On Saturday 17 October, two very different protest groups clashed in Bristol.
Bristol United Patriots, a splinter group of the BNP, operating on a platform very similar to the EDL and Britain First, stated that they were to hold a rally, protesting against homelessness among veterans.
This alone, seemed interesting – a far-right demonstration with a positive message? A neo-fascist (I later found out that members of BUP have swastika tattoos – fairly damning, I feel!) group actually promoting the idea of protecting society’s vulnerable? This I had to see!
Another group, the mysterious Antifa, in this case, the offshoot Bristol Anti-fascists, said they would resist BUP’s march, form a counter-demonstration. Bristol Antifascists had said they could see through the smokescreen – that BUP’s were not planning to march against homelessness, but to spread a message of hatred towards some of the world’s most vulnerable people – the refugees from Syria’s civil war.
I wanted to give both sides a fair hearing, so decided to scope them both out.
I began by investigating Bedminster, this district was where internet sources stated both demonstration and counter-demonstration were due to occur.
On bike and on foot, I scoured Bedminster. Strangely, I could neither see nor hear either group, though there was a heavy police presence in the area; swat vans, bobbies on the beat, even a couple of police dogs, but no demonstrators – was I too late? Too early?
Eventually, after an hour of seeing no activity, I decided to leave – maybe the cops had broken up both demos before they’d even got started. Taking a circuitous exit route, in order to have one last search for either group, I hopped back on the motorbike.
Then, just as I was leaving the area, on the way out along Coronation Road, I saw police horses and vans gathered outside the Little Grosvenor pub, behind them, England flags and Knights Templar livery jutted out over the garden fence – I may have found the right wingers!
I parked up the bike on Bedminster Parade, but no sooner had I taken my lid off, than the gathering seemed to stir into motion.
Now, Bristol United Patriots had stated, in advance, that their march was going to be in protest against homeless veterans – a (half-way) noble cause. (Although, with 1 million empty homes in Britain – 1/3 of them empty long-term – there should be more than enough for veterans AND refugees).
So, although BUP’s facebook page is littered with the sort of anti-Muslim, anti-refugee guff you expect from a group with the word ‘patriot’ in its title, I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe they were caring people, who just wanted homes to be provided for injured soldiers? What would their first chant be? I wondered;
“Homes. For. Ve-ter-ans”, maybe?
“No. Home. Less-he-roes” perhaps?
Well, of course it wasn’t, although it followed the same time-signature! The first – in fact, almost the only – chant I heard from BUP was, of course;
“No. More. Re-fu-gees!”
(“No more?” I found myself thinking – we haven’t taken ANY yet, have we?!)
And so, the rabble was escorted by police horse, over Bedminster Roundabout Bridge. I followed on the bike, filtering to get up close, to see as much as I could – but I lost them as they were escorted past the Louisiana and I was, politely but firmly, prevented from biking after them by the fuzz.
So, I pulled a u-ey and sped off up round to Queens Square, eventually managing to park the bike on the South Bank of the Waterfront. All seemed to have gone momentarily silent – again, no sign of either faction.
But not for long; Still escorted by the fuzz, I heard BUP’s slurred chanting coming up the Waterfront heading over Pero’s Bridge. I decided not to follow them anymore, but to try and intercept them – head BUP off at the pass, see where they were going.
I broke into a half sprint and headed past the fountains and up Park Street. Looking down towards @ Bristol, I saw BUP being funnelled across the road. I made it up to College Green – the council buildings; that had to be where they were heading.
Up on College Green, I sat on the benches among the skaters, waiting, as another eerie silence fell – Movement and noise gradually began to emanate from the alleyway between the Marriot and the Cathedral – BUP were coming!
Where were the Antifascists? I thought desperately. So far, I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them, despite searching, and here was a fascist group about to spread their poisonous message right in the cultural heart of my vibrant, diverse city!
Then, they appeared, as if out of nowhere! Like some deus-ex-machina moment in a Middle Earth story, they erupted up Park Street at the last moment – saving the day in the nick of time!
A battalion of antifascists, clad in black hoodies and masks, stormed up the street past the entrance to the hotel – All was noisy and chaotic for a moment, before everything settled into place.
A row of black clad Antifascists now blocked the top of the stairs – Black flags, with the Triple arrow motif, fluttered as four police horses, and many officers, inserted themselves in a line between the two groups. BUP were blocked off on the stairs, stopped in their tracks – the antifascist slogan “No Pasaran” (they will not pass) came to mind.
