‘Saturday the 13th…everyone’s out to go up town to do Antifa. Loads of West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea, Arsenal, Cockney Reds, even northern firms are coming down. It’s gonna be massive. Birmingham are on the prowl up there looking for ’em and their firm’s half black. Saturday everyone has to go.’ There followed some emojis: 🏴 ⚒️ 👊
I read the text and was amused — but not surprised. Funnily enough the West Ham lot have done ‘statue protection’ before. A few years ago, some of us got up very early to go to Upton Park to protect the monument to our World Cup winners, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters. Rumors had gone around that Millwall fans were planning to desecrate it. The Hammers fans stood guard. It worked. And last weekend, West Ham and Millwall — not for the first time — buried past feuds to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to guard the already boxed-in statue of Churchill.
I predicted there would be a backlash from the previous attacks on statues. That sort of thing rightly touches a nerve; particularly the defacing of Churchill in Parliament Square. For Britain — and much of the world — he represents the never-surrender backbone that overcame the Nazi threat. And sure, some of the views he expressed are unacceptable today. But it doesn’t take away from what the man achieved.
The history I learnt growing up was very much focused on the war: the battle of democracy vs fascism. Being of Caribbean descent, my interest was drawn by the role played by the Commonwealth during the wars. Generally, you were taught about Australia and Canada fighting with our boys. There was no ‘black history month’ in my day. I had to wait until much later in life to learn of the significant roles played by all people of the former British Empire.
When the trouble started last weekend, it didn’t take long for people like Sadiq Khan to say it was a mass rally of the ‘far right’. But it is always folly to read too much politics into the behavior of football lads out on the town. Everybody wants to connect the love of fighting to racism — to join some dots between football, Tommy Robinson and the fascists. It isn’t that simple.
For example, a friend called me last week to say he was going along to Westminster with all the West Ham lads. He wanted to know what I thought about it all, ‘especially Antifa’. That surprised me. This friend had helped me overcome the police’s racial prejudice. In the 1980s, he had led a fans’ campaign to secure my freedom when I was charged for a crime a white man had confessed to committing. He organized a protest march and delivered a petition to Downing Street signed by thousands. But now even he felt the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests had gone too far.
I told my friend I wasn’t going — and I warned him that his good intentions would be hijacked. There would be trouble. He would end up being labeled by the media as something that he has never been: extreme far-right. He never went. As far as I can see, Tommy Robinson didn’t go either.
With all the madness of the lockdown and the riots all over the world, this was never going to be like the peaceful anti-terrorism march by an estimated 30,000, organized by the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), the forerunner to the more political DFLA (Democratic Football Lads Alliance) in 2017. People said that was Islamophobic, but it wasn’t. You might not have heard of either of these groups. That’s because the media lost interest when there were no hostilities. Fan rivalry was set aside and the marchers policed themselves.
But seeing the very different scenes last weekend took me back to the dark days of the 1970s when groups of football lads would leave the pub to join far-right demos up Brick Lane. Most weren’t even racist; they were simply going for the aggro. They noticed that the police hardly arrested anyone, as the demonstrations were deemed political. As a result, National Front and The British Movement got to boast that their support was increasing — when that was simply not the case. Young lads just wanted the opportunity to fight and avoid arrest. I remember friends saying: ‘This Socialist Workers Party, Cass, been reading they got a firm and are ready to have it, plus we’re not getting on with some of the rival firms that follow NF, so we’re going with the other lot, should be a good tear-up, come with us mate.’
I have a friend from up north who plays the trumpet. He was invited along to Westminster last weekend by a group of veterans, to play ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and — of course — ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’. Something for everyone. But he still got screamed at: ‘You’re right-wing, you’re right-wing!’ ‘No I ain’t, cos I’m a goalkeeper and my mate he’s the left back,’ he replied. He is actually a goalie and was honored to be invited to attend. The veterans, like plenty of others, regularly attend marches without looking for aggro. But they don’t like statues being defaced and have every intention of making their point known.
Normal life in this country has been suspended for too long. It’s no surprise people are getting restless — perhaps it’s surprising there hasn’t been more trouble already. What we need is for football to start up again and get the fans back in the stadiums. And leave the rest of us to work out if we want justice for George Floyd — or if it’s worth trying to rewrite history by going over old ills.