Political earthquake in America: Tremors in London

My talk as part of a panel at a public meeting of Walthamstow Stand Up To Racism on 19th November  2016

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I’m very glad to be here today in Walthamstow, even if what brings us together are the troubled times we are living through.

It all felt more positive six weeks ago when anti-racists and anti-fascists from all over London and beyond, were marching through the East End to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street – the day when Jews and non-Jews in the East End refused to scapegoat their neighbours who were suffering from the same poverty, bad housing low pay,  unemployment and troubles as they were. On October 4th 1936, they took to the streets in huge numbers to implement the only  principled “Prevent” strategy. They physically prevented thousands of members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists from invading the area. The unity, diversity and the spirit of solidarity that marked our commemorative event mirrored the unity, diversity and solidarity so present on that day in 1936. We wanted to show through our event that Cable Street was a living history of struggle and resistance to fascism, antisemitism and all forms of racism

We were remembering not only the 1930s. Before we marched we assembled and had speeches in Altab Ali Park. Normally you have to be royalty, aristocracy or a saint to have a park named after you. Altab Ali was an immigrant Bengali clothing worker who had arrived as a teenager in the East End in 1969. On 4th May 1978 he was walking home from work when he was set upon by three young men – two seventeen-year-olds and a 16-year-old – who stabbed him to death in what they admitted was a racially motivated attack.

What we did not know back in October is that just a few weeks later, people either side of the Atlantic Ocean would be discussing the 1930s, recalling the rise of populist racist demagogues, who combined vicious scapegoating rhetoric against minorities  with a fake anti-elitism to win people across classes in their quest for power.

The recent political earthquake in the last two weeks in America has made the 1930s feel all too recent. Its tremors are felt in continental Europe, and also right here in London.

Trump’s victorious campaign used racism, anti-migrant rhetoric, misogyny and blatant antisemitism – especially in its social media propaganda. One meme he shared about Hilary Clinton showed her face against a background of dollar bills, and a sign saying “most corrupt politician” inside a shape. The shape was a six-pointed Jewish star (after an outcry the shape was later amended to a circle).

The final ad of Trump’s campaign pushed the message of fighting “global elites”. It focused on three very wealthy individuals who all happened to be Jewish. An old antisemitic story.

And here I am reminded of a Cable Street veteran I knew, Charlie Goodman, who told me that Mosley’s fascists would shout about rich Jews in Park Lane then come and attack the Jews in Brick Lane.

Just a few days ago, in  Hackney, antisemites daubed swastikas on vehicles parked outside a Jewish school. The latest in a series of attacks in recent months in the heart of Stamford Hill’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  This morning, on Facebook, I received a very similar photo posted by a friend in New York, of swastika daubings yesterday in a children’s playground in a Jewish area of Brooklyn.

A few weeks ago a report on Antisemitism in Britain was published by the Home Affairs Select Committee. But because of Tory political bias it was looking in completely the wrong direction to understand antisemitism in Britain today; trying to blame it on the Labour Party and the most solidly anti-racist leader Labour has ever had, or trying to link it falsely to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Two things about that report were very telling. Firstly, they did not call any witnesses from the ultra-orthodox community who bear the brunt of most of the physical attacks. They are being regularly harassed and attacked for how they dress in a very similar way to young Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off. Secondly, one of the few witnesses they did call, whose opinions they took very seriously, was Jonathan Arkush, a right wing Tory, and right wing Zionst, who is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and was  one of the fastest out of the blocks to enthusiastically congratulate Donald Trump on his victory on behalf of the Board of Deputies. (There was an outcry about that too).

I witnessed some of this antisemitism at first hand very recently when I was coming back from Poland where I had been helping to lead a visit to Auschwitz of more than 20 trade unionists and activists. On the plane an orthodox Jew was sitting a few rows in front of me. As I’m putting my bag away and settling into my seat, I hear a loudmouth from the row behind, part of a large family group – all adults – making a remark about that Jew. He leaned over to say to the two people sitting next to me “Your mum has had to sit next to a ‘front wheel’ in all the gear. I couldn’t be doing with that.”. For the uninitiated “Front Wheel” is cockney rhyming slang: “front wheel skid” = Yid.

There is fear among Jews, though we know that in sheer numbers these kinds of troubles are being felt much more heavily and frequently by Muslim and Polish communities, and by refugee communities from many countries. But it is not a numbers game or competition in victimhood. An attack on one minority is an attack on all and demands our unconditional solidarity.

It is hard to see any positives in the American situation. The White House under Trump will truly be a “White” house. The Ku Klux klan and other neo-Nazis are excited not only by Trump’s victory, but also because he has appointed a white supremacist and antisemite Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist, and another known racist, Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General.

But there is something very heartening in other responses to Trump’s victory. Trump wants to draw up a register of Muslims. Thousands and thousands of American Jews are signing letters and petitions this week saying that if such a register is brought in, they will register as Muslim too. That is true solidarity. Jews in America voted 70-30 against Trump – a figure that exceeded the Latino vote against Trump.

Trump did not win the popular vote. But  what should worry us on both sides of the ocean is that around 50% of trade unionists in America voted for a racist, sexist, billionaire.

Our job is not only to help bring minorities together in solidarity but also to build an anti-racist, anti-fascist majority. That means winning support among those who are apathetic and alienated and also among those who are starting to fall for racist narratives.

In 2015, UKIP won nearly 4 million votes. Although UKIP have members with a past involvement in fascist organisations, hard-core racists are a minority among their voters. They gained a large protest vote among people who have started to accept racist narratives, including many impoverished working class and economically squeezed lower middle class voters. We need to reach them too, to challenge the ideas they are accepting, and present progressive alternatives.

That means not just expressing moral outrage at racism but linking the fight against racism with the fight against austerity, for proper jobs, better housing, more services. It means exposing the fake anti-elitism of those like Farage and Trump who are part of the elite themselves, and turning our fire instead on a system that robs and scapegoats the poor and protects the rich. And it means promoting multicultural society and immigration as positives that benefit us all. We need to be changing hearts, changing minds, and building an anti-racist, anti-fascist majority.

 

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