The Rise of the BNP: Time To Question Freedom?

The BBC’s long-running political debating programme, Question Time, entrenched itself in controversy recently, following the decision by BBC executives to allow on to the show the  British National Parties (BNP’s) leader Nick Griffin. In western liberal democracies like Britain, which supposedly value democratic free speech, is it right that Griffin be granted a major political platform such as the BBC as a vehicle with which to air his organizations views?
The intention in the first half of this article, is to provide the reader with an outline of the nature of the party, its historical trajectory and what the implications are for granting the BNP the oxygen of media publicity. In the second half, the educational and professional backgrounds of those responsible for the decision-making process which allowed Griffin on to the programme, in addition to the possible grounds by which he was invited, will be evaluated.
The BNP is widely regarded to be a far-right fascist political organization (1) (2) (3). In this sense, the party represents a unique threat to all forms of democracy at every level of society. This includes the removal of the rights of all working class people – black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, Muslim and non-Muslim (4).
The Standards Board for England ruled in 2005 that describing the BNP as Nazi was “within the normal and acceptable limits of political debate” (5). The Daily Mirror newspaper described the party’s MEP’s as “vile prophets who preach a Nazi-style doctrine of racial hatred” (6).
An editorial in The Guardian characterizes the BNP as “a racist organization with a fascist pedigree that rightfully belongs under a stone” (7).  The European Parliament’s Committee on racism and xenophobia described the BNP as an “openly Nazi party” (8). When asked in 1993 if the party was racist, its deputy leader Richard Edmonds, who has been convicted for racist violence, said: “We are 100 percent racist, yes.” (9).
The BNP was formed in 1982 in Britain under the leadership of John Tyndall, one of the countries foremost post-war fascists, who proclaimed that “Mein Kampf is my bible” (10). At that time the BNP remained in the shadow of the larger National Front (NF). The NF split, torn as they were by internal conflict, created a space which the BNP filled (11).
One of the BNPs main activists in 1985 was Tony Lecomber. Lecomber was sent to prison for attempting to detonate explosives at the offices of a rival political organization. He was also caught with hand-grenades and was jailed for three years for assaulting a Jewish teacher (12). He was propaganda director at the time of the latter conviction (13).
Lecomber is not alone:  Many other BNP members  have been convicted for racially-motivated violence.  Kevin Scott, the BNP’s North East regional advisor, for example, has two convictions for assault and using threatening words and behaviour against ethnic minorities (14). In addition, Joe Owens, a former BNP candidate, has served eight months in prison for sending razor blades to Jewish people in the post, and another term for carrying CS gas and knuckledusters (15).
Other BNP members and supporters, that include Stephen O’Shea and Simon Briggs, have been convicted for violent racist attacks (16). In 1998, Nick Griffin received a nine-month prison sentence for inciting racial hatred (17). Griffin subsequently became leader of the party in 1999.
During the early 1990s, much of the BNP”s activities were focused on East London, where, in 1993, it secured a council by-election victory in the Tower Hamlets ward of Millwall. The price to pay was a massive rise in racial attacks (18).
At about the same time, the BNP spawned the violent Combat 18 (C18) as its security force. C18 later emerged as a Nazi terror group, responsible for a letter bomb campaign and a series of murders. C18 thugs, made up of football hooligans and Nazi skinheads, protected both BNP meetings and the BNP leadership during party marches.
In 1993, the BNP became increasingly embarrassed by Combat 18 violence. After its victory in Millwall, it decided it no longer needed the street thugs and banned dual membership. However, most BNP members ignored this plea. In September 1995, four of the five London BNP branch organizers attended a C18 meeting (19).
The Millwall seat was lost eight months later. The BNP lost momentum, with younger members going over to C18. Tyndall reversed the slide by adopting a more hardline strategy, which included bringing veteran US Nazi leader, William Pierce, to London.

William Pierce
Pierce penned the tract, The Turner Diaries, which inspired both the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the politicised BNP supporter, David Copeland, who was convicted for the bombing of a London pub (20).
During this period in the mid-1990s, the organization began to adopt a more respectable image:
It campaigned on rural issues and, publicly at least, watered down some of its more overt racism, co-opting many of the policies which have traditionally been the domain of the political left (21).
