Dover brought to a standstill as far-right protesters clash with police and activists

Port town has served as a focal point for anti-immigrant groups in recent weeks following a period of warm weather, which has seen a surge in the number of asylum seekers, writes Vincent Wood 

Wednesday 09 September 2020 16:44
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Anti-immigration protesters block the dual carriageway in Dover, Kent.
Anti-immigration protesters block the dual carriageway in Dover, Kent.

It is unusual for Dover day-trippers to be met by the eyes of 20 police officers, silent behind their face masks, all staring on as travellers step off at the town’s train station.

It is however not uncommon for the region to serve as a potent symbol for the nation’s borders; both to those who wish to see the white cliffs as a welcome sign, and to those who look on them as a fortress.

On Saturday, as both arrived to protest alongside a heavy police presence, it risked becoming a flashpoint for the national debate on immigration.

The port town has served as a focal point for anti-immigrant groups in recent weeks following a period of warm weather which has seen a surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving on its shores after crossing the channel. On Wednesday more than 400 are thought to have made the dangerous journey in the space of 24 hours – a record for a single day.

But as right wing agitators – a mixture of football hooligans, conspiracy theorists and self ascribed nazis alongside organised right wing groups – gathered on the seafront, pro migrant activists had already begun a quiet rally in the town’s centre flanked by officers.

They too made up a united group of fragmented factions. Green, Labour, and Socialist Worker Party members were present, as were trade unionists and those who were parlayed into pro-migrant movements after being motivated to attend rallies in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The rally had been organised after the death of Sudanese man Abdulfatah Hamdallah, who drowned while attempting to cross the channel in August, but took on a renewed focus when far right and fascist groups began to pledge to descend on the same day.

Demonstrators show their support for refugees at Dover’s Market Square.

Peter Keenan from Kent Refugee Help told those gathered that when society sees people who are fleeing war and turns them away “that says something about the state of your society”.

“We are not those people. We are standing up and welcoming people who are in desperate circumstances fleeing from awful situations.”

The conflicting events had been a cause for concern for the police and for extremism analysts alike. In 2016 clashes between the National Front and antifascist groups led to 64 convictions for a range of violent offences.

Saturday’s pro-refugee activists may have been passionate about their cause, but an antifa-fighting force they were not. The odd heckle aside, their event quickly wound down without incident.

Meanwhile anti-refugee protestors made their move – advancing to the area of Dover’s port reserved for the lifeboats that venture out to save refugees in danger of drowning. Their approach was quiet – a slow moving convoy of St George crosses and Union Jack face masks – until they ultimately came to a stop in the middle of the road. “Right that’s it” said one as they found themselves spread across the bridge that also serves as the point of entry to one of the nation’s busiest cargo terminals. “No one in, no one out.”

Police arrived in a matter of minutes – forming a line to walk them away from the bridge and towards the A20 thoroughfare that leads up to the docks. One older protestor, who pointed his finger at officers as he referred to refugees as “invaders”, was pushed to the floor as he walked backwards to berate them. Others obliged as police told them to keep moving backwards. At the polite request of officers, all were taken from the bridge they are blockading to the main road.

The result was quickly chaotic. Chanting “whose streets, our streets” and singing “we want our country back”, activists spread out along the dual carriageway across both lanes, leaving lorries and cars queueing in either direction. A flag-bearing car honked its horn to the cheers of those gathered before blocking off a lane. Police, who had put in the work to relocate the protestors onto the main road, were forced to halt traffic while scrambling to restrain two people on the tarmac. Officers and the protestors they herded would all remain locked on this stretch of road for another hour and a half – caught in a cat and mouse game of disruption – before eventually being moved on.

No one right-wing group had wanted to claim the whole event. Analysts from Hope Not Hate told the Independent the National Front had made clear they were not behind it, possibly skittish over the threat of incarcerations following 2016 action. Some made themselves known by plastering stickers from football hooligan groups on bus stops and signs. Others carried banners and flags invoking QAnon, an online, anti-authority conspiracy theory that has grown into a global mass delusion. Most were willing to initially organise under the command of a self-described military veteran who urged non-violent disruption through a megaphone – but he too was eventually heckled and told to “f off” by some around him. The greatest fervour was saved for a rendition of Rule Britannia, with the song’s famous couplet couplet ringing out intermittently to gee up those gathered.

Anti-immigration protesters blocking a main road in Dover, kent.

Fondness for the police was in short supply, who are variously described as “corrupt” and “paedo protectors” – a reference to grooming gangs that have proven to be potent recruiting material for the far right. However while many cajoled and attempted to stop the slow moving line from advancing, few seemed willing to be physically violent.

Their action was instead cherry picked from other primarily peaceful movements – particularly left wing ones. It is a natural part of any protest movement to look to the success of others, but it also serves as a legitimising exercise. Asking the police kettling you to take a knee in support of veterans represents a crude understanding of why Black Lives Matters protestors asked them to do the same – itself a symbol of contrition in the face of police brutality. However it is efficient in establishing the idea among sympathisers that the long arm of the law are not acting even handedly.

And it is difficult for officers to quickly move on a group of right wing disruptors onwards when Extinction Rebellion, an environmental movement with leftist links, has hit headlines for blockading the print works of several mainstream newspapers on the same day.

However there is still a sense in the crowd that their disruption is distinct, a claiming of their rights as British citizen to walk down any public path – or main road – as they please. “This is how proper English people do it,” one says. “Not f******ing r******* antifa”.

As they are eventually moved away towards the town’s train station only a small handful remain. On one side, inside the police line, children caught up in the excitement and gleeful at the chance to swear at officers repeat the slogans others have chanted. On the other protesters who have laid down their signs are sitting outside the pub. A few hours after the event had come to a close, 10 people had been arrested on charges including for racially aggravated public order, violent disorder and assaulting an emergency worker.

Chief Superintendent Nigel Brookes of Kent Police said it was “unacceptable” for anyone to use the march “as an excuse for criminal behaviour” – but said officers had worked to minimise disruption.

He added: “Kent Police was clear that we would facilitate peaceful protest but would not tolerate violence or disorder. “Our experienced officers sought to keep transport routes moving and balance the rights of those taking part in the protests with those living and working in Dover. “We stated that it was unacceptable for anyone to use the event as an excuse for criminal behaviour and we were robust in taking action against those who did.

“Enquiries will continue to identify any further offences which took place during the protests.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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