Police try to stop anti-fascist book launch

Despite the clearly political intervention of the police, cowardly Quakers, and a handful of EDL youth, there was no stopping Tony Greensteins book launch in Brighton.

Book launches, even on the left, are supposed to be civilised, metropolitan affairs. A short speech, a few questions, a glass of wine and the tinkle of cash, as the author signs his or her book!

Last July I was invited by Brighton Labour History Workshop to deliver a speech on the fight against fascism in Brighton and on the south coast. So pleased were the organisers and those who attended that I was asked to write up and expand the speech into book form. For many years people have spoken about writing a history of the fight against fascism in Brighton, but for one reason and another it was never undertaken. Meanwhile, old activists were dying without anyone recording their memories.

The book was therefore written up, with the help of a whole box of assorted anti-fascist material that had been stored in a loft plus an old MA dissertation, and a book launch was planned for Saturday March 17. Pretty uncontroversial, you might think. However, Sussex police thought differently.

Under New Labour, the powers of the police increased enormously, as has their willingness to intervene more openly and proactively in opposing radical initiatives. On this occasion Brighton police telephoned the owners of the hall where the book launch was taking place, Friends Meeting House, warning that the book’s subject matter was “contentious” and that the English Defence League did not like it. As a result the meeting could become “violent”. This seemed to put the fear of god into the Quakers, who decided to comply with police advice that the best course of action would be to cancel the meeting.

Fortunately the meeting’s organiser managed to get it transferred to another venue - the Brighthelm Church and Community Centre, whose management was made of sterner stuff than the aptly named Quakers. When the police contacted the BCCC, its organiser had already been prewarned that this was likely, but were determined to go ahead. Because of the local publicity garnered, the attendance was at least double that which we had originally estimated.

Ironically, the actions of the police helped to build the meeting. I had made it clear that the launch would go ahead even if I had to hold it outdoors with a loudhailer. Free speech for anti-fascists would not be prevented by Brighton’s political police.

And the fascists? All seven of them, who looked no more than 15 years old, gathered outside, alongside at least 40 police - who, it seems, were intent on mounting their own picket of the meeting. One anti-fascist was arrested for suggesting that the fascists get a job! After the meeting the EDL young hooligans made their way to Churchill Square, where they proceeded to threaten a Palestine Solidarity Campaign stall.

What happened next was that hundreds of ordinary people - shoppers, youngsters out for the day - turned on them and soon the police had to provide the fascists with protection and escort them from the area!

What is worrying, however, is that under the guise of ‘public order’ the police are now actively attempting to prevail upon the owners of halls - who naturally do not want them damaged or even smashed up - to no-platform sections of the left. Far from providing reassurance that any threat from the far right will be contained, in essence the police are acting as the fascists’ messenger boys.

This is something that the left and the labour movement need to take to heart - not least when some people, even within our own ranks, are calling on the state to be given more powers to ban meetings they do not like.

The Quakers have a long tradition of hosting left, including anti-fascist, meetings. Their decision in Brighton to bow to police dictat was both surprising and cowardly. They cited their pacifist beliefs and referred to a Unite Against Fascism meeting last year when the EDL’s thugs were repulsed. What better way to embolden fascism than to give in to their threats of violence? If pacifism means anything, it means standing up actively for peace, not running away from it.

Meanwhile I’m now working on a second edition of the book!