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August 24 2005: Memories of Welling

 

I was recently asked my memories of the anti-fascist demonstration at Welling in October 1993. Some of the organisers' accounts appear here. The following, are my personal memories:

 

The march took place on 16 October 1993. I was then twenty years old, and a history student in Oxford. The immediate context to the march was set by the election that spring of a member of the British National Party Derek Beackon to a council seat in Tower Hamlets. Many people were angry that an openly fascist party was being allowed to organize freely. The BNP had its headquarters in Welling in South East London, which was why the march was held there. Racist attacks had gone up in the area: the most famous victim of them would be Stephen Lawrence.

 

The slogan at Welling was 'Close down the BNP'. I think I saw myself and the other people on the march as being in the same tradition as the statue-topplers from Eastern Europe: I wanted to tear down this building, brick by brick. A unity march was organized. The two main groups of people organizing it were the Militant, also known as the Socialist Party or Youth Against Racism or YRE and the Socialist Workers Party through the umbrella group the Anti-Nazi League.

 

In Oxford, we had a number of discussions about how to build it, who to approach. I remember going to a meeting of the student union, which was very heated with people arguing 'don't go, there will be a riot', and others saying 'no, the most important thing is to stop the BNP'. I helped to organise some 6 coaches.

 

One of the strange things about Oxford is that the terms start very late: mid-October was the first week of the new academic year. A number of first-years wanted to come on the march, and so we had to set off from just outside the building, where they were all matriculating. It was the most extraordinary thing: you can imagine a group of Oxford students in formal student dress, with gowns, white shirts, suits and mortar boards, all running out of matriculation, crossing the road to jump on the coach and then as soon as they sat down, pulling these clothes off to reveal acceptable demonstration wear: doctor marten boots, ripped jeans, dyed hair and rings.

 

As our coach came into London around 10 in the morning, I gave an organiser's speech, explaining that the purpose of the demonstration was to confront the BNP, there should be no violence, it was not planned, that for many of the people on the coach this was their first demonstration, therefore they should stick together, avoid any hint of confrontation, stick with Oxford banners, and return promptly at 4 pm, when the coach was due to leave.

 

We met in a large park and then set off. I'd never seen so many coaches in my life. There were also people with leaflets from one of the smaller left-wing groups, handing them out, saying 'don't go on this demonstration. It will be peaceful. What you should be doing is taking on the state.' Which I thought was pretty stupid, frankly.

 

We set off up a hill, down the hill, following a road which ran straight. The noise of the demonstrations was similar to many of these anti-fascist marches. 'One, two, three and a bit, Nazis are a piece of shit'. 'We are black, we are white, together we are dynamite'. I had a feeling that there was some tension between the various organising groups one small sign of it was that the stewards from YRE were wearing construction hats, the other stewards just armbands.

 

The march was large, about 50,000 people. It filled both sides of the road, which was very narrow. There were large numbers of police, on horse-back, along the route of the demonstration. They seemed to stand there, watching us. You couldn't see them on the actual route of the demonstration, which was almost completely devoid of police. Instead, there were on the roads parallel to the route, watching us, to make sure that nobody attempted to break out to the left or right. The longer we marched, the slower we were.

 

I remember at one point, we walked past a pub, in which there seemed to be a couple of dozen white skinheads, clearly intending to attack our march. But we outnumbered them by a couple of thousand to one: they were not going to attack us.

 

I was still with the group from Oxford. But as the march ground to a halt, I promised to walk closer to the front and see what was taking place. We had come to a large crossroads. The police were attempting to force the demonstration away now, to the left. The organizers of the march were attempting to force a way to the right, which would take us closer to the BNP bookshop.

 

A small number of people had broken out to the front, and were in front of the main body of the march. To our right, were very large numbers of police. I am told they had 4000 officers on duty that day: a large group of them were there, blocking our route. There was a very strange piece of street-theatre. I could see the chief organizer of the entire event, Julie Waterson, with a megaphone.

