Being Fabulously Antifascist: Report and Thoughts on Scotland’s “Glitter Against Fascism”

1. Glitter Against Fascism: What Happened?
2. Fascism in Scotland
3. The Glitter Bloc Tactic: Learning and Limits
4. Militancy and Diversity
5. What Happens Next?

1. Glitter Against Fascim: What Happened?

Image from A Thousand Flowers

Forty-odd queers and allies gathered at the foot of Leith Walk, covered in sequins and sparkles and glitter, holding signs that said things like “Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants” and “Migrants Welcome — Fascists Out”, chanting “No borders! No nations! End deportation!” And they laughed at a group of twenty-odd miserable-looking fascists from the Scottish Defense League, National Front and National Action, they chanted far more loudly and jubilantly whenever the fascists chanted, they sang “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye!” when the fascists went home early, they made sure that anyone who could see the fascists could see a far more fun and celebratory queer-migrant solidarity action to join instead. And then a march of 500 or so wonderful anti-racist people, the United Colours of Leith, marched between the two groups. The fascists were behind a line of fences and a line of police; the glitterers had no fences or police in front of them, and blew kisses and bubbles at the march. Anyone on the march could turn their back to the tiny group of fascists and see a much bigger group of queers in solidarity, and hear their chants and whoops of support. This was glitter against fascism.

How it came about was a little bit strange. The neo-nazi group National Action, known for their “Hitler Was Right” banners and “Miss Hitler” online beauty pageant, put up homophobic nazi stickers up in Glasgow and Leith (including a weirdly explicit, instruction-manual depiction of anal sex for some reason). In response, the community group Leithers Don’t Litter called an anti-racist demonstration, “United Colours of Leith”, celebrating diversity and in solidarity in migrants. Then in response to that, the fascist groupuscule Scottish Defense League called an action against “left wing traitors” in Leith, somehow misunderstanding an anti-littering group as the vanguard of the far-left. So then in response to that, a group of antifascist queers and allies called “Glitter Against Fascism” to defend the main march and confront the Scottish Defense League. Yes, this was a counter-counter-counter-protest, but no less beautiful for that.

GAF was called by a couple of people who monitor fascists when they became aware of the SDL Facebook post. They made a simple Facebook event and spread the word. There was no prior organisation and only five days to make it happen; Facebook was by far the main source of publicity. 1300 people were invited and many offered to spread the word. A very rough outline plan was posted, along with some protest advice, giving a meeting point and starting time. Then folk waited at the meeting point, dressing up and donning glitter and making placards and waiting to see who would turn up.

Before the confrontation with the SDL, there had to be a confrontation with the police. The glitterers were met by blue-jacketed “Community Liason Officers” as they walked down Leith Walk; these were mostly ignored. At the foot of the walk, where a couple of individual fascists were visible, GAF was met by a large group of yellow-jacketed cops and told they would not be allowed near the SDL picket. There was a stand-off for around 10 minutes while the GAF group decided what to do. Seeing they didn’t have the numbers or training to get past the police to the SDL at this point, they decided to go back across the road to a facing corner to regroup. They lined the pavement, facing off against the fascists with their larger numbers and glitter and bubbles and songs.

Then the cops decided this wasn’t OK either, and asked GAF to move further back away from the SDL (despite there being a road between them) and into a fenced-off protest pen. They said that if GAF did not move, there would be a line of police in front of them the whole time and no-one would be able to see their message and they really wanted to help people see the message. It was calmly pointed out that the police could just not stand in front of the glitter bloc instead. They said they were trying to compromise with the protest, and the protestors pointed out that compromise generally means that both sides give something, rather than one side just doing what the other one wants. This went on for around 20 minutes, with occasional song-and-dance numbers to boost spirits. Eventually, through a combination of strong and calm argument and through the entire group — including many people who had never been to an antifascist action or argued against police before — bravely standing its ground, the cops left the glitterers alone to hold their dramatic visual position outside of a pen, without yellow jackets blocking the view.

There was then around 20 minutes of facing off against the fascists: their numbers increased to around 20, but the glitterers increased to around 40. Whenever they chanted, the glitterers chanted louder. Folk got off the bus just to thank the glitterers for protesting, while others stood a fair distance away from the fascists and looked confused and disgusted. The only thing the fascists won on was by having bigger and glossier banners, which was a bit of a shame, but easily beaten next time. Also, their biggest banner read “Left wing traitors not welcome in Leith”, about which can only be said: have you been to Leith? Then, the main hundreds-strong anti-racist march passed through. The fascists were either mocked or ignored, while the march and the antifascists exchanged whoops, kisses, bubbles, chants and love. The march went on its way to Pilrig Park, and the fascists looked a bit deflated. Eventually, they started trickling away to the pub. The antifascists waited until the last nazi had gone, singing “Cheerio cheerio cheerio” all the while, and then left to join the rally, exhilarated. There, they caught most of the speeches, including a message of solidarity between UCL and GAF, with the whole crowd cheering.

