An attack on the right to protest in Britain

September 13, 2010

British socialist and author Richard Seymour reports on the conviction of a leader of Unite Against Fascism, the latest attempt to victimize those who protest the right.

THE CONVICTION of British socialist Martin Smith for assaulting a police officer last week was just the latest in a series of examples of police crackdowns on anti-fascists in the United Kingdom.

Martin, a national officer of Unite Against Fascism (UAF), as well as a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, was found guilty by magistrates of kicking a police officer in the groin during a demonstration against British National Party leader Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC's Question Time program in October last year.

The court chose to believe the claims of a police officer from the Territorial Support Group--the notorious riot squads responsible for the murder of Ian Tomlinson at G20 protests in the London last April--despite inconsistencies in the evidence by the officer in question.

PC Liung's description of events alleged Martin had been whipping up a crowd that was throwing missiles. Liung said that at one point, he saw a cherry Doc Marten shoe swinging toward his groin, looked up and saw a man whom he identifies as Martin Smith. He claims that he was bent over in pain and feared for his safety. Liung alleges that he told Martin to "come here," then sent out a description across police radios.

Martin Smith speaks at a Unite Against Fascism action
Martin Smith speaks at a Unite Against Fascism action

These claims did not stand up in court. Video footage shown to the magistrates did not show one missile being thrown by the crowd. Liung, though he claims to have been in severe pain, did not seek medical attention. Footage taken after the alleged assault shows that Liung was not beckoning anyone to "come here." He was shouting at the crowd to "get back." Nor is there any record of him sending out a description of Martin Smith across police radios.

The sole evidence for the assault was Liung's assertion that it had taken place. On this evidence, the magistrates found Martin Smith guilty.

Martin was ordered to carry out 80 hours of unpaid work, and pay a fine of around $700. He said this was "nothing" compared to much worse punishments inflicted by the state on past generations of anti-fascists and anti-racists. But he intends to appeal, even though, as he acknowledges, "my sentence could be increased, and I could face a custodial sentence." This is because he considers the conviction "an attack on the right to protest against racism and fascism"--with some justice.

In recent months, police actions against senior figures in UAF have included charges against national Joint Secretary Weyman Bennett and Rhetta Moran of the Greater Manchester UAF, for "conspiracy to incite disorder." These are much more serious charges and carry a lengthy prison sentence. UAF activists are regularly harassed by police to an extent that makes it very difficult for anti-fascists to stage protests.

In Bolton recently, when UAF supporters gathered to oppose the English Defence League's attempt to riot in the town, police managed to arrest 70 UAF protesters--most of whom were not charged. Similarly, in a London protest, UAF supporters were temporarily arrested and placed on a double-decker bus that the Metropolitan Police had commandeered. They were transported away from the protest zone before being "unarrested." Thus, existing police powers are being used to bully and harass those who protest against racists and fascists.

THE RESPONSE to the verdict has been overwhelming. Five national unions had already announced their support for Smith, and present at his court hearing among a crowd of supporters was Drew McConnell of the rock group Babyshambles.

Now, unions and union leaders, musicians including the reggae group UB40, and journalists such as the Guardian's Gary Younge have condemned the verdict. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants' union PCS described the conviction as a "travesty of justice." There is also an ongoing campaign, supported in parliament by Labour Party MPs Peter Hain and Jeremy Corbyn, to defend Weyman Bennett and Rhetta Moran.

It is vital now more than ever, as racism and fascism spread across Europe, that the right to protest against these twin evils is protected. In the UK alone, the Nazi British National Party increased its membership to over 10,000 in the decade after race riots hit northern towns and cities in 2001. In the decade since 2000, the BNP increased its vote by as much as 2,000 percent.

The English Defence League (EDL) has now emerged as a racist street gang, combining Nazi activists with violent football hooligans and a periphery of supporters motivated by Islamophobia. It has gone on the rampage repeatedly, notably in two instances in Luton and Stoke, where there was either no counter-protest or a relatively small one. The result in each case was a racist riot, leading to attacks on Asian residents and shops.

UAF's goal has been to ensure that this never happens again--by mobilizing the broadest possible multiracial alliance to resist the EDL.

The next national demonstration by Unite Against Fascism is planned for November 6, with the support of the country's main trade union federation and the Muslim Council of Britain. It is intended to be a major show of opposition to the wave of Islamophobia that has engulfed British politics for some years now--a phenomenon which Americans are, sadly, now all too familiar with.

It is a shame that in addition to undertaking this important work, the organization has had to simultaneously defend itself against police harassment.

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