 

The next part is confused in my memory, but I think Julie was trying to explain to the march that the police would not let us pass. She was standing next to another man, who I recognised as the Holocaust survivor Leon Greenman. There were four of five other celebrities with her. Julie was just saying something like 'we are now going to try and meet with the police'. She was quite in mid sentence, when a group of police left their contingent: they weren't officers but riot police, walked towards her quite slowly, and then started laying into her and the delegation with their batons.

 

All hell broke loose. I was completely stupid, completely forgot the people I was with, and rushed right to the front. Later, there were pictures of the demonstration, for example the front page of the next day's Mail on Sunday has the headline 'Masked Mob stones police' with me in the middle of it. I remember individuals trying to rush the police, and then being knocked back with their long batons. The police would break out in waves and try and attack the crowd.

 

Some people responded by throwing coins or placards at the police, although that was stupid, because they were all falling short, often on other demonstrators. The police were in body armour, the marchers weren't. The stewards, some of them in construction helmets, were working hard to stop that nonsense.

 

For about the next hour, I remember a stand-off. The people at the front of the march would try to link arms and push forward, hoping that by sheer weight of numbers they would overwhelm the police. I took part in that. The marchers would push and were blocked. We pushed forward, you could see the police officers closely: their faces were exhilarated. They had all taken their numbers off.

 

The police would wait, hold the line, and then counter-attack, with shields and batons and not afraid to hurt whoever they could. The police had stationed themselves however in a very narrow gap and near the base of a hill so that the demonstrators were attempting to march upwards. Although the police were outnumbered ten to one, there was no way that people would break through.

 

At another stage, so maybe an hour later, the police attempted to force the march to disperse. As I have said, the bulk of the demonstration was still approaching the four-way junction, with people trying to turn right, and a small group stuck in front. That only left the route to the left, which I was where the coaches were starting to park. There were some people to the left as I looked, some trying to escape from all the violence, others still milling about to see what happened.

 

A group of police horses were stationed in the plug, so to speak, and at an order, they charged the crowd: I literally saw one horse kick a man in the face. It was a miracle he wasn't killed. Then another group of officers were thrown out to try and clear the road to my left. They broke through some of the demonstrators, but not all of them, until a small group of marchers were pinned against a brick wall. Eventually, under the sheer weight of the police attack the wall gave way. People were shouting 'we can't breathe'.

 

The marchers regrouped, so did the police. The organizers seemed to have lost all control of the march. For about the next twenty minutes, there were demonstrators trying to throw bricks at the police, but still ineffectively. I remember one friend, he was a friend then, an anarchist, who is now a councilor in Oxford, he saw me and shouted 'this is it, the revolution'. It wasn't my revolution.

 

Most of the TV coverage I saw, came from that stage people throwing bricks they made no attempt to place it context but just as almost mindless violence.

 

I went back along the route of the march, towards the beginning, looking for the people from Oxford. I still couldn't find them. I then returned to the front of the march, watching the stand off.

 

At about half three or even four, realizing how late it was, I decided to head for the coaches. While I'd been watching the main scene, I realized, many of the marchers had given up on making Welling, and had begun to reach for the coaches. I saw little groups of demonstrators in knots, staring into bonfires, waiting to see what had happened to their friends. I returned to the coaches: couldn't find the friends I was looking for. I found another coach, though, and made my way home.

 

Afterwards, I heard different things: that every police officer in London had had their leave cancelled, that the march cost more than 1 million to police. Some papers reported that 60 people had been hurt I think 60 were in hospital, many more were injured. I don't think there were hardly any arrests on the day the police were under orders to maim, to take no prisoners. The coverage in the press afterwards was violent and incendiary. A man I knew Jeff had its picture in the Sun, he was accused of throwing bricks at the police. He had been, after a friend of his was injured. He lost his job and he was so nervous about being prosecuted, he had to leave the country.