BY 9AM, a small group of veterans and bikers had already gathered nearby to the brutish, grey, steel box that now protected the statue of Winston Churchill from further vandalism. This crew wore berets, and boldly designed t-shirts that depicted romanticised scenes from the trenches of the First World War. As fitting of their clothing, these early attendees behaved with military discipline, no drink or cigarettes to be seen. The faces were stone, wary of an anticipated attack from ‘antifa’, but also frustrated with the police who they perceive as having capitulated to the demands of radicals in the preceding weeks.
It has been a bad month for those who cling to a straight forward vision of the past. The Black Lives Matter protest movement has made remarkable and rapid progress in challenging an unreconciled colonial legacy in Britain. By pulling down the edifice of the slave owner Edward Colston in Bristol, a national debate has been forced that will likely inaugurate a new popular understanding of British history. The new narrative will be more honest than the graphics adorned on the t shirts of the far right, or shared in the narrative of media commentators in the mainstream of opinion. It is a moment of a permanent, cultural reckoning, with ramifications for everyone. It is therefore a moment of high emotions on all sides.
On the route into Parliament Square some of the remaining graffiti from the week before reminded me of that context. Spraypainted words like those still visible on the Treasury Building, had led to the steel cladding being fitted around the bronze body of Churchill. The last demonstration by BLM had been marked by controversy around two written messages that were scrawled on monuments important to the British narrative. While the words soon faded, their impression would trigger a lasting reaction from the right.
At that earlier protest Churchill’s statue had been scrawled, beneath his name, with the words ‘was a racist’, and the initials ‘BLM’ had been daubed on the Cenotaph memorial to the war dead along Whitehall. These two acts, stoked an angry backlash on far-right social media channels. Rage-filled videos did the rounds, from failed European Parliamentary candidate Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and others.
Seeking to exploit this anger, and in response to another planned Black Lives Matter demonstration, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (a collection of football hooligans) called a protest, ostensibly in defence of the monuments in London. In addition to this hooligan contingent, there were veterans who may not identify as political, and a distinct, far right element, whose soul aim was to capture the anger of the crowds and to turn it to their own, regressive agenda.
By 10am, different components of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance had begun to gather. The hooligans had co-ordinated to feed in to Parliament Square for 11 but for the moment they waited and buzzed as excited friends joined, and greeted each other warmly. Many dressed in the striking, informal uniform of the casual subculture.
What seemed very much like DFLA spotters, but may have been undercover police, looked out keenly from perches on street furnishings, and lurked at the edge of alleyways. They were distributed throughout the area surrounding Parliament Square, watching vigilantly for an antifascist, or police ambush as the football lads marched towards the monuments. If these were in-fact DFLA supporters, then they were the first glimpses of a tight operation, with tactics learnt from anti-policing, and carefully orchestrated clashes with rival firms over the decades.
On the other hand, the crowds of hooligans accumulating at the meet-points displayed scant discipline, had already begun boozing, and unlike the veterans at the monument, they were spoiling for a fight.
Journalists at Victoria Street snapped the mob with long lenses as the DFLA filtered down the long, straight road towards Parliament Square. The crowds were mindful of being identified, and the cameras drew the attention of the skinheads, thick necked hooligans, and assorted thugs that trailed up past the press. First one bottle, then three more, arched through the air and shattered at the feet of a photojournalist, the splintering sounds of broken glass echoing against the high buildings along with calls of ‘police grass’ and ‘BBC scum’. Despite uniformed police not yet being present, this masked and hooded gang of hooligans, tested but didn’t rush the press, perhaps reluctant to dirty their carefully chosen outfits with blood before the day had properly kicked off.
Filtering into Parliament square from 10:30 AM the crowds of DFLA had started to amass, allowing for us to see, by 11 AM, a cross section of the composition for the day. It was an almost exclusively white and male scene. While ages varied, the hooligans were largely a mixture of middle aged men and adolescents. Ultimately the numbers would swell to a few thousand, nowhere near the scale the DFLA achieved at their height in 2018.
British flags, a Polish flag and a heraldic flag of three lions waved above our heads as the crowd gulped at tins of beer. No party political symbols were raised high; in adherence with the demands of the DFLA organisers. But just beneath the surface, within the crowd, there were clear signs that some of the most extreme elements in the British far right were out in force, nazi elements that were not typically visible at Tommy Robinson demonstrations at the Old Bailey, during his recent court cases, for example.