In 1999, it  exploited the debate in relation to proportional representation as an opportunity to begin the biggest racist recruitment drive ever to have taken place in Britain, launching a new party political broadcast and delivering 15 million leaflets (22).
Since this apparent surface shift in strategy in the mid 1990s, the BNP’s support has relatively increased, albeit intermittently. In 2002, for example, the BNP won three council seats in Burnley, and averaged 28 per cent of the town-wide vote. In Oldham, the party came second in four of the five wards it contested, and took an average 27 per cent.
Across the country, the BNP averaged 16 per cent in the council wards it contested – the best election results in its history. However, this must be offset against the fact that it only challenged less than one per cent of all seats up for election. Since then, they have added further seats, a total that currently stands at 46 out of around a possible total of some 21,000.
In the 2005 General Election, the BNP stood 119 candidates across England, Scotland and Wales. Between those candidates, they polled 192,850 votes, gaining an average of 4.2 per cent across the several seats it stood in and 0.7 per cent nationwide – more than three times its percentage at the 2001 election (23). Of these votes, half originated from disaffected New Labour voters (the governing party) consisting of semi-skilled manual workers, pensioners and the unemployed (24).
However, it is important not to exaggerate the overall reach of the BNP: It did not stand nationwide, meaning its national share of the vote was substantially lower than that of other minor parties and exit poll predictions of 3 per cent (25).
Still, indications are that relatively the BNP is increasing its support amongst sections of the UK voting population (26) (27), against a background and climate of increasing racism (28). Consequently, the ugly face of racially-motivated violence appears to be never far away.
In October 2006, for example, Robert Cottage, an BNP candidate to represent Colne and Pendle Council earlier that year, was arrested under the Explosives Act on suspicion of possessing chemicals that may be capable of making an explosion (29).
Cottage was also reported has having in his possession the largest quantity of explosives of its kind found in the country (30).
On 31st of July 2007, Cottage was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment for the charge of possessing explosives (31).
Electorally, the European elections of 2009 resulted in the BNP attracting one million votes, which translated into them winning two seats in the European parliament. One of these seats was won by Griffin, who was elected for the North West region with 8 per cent of the vote (32).
So, how can the current growing relative popularity amongst sections of the British people for the BNP, be reconciled with the organizations historical tendency for racially-motivated violence?
For the answer to that question we need to examine the specific socioeconomic circumstances and conditions which arguably provide the catalyst for such violence.
Historically speaking, the defining characteristic of fascist parties has been their apparent propensity to be able to exploit prevailing unstable economic conditions. To a large extent, fascism thrives on the support it receives from what are frequently perceived as the disenfranchised in society, who suffer disproportionately from any global downturn in the economic cycle.
Thus, the uneven growth or decline in the fortunes of fascist political parties such as the BNP, is mirrored by the economic conditions in society at any given time. In short, during periods of low unemployment and relative economic stability, workers are less likely to vote for, and support, fascist political parties. On the other hand, when workers feel socially and economically vulnerable during periods of economic downturn, then some people are prone to translate their internal frustrations and anger in an external way by terrorizing minority and immigrant communities and/or towards supporting fascist political parties who cynically channel this anger and frustration into violent actions themselves (33) (34) (35).
Moreover, support for parties like the BNP appears to be predicated on the perceived failure of mainstream established political parties in addressing many of the legitimate concerns that working people face in their everyday lives as evidenced by half of the BNP’s support (as of 2005) originating from the New Labour government as highlighted above. One of the main concerns is the lack of availability of affordable social housing in the UK, the construction of which have dropped by 99 per cent in the last 12 years of the New Labour government (36).
The BNP are a major beneficiary of this kind of disaffection which they are able to exploit electorally, as evidenced for example, by their by-election victory in Kent which stemmed from fears over unemployment and issues around immigration and race (37). In this regard, the BNP have been able to play on mainstream concerns about the economy, crime, housing and unemployment, while also exploiting more traditional far right subjects such as immigration and fears about Islamist extremism. Their use of the issue of migrant workers in particular, combines fears about immigration with the reality of rising unemployment (38).
