From Issue six of Lumpen Journal
Scum – n. 1. A layer of impure matter that forms on a surface of a liquid … 5. a worthless person or group of people.
I arrived late at the McDonald’s on Bury New Road, my T-shirt damp with sweat from cycling up the hill. All the decent spots to lock my bike were taken so I crossed the road. I felt nervous. I always do at protests. I feel it in my gut mostly, like the first day of school.
It was the day before the 2019 European elections and three years after the Brexit referendum. Tommy Robinson was standing as a candidate in England’s north-west region. The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) and notorious Islamophobe, Robinson is the most well-known figure on the British far right. From its chaotic launch on an estate in south Manchester a month earlier, today’s rally in Salford was the final date on his tour.
Back at the McDonald’s a Momentum activist handed out huge red flags on long wooden poles. I had decided to tag along with some other folks. I got the sense that like me, most people were not local to Lower Broughton but had come over from south Manchester. So I felt self-conscious as we set off down the road, a dozen or so flags billowing above us like something from the Paris Commune.
We passed the leisure centre where several staff stood on the steps watching us go by. I searched their faces but they gave nothing away. I’m not sure what it was I was looking for exactly. They reminded me of my colleagues at the leisure centre where I was working at the time. I tried to imagine what they would think about it all, about me, about my politics.
Further on a young girl with plaited hair watched us through thick-lensed glasses. Then another girl was running, weaving between us to catch up with a friend. ‘They’re coming around the corner’, she shouted excitedly. We passed them on the next street whispering into each other’s ears between bouts of laughter.
We followed the main road as it curved down the hill. A comrade with a fashionable bowl-cut stopped to talk to three women assembled on their front lawn. The women asked what the protest was about. The activist responded using language that reminded me of university debates, of dinner talk in middle-class homes with gravel drives.
It is a world in which I have learnt to pass and as I listened I wondered to what extent in passing as middle-class I have become middle-class. I was the scholarship kid at a private school. I internalised middle-class tastes and traits, their language and maybe unconsciously, some of their values partly in order to survive. As I listened I wondered what it would take to unlearn these. Perhaps, I thought, my comrade is in the same boat, perhaps I am just reading her in the same way that people read me.
I grew up poor and queer in a rural area in a single-parent family on and off welfare. My Mum didn’t get much from the divorce except a video player the size of a suitcase. My father moved overseas which meant the child support agency didn’t chase him for maintenance payments. I shared a room with my brother before he moved out to a flat on the estate with his girlfriend and my niece.
In the negative equity crisis of the 1990s my Mum’s two-up-two-down was sold for next to nothing to pay off her debts. Facing homelessness she got a job as a live-in housekeeper on a dairy farm where I later moved after some time in a bedsit. When I wasn’t working I spent weekends at the houses of my friends from school, a mansion in one case.
I got a full means-tested grant to go to university in the last year they existed. The farmer was abusive towards my Mum and one morning we packed our things into the car and drove off, not really knowing where we were going. The car broke down and so did my mother. I became her carer for a long while after that.
I have this strange dual experience of privilege and precarity that feels impossible to fit into the standard categories, the shorthands that we use to talk about class and poverty. So these and other experiences remain hidden even from my closest friends, not to mention the folks I organise with.
A thumping sound distracted me. I steeled myself to look, half-expecting abuse. But the guy pounding on the back window of a passing car gave us the thumbs-up. ‘Fuck Tommy Robinson’, he shouted out of the driver’s window. We left the three women on their lawn.
A throng spilled into the street outside a pub snarling up the traffic. The crackle of a soundsystem ricocheted off the houses. Opposite the pub a crowd of three to four hundred people were gathered in front of a flatbed van that served as the stage. Behind it a large screen displayed the broad grin of Tommy Robinson.
The site was a car park at the back of a crumbling shopping arcade barely a mile from the fancy shopping districts of Manchester city centre. ‘Mocha Parade’ is an architectural experiment from the 1970s. Two or three shop units are still in use, but the others are long since boarded up. Several onlookers were positioned on skeletal staircases descending from the external walkway running the length of the building.
The police marshalled our group to the back of the crowd where we joined the counter-protest. I recognised a few people. Judging from the banners and identikit placards it was mostly made up of unions and Stand Up to Racism activists. A large banner read ‘Manchester against fascists’. A cordon of police officers separated us from the rear of the Robinson rally.
It was difficult to judge the crowd who were gathered in front of the stage. Undoubtedly a core of people sympathised with the politics of Tommy Robinson. But it felt like many were locals off the neighbouring estate rather than committed far-right types. In an area that receives almost zero attention, it was as if some people were there to check out the circus that had set up on their doorstep.
Anne-Marie Waters kicked off proceedings. That’s when the chanting from our side started. ‘Tommy wears a milkshake’, referring to the dousings Robinson received on the campaign trail. This was followed by others in quick succession, ‘Refugees are welcome here’ and ‘Fuck off back to Luton’.
