måndag 1 september 2014

Reflections on an antifascist demonstration

Last Saturday, the racist Svenskarnas Parti staged a demonstration and march through downtown Stockholm. I was there for several hours waiting for them to pass by, and the counterdemonstration was a heartening sight. Some estimates place the crowd at around 14,000; it's possible that was the total crowd count along the entire route of the march, but from where I was observing in Kungsträdgården (a large downtown park) there were easily 3-4,000 people packed behind the barriers. Unfortunately that number decreased somewhat substantially over several hours as SvP apparently tried stalling the march to wait us out, but by the time they did come by they were still greeted with a thunderstorm of boos, whistles, and chants of "No fascists in our streets!"

No doubt the events in Kärrtorp, a suburb south of Stockholm, last December had a great influence on this weekend's turnout. The violent attack by members of another fascist organization, Svensk motståndsrörelse, on a peaceful anti-racist demonstration of not only activists but residents and families of Kärrtorp (which was, fortunately, driven back by a large part of that demonstration) roused a great deal of shock and anger, reflected in the attendance of nearly 20,000 people at a follow-up demonstration called as a response a week later. This blatant display of fascist thuggery in a country most still consider to be highly democratic and egalitarian is not something people could soon forget.

Another factor contributing to this atmosphere of militancy is the upcoming national elections on Sunday the 14th. The 2010 elections delivered a bombshell in the form of the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats gaining seats in the Swedish Parliament for the first time, and several national polls indicate that they are set to keep those seats, if not gain additional mandates. This has not gone unnoticed or unanswered among anti-racists and anti-fascists - there have, for example, been a stream of incidents in the news where SD billboard advertisements in subway stations have been defaced.


The militant mood and encouraging turnout notwithstanding, there was a lot about Saturday's counterdemonstration that left much to be desired.

 First and foremost was the use of Black Bloc-style tactics by a group of anarchists who, numerically speaking, comprised an insignificant minority of the demonstration as a whole. Over the course of the demonstration they threw homemade explosives - designed more for sound than for damage - in the direction of the march, even though the route was a couple hundred yards from the barriers and they had no chance whatsoever of getting the projectiles near it. The only thing it concretely achieved was heightening tension among the demonstrators. (They employed similar tactics at a counterdemonstration against the English Defence League's visit to Stockholm a couple of years ago; the result was cops rushing in on horseback and breaking up the demonstration.)

At one point, a group of them tried rushing the barrier, sending demonstrators fleeing in a panic. It was at that point the crowd took up the chant of "Stop! Stop! Stop!" - which, unfortunately, had little effect. People in the immediate area remarked how we could have missed the SvP marching by because we were so tied up in sorting out the internal drama these tactics had created. Ultimately, after the SvP passed, the cops pushed into the crowd and started a street battle that pushed into the park behind us.

The outcome for me only served to emphasize the fundamental problems with these pointless confrontations: they're planned and carried out without the knowledge and consent of the rest of the demonstrators present, and more often than not they are directed at the police rather than the actual target of the counterdemonstration. Time and time again, all this has done is to provoke a direct conflict with the police for which the rest of the demonstrators are unprepared and in which they are therefore very likely unwilling to participate. The panicked reaction that sets in not only draws attention and focus away from the people we should be demonstrating against, it increases the likelihood of demonstrators getting seriously hurt in the rush to get away. Over the long run this is going to make people less interested in demonstrating because they now think that if this is what demonstrations involve, they're not going to risk life and limb to attend.

This is not to say the police were innocent bystanders, nor that they were not deserving of the contempt hurled in their direction. It was, after all, the police who granted the SvP permission to march (apparently in direct contravention of Swedish and UN law regarding the promulgation of hate speech), came out with riot gear, brought in mounted and K-9 squads, continuously patrolled the march route, and made sure the counterdemonstration was far enough away to have little more than a mildly disrupting effect. In short, they did everything to give the SvP the impression that the police were on their side. (It becomes even more galling when compared with the protection they gave the original Kärrtrop demonstration at first: six beat cops with minimum equipment for a demonstration that was easily 2,000 people strong.) After the march, when the police stormed the counterdemonstration, the chant "Dagens polis skyddar morgondagens Hitler" - The police of today shield the Hitler of tomorrow - struck a deeply resonant chord among those of us who were left.


We might look past the disparity in police protection I mentioned above and argue that the police weren't protecting the SvP but, rather, their right to freedom of speech. It is here with no small amount of relief that I note that Voltaire never said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"; if one of the Enlightenment's leading advocates of liberation didn't make freedom of speech an inviolable principle, there is probably little reason for us to do the same.

Freedom of speech is not a principle, but an instrument. As such, it proves itself through the results of its use. We need look no further than Nazi Germany to understand the results of giving the freedom of speech to hatred, and we cannot afford to let that lesson go unheeded now when the far right is again on a slow but indisputable rise. Whether the police were protecting the SvP or their right to freedom of speech becomes an irrelevant point; the result - increased confidence among the potential future butchers of the Swedish working class and their footsoldier thugs - is the same.

Freedom of speech best serves as an instrument when it is wielded against oppression and used to carve out space for the oppressed to speak for themselves. This necessarily must involve not only confronting the neofascists but the capitalist system that allows them to grow and flourish. This is, of course, an unacceptable state of affairs for society's rulers, and they depend on an armed, deputized organization - the police - to keep that challenge in check. It's become increasingly clear over the past decade or so how far those who wield real power in the State are willing to go to do so, with the events in Ferguson being just the latest example. Should reliance on the police ultimately prove ineffective, however, they will be frightened enough to bring in fascist organizations to do their dirty work for them.

That last point is crucial to understanding that fascism must be fought; failing to challenge freedom of speech for them could ultimately result in obliterating freedom of speech for a much larger majority. They are still small and relatively disorganized; if an anti-racist and anti-fascist movement can learn how to organize and fight to smash them, we'll have learned how to organize and fight to smash the system that might see the need for them one day. Then, and only then, will the rush of demonstrators be towards the breach in the barriers instead of away from it.

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Thank you for commenting! I'll review it within the next day or so, as soon as I get the chance.