Anti-Fascist Network members travelled to Dover on Saturday to support the Kent Anti-Racist Network demo in support of migrants and refugee rights and against a planned far-right anti-migrant demo.
The first we heard of this a few weeks ago was when Tony Burras, a white nationalist and associate of the Pie and Mash Squad (fascist hooligans), posted an advert for a demo in Dover on 5th September. Initially it was hard to know whether this was a real thing that would amount to anything or not and over the following weeks a confusing array of right-wing grifters and wannabes piled in, making it, if anything more confusing and hard to know what was going on.
The right wing media has been fomenting a panic over migrants crossing the channel in small dinghies, pitching it as an “invasion” of unprecedented size. Nigel Farage was partly the origin of this, but the Tory government was swift to pile in, responded with dehumanising Trumpian rhetoric about “criminals” “breaking in” to Britain, deploying the armed forces against desperate refugees, appointing an ex-Royal Marine to the ludicrous role of “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander”, as well as attacking “activist lawyers” who shockingly uphold the law against a government often determined to break it by illegally deporting people.
The far-right has merrily followed the tune being played for them and started “patrolling” the coast, trying to accost migrants landing, watching from the cliffs with binoculars, and then calling a demo to blockade the port to stop the UK Border Force bussing out migrants who have been picked up. Britain First and some others have also taken to “invading” the hotels where some migrants are being housed in emergency accommodation, banging on doors intimidating people and filming it for their armchair racist followers.
In the wake of the hugely popular BLM movement that put the far-right on the back foot and coming out of lockdown, this panic over small boat crossings has given a shot in the arm to the faltering far-right and re-energised them. In opposition to BLM and their made-up “invasion” of migrants, the far-right has swung in a more explicitly white nationalist direction.
The battles of Dover
Back in 2015-16 Dover was host to series of increasingly large and increasingly violent clashes between anti-fascists and the far-right, which resulted in some of the most extreme anti-fascist confrontations seen in Britain for a long time. There were many severe injuries and multiple year prison sentences for some unlucky fash.
The memory of this hung heavy over Saturday’s demo. Many on the far-right steered well clear of the whole thing. Several significant groupings on the right thought the whole thing was a stitch up or a trap, others were wary of returning to the scene of what they did time for.
What we ended up with on the day was 100-200 members of various far-right tendencies (from full-on Nazis to Q Anon supporters and the newly launched BNP rehash Patriotic Alternative) blocking a roundabout for an hour, getting in a fight with the cops and ending up with 1 in 10 of them getting nicked for a range of relatively serious sounding offences, including racially aggravated public order, violent disorder and assaulting an emergency worker. Both of the main organisers ended up getting nicked – Nigel Marcham (AKA “The Little Veteran”) on the day and Steve Laws for stealing a dinghy (!) the day before.
This was not the huge mobilisation to “shut down Dover” they had promised. It was confusing and disorganised and clearly didn’t get the traction the organisers had been hoping for. However, it was probably not disastrous enough to stop the far-right trying again sometime soon.
One key difference from the demos of 4 or 5 years ago was the police operation. The previous battles of Dover became increasingly violent partly because Kent police stood by and let fascists viciously attack counter-demonstrators, who were then forced to defend themselves. Eventually outrage from the local press, the local MP and increasing national and international attention forced the police to respond and the later Dover demos of 2016 featured a huge amount of police brought in from London and other areas, lots of horses and giant steel barriers to block off roads. Saturday was not quite on that scale, but the police had clearly prepared for a larger right-wing demo than materialised on the day. Given the police presence it was unlikely any serious trouble would break out a la 2016, but there were several gangs of violent fascists roaming the streets, looking for an opportunity to get at anti-racist demonstrators.
Kent Anti-Racist Network pulled together a demonstration in solidarity with refugees and migrants in Market Square with about 150 people there at the high point. They did an excellent job of mobilising numbers for this in the teeth of a national right-wing apoplexy over refugees as well as a credible threat of fascist attack. As well as AFN members, there were Trade Unionists, Veterans for Peace, Green Party and Labour Party members, the mayors of Deal and Folkestone, representatives from refugee and migrant organisations and many others. The demonstration was held in memory of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a Sudanese migrant who drowned in the channel trying to reach Britain on 19th August. It is worth considering how much worse things would have been without KARN’s counter-mobilisation – the police would probably have been a lot more low key and gone easy on the fascist demo as there was no opposition. They would have been free to roam the town and the media story would have been one-sided.
Probably not the end
There were a couple of excellent additions to the day. The night before the demo, the charity Freedom From Torture projected messages on Dover’s white cliffs saying “Rise Above Fear. Refugees Welcome” among others. Someone also went out and flyposted Refugees Welcome posters all around central Dover for the fascists to see as they arrived in town.
Migrants who have succeeded in making it across the channel are rounded up by the Border Force and currently being taken to Yarlswood, the notorious women’s detention centre, which since coronavirus has been emptied of women and is now being used for channel crossing migrants. On Saturday, Movement for Justice, which has successfully organised and mobilised with the Yarlswood women for many years, held a noisy protest outside the detention centre to support detainees being imprisoned there.
This is probably not the last we will hear of this. As long as our toxic national media (coincidentally shut down for the day Saturday in an excellent action by Extinction Rebellion) keeps stoking the racist narrative and our Brexit-addled government keeps reading from the Trump playbook, Dover is going to continue to be a likely target for far-right agitators.
There is a tendency sometimes for us to leave opposition to far-right demos to “the local group” – if for example there is a right wing mobilisation in London we expect a London based organisation to organise against it, which the rest of us can just then fall in behind. This is not always a very good tendency even in the case of London, but, when like in Dover, one small town becomes the focus of a national movement of far-right groups, it is too much to just expect the locals on the ground to deal with it all, while everyone hangs back thinking it’s not our issue. If the far-right are mobilising nationally to go to Dover, we need to treat it as a national-level mobilisation too.
So keep your eyes peeled – next time we will need to mobilise more widely. We will need to get out bigger numbers in a more determined manner if we are to turn the tide on the far-right.
How you can help
If you want to help the people who have risked their lives crossing the channel only to be immediately set upon by “patriots” waving smartphones, gurning for their audience of online bigots and then disappeared by the Border Force straight into the UK’s “black sites” for migrants, here are some practical things you can do to inform yourself and help with your money and time:
1) For more info on the channel crossings and what happens to migrants when they are picked up by the Border Force see this Corporate Watch report on the UK’s detention and deportation regime.
2) Movement for Justice have established contact with channel crossing detainees inside Yarlswood, who the government is trying to deport before they have the opportunity to appeal for asylum. The government has tried to do this by denying the migrants any access to the outside world or any legal help. MFJ has a fundraiser for phone credit to enable migrants to talk to friend, family, supporters and legal representation.
3) For a brilliant example of practical solidarity with migrants that can be replicated across the country see Reading Red Kitchen – helping people with food, exercise, stimulation, English lessons etc.
4) Channel Rescue is setting up a humanitarian patrol in the Channel, based on similar efforts in the Mediterranean to monitor human rights abuses and to aid people in distress crossing the channel. They have a fundraiser to help by a boat and have started monitoring the coastline and liasing with local people on the ground in Kent.
5) Support these organisations who are working to house migrants and refugees – you can donate a spare room or help with money towards rent:
6) Support these groups working to end the practice of imprisoning migrants in indefinite detention and supporting the people who are detained:
7) And finally the brilliant CMS who have been working for years supporting people in the “jungles” on the other side of the channel: