Sunday 13 September 2009

Anti-Fascist Footprints

After the flashmob at Canary Wharf, I headed back to Whitechapel with fellow amateur photographer Cilius, in time to join Dave Rosenberg's fascinating walking tour of the East End of the 1930s, from Gardiners Corner by Aldgate East station to the Cable Street mural (above).

What is great about Dave's talks is that they place the history and experience of east London's Jewish and working class communities into a context that can be drawn on by today's anti-fascists. Thus, it is unlikely that the Daily Mail, which ran a story headlined "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" in January 1934, would today publish an outright defence of the English Defence League, whose provocative Islamophobic protests in Birmingham and Harrow have led Communities Secretary John Denham to raise fears of a return to 1930s fascism. But the poison that drips from the pages of commentators under Paul Dacre's editorship makes the EDL and Stop the Islamification of Europe effectively the paramilitary wing of Mail wingnuts Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips. Just as in the 1930s, the far-Right are relatively small in number but operate within a broader acceptance of hatred of 'aliens' - and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of 70 years ago is mirrored in increasingly 'acceptable' attitudes to Muslims today.

But there are other lessons too. Dave (above right) pointed out the advice of Phil Piratin, the Communist councillor and leading member of the Stepney Tenants Defence League in the 1930s, who encouraged young Jewish boxers to join the same boxing clubs as Blackshirt supporters, as these provided one of the few opportunities to try and convince anti-Semites to change their opinions. Piratin saw the importance of drawing away support from the fascists through practical working-class solidarity, which in Stepney meant defending tenants against slum landlords and the bailiffs. In that respect, the legendary Battle of Cable Street gave local Jewish communities a massive boost of confidence and strength to defend themselves, but it was the day-to-day work at a grass-roots level that helped to turn working class supporters of the British Union of Fascists away from Mosley's party.

Might there be lessons here for today's anti-fascists?

More of my pictures from the Anti-Fascist Footprints walk are online on Flickr.

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