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THE spirit of Cable Street was evoked in Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church at the weekend as the left came together to vow a fightback against the growing threat of the far right.
The solidarity event with Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop attacked by far-right activists a week earlier, attracted hundreds upon hundreds of people across the afternoon, with speaker after speaker pointing to the need to unite and fight against fascism.
The day was a celebration of culture and literature as well as a political rally.
It opened with Bookmarks manager Dave Gilchrist reading out Michael Rosen’s new poem For Bookmarks. Later Eastenders star Ann Mitchell read Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East by East End Jewish poet Bernard Kops, while messages of support flooded in from authors and bands including Chris Fowler, Josh Sutton, Thee Faction and Steve White & the Protest Family.
Trade union tributes came from the National Education Union’s Louise Regan, while a message from Union News editor Tim Lezard brought greetings from the National Union of Journalists and London Assembly City and East member Unmesh Desai offered the solidarity of his union GMB. A message from Nigel Costley, TUC South West secretary and key organiser of the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, saluted Bookmarks as “part of the Tolpuddle family.”
The attack on Bookmarks was a worrying sign of the times, Desai warned: “What happened last Saturday had a purpose to it. Fascists have to seize control of the streets.
“Before coming to power, fascists have always seized control of the streets.”
But the fight against fascism was already happening, he said, pointing to the work of Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism. “History, particularly the history of east London, shows us the way forward.
“Tommy Robinson has said he feels apprehensive in east London — well he should!” the AM said to cheers.
Recollections of the Battle of Cable Street were read out by authors including Louise Raw and David Rosenberg, with a high point Ruth Levitas bringing a message from her uncle Max, communist and Cable Street veteran who fought fascism in the 1930s.
Max Levitas’s simple message — “the struggle continues. We fight on. It’s a long struggle” — met deafening applause, as Ruth, whose father Morry was also at Cable Street, said her uncle was constantly stressing the need to organise against the far right. “It feels so very like the 1930s,” she said.
Abortion Rights UK chair Kerry Abel and Judith Orr, author of Abortion Wars, pointed to the right’s promotion of misogyny alongside racism and the threat posed to women’s rights by Donald Trump and politicians taking their cue from the US president.
But Orr wasn’t the only one to highlight the relative strength of Britain’s left, led by Jeremy Corbyn whose election to lead the Labour Party showed that “people want something different.”
Corbyn’s own message to the event highlighted the way fascists “denigrate communities to create a climate of fear. There is only one eternal answer. Solidarity to those facing these attacks.”
The significance of the attack on a bookshop wasn’t lost. Food Worth Fighting For author Sutton called the shop “a bridge to an alternative future,” while Lezard said “journalists know the power of words. Words can change the world.
“Cowards in face masks are scared of our ideas. We are many, they are few.”
Socialist author John Rees noted the Establishment’s historic hostility to freedom of speech, highlighting the state’s bid to silence radicals like John Lilburne and the Levellers.
“The wealthy and powerful always have freedom of speech,” he pointed out. “The fight for freedom of speech is the fight to hear radical and revolutionary ideas.”
Quoting Russian revolutionary Victor Serge’s reflections as he took passage on the last boat out of Marseille following the fascist takeover of France, he noted that hope for a better world would continue to inspire resistance to fascism and the importance of remembering the left’s victories as well as defeats: “The Russians and the Spaniards among us know what it is to take the world in our hands.”
Despite the gravity of the occasion many speakers struck a humorous note — with the irony of the fascist attack having boosted sales at the bookshop kicking off a comic intro to the event by feminist historian Louise Raw.
The Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History author excoriated the pathetic character of the attack, noting that there were “actually two good kinds of fascist and one of those is a spectacularly incompetent fascist.
“Nazis, you’ve pissed off the mum bloc — you are all grounded,” concluded Raw, who later in the afternoon helped chase off a gang of fascists seeking to disrupt the event.
“We did have a little sideshow when half a dozen fascists from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance turned up,” she told the Morning Star afterwards.
“It was striking that three were literally wearing uniform black shirts. I’d just been speaking about Cable Street and Londoners driving out Mosley’s Blackshirt mob.
“One claimed they wanted a debate, but when another started abusing a long-standing anti-fascist activist it became clear we were going to have to take action.
“Several of us chased them across the road and away. I was particularly impressed with the anti-fascist sisters who were at the forefront of driving them off.
“I gather a lot of old fascist ‘faces’ are popping up again from the likes of Combat 18, and it’s clear they’ve been emboldened by the dangerous, toxic rhetoric of Trump, Farage, Johnson et al.
“An organised, united front against the fascists is clearly going to be sorely needed.”
Unite Against Fascism’s Paul Sillett said the disruptive group, “well described by Louise as outriders for the DFLA,” had been adopting a common fascist tactic of filming and photographing leftwingers in order to “set them up for assault.”
Because of Bookmarks’ “proper stewarding operation” the group were identified within 20 seconds and driven off after about three minutes, he said.
“They were there at the recent People’s Assembly demo for the NHS,” he added. “They pose as journalists and pretend they want to debate, and then stick this stuff up online” so fascists can identify leftwingers and target them.
“But having dealt with the likes of Combat 18, these guys are a joke. They’re two-bob,” he said.
Stand Up to Racism’s Weyman Bennett joked that when he saw the Bookmarks attackers “I was thinking if these guys are the master race then we’ve got a chance.”
He derided Boris Johnson’s temerity in attacking Muslim women’s appearance when the former foreign secretary looked like “a cross between a Shetland pony and Moby Dick,” pointing out that Britain’s identity was forged around the contributions of generations of immigrants.
“What’s more British than fish and chips? Except that it was brought here by Portuguese Jews … or a nice cup of tea? Except it came from India.”
But he also warned that the threat was a real one, noting the murder of Stop the War Coalition activist Maz Saleem’s father by a racist.
“That didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of the marches of the English Defence League,” he charged.
Fascists would only be defeated by being confronted. “The first march I went to against the nazis was on Wood Green. And you know who I saw there? Jeremy Corbyn,” he said to cheers.
It was now time for the left to unite — “even with people you don’t like, that’s what unity means” — to fend off fascism.
That was the spirit of the “overwhelmingly” successful event, Gilchrist said. “There were old friends and lots of new faces. This is the beginning of the unity we need to fight the fascists.”
A video of the fascists being chased from the bookshop may be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/jason.n.parkinson/videos/10214398065678757/.
Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.
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