2. Fascism in Scotland

British antifascism has won some major successes in the last decade, shattering both large street organisations like the English Defense League and large electoral organisations like the British National Party. The fascist movement in general has lost much of its infrastructure and is generally fairly disorganised, splintering into numerous factions like Britain First and the comically tiny New British Union. One of the most often covered is the nazi National Action, mainly because they are halfway competent at dramatic media, unlike most fascists; amusingly, over half the energy of National Action seems to be spent physically attacking other fascists for not being fascist enough.

In Scotland, the Scottish Defense League has been the most long-lasting organisation, with a vaguely successful Facebook page mainly sharing memes about ISIS. They are rarely able to muster more than 12–20 people at an action, however, far short of anything the EDL managed, though when unopposed their numbers have increased to 50–70.

But while street fascism is waning, the British electoral far right is in ascendency. Though short of true fascism, UKIP frequently comes close, and gives legitimised electoral expression to many fascist ideas. Increasingly, the Tory party also plays host to fascist policy, especially with its new cabinet, the most right-wing for many years. The fight against street fascism is strong, but the fight against the electoral far-right is currently very weak.

Also relevant here is the European situation, with far-right and full fascist parties gaining influence in Parliaments. In America, too, Trump is at least an extreme right and perhaps a full fascist threat. In both cases, the electoral rise has been accompanied by a rise in street fascism: one gives strength to the other.

Against this grim background, the Scottish situation is remarkably positive: the electoral far-right has very little representation, with UKIP gaining almost no toehold at all, and the street fascists are few in number and struggling to advance. This is not, however, due to Scotland being economically better off than countries with bigger fascist movements — it’s not, and austerity and poverty hit hard here too — or due to Scots being somehow less racist — they’re just not significantly less racist than English people. It’s in part thanks to electoral populism having an expression in the Scottish National Party (a centre-left nationalism), and in the main thanks to consistent street antifascism: almost every time the fascists appear, they are opposed and outnumbered. At a time of rising European fascism, we cannot rest on our laurels: fascism is a constant threat that must be continually defeated.

A final note on what I mean by fascism in this context. I am not using fascist as a general-purpose insult or description of all right-wing politics, but as a specific term: fascism is a political ideology which involves: extreme nationalism, usually with a racist element; authoritarian control of the population with extreme state violence; protectionist economics without trade unions; and war as a major tool of foreign policy, often with imperial aims. Traditionally fascism also requires a one-party state with a rejection of representative or horizontalist democracy, but some people argue that neo-fascism allows for some level of “democratic fascism” or “authoritarian democracy” or at least engagement with achieving fascism constitutionally rather than solely through force. All the organisations I’m talking about are fascist on these terms.

3. The Glitter Bloc Tactic: Learning and Limits

Glitter Against Fascism was called at five days’ notice, mainly on Facebook, with no prior organisation or resources. Even with this small effort, the group was able to outnumber the fascists at least two-to-one. This is very heartening for the future of antifascism in Scotland. I think a large part of this success is down to the sheer fun of the tactic: by asking people to be colourful, celebratory and to bring glitter, the action attracted more people to get involved and enabled more people to feel like they could be involved. It was a fairly accessible form of antifascism. Many if not the majority of attendees had not taken confrontational antifascist action before, and had not faced down police orders before: the event radicalised attendees.

That said, accessibility and open publicity has a trade-off: capacity for militancy. The primary objective of confrontational antifascism should be to either force the fascists to leave the streets or to fully obscure the fascists’ messaging and make it impossible for them to communicate or recruit. The glitter bloc was not able to do this, not because it was unwilling to confront fascists, but because it was outnumbered by an organised police operation and had little prior training or experience in overcoming this. Being covered in glitter also made the bloc very easy to spot and made it hard to outmanoeuvre police. The fascists were able to protest because they were directly protected by police. (Think about that for a minute.) Without a trained and prepared core or separate group properly prepared for further action, probably without glitter or with glitter disguised, it is unlikely to be possible to achieve antifascism’s first aim, and having an open, public and accessible call makes all this harder.

But the action did achieve antifascism’s second aim, which is to confront and oppose fascism whenever it appears, and to ensure that no-one is able to see a fascist action without seeing a bigger, better and more appealing antifascist action. The glitter tactic made this extra effective, because rather than seeing two groups dressed in black facing off against each other, the public saw one deeply unappealing group dressed in black and sweating and covered up and angry, and one friendly group covered in glitter and joyful and celebratory and winning. This action was also extra effective because it was brave enough to hold ground against the police, which meant that the fascists were in a fenced pen and the antifascists were free, and that the fascists were surrounded by police while the antifascists were open to the public. Glitter Against Fascism won victory through joy.

The other important aspect of the glitter tactic was to centre queerness in antifascism. This is important for many reasons. First, National Action are explicitly homophobic, and the SDL campaign “against paedophilia” in a way which often manifests as homophobia through tedious old lies. It is vital for queers to show that they are unshaken by this, and that they own the streets now. Second, at a time of the mainstreaming of queerness, it is vital for the queer movement to display militancy, as part of continuing a very necessary struggle for fuller liberation for all. Third, LGBT+ rights are often now used against migrants, especially Muslims, both in the UK and in overseas wars, with racism justified as a spurious “civilising” mission, and queers must oppose this pinkwashing by acting in solidarity with migrants. And fourth, LGBT+ migrants are among those most violently abused by the UK’s immigration system, and a major front of queer struggle should be liberating out migrant comrades from this horror. Fifth, and hopefully not finally, we are fabulous, and antifascism needs more fabulousness.

The last thing to say about the glitter bloc was its solidarity with the main march. The action was not just about opposing fascists but about supporting this broad-based anti-racist protest march. During and after the march, GAF received many messages of solidarity from people, including families with children, saying that they felt safer and more supported to march with a friendly antifascist glitter bloc supporting them and providing an alternative to the SDL. In a movement which must celebrate a diversity of tactics, this is a huge victory:

A message left on the GAF Facebook page

4. Militancy and Diversity

Let’s talk a little about the diversity of tactics, and about the importance of antifascist militancy. It is very important to march against racism, but why is that not enough? And why is it not enough to try and beat fascism in the “marketplace of ideas”?

Fascist groups use street actions to recruit. They take public space in order to spread propaganda and find new members. They do this at their events, in the pub afterwards, and on social media. This is how they grow. They also take public space as a display of strength, not just to others but to themselves: they use these events to convince themselves that they are winning and growing. To prevent both these things, they must be disrupted, embarrassed, shamed and defeated.

The more a fascist group grows, the more of a threat they become. They become a threat first to individual people who represent what they hate: fascists in the UK have bombed gay bars and attacked people of colour in the street. In many countries, fascists physically attack Pride parades and migrant organisations. Merely arguing against fascism rarely prevents these groups from growing, and risks the lives of the most vulnerable people first. Moreover, the larger a fascist group grows, the more they gain institutional legitimacy, leading to such awful results as the BBC’s Question Time acting as Nigel Farage’s free publicity machine for a decade. The marketplace of ideas lost to UKIP in Britain this summer.

Against these arguments, you might claim an ideal of free speech. The first thing to say about this is that fascists do not believe in free speech or democracy, and they are organising to build a state that represses these things. Preventing fascists from growing prevents this organised threat to free speech. Most people believe free speech has some sort of limits or scope: the real question is where you think the line is required for protecting the most speech. Secondly, there is a major political difference between a state censoring organisations and an autonomous grassroots protest disrupting fascist actions. Thirdly, it is often possible to disrupt fascist actions without violence, by letting the fascists exclude themselves: non-violent but militant bodies putting themselves in the way of fascists often leads to fascist violence, which leads to the police escorting them away and ending their action. Lastly, if you are going to campaign against small antifascist actions, I would hope that you would campaign as if not far more vigorously againstdramatic state censorship and free speech repression programmes such as Prevent, the Snoopers’ Charter, police spying on environmentalists, and so on. If you are not doing this then, while I might respect you ideals, I would kindly ask you to at least get out of the way while we deal with actually existing fascism.

Alongside this, I would also argue for the diversity of tactics. I would ask people to respect militant antifascism, and I would also ask militant antifascists to respect broad-based antiracist marches like United Colours of Leith. Such events are tremendous displays of strength, positivity and popular feeling, and they take public space in favour of solidarity and migration: this is also a valuable way of winning against fascists. Moreover, fascism cannot only be defeated in the street. It is equally vital for antifascists to campaign for a more just economic system that does not fuel fascism through popular disenfranchisement and discontent. And equally vital for antifascists to take part in the survival politics which support those whom fascists would attack, like migrant support and LGBT health organisations.

Thinking through that, it’s also worth antifascists asking themselves how much effort is worth it. I love antifascist actions in Scotland because we almost always get to leave feeling like we’ve won — a rare feeling for protestors! That high in itself is valuable, but is not enough at a time when suffering is acute and activist energy is limited. Is it worth getting arrested disrupting a fascist action, when many bodies are needed for the struggle against austerity and institutional racism? When the fascists are weak in Scotland, do we need to always kick them off the street, or is outnumbering and confronting them enough? On the other hand, tactics learned and networks built in evicting fascists from public space can be very powerful in building a wider movement for justice and life. I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they’re worth asking.

5. What Happens Next?

The Glitter Against Fascism tactic is open and free to be used by anyone. Nobody owns it. If you like the idea, use it. This action was called with five days’ notice and no prior organisation and was a tremendous success: you too can do this. When antifascists are needed, do it yourself! And in these times they are likely to be needed more than ever. We believe in you.

That said, there is considerable interest in building a group or network which can take more organised action when it is next necessary, continuing the glitter theme and fabulous ethic. If you’re interested in this, please email just to say you’re interested in meeting to talk about it. No obligation, no prior experience needed, no commitment to immediately go out and do things you’re not comfortable with, just to say you’re interested in meeting to talk about antifascism in Scotland. The organisation will be led by LGBT+ folk with queerness at its heart, but allies are welcome.

At the least, we need bigger and more sparkly banners next time. And some more rehearsed chants. Though “If you’re antifascist and you know it, clap your hands” will definitely be making a comeback.

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