Most alarmingly, some tattooed arms bore the neo-nazi Black Sun in the hot daylight, and a Totenkopf face mask (a death’s head symbol, once used by the SS) was worn in pride of place in the centre of a hooligan firm. These nazis showed little fear of cameras, and suffered no challenge from more moderate activists near to them. Later in the day a seig heil would be filmed on Oxford Street in ugly remembrance of the ideology lurking within the ranks of the nationalists. At a demonstration ostensibly for the preservation of a war monument and a war hero, whose proudest accomplishment is victory in a war against nazism, these openly neo-nazi elements went without challenge from the self-identified British patriots. It is worth stressing that these Nazi symbols were small in number, but their bearers were physically central to social groups, and were by no means marginalised by the crowd.
What ensued in Parliament Square over the course of the next few hours was a mixture of socialising and rapid moving confrontations with police that seemed to happen organically. Rushes of the mob stormed towards police at the western-most end of Parliament Square, and again at mounted police on the north-west entrance to the square. More clashes happened up towards Westminster Bridge, and repeated skirmishes at the police barriers on Whitehall resulted in metal barricades thrown by hooligans and baton strikes back from the police.
On all occasions the charges of the DFLA, while stochastic, showed how the mob could act in a practiced unison, and were unashamed of using fists, bottles and boots to attack police. Signs of some tactical planning to the otherwise chaotic clashes appeared over the course of the day. Repeatedly, when the older hooligans charged police lines, adolescents would turn their attention on press cameras, slapping at lenses and demanding that they stopped filming – vigilant to minimise evidence gathering as the violence occurred.
The social, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere in the now police-enclosed Parliament Square allowed for the party-political far right to socialise with the yobbish crowd of the DFLA, with Britain First briefly unrolling a flag for a photo opportunity, against the stated wishes of the organisers who requested that attendants avoid using political flags. A range of activists from the minor For Britain party, including several ex-BNP activists creeped around but didn’t find much of an audience in the football hooligans. Despite these attempts there was scant suggestion on the day that DFLA rabble were interested in anything more than the immediate buzz of street violence, a pastime more gratifying to them then the stale meetings and lost deposits of recent electoral, far-right vehicles.
While ‘there’s only one Lee Rigby’ chants had only just finished ringing out from the crowd in memoriam of a murdered serviceman, a tanked-up hooligan urinated next to a memorial to Keith Palmer, another British public servant who had lost his life to a terror attack. The hooligans further showed their selective gratitude to public servants by setting on police at Westminster Bridge, kicking and punching at the backs of officers when the mob thought they could evade capture. After having their fill of these attacks, the DFLA, finally bored, accepted the police offer of exit and made their way across the urine soaked pavestones they had filled with empty tins.
In dribs and drabs, several of those still hungry for a confrontation made their way to Trafalgar Square where a handful of isolated, and grim looking hooligans sat on the steps of Nelson’s Column; surrounded by a jubilant and far more numerous, BLM supportive demonstration. Officially, Black Lives Matter had rescheduled their protest in order to avoid a confrontation, but several hundred had disobeyed official requests in order to meet in defiance of the DFLA threat. Despite the media furore that has since dominated, most interactions witnessed were peaceful between the two sides. The scene of a young BLM activist talking with an Irish Traveller, twice his age, on the history of violence to Irish people ended in a third of the hooligans descending from the column and shaking hands with the BLM activists. But as the police curfew of 5 PM approached, the friendly interactions were not to last.
In Trafalgar Square at least one hooligan suffered violence from a crowd of angered BLM supporters and was escorted off by police. Elsewhere, in Waterloo, images emerged of a BLM demonstrator rescuing a fragile white hooligan from further violence by cradling the DFLA man over his shoulder, and carrying him to safety.
With over 100 arrests, and several DFLA in the hospital, the media spectacle of these scenes will be felt as humiliations by men whose masculinity is bound up with notions of warfare, might and fighting prowess. Perhaps it is premature to say, but it felt as if some of the edifice of British hooliganism’s machismo was pulled down from it’s plinth that day. Humiliation, however, is not necessarily responded to with sober self-reflection.
We will need to keep a close watch on those extremist elements who came out of the woodwork this weekend. For the ideologues, the wounded pride of resentful white men, and the violent excitement of hooligan mobs, are simply energy they can harness in a bid to destroy our communities.
The public social media accounts of Cllr Tim Wills contain the standard fare of an enthusiastic Conservative borough councillor, with posts showing him canvassing for…
Over the past 18 months, HOPE not hate have been committed to bring the Uyghur people’s suffering to light, raising awareness and campaigning for action….