So a direct correlation appears to exist between economic crisis or downturn, the inability of established governing political parties to address the legitimate concerns of a large proportion of the electorate, and the rise of political parties like the BNP. Given that the current global economic downturn is predicted by many experts to be a medium to long-term problem (39), the consequences for ethnic minorities who are the brunt of the BNP’s message (40), appears to be less than a rosy one. The growing popularity for the BNP is echoed in respect to the corresponding mainstream and corporate media coverage and publicity they have increasingly garnered in recent years – coverage that nevertheless, is seemingly disproportionate to the relatively small number of votes they receive (41).
In a democracy, ought not all views, no matter how potentially repugnant, be heard by the population at large, particularly if such views are apparently representative of an increasing amount of people?
If the level of support for the BNP has grown to the extent as to warrant their exposure on the popular television debating programme, Question Time, what possible grounds could there be to censor such views?
This might be a valid argument, if it was the case that the BNP are a political organization whose ideology was not fascist. As distinct from all other UK political parties, the BNP’s leader has denied the reality of the existence of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews, alongside millions of others, perished (42). Further, unlike any other party, the BNP discriminate against people on the basis of their ethnicity over which they have no control, and openly advocate the repatriation of “non-whites” (43). Up until October, 2009, the BNP required that all members must be of the “Indigenous Caucasian” racial group (44). This requirement was challenged legally by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who won their case against the BNP. Since October, 2009, ethnic minorities have been allowed to join the party (45).
It is for these, and other reasons, such as their use of intimidation and racial violence, that the claims for the legal legitimization of the BNP have been called into question – the case being that the agenda of the BNP is not a political, but a criminal one. All the evidence points to the fact that where the BNP have been politically active, have targeted its election campaigns or have otherwise had a presence, the resulting publicity has resulted in an increase in the amount of race attacks (46) (47).
In 1993, following their local council by-election victory in the Tower Hamlets ward of Millwall, for example, racial incidents increased by 300 per cent in the three months following the election (48). Barking in East London, has seen a 30 per cent rise in racist attacks since the BNP’s successful campaign in the borough (49). Two years ago, Griffin generated a significant amount of publicity following the controversy surrounding Oxford universities decision to allow him a public platform to address students at the universities campus. In the days following his speech, racist attacks in the Oxford area increased significantly (50).
At the time of  Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, the BBC attracted an audience of almost 8 million viewers, three times its average (51). Following the publicity generated by Griffin’s appearance, The Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed the results of a UK Gov opinion poll which indicated that 22 percent of British people would “seriously consider” voting for the BNP (52). Moreover, the BNP claimed that 9,000 people applied to join them after the programme aired (53).
It is usual for the BBC to announce the line-up of the show one or two days prior to broadcast, but on this occasion it stated that Griffin would be appearing many months in advance of it going to air. This generated further interest from amongst others, BBC Radio One and Channel 4 News.
Was this a deliberate cynical attempt by the BBC to increase their viewing-figure ratings in the almost certain knowledge that such an increase would by turn increase the profile of the BNP?
What does appear inconceivable, is that BBC management would have been unaware of the consequences for Britain’s ethnic minority population of granting the BNP this “gift horse” amount of public exposure.
Was the decision by the BBC to invite Griffin on to the show based partly on the shared professional and educational backgrounds of those concerned?
Many of the individuals who were directly responsible for overseeing Oxbridge-educated Griffin’s appearance, had themselves been educated at one of two of Britain’s elite educational establishments – Oxford and Cambridge. For example, BBC director-general, Mark Thompson was educated at Oxford, where Griffin was granted a public platform to speak. Following his appearance on the show, Griffin, who graduated in law, told the Guardian newspaper that he admired Thompson’s “personal courage” by inviting him (54).
Nicholas Kroll, director of the BBC Trust – an organization that supposedly represents the interests of the viewing public – was educated at Oxford. At least three of the 12 members of the government-appointed trustees, were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, while the remainder have a background in either law, business or economics (55).
So what were the grounds for the BBC inviting Griffin on the the Question Time programme?
BBC deputy director-general Mark Byford defended the BBC’s decision on the grounds of impartiality, insisting that Griffin’s invitation was not based on boosting viewing figures. Byford said it was “not for the BBC” to engage in censorship, echoing the views of his boss, Thompson, by saying that such issues were a matter for government (56). The Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was also educated at an elite university, