide-scale support; even some of those who had appealed for it to be shelved - including Mayor Rahman - took part. Calls to 'stay home' had been woefully misconceived. As George Orwell wrote, in the face of fascism, "Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist." Yet, technically, that ban is still in place, and given the recent press release by police asking the public for information on anarchists, it isn't absurd to imagine the government making similar arguments against 'anti-state troublemakers'.
In Tower Hamlets it was overcome due to the sheer numbers of people intent on taking to the streets in defiance of both fascism and draconian government measures, but what happens when people want to protest about less popular issues also unappetising to the state? To allow the EDL to march through Tower Hamlets when their intentions are clearly to intimidate would be reckless and insensitive to locals given their violent track record, but the ban isn't without problems, either.
Not only does it play into their absurd narrative of 'whites' being suppressed in favour of Sharia, taking away people's rights and voices makes them feel more vindicated and angrier, even if they are vile, deluded and totally in the wrong. This is why allowing a static protest was right.
Most protests are fundamentally anti-establishment by definition, so the state deciding which are legitimate and which are not is intrinsically problematic. As the full effect of the coalition's cuts is felt, the Tories will look to exploit every option open to them. The willingness of many to support a ban impacting on not only extreme hate-fuelled intimidation, but also peaceful resistance to it, readies the ground for them to exploit a lack of opposition to that decision based on principle alone.
There were welcome calls by speakers at the counter rally for more organisation on the left, but regretfully, nuanced ideas about the issue of a resurgent far-right and racism were mostly absent, as was any meaningful media coverage of proceedings. The lack of attention paid by the mainstream media seems odd, and perhaps rests with the predictable and correct linking of austerity cuts to rising tensions. Indeed, fascism relies on struggle and faltering economies to bloom, as was the case with The Battle of Cable Street. It also thrives when allowed to fester unexposed, so the virtual media blackout borders on negligent.
The last of the speakers to address the counter-protestors was Michael Rosen, who recited Niemöller's famous statement about the inactivity of German intellectuals in opposing the Nazi's persecution of specific groups:
"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me."
While the EDL are to be taken seriously - especially post-Breivik - and populist victory over them can rightfully be claimed, the threat they pose to the wider society is currently dwarfed by the agenda our government continues to pursue. In 'coming for' right-wing extremism, Theresa May tried to throw the baby out with the bathwater; punishing us all with the removal of a basic right as a teacher might place an entire class in detention when a culprit won't own up. The difference of course, is that the culprits here were clear to all, yet the punishment remained indiscriminate.
Perhaps most alarming is the government's justification of a ban on marches along the lines of 'cost', which could effectively play out as a capitalist government banning any opposition to capitalism because of its cost to capitalism. Genuine victory can only be claimed when governmental restrictions on hateful far-right groups come without back-door restrictions on us all to solidify its own authority. Until then, the EDL provide a convenient decoy for the coalition's attempt to crack down on the right to protest.