2023Datacide 19

Defending Drag: South London is still Anti-Fascist

A local pub has become the unlikely scene of the most sustained far right agitation  – and anti-fascist counter-mobilisation – seen for several years in South London. The focus has been on the Honor Oak, a pub which holds a monthly drag storytelling event for children. This should not be controversial in a country where drag has long been part of popular culture – wait until the fascists hear about Christmas pantomime shows – never mind contemporary mainstreaming of drag culture in TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. But drag has become a folk devil in the eyes of the global far right, and this has now reached the streets of the London Borough of Lewisham.

The protests were first called by Turning Point UK, a Trumpian ‘anti-woke’ group, and amplified by right wing influencers like GB News TV presenters Calvin Robinson and Laurence Fox. Both of these attended the first protest in February 2023 where their 30 or so supporters were heavily outnumbered by community opposition, with several hundred people occupying the road by the pub to stop them getting near. Since then there have been monthly face offs with anti-fascists as the far right has tried and mostly failed to occupy a space directly outside the pub for its protest. 

In the most serious confrontation in June intelligence that the far right were planning to arrive very early led to an to an even earlier counter effort. By 6 am people had gathered to defend the pub and soon afterwards the Turning Point mob turned up and piled in. Scuffles continued for a while before the police turned up, a few people were injured and a window broken in the pub but the line held. After the early departure of  the far right there was dancing in the road before the police cleared the impromptu street party.  Giving evidence against a protestor who was arrested, a cop claimed that the sound system had been louder than Rampage at Notting Hill Carnival – a slight exaggeration.

Since then events have settled down into a routine with 100+ anti-fascists outside the pub, large numbers of police (12 van loads at most recent count) and a hard core of around 20-30 anti-drag activists, mostly older white men with long term involvement in far right street politics. Among those identified have been people previously associated with Combat 18, Blood & Honour (white power skinheads) and the British National Party. One regular attendee spent years in jail for being part of a neo-nazi gang that nearly killed a man in a racist stabbing in Essex.

Anti-drag international

Events at the Honor Oak are an echo of protests in the USA, where ‘anti drag activity… has become a unifying topic for far right extremist groups and localized activists’ with those involved including Proud Boys, white supremacists and far right Christian nationalists. More than 200 incidents targeting drag events were tracked in the year from June 2022, including violence, threats and intimidation (A Year of Hate: Anti-Drag Mobilization Efforts Targeting LGBTQ+ People in the US, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2023).  In November 2022 five people were murdered at the end of a drag show at Club Q, Colorado Springs. The killer had posted far right content online and while their exact motives are unclear what is not in doubt is how this attack was celebrated by fascists.

The ostensible focus of these protests has been drag events where children are present, with organisers accused of ‘grooming’ or ‘sexualising children’. But the discourse soon slips into a host of right wing concerns – anti-trans, violent hostility to the left and general ‘anti-woke’ bigotry. This has certainly been the case at the Honor Oak, where self styled ‘Concerned Parents UK’ have called for people to ‘Stop Tr@ntifa sexualising our kids’.

The threat

Far right anti-drag numbers in Britain may have been small but they still pose a threat. Their harassment has contributed to some events being cancelled, and there is the ever present danger of an escalation to violence – people who have convinced themselves that they are protecting children from evil are capable of anything. In any event for the ‘post internet far right’ numbers attending are sometimes less important than numbers viewing content online. Small protests and stunts are used to generate material which reaches a much larger audience via social media.  In the US we have seen this further amplified by news outlets like Fox News, feeding far right ideas into the mainstream where they are taken up by politicians. Republicans have proposed anti-drag legislation in at least eight states including outright bands on drag performance in public in Tennessee and Idaho. 

In the UK, right wing TV channel GB News is trying to play a similar role to Fox though thankfully its viewing numbers remain very low. But a group like Turning Point can straddle the right wing of the Conservative Party – its honorary president is Tory MP Marco Longhi – and the old school ethno-nationalists who provide many of the boots on the ground at its actions. The Conservative government has certainly adopted ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric wholesale including its anti-trans and anti-drag elements while the Labour Party has also conceded ground anxious not to be painted as being ‘woke’ itself. If this is a culture war, it is not just an argument about pronouns. It is a real war in which people suffer abuse, violence and denial of care.

South London is Anti-Fascist

Opposition to the far right at the Honor Oak has come from a mixture of  younger queer and trans activists, long time Lewisham leftists and trade unionists and other local people just outraged at the presence of bigots in this diverse part of London. Despite some political differences some interesting connections have been made and a tentative South London antifascist community of struggle has emerged over seven months. Large banners have proclaimed ‘South London Loves Trans People’ and ‘South London is Anti-Fascist’. This is true, but back in the early 1990s the far right had a dangerous presence in South London, with the British National Party having its HQ in Welling amidst local racist murders and still selling papers at East Street market in Southwark.  South London’s anti-fascist status has been hard fought for and people are determined that the far right will never again establish a strong presence on our streets. 

Neil Transpontine

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One thought on “Defending Drag: South London is still Anti-Fascist

  • Greg Wilson

    Timely and right on. It’s gratifying to hear of the strength of community support against the fascists. Although I believe we will always have some degree of fascist presence among us, it is crucial that it be resisted on all fronts.

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