When a black-shirted Robinson took to the stage, another chant went up, ‘Nazi scum! ‘Nazi scum!’ then simply ‘Scum! Scum! Scum!’ shouted over and over, increasing in volume as our side attempted to drown out his speech. Whilst directed at Robinson, the chant fell mostly on those milling around at the back of the rally. Robinson spoke for around twenty minutes at one point inviting a young fan to the stage.
When the adrenaline of that day faded from my body I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. It was somehow linked to that word, scum. I’ve heard it used many times in the call-and-response chants that are standard at protests like these. The feeling I have is a kind of ambivalence. On the one hand, how else do we name the politics of Tommy Robinson? On the other hand, when I hear activists with class privilege use the word, something grates.
As I write this I’m aware that the complexities of that day are difficult to describe without sounding like an apologist for far-right sympathisers. The same complexities are even more difficult to translate into strategies for countering the far right. Most anti-fascist groups recognise the need to combine no-platforming with community-level work. But when a young woman came over asking what we were about, no one made much of an effort to talk to her. Imperceptibly a collective decision had been made that anyone local was to be mistrusted.
In his book, Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones dissects the classism of the media and wider political establishment. There is one page where he mentions the classist attitudes of ‘liberals’ but the left is otherwise spared.1 In my experience of activism, of left and autonomous movements, this feels like an omission. Not least for the ways class privilege shapes who gets involved in these movements and whose voices get heard. This is often reinforced by other forms of privilege around gender, race, sexuality, and disability, as many folks have pointed out. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable about the use of the word scum if it didn’t feel like the symptom of a wider problem in our movements?
As someone who has acquired class privilege through education I can’t really speak for working class experiences of activist spaces today. The outsiderness I experience tends to relate to a combination of being queer and having a precarious economic background; that is, not having a stable family home or the bank of Mum and Dad to fall back on.
From this position I have noticed the ways people from class-privileged backgrounds can tend to dominate space or take leadership roles, including in ‘non-hierarchical’ groups. Sometimes this is to do with what kind of knowledge has most currency in these spaces. I am into talking theory, ideology and activist histories but this kind of knowledge often takes precedence over actual day-to-day experiences of oppression, including poverty. Sharing those experiences and the emotions they bring up is systematically devalued and often not considered part of activism. This is also partly to do with the kind of masculinity that activist scenes, particularly anti-fascist organising, tends to foster.
Activist spaces can feel sub-cultural and unwelcoming to people who aren’t already integrated into the scene, which often relies on informal networks. Oftentimes a sense of belonging in social change scenes is unconsciously organised around the shared experience of people who have voluntarily decided to reject dominant heteronormative capitalist values and bond with each other around the ‘sacrifice’ this represents. If you were already marginalised by that system it can feel like you have walked in on a cult.
There is a lot of tacit knowledge that comes from being socialised in these scenes, for example to do with digital security or knowing particular activists. Legitimate concerns around infiltration and group security can feed into this. But folks from outside can often face judgment for not already knowing it all. Often it feels like this dynamic is classed, and yet class differences within groups and the ways they might influence the ability of people to participate are rarely talked about. Which brings me back to that day in Salford.
When Robinson’s speech was over, the tension escalated. With their attention no longer drawn by the stage, the crowd’s focus turned on the counter-protest. After some indecision, we relocated to the car park at the front of the shopping arcade. Some people left in cars but our exits were gradually blocked by a crowd that had encircled us.
A three-person crew from Breitbart News appeared asking for interviews but someone chucked a milkshake over them. Then something hit the ground, a smear of yellow. I looked down to see an egg yolk oozing across the tarmac. More came, raining down on the union leaders as they tried to deliver their standard speeches. As the situation fell apart, an argument developed between different factions until it was simply a bunch of men shouting at each other.
Fearing a riot, it was left to the police to clear an exit. The organisers of the counter-protest wanted to march to the city centre, but on leaving the car park the only route available led further into the estate. We were tailed by kids throwing stones. One guy was hit on the head, blood streaming down his face as others came to his aid. An elderly man berated us from his doorstep. At the window of a new-build a young couple holding a baby waved to us and smiled. Eventually we reached Bury New Road where buses arrived to ferry the protesters away and I returned to my bike.
At the election count the next evening Tommy Robinson lost his deposit. The Brexit Party were the biggest winners on a regional turnout of 33% of registered voters. By some accounts, the campaign against Tommy Robinson was a success. But the counter-protest in Lower Broughton left me with questions. When challenging the racism of the far right is it possible to express other forms of prejudice that undermine our efforts? By using classist language, do the arguments of the left become easier to ignore and dismiss? Does this reflect a wider problem around class in our movements?
In a local news report I read that the police had arrested two young people from the estate that day. As the pair were handcuffed and taken away, the crowd were heard to be shouting ‘scum’ at the officers. Maybe it is a coincidence they chose that word. But it is difficult not to hear an echo of the chants we directed at them earlier that day.