So what now? This was a standoff – the police protecting. . . sorry ‘separating’ . . . the fascists from the antifascists.
This seemed to me to be almost a perfect result for the antifascists – BUP were now cocooned down an alleyway, unseen and unheard to the growing crowd of bystanders, their poisonous message prevented from being spread.
Bristol Antifascists, whom I have never actually seen in the flesh before, stood resolute. Many wore black masks, but many more, surrounding the group, had their faces shown. These antifascist ambassadors talked to and interacted with the crowd, while their surlier, masked, foot-soldiers kept up their vigil on the cops and the fascists.
A banner was unfurled – “Migrants Welcome, Nazis Not”, and a wonderful moment occurred when the local skater kids posed for photos and threw some shapes in front of the banner.
So who were these antifascists? These strange, stealthy people who come out of the shadows, whenever fascism rears its ugly head?
It was hard to tell, behind the masks, who exactly they were, but I saw dreadlocks, Mohawks, flesh tunnels – in truth, they seemed like a group of alt. kids and adults – goths, punks etc.
As I see it, this would make perfect sense. After all, at its core, fascism is a severe form of conformity – it would seem to make sense that those who would oppose it, would be an unconventional lot!
Something else I noticed about them was that, by and large, they seemed a scrawny bunch, (apart from one heavy set bloke with a chain around his neck!) – how would these skinny folks face off against a bull-necked, beer-gutted, red-faced rabble of pissed-up, angry nationalists?
I stayed close, watching as chants erupted from Antifa towards BUP.
“Follow your leader – shoot yourself, in the head!” was shouted towards BUP, a reference to Hitler’s ignoble end. As I stood on a bench, attempting to get a better view of the crowd behind the police cordon, a brief scuffle and clash erupted between the antifascists and the mounted cops – I did not see exactly what triggered this, but a police horse charge into the largely stationary antifascists resulted in split lips and bruising amongst some members of the crowd, instigating another chant;
“Get that animal, off that horse”
Antifascists are not known to get on with the police, often seeing them as unofficial bodyguards to the far-right. As the scuffle seemed to die down, one cop knelt on one protester, I suddenly heard a voice shout from behind me;
“He’s one of them!”
In an instant, a group of antifascist protesters broke off from the main group and ran at a skinhead bloke behind who had been filming – a BUP infiltrator, a known face on the far-right scene, apparently – who was promptly chased off while the rest held the line.
I thought I’d best be careful – I was filming and taking pics too, and though I had chatted to a couple of bystanders and ‘friendly face’ antifascists, I had not been introduced to the masked lot and, though I support their ideals, I did not want to get on their wrong side!
Again I stood on the bench to see if I could see BUP, hidden behind a police cordon down the alley.
One actually managed to break free and run through the Marriot, presumably getting in through a fire escape or side entrance, but as he burst through, he was promptly sent back into the hotel by an antifascist charge, before being sheltered inside by the police.
Aside from these one or two scuffles, fronting between the antifascists and the cops seemed to punctuate a stalemate at the entrance to College Green – so I thought I’d try and get a view from the BUP side.
Running round the Marriot to the bottom of the steps, I encountered a further police cordon which prevented me from seeing much of BUP from this angle either – if Antifa’s aim was to ensure ‘no platform’ for fascists, they had succeeded – in this place, I could neither hear nor see BUP, even though I was trying to – I was witnessing a message of hatred and division being stymied by community action on the part of local antifascists, honestly, it was quite inspirational!
However, the fact that BUP remained hidden to all also meant that, to the average bystander, it looked as if the antifascist’s primary beef was with the cops, not the fascists cowering behind them. I had to explain to several people that there actually was a second group of protesters – fascists – behind the police cordon, as BUP could not be seen at all.
After another period of tension and inertia back up on the College Green end, a group of antifascists began moving off down Park Street – I did not know if this was a decision to try and outmanoeuvre BUP, or if they were being lead away by the cops, but followed as close as I dared. The voice of a female antifascist cried out;
“Don’t get kettled!”
And the group moving down the street seemed to spread out, to keep themselves from being surrounded by cops.
But before this smaller group could get down Park Street and around, the road – traffic and all – was blocked by cops. Obviously, counter to the police’s plans, the group went back up the hill, unkettled, and re-joined the main barricade.
Inertia once more.
Suddenly, there was movement – a large group – almost the entire gathering – of antifascists sprinted off towards the west end of College Green and down the steps West of the cathedral.
I had no idea what had caused this sudden movement, and felt caught between two stalls – do I stay here, in case BUP – who I still could not see – tried to make a break for it up the stairs, or do I follow the runners to see what they were up to?
I, and the skater kids, opted to follow the runners. I could not keep up, but did manage to get down the stairs and across towards millennium square – BUP were crossing the road, momentarily poorly protected.
The two groups clashed, scuffles erupting across the road and into the square. I winced – many BUP members, who I had only just seen – were exactly what I had expected – bullish, angry, red men with thick necks and arms, being set upon by a bunch of scrawny alt. types. I Was worried this would end badly for Antifa, but I was in for a surprise…
The fascists ran! Though there were one or two scuffles, the odd punch and furious scream hurled both ways, the overwhelming momentum of the encounter was the fascists running back across Milennium Square, back towards Pero’s bridge. A group of burly, brawler types had been sent packing – running for their lives, by a skinny group of alt. types.
I looked back up and saw the steps were clear. By the time I got to Pero’s Bridge, the fighting had died down but a crowd had gathered. I picked up what I could from bystanders and cops radio chatter.
A group of BUP were now trapped in Vshed behind a cordon of cops, Bristol Antifascists having chased them inside. Glasses and chairs had apparently been thrown by both sides.
On the south side of the Waterfront, was another small group, waving England flags and military insignia. Overheard police radio chatter reporting ‘about 20 right-wing left, coupla clashes around.’
Though the fascists been chased into their holes here, I did not know if anything was happening or had happened on College Green. I ran back to the bike, rode back up and checked – the place was deserted – quieter than it usually is.
I rode round the perimeter of the whole area, but things seemed to have quietened down. BUP had been moved back, away from College Green, held back by the antifascists. They were now on south side of the river.
And that seemed to be the end.
Today had been a demonstration of the logic of the playground, played out on an adult scale in the city. A group of bullies (BUP) had decided to pick on the vulnerable members (Refugees) and had been full of strut and bluster, proudly shouting down those who have less power than themselves. . . until someone stood up to them, at which point, they ran.
It is a tale as old as time itself – if an aggressive, power hungry, hateful person decides they are going to blame someone for their problems, it won’t be the powerful, it will be the disempowered.
School bullies will pick on the minorities – attacking hating, blaming and intimidating them, but a fascist, or a bully, would never stand up to a dominant, mainstream authority. Fascists and playground bullies expect everyone else to just back down and accept that they will bully the different, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised with impunity.
But when someone actually stands up to them, fascists and bullies will back down – because that is what their ideology worships – power, strength – so when someone resists them forcefully, they run.
Put simply, fascism is a seductive, corruptive ideology – one which appeals to the animal – the pack hunter in all of us (you will never see a lone fascist – the pack, the group, the nation, the race, is their binding philosophy).
Fascism speaks to something sub-human yet still seductive inside of all of us. However, like all animal instincts, it is pragmatic, and will recognise that if it encounters something stronger than it, it will retreat. Like hyena, fascists will only attack those which are weaker than it, and, as demonstrated in Bristol last Saturday, a fascist will run from that which is stronger.
This is the only language the animalistic fascist understands – and all the more reason why, I believe, militant anti-fascism, even that involving violence, is justified. We have all seen what happens when this ideology infects people’s minds on a large scale – it is a virulent, corruptive ideology and, if given free rein to spread its message, can infect the minds of others, turning the compassionate into the cruel, the decent into the decrepit.
If Bristol Antifascists had not opposed this group with force, then they would have walked unchallenged into the centre of my city, and been free to spread their hatred into the minds of the young and vulnerable, the shoppers on Park Street, the teens hanging out on College.
If just one person was prevented from being corrupted by BUP’s divisive, hate-filled message, then I applaud the forceful resistance of Antifa.
The only thing which will stop fascism from ever reaching its crux – its activation energy – the moment it becomes mainstream, is if it is resisted wherever it occurs.
Don’t get me wrong, despite their alternative, in some ways even hippyish appearance, Bristol Antifascists, and their parent affiliation, Antifa, are not soft-touch liberals – they are prepared to use violence on the streets to oppose fascism.
What you think on this stance is your decision, but it was certainly an effective tactic in stymying BUP’s message of hatred and bigotry. While I normally abhor violence in any form, and support right of even the bigoted and hateful to freedom of speech, I would, perhaps surprisingly, end by quoting Adolph Hitler;
“Only one thing could have stopped our movement – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.”
Imagine if Germany in the 1930’s, had had a movement with the strength, passion, and, yes, the violent capacities of Antifa, how different – how much less horrific – the history of the last century could have been.