This date marks the one year anniversary [I originally wrote this on 6th Feb 2011] of what was one of the worst cases of extremism on a British campus that I know of; and yet it went by fairly unnoticed.
In 2008 Assed Baig was elected President of Staffordshire University Students’ Union: a medium sized university situated in Stoke; a hotbead for the British National Party at the time. His policies were free education, anti-racism, anti-war, policies to tackle climate change. It was everything so strong in the student movement, yet so poorly represented in most Students’ Unions. Despite a disgustingly racist campaign against him by the incumbent opponent (who claimed that being a Muslim he would close down the union bar and segregate the union along gender lines) the students at Staffs voted him in and it was a great success.
Assed was the only Students’ Union Officer in the whole of the UK that year who organised a protest for free education (whilst NUS officials were busy selling students down the river with a ‘Graduate Tax’ policy). Staffs SU was a beacon in the North West that campaigned hard against the BNP, in the belly of the beast, and Assed himself was a national figure in the student movement. It was not only his passion,
dedication and hardwork, it was also the fact that he was a young Muslim; at a time (to this day) where Muslims are constantly under scrutiny, constantly having to justify themselves, being accused of extremism; where the press daily berate them, and where Guantanamo Bay is not just a disgrace, but an actual threat.
However, this was not part of the script for Staffs SU. Like most SU’s in the UK, cronyism was common place; apolitical, popular students get elected, then re-elected, then pass on the baton to their apolitical, popular mates. Not this time. So despite having an SU that was relevant, and that fought for their interests, a section of students at Staffs saw in Assed everything they detested; and worse, he’d beaten the incumbent President, the rightful heir to the throne.
The spark for these disparate students to unite in common cause was the furore over Assed publishing a link to a Guardian article on the Staffs SU website. On this link was a database where students could enter their postcode and find out where local BNP members lived. An internationally respected broadsheet newspaper felt comfortable to publish this, and given Assed was the President of an ethnically diverse University situated in the middle of a fascist stronghold, it would seem perfectly normal for Staffs SU to think likewise.
Yet what ensued was a vicious campaign against Assed. Apparently the published database was “illegal”, voices spoke about the fear of the safety of the local fascists (!!!) who’s addresses would be exposed. Facebook groups were launched, hundreds joined, with utterly vile content. Opportunists were jumping on the bandwagon: some didn’t like posters being up round campus, others moaned that he had spoken to them badly; it was not simply racists feeding the anti-Assed hysteria.
All this culminated in a petition to call for a no confidence vote on Assed. Stoke BNP wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Staffs calling for him to be fired. He was getting regular racist abuse, and the force behind the hatred was significant (though was not the majority of students).
Despite vicious racism and one of their own officers being witch-hunted, the NUS were silent, a deafening silence. Despite a national committee of over 20, and hundreds of full time staff, the only NUS people to go to Staffs were myself (then on the NEC – a non-paid position), Daf, the LGBT Students’ Officer (on part-time pay), Bell, the Black Students’ Officer, and Hannah, the fulltime students organiser of the SWP.
Campaigning that day was one of the worst experiences of my life. The atmosphere was unbearable, every white person I spoke to I wondered whether they were going to lunge for me. The mob of racists on the other side of the broadway we were campaigning on were laughing and self-congratulatory, but there was something far worse. The night before we arrived, some fascists had come onto campus and sprayed racist abuse all over campus. This included on the door of the building which we were campaigning outside: a Swastika, and below on the floor “No Pakis”. I walked along the campus and saw “Keep Staffs Clean, No Niggers and Pakis”. This was not the 1970s, this was last year.
I remember arguing with one of the campaigners saying, “have you no shame in campaigning against Assed with racist abuse all around you?” He went on to explain that the Swastika wasn’t a Nazi sign, but a Hindu love symbol. The bizarre collection of anti-Assed campaigners were not just dim, there was a real nasty streak in them: a mob mentality. It turned out one of the gang was a member of the Socialist Party; he was campaigning alongside the racists because Assed had spoken to him rudely. The context of the referendum being a racist campaign seemed not to bother him too much.
A couple of these anti-Assed people said they were against all racism, “but for everyone, like fat people, ginger people…..” I remember looking at Daf, and we couldn’t quite believe the ignorance coming out of their mouths.
As is standard with the police, the on-campus officer was far more concerned with the ant-racist side than the racists. I told one racist student to “Fuck off” and was threatened with arrest. One racist student squared up to Assed ready for a fight, the officer seemed far more concerned with dealing with Assed than the racist.
However a group of students appeared from the silent, non-racist majority of Staffs students, many who’d never been involved in activism before, disgusted by the racism against Assed and determined to get the anti-racist vote out.. It was a beautiful thing, and such a wonderful example of principles and courage in contrast to the spineless and viciousness from the opposing camp.
The racists needed two thirds of the vote to remove Assed, and despite over a thousand students voting with them, the no-confidence vote was defeated. For those on the outside this seemed like not much of a victory, but for those of us there, who saw the atmosphere, the attitude, and the tension, understood how much of a victory this was. The racists had everything they needed; support from sections of the ‘left’, a group of disgruntled union hacks who weren’t happy with the Assed victory, a racist atmosphere thanks to the losers of the previous election, and a town marred by a strong fascist presence. Yet despite all of this they lost. Assed completed his full term as President, and continued to uncompromisingly fight for justice until the day he left office.
I remember as a kid, learning about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and not comprehending how it was possible for such evil to be accepted by so many people. For the first time in my life, I got a taste of how it can. I saw people making excuses: the NUS hiding away, the Socialist Party guy ignoring the racism, the ‘Hindu love symbol’, the racist police officer, and a group of students willing to continue their campaign against a black officer despite racist and fascist graffiti on their campus.
However I also witnessed the flip side of this. Students with no activist experience, hitting the streets to campaign for Assed. Some principled left wing students who spent day and night defending Assed. And obviously the man himself. No one can describe how soul-shattering it is to have people you don’t know write and say nasty things about you. Assed was getting this hour by hour, and despite him being one of the most outspoken, courageous and charismatic student leaders we’ve ever had (and bloody hard too!), you could tell it was shattering him. Let’s not forget, this was not just a one-off racist incident, this was a racist campaign against Assed which sustained itself for months, there has been no precedent to this on a British campus in recent times. Yet Assed remained a leader, rather than hide in a shell (which he would have had every right to) he came out and fought his corner, and came out a winner. A few months after the referendum he gave one of the greatest speeches NUS conference has had the privilege of hearing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHPIC950CHo
I think the lesson we can learn is not just how fascism is possible, but also how it can be taken on. The success of Assed’s victory was the students who came out and made the effort. You don’t need to be a seasoned pro to campaign against racism, you don’t need to be confident, a good public speaker, or popular. With the vicious rise of racism against Muslims we are seeing a similar situation to the 1920s. Racists will always be racists, but it is when others start making excuses for racism, like I witnessed in Staffs, that it becomes a real danger. While people from the right and left self-righteously talk up ‘Islamic’ extremism, where is the talk of this vicious anti-Muslim extremism, which is fuelling extremist, terrorist gangs like the EDL?
This can be challenged by normal people, who have their own lives, families, social lives, jobs, whatever; who take the time to challenge racism and take a stand. After the experience at Staffs, I’m confident the majority of people will.