Content Warning: descriptions of fascist violence & racist ideology
Following the anti-LGBT protest outside a Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) event in North Walsham library on 2nd August, a new event, titled ‘Storytime with Auntie Titania’ and featuring local drag artist Titania Trust, was scheduled for August 17th at the Millennium Library, Norwich. A counter-protest gathered outside the library on Wednesday ahead of the event to defend the national DQSH initiative and protect attendees from the presence of far-right protestors.
A broad coalition including local LGBTQ+ people, queer activists, antifascist organisers, families, local councillors and union members banded together to protect the main entrance of the Forum and allow attendees inside. Families who preferred privacy were led into the building discreetly through the crowd; many others paraded defiantly through the main entrance between the protest and counter-protest, to a mixture of cheers from the counter-protestors and vocal harassment from the anti-LGBT crowd. The counter-protest was a brilliant display of real solidarity, and showed the strength of support for LGBTQ+ rights in the city. The story hour event itself was also a huge success, with many hopeful attendees being turned away after it reached capacity.
Asked why they attended the counter-protest, one attendee said “I just really dislike the way bigots and far right extremists and a sad collection of lost boys and girls are trying to portray something which is harmless as something depraved”. Another said that, “Hearing that actual fascists had been attacking library events for children, I couldn’t not join the counter demonstration.”
The initial protest consisted of a small group of what seemed to be local people – before a much larger contingent of organised fascists turned up. Unhindered by police, these fascist protestors displayed themselves proudly on the Forum steps, while the much larger group of counter-protestors protected the entrances to support families entering and leaving the event.
When queer activists did attempt to stand in front of and obscure the large ‘Patriotic Alternative’ (PA) banner displayed on the Forum steps, they were firmly moved on by police, and told to remain in the corner by the entrance, meaning the PA had the most visible presence to passers-by. Throughout the confrontation, far-right protestors were streaming and filming counter-protestors close up, presumably for online content – sources identified at least two different alt-right YouTubers in attendance. Many counter-protestors wore masks to protect themselves from being ‘doxxed’ i.e. identified online and harassed by the group. The protestors were physically violent towards the peaceful counter-protestors at points, and shouted harmful slurs at families entering the library.
Patriotic Alternative are a far-right white nationalist organisation led by Mark Collett, a neo-nazi and anti-semitic conspiracy theorist who previously worked as director of publicity for the BNP. Their latest actions against DQSH events have been led by Jeff Marsh, a known fascist with many previous convictions for violent assault, including an incident in which he threw a female protestor down a flight of stairs. Their Eastern Region organisers include Steve Blake and Chris Mitchell, the latter a key organiser of the North Walsham demonstration. Although the original smaller group of protestors did not seem to be members of the PA, they were certainly happy to see them arrive, with many of them applauding and shaking hands.
The PA came carrying a large banner and many placards. Counter-protestors who spoke with them learned that the large majority had travelled in for the protest, some from as far away as Birmingham. This is a common tactic, known as ‘astroturfing’, that attempts to create a false impression of how large the fascist presence is in a certain locality. Also present was Barclay Walsh, a local teenager who hosts a show on the group’s YouTube channel, and who was caught in a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year boasting about his links to “the most notorious neo-nazis in the country”.
The PA ideology is simply a neo-nazi one, though this often appears embedded within conspiracy theories around 5G, COVID vaccines, and lockdowns, and moral panics over trans rights, racial justice, and abortion access, among other issues.
Picketing Drag Queen Story Hours is their latest attempt to hijack popular movements to push their core racist ideology, which they define as one of ‘white genocide’. It is an ideology which asserts that ‘Jewish people are promoting immigration’ and that growing LGBT+ and Black rights movements are ‘weakening white communities and lowering white birth rates’.
Even those picketers not directly affiliated with PA should be viewed through the lens of this creeping fascism. It is an ideology which has always fed on the affirmation of biological essentialism, whether it is pushed by the left or the right. Whether or not those with ‘gender critical’ views know they are allied with the alt-right, their sympathy for essentialist views contributes to the rising tide of fascism.
Though the counter-protest was successful in supporting families to attend the event and demonstrated unwavering solidarity with queer people in the Norwich community, many left with a feeling of unease after fascist groups began dispersing.
Activists drove PA members out of the city centre towards Duke Street Car Park, but were then physically blocked by a line of police from pursuing them further, allowing many to disappear into the city. As one protestor observed, “the police were completely useless despite us asking for assistance. We were then told the police had escorted them out of the city [but] we discovered the fascists were in fact down the pub.”
It’s tempting to believe that fascists like those from the PA exist outside of our community, and though they might travel in for occasions like this, at the end of the day they just disappear. This is a rose-tinted view. Many of the fascist protestors were local and returned to their homes, jobs, and families in Norwich and Norfolk, feeling reassured that they have allies in the local community. There was word on the day that a local far-right group known as Norfolk and Suffolk action were involved, although this group do not appear to be advertising themselves online. Racist PA leaflets have been distributed in Norwich in recent months.
But the tremendous work of counter-protestors on Wednesday demonstrated that when people come together to fight fascism on the streets, we outnumber them and we outsmart them. We all have a responsibility to prevent fascists from gathering and organising – and there is much to learn from the brilliant work of the LGBTQ+ community, and our allies across Norfolk. As one protestor summarised:
“We live and work here and are part of a wider community that will not accept bigots slandering and demonising queer people as an abstract idea to hate. Organising together showed we are real and we are here and you can’t make us your bogeymen.”
Featured image credit: Ann Nicholls
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