I’ve recently finished reading Primo Levi’s simply incredible books about his survival of Auschwitz: If This is a Man and The Truce, which reignited a memory of mine which I thought I’d recount here.
The year is 2007, and the BNP (the largest Nazi party in Britain at the time) leader Nick Griffin and world-renouned Holocaust Denier David Irving, are invited to speak at the Oxford Debating Society.
As for me, I am fresh into university, Goldsmiths, exposed to the colourful world of student politics, and I’m sitting on an Oxford-bound coach from the University of London Union – crammed full of students in a dark winter afternoon. Still carrying white, male, middle-class baggage, I spend the entire journey debating with an SWP member of the National
Executive Committee of the NUS regarding “no platforming” fascists.
When we arrive at Oxford we head straight for the “Debating Chamber” of Oxford University; on the way through the high street we walk past chunky, black-clad men with ear pieces – little did I know at the time that these were BNP thugs. We arrived to a huge crowd of students locked outside the Chamber grounds of the building. A huge mass of students chanting anti-fascist slogans, and for a minute I view the picture as if taken from a Hollywood movie – the dim lighting, the atmosphere, the energy. We are crammed around the gates of the courtyard, and despite our best efforts I begin overhearing people state that the guest Nazis – Irving and Griffin – had arrived much earlier and most audience members had been able to get in.
Myself and a few dozen protestors begin walking around the perimeter of the fencing – desperate to find a back entrance to get in. Nothing but empty streets. We return back to the huge mass of people and I slowly squeeze my way back to the front of the entrance gates. It doesn’t look good, despite our best efforts it appears the two holocaust deniers will be having their ‘debate’ as planned. So a group of us spontaneously grouped together to think of a way of getting into the grounds of the Chamber – this was the only realistic way we were going to make any disruption. And then, as one of those
great moments of good luck that should always be seized upon – we notice the security had pulled the gates open ajar to allow a few more students into the chamber. I remember my great friend Katan turning and pointing to the gate – “everyone push, the gate”. And so a hundred strong mass of anti-fascists like a tidal wave launched towards the gates. With my good squeezing abilities I got to the very front; I looked to my right to see brave people scaling the fences – it was sheer pandemonium. To this day I remember being held back by security, desparately holding on to stop our passage, and hearing the poor security guy by me wheezing as he desparately held onto the fencing, but hundreds of yong students piling into a gate 2 metres wide was just too much and we burst through. There was an awkward moment when I realised I had no idea where to go, but saw someone dart toward a building and I duly followed. Another awkward moment, it appeared myself and the person in front of me were the only ones who had got to the Chamber before extra security had slowed down the rest.
So we bizarrely walked into the chamber and sat down (herself still clasping a Unite Against Fascism placard). As we sat I started to get nervous – what the hell were we supposed to do? Run up and punch them when they arrived? Spit at them? Throw water? Shout and scream so they couldn’t talk? My various scenarios were shattered when a rumbling from outside turned into a couple of hundred of the anti-fascists who by now had fought past the last remaining security and stormed through the Chamber lobby. As they approached the door to the debating room itself, a group of perhaps 10 stocky young white men appeared and formed a violent chain by the door, a protective scrum to stop them entering the room itself. It turns out this lot were the Oxford rugby club, who, when not playing the game, were busy defending Nazis.
We ran over to help, and not really knowing what to do I just ducked into the anti-fascist side and helped push through. By now the rugby team were stinking of foul machosim, but even this failed to stop the inevitable break in the chain. We broke through and, cheering and whooping, everyone flooded into the room and began excitedly occupying the stage: water for the Nazis was distributed out, someone played the piano, and then after calming down we held a sit-in on the stage chanting anti-fascist slogans. I remember some poor guy, middle-aged and probably a faculty manager, coming in to negoiate with us, clearly distressed but I had the feeling he kind of supported us. Eventually people began to be scorted upstairs: as the police arrived we realised we were probably going to be trapped in the building and arrested. So we headed for the fire escape, and made our exit.
It turned out our actions hadn’t quite got the event cancelled – it was moved upstairs but Griffin and Irving had to be separated into two separate rooms “for their own safety” and the event wasn’t able to take place in the historic debating chamber. Needless to say the pair have never recieved an invite since then.
And so my introduction to student politics had begun!