openDemocracyUK

The truth behind the Mail on Sunday's "facemask anarchists" story

The article grossly exaggerated the plans of grassroots political group Brick Lane Debates' for tomorrow's anti-austerity rally.

Katya Nasim Arnie Hill
19 June 2015
Reclaim Brixton protest.

Reclaim Brixton protest. Flickr/Ben Windsor. Some rights reserved.Imagine waking up one morning and finding your name, face and personal details have been smeared across the media. Your first thought is that it feels horrible. Your social standing has been called into question, and your day is spent fielding calls and internet posts from both well-wishers and trolls.

That’s what happened when the Mail on Sunday charged us with the “crime” of bringing together locals and activists at a meeting in Hackney, to talk about the need for community-led protest. It was a public event organised by a grassroots political group Brick Lane Debates.

Once the initial shock subsides, you start to wonder: why did they single me out? And more importantly: are campaigners for civil rights and social justice fair game for undercover newspaper surveillance, desperate for fantasy narratives of violent underground cells?

This kind of intimidation should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about political freedom. Political protest is not going away. The sheer scale of the cuts and the attacks on communities via rent increases and lack of jobs is forcing people into action.

Earlier this year, we participated in Reclaim Brixton, mobilising 3,000 people to the streets to defend their homes and livelihoods, their right to the city. Tens of thousands of people will march through London this Saturday. As austerity continues to bite, there will be more protests and more dissent, and our plans have been to make them inclusive, potent – and unlike the fabrications from the Mail, non-violent.

The event reported on by the Mail was a public discussion, not a secret rendezvous. The undercover reporter did not infiltrate the meeting but walked in as any interested member of the public could.

If you watch the Mail’s video, you will see that the allegation that we were intending to violently disrupt this Saturday’s anti-austerity demonstration is libellously wrong. We welcome the People’s Assembly End Austerity Now demonstration. It looks set to be a massive expression of discontent.

While we believe that “A to B marches” without community activism have their limitations we were not dismissing the march, nor anyone attending, and no one proposed that we storm the stage at the post-march rally. We want a large, energetic, family friendly event – any direct action we decide to take will be solely aimed at amplifying the march's message against austerity, inequality and injustice.  

What the selective quoting in the Mail does not reflect is that we were discussing how to make the march more high profile, more effective: how we could add to the demonstration, not how we could take away from it. We were thinking of contributions like those we made to the March for Homes demonstration at the start of the year: helping to organise feeder marches from residential areas led by local campaigns and a breakaway march to occupy buildings marked for luxury redevelopment, holding participatory debates immediately after.

The kind of campaigns we're involved in are about sustaining community action before and after large demonstrations: stopping families losing their homes and being thrown on the streets, and supporting people who have been the victims of police violence. We want to help give these campaigners a strong voice on large demonstrations, and make them as visible as possible amidst the union-sponsored banners and well-known faces.

In times when no one represents us, we want more grassroots activism. That’s why, when Mail journalist Jaber Mohamed (posing as Jabbir Abdalla) asked to join activist group London Black Revs, he was invited to a street stall in Brixton.

If you’ve read the Mail article, you’ll have noticed that the journalists have chosen to single out two black activists. Add to this the fact that the primary target is a mixed race woman and it becomes clear that what we’re seeing is depressingly routine: racism compounded by sexism. Attacks like this serve to tell black and Asian activists, especially women, that they have no place taking a stand – because if we do, we will be targeted.

Riot police lined up at the 1981 Brixton riot.

The 1981 Brixton riot. Wikimedia Commons/Kim Aldis. Some rights reserved.

The British media have a long history of vilifying black community organisers. In 1981, after a 20,000 strong march calling for investigation into the deaths of 13 black children in a racist fire-bombing in New Cross, Darcus Howe told a journalist that the march, “was a good day”. The next morning, an image of a bloody police officer was captioned “Race Chief Howe says it was a good day”. The Daily Mail went with: “When the Black Tide met the Thin Blue Line”.

The Mail has an abominable track record in censuring protest via character assassination, as the students protesting against fees in 2011 will remember. More recently, a female BME student campaigner at Goldsmiths University was dragged through the press for daring to defend the right of minority ethnic students to petition, meet and organise in safe spaces.

For our part, we will keep on holding public meetings and organising around the issues that dominate our lives. The unprecedented Tory victory means there’s never been a more crucial time to do this than now.

We don't expect the Mail to understand this. What we expect from them is what we got: the vilification of people willing to stand up for their rights. The Left needs to stand together against attempts by the Right to undermine our movement.

Let's be clear, an attack like this could happen to any of us. Whatever tactics we each advocate, we will always be considered beyond the pale by the political establishment that the Mail represents. Long may we do so: a hatchet job won’t stop us.

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