At approximately 12:40 on Saturday 25 May 2013, 14 anti-fascists were arrested outside the Haymarket metro station in Newcastle as they were about to join the Newcastle Unites march against the English Defence League (EDL). The youngest of those arrested was just 15. There is substantial evidence that members of Newcastle Unites played a part in the arrests. All those arrested had their homes raided while they were in custody, and police have seized mobile phones, computers, cameras, notebooks and political literature. The protesters were released without charge 10 hours later, in the middle of the night at a police station on the outskirts of Newcastle. They have been bailed until 7 August 2013.
The Newcastle 14 (N14) Defence Campaign has been set up with three aims:
- to defend the 14 anti-fascists who were arrested on 25 May 2013;
- to defend anti-fascist activity from further state repression;
- to defend democracy and freedom of speech within the left.
Below we set out the background to the campaign.
What were those arrested doing to warrant this treatment by police?
Those arrested include supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI) and independent anti-fascists. Anti-fascists had been at the Haymarket since 10:30 on 25 May, petitioning, speaking on the megaphone, distributing political literature and encouraging people to join the Newcastle Unites march against the EDL. There was a heavy police presence; FRFI had designated a police liaison for their contingent, who made it clear to the police from an early stage that the intention was to speak to the public and then join the Newcastle Unites march. Initially the police appeared to have no problem with this, but at around 12:00 police approached FRFI supporters, saying that the Newcastle Unites organisers had informed them FRFI were not welcome on the march. The police stated that they wanted to negotiate with the Newcastle Unites organisers for FRFI to participate, which was accepted by FRFI. The police said they were consulting with their superior officers who were in touch with Newcastle Unites, and they would get back to the police liaison. At 12:40, the police surrounded the protesters without warning, and arrested all but two of those present, accusing them of ‘conspiracy to commit violent disorder’. The intention of the protesters on 25 May was simply to join the march and make a political contribution to it. Meanwhile EDL supporters who threw fireworks, bottles and cans at anti-fascists the same day were not arrested. This is political policing.
Who are Newcastle Unites and what part did they play in the arrests?
Newcastle Unites is a coalition of Labour Party councillors, Trade Union officials and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It has met in secret, and has excluded many other local anti-fascists.
The build-up to the march
When three FRFI supporters attempted to join a Newcastle Unites organising meeting on 7 May they were physically barred from entering the meeting room and were ejected from the building. During this incident SWP District Organiser Yunus Bakhsh and Newcastle TUC Secretary James Simpkin used sexist and threatening language toward a female comrade. After throwing her out of the building Simpkin told the comrade ‘Go away little girl, or I’ll call the police’ and then blew an airhorn in her ear. A SP member who stood up to Bakhsh was threatened with also being excluded if she did not back down. FRFI supporters issued a public report of what had happened and called for a public apology from Newcastle Unites, while continuing to express support for the march against the EDL. Rather than apologise or even respond politically, Newcastle Unites attempted to divert discussion by suggesting that FRFI had put people at risk by mentioning that the 7 May meeting had taken place at the Centre Against Unemployment. Yet Unite Against Fascism (UAF) North East has listed the Centre as their address on public leaflets, bulletins and their website since at least 2009, and other anti-racist meetings have been advertised there: it was already a public anti-fascist venue.
On 15 May FRFI received a message from Newcastle Unites stating that the organisation would not be welcome on the march, and if they attempted to attend ‘we shall take all necessary steps to ensure that you play no part of these activities.’ This was followed by a Facebook post from Labour Councillor Dipu Ahad, the figurehead for Newcastle Unites, threatening those he considered to be ‘disruptive’: ‘I assure you that you will be thrown out of the demo and the public meeting by our stewards who will be many. You will also be reported to the police for causing disorder!’ Nobody amongst the Newcastle Unites organising group has publicly criticised this threat. People who posted messages protesting against these threats had their messages deleted and many were banned from the page. Committed anti-fascists who attempted to join a publicly advertised meeting of Newcastle Unites on 23 May were met at the door by police who had a list of names and turned people away. If Newcastle Unites organisers provided these names to the police this is direct collusion with the state against other anti-fascists, using the police to back up the kind of exclusions carried out at other meetings by Newcastle Unites itself.
On the day
On the day of the arrests several individuals associated with Newcastle Unites were seen speaking to police in the area around Haymarket. These included Neil Denton, who is employed by the council’s ARCH agency for monitoring hate crime. He was seen speaking to senior police officers while pointing at the protesters shortly before the police first stated that Newcastle Unites had told them FRFI were not welcome. During the arrests two members of the SWP were present observing. One of them, Nick Clark, approached the group once the arrests began and was heard telling a police officer not to arrest two women because they were ‘not part of that group [FRFI]’. The officer listened to him, letting him and the two women leave, whilst police arrested the remaining 14. During questioning, police presented those who had been arrested with a summary of the accusations against them, which included a statement in writing that Newcastle Unites organisers had told the police that FRFI were not welcome on the march. On the Newcastle Unites march itself, two anti-fascists who spoke about the arrests on a megaphone were challenged by police. The officers asked them if they were members of FRFI and threatened ‘if you are, then we’ll arrest you’. There is no doubt that FRFI were politically targeted. Other militant anti-fascists were targeted by stewards, some of whom seemed more concerned with shoving anti-fascists around than guarding side streets against fascists.
Silencing criticism and debate
The consistent thread running through these events is the efforts of the SWP and others to protect Labour politicians from criticism, whether it is over their record on war, racism or the cuts.
The initial reason given for excluding FRFI from Newcastle Unites was that together with anarchists, the Socialist Party and others they had heckled Labour MP Grahame Morris at May Day 2012. Morris had voted for the bombing of Libya, which contributed to the deaths of 60,000 Libyans and the devastation of the country’s infrastructure. Heckling is a perfectly democratic part of the socialist and labour movement tradition. The incident was not considered serious enough to prevent FRFI from having a stall at May Day 2013, yet was used opportunistically to justify their exclusion from Newcastle Unites.
When Councillor Ahad was approached regarding the verbal and physical abuse of FRFI supporters at the meeting on 7 May, he said he would only argue for their inclusion in Newcastle Unites if they agreed to be silent on the issue of state racism: presumably to mention immigration prisons, deportations or the use of terror laws to criminalise communities would embarrass the Labour Party.
Whilst FRFI are willing to work with Labour Party members against the EDL, they are not prepared to stay silent about the violence that Labour councillors have inflicted through the cuts or the last Labour government’s role in stirring up racism against Muslims to justify their wars abroad. This could have been the subject of debate within the anti-fascist movement, but instead all critical voices were excluded in order to impose a false ‘unity’.
Defend anti-fascism, Defend democracy
This is not the first time the police have been used to defend Labour councillors from criticism. When Don McDonald verbally challenged council leader Nick Forbes at the big anti-cuts march on 16 February, over the council’s £100 million cuts to services and jobs, Forbes sent police to Don’s house in the middle of the night to arrest him on spurious grounds of threatening behaviour. A defence campaign was launched and the case was dropped.
We do not yet know all the details of the collusion between Newcastle Unites organisers and the police, or which individuals were involved to what extent, but the evidence cited above warrants a serious investigation. Those people whose collaboration with the police led to the arrests need to be identified and held to account. The Newcastle 14 Defence Campaign will be calling for a people’s enquiry, which should be fully transparent and accountable to the whole of the local left, to establish the facts beyond reasonable doubt.
Anti-fascism in the North East is in a desperately weak position. Estimates of the sizes of the two marches on 25 May suggest that the fascists outnumbered the anti-fascists approximately two to one. Discussions are urgently needed about the strategy and tactics that can help us to rebuild and effectively challenge the fascists. The discussions that are needed are being held back by the approach to anti-fascism that is represented by Newcastle Unites, which exaggerates its own strength and deals with any criticism or difference of opinion with exclusions and violence. Identifying and eliminating collusion with the police against other activists is the precondition for building a healthy and effective movement on Tyneside. Everybody who cares about the future of the local left needs to be involved.
No to political policing, Defend the Newcastle 14
14 people have been arrested, held in police custody for up to ten hours, interrogated about their political activities and had their homes invaded and their privacy violated. Currently all of the defendants have been bailed until 7 August and have not been charged, but the arrests were carried out on the basis of allegations of ‘conspiracy to commit violent disorder’, a very serious charge. This is political policing on a scale unheard of in Newcastle in the recent period. The 14 people arrested need solidarity and support, as they deal with the impact of the arrests on their study and employment. The police still have people’s phones and computers. The defence campaign and the defendants would like to thank all those who have shown support so far, notably those who waited for hours at the police station until the last of the 14 were released and then gave them lifts back into the city.
The Newcastle 14 Defence Campaign will be fighting the threat of charges publicly and politically, alongside the legal defence that has already begun. The campaign is collecting witness statements and video and photographs of the events surrounding the arrests, and will challenge the whitewashing of the arrests in the capitalist press. The campaign will also be out on the streets raising awareness and organising public meetings in the coming weeks, as part of the grassroots work that is needed to rebuild an anti-fascist movement in Newcastle. We invite you to join us.
Funds are urgently needed to support the defence campaign, cheques should be made payable to ‘May 25 Fund’.
Contact the Newcastle 14 Defence Campaign at: firstname.lastname@example.org.