Yesterday, 6 members of Darlington Young Labour boarded a coach at 7am with members of Stand Up to Racism North East, and set off on a journey to join the 30,000 people gathered in London, in a stand against racism, anti-semitism and islamophobia in the world today. Armed with our homemade signs, banners and a whole load of anger, we joined those gathered outside the BBC Broadcasting House on Portland Place, and proceeded through London, chanting slogans such as “Refugees are welcome here” and that “Donald Trump must go” before we ended in Parliament Square. The police presence was notable, but the march was a peaceful walk through the streets of London, with a spirit of solidarity and unity.
When Tommy Robinson arrived, an ex-BNP member and ex-EDL leader, people were, understandably, furious. Having seen documentaries about his activity, such as BBC documentary ‘Quitting the EDL: When Tommy Met Mo’, seeing his face evoked mixed feelings of shock, anger and disgust for me. Why show up, when he knows fascist attitudes are clearly not welcome at an Anti-Racism march? On his Twitter, he explained his excuse for his behaviour was exercising his “right to free speech” in “his capital”, but was, in fact, hassling protesters and asking them intimidating questions on film.
I knew, however, that his intention was to gain attention, and when he began walking towards our group, asking why we were attending the march, I felt compelled to respond. He was with two other camera-men, persistently shoving the microphone in my face as I tried to answer Tommy’s quick-paced, mumbling questions about Islam and whether I’ve read the Qu’ran. I explained how Islam is a religion of tolerance. Whilst a minority of believers take its teachings and use them as an excuse for extremism, all religions have this capacity. I told him that at school, we studied Islam, as we were required to learn about Christianity, Islam and Judaism for GCSE Religious Studies. I found that all three religions have many principles in common.
I didn’t get to finish speaking with him, as he retreated from the crowd, due to the many people behind me chanting “Nazi scum” at him. Whilst I stand in solidarity with them, and strongly oppose Tommy Robinson’s Islamophobic views, I believe that our discussion was necessary, rather than calling him a Nazi. I am not suggesting that we should appease groups such as the EDL, Britain First, UKIP or even Trump, but when you stand in front of a man who has emotionally manipulated people into believing outright lies about a religion, and he is standing with a camera crew intending to provoke a reaction, the only option is to argue. Politely, in my case.
Others may argue that debating the issues is normalising the issue – we have seen this with Trump’s election and his Muslim Ban, which has only legitimised Islamophobia. Showing how Islamophobia is a misled manifestation of fear, however, is not legitimising Islamophobia, it is shutting it down. I felt urged to use this opportunity to counter the current right-wing rhetoric that “feminazis”, “snowflakes” and “liberals” cannot enter a debate, because I know that we can. Calling him a Nazi would only stress his right to free speech more. But instead of giving them ammunition, fuelling their cause, I shut them down. I did not give them footage to use to spread their propaganda.
I argued and debated – and I would encourage everyone on the left to do the same. The only way we will ever remove the power and influence from the likes of Trump, or Tommy Robinson, is to provide opposition whenever they lie, scaremonger or scapegoat immigrants. We will never protect the rights of minorities if our method of protest is simply labelling the oppressor – they can use the excuse that we are just as bad as them. The acceptance of growing prejudice and division between communities will end, but it’ll take our efforts and unity, and the sheer number of people attending yesterday’s march showed that progress has been made. We must continue to use our democratic rights to free speech and protest, to show that it’s simple: the only solution to equality is recognising that we are all human.