They came in their tens, the ‘battalions’ of Britain First, to Rochester to exercise their “democratic right” to incite religious and racial hatred, to contest the Rochester and Strood by-election caused by the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP. On the 25th October I watched in horror as they marched, unopposed, to the War Memorial to plant their flags, play their music and disseminate their hate literature. Rochester looked on, bemused, indignant and, in the case of some communities, intimidated by such a brazen display of racism and fascism. But, if Britain First thought that they could simply rock up at Rochester on subsequent Saturdays and goosestep along the High Street, then they were very much mistaken.
No sooner had they left a palpable stench in the air and got out of Rochester on that Saturday than the fightback started. Led by veteran anti-fascists and local residents, there was a fierce determination to stand up to Britain First. These cobbled streets were OUR streets, not their streets. Britain First predictably took to social media to proclaim victory and declare another “day of action” for November 1st, where they would, again, camp beside the war memorial and peddle their hate speech. With party leader, Paul Golding, and by-election candidate, Jayda Fransen, at the vanguard, their avowed aim was to bully Rochester into submission. However, Golding and Fransen had underestimated the resolve and resilience of the Medway Towns and beyond to unify under the banner of ‘They Shall Not Pass’ and spike their guns.
Saturday 1st November was a glorious late autumnal day. The High Street was alive with by-election campaigners, shoppers and those who had come together to oppose the fascists. Meeting outside of the station, the two groups eyed each other with suspicion whilst the police maintained a strong blue line to separate the factions. The mood among the counter demonstration was jovial with chants in support of the Royal Mail (for their refusal to distribute the ‘illegal’ Britain First election leaflet) and references to their bin bag uniform (itself the subject of legal action against Paul Golding, for which he will appear in court in January). The fascists looked on glumly, waved their flag and sang with the kind of desperate defiance normally the preserve of certain football grounds.
After about an hour, the police massed to try and secure a corridor for Britain First to march along. However, the protestors out manoeuvred them to set up a road block further along the High Street and another stand-off ensued. One protestor carrying a placard of Jayda as Hitler had it swiped, whereupon Jayda, bizarrely, burnt it while denouncing the assembled ranks of counter demonstrators (who, it must be said, outnumbered Britain First by at least 3-1) as traitors who should be hung, drawn and quartered at the Tower. To collective dismay the police again intervened to allow Britain First to march and across Star Hill they did, but not to their avowed destination of the War Memorial; instead, the police corralled them just by the Blue Boar car park.
What the good denizens of Rochester made of the spectacle of a handful of hatemongers playing the Imperial March from Star Wars, whilst traducing everyone who stood in their way as left wing scum, is not recorded by history; but, as the hate ramped up, Medway stood defiant, they did not pass. Vile insults and hate speech were spewed, but Christian Medway, Muslim Medway, Jewish Medway, Atheist Medway stood firm and fast and despite the increasingly deranged imprecations of Jayda, they did not pass and, eventually, they were turned away, slinking back to the station in ignominy, thoroughly defeated, but vowing to return. As the assembled ranks of anti-fascists dispersed there was a feeling of elation, of having been part of something special and of standing up, individually and collectively, to the politics of hate and division. Those streets that night were very much OUR streets.
Predictably the Britain First social media went into full conspiracy mode, denouncing the Labour sponsored, left wing thugs who had blocked their route and vowing to return, mobilising their foot soldiers on the following Saturday, the last Saturday before the election. And so, a feverish week of activism on the web and, in person, to co-ordinate the response and again demonstrate the old adage that, fascists – they’re bound to lose.
Saturday 15th November, lunchtime, Rochester Station. The fascists penned into a corner by the station whilst on either side of the street the counter demonstrators amassed with banners from unions, faith groups and placards demonstrating, once again, that fascists have no sense of humour. They started marching, we stood in the way. For all the followers they have on Facebook, there can only have been 40-50 on the ground, many looking like they would rather be anywhere but there. Jayda and Golding regurgitated the same old rhetoric, while we looked on in contempt and dismay that Rochester and Strood had had to endure such bile.
Then someone said to retreat to the High Street which we duly did and what I saw shall stay with me for a very long time. Lined up by Wetherspoons was an army of anti-fascists proudly carrying a banner whose unequivocal message was, ‘They Shall Not Pass’. Amassed behind the banner there must have been 300-400 people, predominantly local, making a stand against hate. The predictable stand-off ensued with the counter demonstrators showing Britain First up for what they really are – ignorant, hateful extremists. Such was their desperation that they even attempted a surge through the police line, which withstood and triggered a rather surreal game of cat and mouse as Paul and Jayda tried to capture the war memorial. Naturally, they failed and there was a sense of jubilation along the High Street that, once again, the good people of Medway and beyond had stood up, stood tall and repulsed the fascists. The rain could not whither us and we will be back as and when required to face down the threat of far right fascism
An abiding image of the day was Britain First whinging outside the station about bully boy police tactics and labour thugs while simultaneously promising to bury a pig under every proposed mosque in the country. One can only hope that charges will follow.
Medway had united and given a resounding ‘no’ to fascism; yet, by the time you read this, it is likely that Rochester and Strood will have a UKIP MP. Complicity between UKIP and Britain First has been evident throughout campaigning and the challenge, among others, is to make Mr Reckless accountable for his inflammatory nonsense about immigration and act when presented with evidence of UKIP activists supporting, tacitly or otherwise, Britain First.
However, I don’t want to end there; I want to end in thanking the hundreds of ordinary people from Medway, and from beyond, who over the last couple of weeks have been part of something special, something which people should, rightly, be proud of – standing up to Britain First, something which Medway will continue to do wherever and whenever the fascists appear.
Words by Guy Jordan