In defence of anti-racist protest

A reply to Derek Hanway 16th July 2009 The reflections of Derek Hanway in the pages of Fortnight magazine (July/August 2009 No. 466) unfortunately have only helped to obscure and distort the facts surrounding racist attacks on Romanian families in Belfast in June.

His attempt to analyse the events and the actions of the many different organisations in response to the attacks displays an ignorance of what actually happened, especially the impact of the local residents protest on the Lisburn Rd.

The purpose of this response is to counter the arguments being made by Mr Hanway, not just for the sake of it but because there are valuable lessons from these events which need to be drawn if racist attacks are to be prevented and cut across in future. To be fair, it is not just Mr. Hanway who harbours the position that the local residents protest was counter-productive. It has been a position which has been mostly whispered by many “official” authorities, bureaucrats and politicians and more publicly by the police.

Mr. Hanway accuses the local residents who came to the assistance of the Romanian families of being in part responsible for the families fleeing Belfast. This assertion will correctly be derided by the hundreds of local people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their Romanian neighbours against racist thugs. It should also be noted that the many professional groups and NGO’s which are supposed to represent ethnic minorities did nothing to stop the attacks.

In his article in Fortnight, he states ‘Anyone with knowledge of Roma people would have known about a general reluctance by Roma to attract attention. While the Roma families were still in their damaged homes, they were being ‘protected’ by anti-racist activists. I witnessed many acting more like pumped up vigilantes, some bringing cider carry-outs to the garden of one home. This response strengthened the Roma families’ sense of fear and attracted more unwelcome attention to their homes.’

What Hanway chooses to ignore is the fact that there had been no publicity surrounding the attacks before Monday 15th June. The only unwelcome attention being visited upon the Romanian families was that of the racists who had persistently carried out attacks in the absence of any protests, defence or publicity.

The homes of the Romanian families on Belgravia Avenue, Wellington Park and Wellesley Avenue had been attacked on nine occasions between Wednesday 10th June and Monday 15th June. One of the neighbours who played a leading role in organising the defence of the families and the residents protest and also a Socialist Party member, Paddy Meehan, gave a flavour of these attacks:

‘A consistent campaign to forcibly evict the Roma began on Wednesday 10th June when a house on Belgravia Avenue was attacked by a gang of up to 20 young people. Windows were broken with stones and bricks. The attack, like the rest of the attacks, would last for only a few minutes. In this way the attackers knew they could get away from the police and launch persistent attacks as the police wouldn’t remain in the area. On Thursday 11th June some of the Roma including a small child were attacked as they stood outside their house on Wellesley Avenue. They were threatened the houses would be burnt down if they didn’t leave immediately. On Friday evening a group of local residents including myself witnessed the attack on 14 Belgravia Ave. As the attackers fled they shouted “Up Combat-18” and “Get the Paki’s out”.’

These attacks happened before any protests or defence was organised by local residents. There was no reporting of these attacks. No attention had been drawn to the attacks, yet they persisted. In fact, after an attack on the afternoon of Saturday 13th June, the BBC was contacted several times asking that they send reporters to the scene of the attacks. This was done, correctly, in order to raise the issue publicly and show the reality of racist attacks, an important aspect in tackling racist attacks. But the BBC refused to report the attacks, claiming that they were waiting on police reports. After the families were attacked again at about 1am on Sunday morning, it was agreed by residents to organise a protest in solidarity with the families. Only then did the media begin to report the attacks. On Monday morning, a press release was issued by Paddy Meehan on behalf of the residents who had begun to organise rotas of residents to defend the homes around the clock from Sunday. The first reports of the attacks were in response to the decision of residents to call the protest and organise defence.

Mr Hanway also chooses to ignore the fact that no racist attacks occurred after defence was organised on Sunday 14th June. Despite the best efforts to pressurise the PSNI into taking action against the racists and provide protection for the families, the police were unable to stop the attacks. Serious criticisms have been made of the police inaction by residents. Organisers of the protest publicised the details of the police response to the attacks. On Channel 4 News a representative from the PSNI was unable to defend their inaction and admitted that the PSNI did not respond appropriately. The most effective defence of the homes was not to rely on the police; it was by organising local residents to be present outside of the homes. This approach, combined with the protest and publicity, succeeded in stopping the attacks.

None of the ‘statutory bodies’ stopped the attacks. The actions of residents also made a major impact in exposing and embarrassing the police and the statutory bodies into taking action, albeit late in the day. However, as far as the authorities and the political establishment in the Northern Ireland Executive were concerned, the way to ‘deal’ with this problem was to encourage the families to return to Romania. Instead of examining the actual needs of the Romanian families and the basis for racist attacks, they chose instead to put their heads in the sand and allow the racists to claim victory.

Racist attacks need to be combated in the communities where they are taking place. By mobilising the local community, racists can be isolated and the ability of the far-right to gain a foothold can be cut across. There is no doubt that the residents action has succeeded in isolating the handful of thugs responsible for carrying out the attacks. The trade union movement together with young people and genuine community groups must also respond quickly to confront racists carrying out attacks in communities, by organising local protests and campaigning against racism.

Hand in hand with this approach, it is vital that the social problems which exist in many communities are also tackled in order to combat racism. Unemployment, lack of social housing, unfit housing and landlordism all create the breeding ground for racism. In order to fully combat racism, it is therefore necessary to fight for an end to poverty, unemployment and lack of social housing. The lack of a mass political voice which can unite working class people to stand together and fight for decent jobs, homes and a real future for young people creates a political vacuum, offering the far-right the opportunity to exploit and manipulate people who see no future. The economic crisis which is unfolding internationally is a vivid illustration of the inability of capitalism to provide for the needs of working class people. It is urgent that a mass political alternative is built which can provide a socialist alternative to the poison of racism and poverty.

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