“I can’t hear a f*ing thing” — the irony of Antifa

My first encounter with provocateurs resulting in a minor assault at a protest

Back of person wearing a mask

I have counted up how many freedom demonstrations or rallies I have been to and photographed for the historic record, and it is 27 prior to going to Manchester on Saturday. I may have sympathies with the overall cause, but I don’t necessarily agree with every message or speaker. My job is to capture what is happening from ground level, and not with a super long telephoto lens standing on top of a rubbish bin. I noted an event organised by Students Against Tyranny in Manchester, and decided to break a long drive by attending as an independent photojournalist and historian.

Are you a communist sticker

The rally was always going to be a small one, held on a tiny mound in the campus of Manchester University. As part of my pre-event wanderings with my camera, I meandered past the Turing Building, read up on the new Graphene Institute, and noted the endless stickers on every piece of street furniture. I personally am more inclined to support the techno club nights than violent communism as a pastime, but we all have different hobbies and tastes. I have never had any contact with the organisers, and am perfectly entitled to hear what they have to say.

I was quite surprised to find the mound, with no speakers yet present, surrounded by police, who were holding back a group of far-left activists, many of whom were wearing their compulsory slave muzzles, because we all like to be absorbed into the hive mind, depersonalised, and seemingly unaccountable for our actions. They were making quite a din, but I had no reason to feel any malice towards them. I clambered up onto the mound to grab a shot of their message, as I naively believed they would welcome it being spread around. Isn’t that the whole point of a banner in a public place?

Gays against Nazis

Nipping behind their lines, I wanted to just get shots of the other banners against the background of the buildings. Before I knew it, my view was blocked by umbrellas, my way forward halted by an aggressive masked protestor, and I was being jostled. This is actually a criminal assault, so I simply loudly said “leave me alone!” and let the police do their thing. I knew I was fundamentally safe, as there were so many police present. Still, it is the first time in my life, beyond the school playground, where I have been assaulted. They are trained to goad you into a response, and I grabbed a few angry shots under provocation.

The absurdity of the situation was not lost on me. Anyone who knows me personally can tell you I qualify as an honorary member of “gays against Nazis”, even if I do not align to this specific group of agents provocateur. I am also an ally to those who as adults make a free choice to transition or detransition — there are stories I cannot tell, to protect the privacy of others. I have been attacked by fascist corporations, and fought endlessly against tyranny. My ex-boyfriend is Malaysian-Chinese, the one before Jewish, and my ex-wife is a Lithuanian and nominally Catholic. I am probably not the one to scream at, right in my face, that I am a racist, fascist, Nazi.

The Antifa crowd were determined to use their own free speech right to oppose those rallying for free speech. They seemed oblivious to the irony of their own deafness, disrupting the speeches with loud music and shouting “we can’t hear a fucking thing”. Yes, you can’t hear a thing, and that’s your problem! Somewhere in the universe there is a counter of contradictions, and it ticks over fast for this crowd. Over and over they chanted their intimidatory slogan “there are many, many more of us than you”. The universe responded, and sent hundreds of protestors against Gaza genocide through the square, making Antifa many, many fewer.

The Antifa crowd seemed to be perplexed and the “right-wing extremist racist fascist Nazis” were also not keen on genocide, and soon slunk off. I had a few chats with various people — the police liaison officer in her blue jacket, a solicitor on his day off acting as a lawful observer, and a couple of bystanders perplexed by the whole situation. I have an intuitive sense that the Antifa lot realised belatedly that I was just an observer, and they had wrongly put me in a box of “enemy”. They didn’t look me in the eye when I looked at them, indication shame, although one did brush past me to invade my personal space again.

The most interesting part of the whole thing for me was the police response. I have come to appreciate the work the police do in the course of documenting these events. I personally have never seen the police act in an aggressive or biased way, but I have seen them work in very difficult circumstances, like the medieval streets of York filled with smoke from flares, in order to protect the public and keep the peace. I make a point of thanking them on every protest for keeping us safe, and appreciating what they do. At the end of the day, they did protect the space for free speech in Manchester, and they did protect me personally when assaulted.

Most people, including the bulk of the police, then dispersed, allowing the speeches to take place and be live streamed. And at last I can play properly by putting on different lenses and getting a sense of the scenery! (Super-wide whacky portraits…) What is important was that what was said was possible to say in public, not necessarily that anyone was listening to it. There were some very sad things to reflect on, as more people are injured and killed from the poison poke. There was love expressed for the lost souls of Antifa, and hope they could eventually hear a message of redemption. There was a more angry speech about the Islamisation of local government, and it is how it is.

Perhaps one of the more enlivening parts of the day were those handing out their “Great Controversy” book. I don’t wish to dive into the rights or wrongs of particular sects of movements. I did have a long conversation with a delightful black lady about Bible matters. My mother is a lifelong Jehovah’s Witness, so I am comfortable talking spiritual matters with Catholics, Freemasons, Adventists, Muslims, Marxists, and all kinds. I don’t have to agree with any of them, and nobody has a monopoly on truth in my cosmology; we are all deceived in some way.

At the end of the day, the message was a simple one of equality under the law. It is wrong to discriminate, yet essential to discern. We have free speech not only so we can hear the good ideas that challenge us, but also so we can more easily recognise fools, narcissists, criminals, psychopaths, traitors, lunatics, subversives, infiltrators, maniacs, morons, and cults. If someone is a racist, fascist, Nazi, then I want to know so I can keep well away from them! Suppressing speech only leads to conflict and violence down the road. The discomfort is a feature, not a bug.

This is the first time I ever had a “bad vibe” at a rally, but it didn’t leave a bad taste. On a long drive to London afterwards via some friends, I reflected on the lessons of the day. The Antifa assault had caught me somewhat off-guard. Being a peaceful person, it is too easy to assume others are the same way. They were a literal mob; taking individually, I suspect they would be easier to interact with, and likely embarrassed by their mischaracterisation of me and my intentions. My purpose is to record the zeitgeist and events that “professional” documentarians avoid.

One of the interesting things that happened afterwards is when I posted some images from the day on social media. I did speak to the organiser, James, and I did take his photograph. I was then accused of “actively promoting a holocaust denier”. I am not going to fall into the trap of discussing that subject. What matters is that I am a citizen journalist, and I am equally comfortable photographing the lost souls of Antifa, the considerably more friendly Palestinian protestors, or the “right wing” free speech absolutist advocates. I am not burnished or tarnished by simply recording reality.

As a parting observation, one of the speakers addressed the police, who by that time were not listening. It doesn’t matter — my sense is that many of them are noble men and women doing a thankless and sometimes dangerous job. They are put in impossible positions, asked to uphold the law and keep the peace, while directed under treacherous politicians and woke leadership. The speaker said it “was not the uniform that makes the person, but the person that makes the uniform”. No matter what uniform someone puts on, even Antifa, we must keep seeing their humanity.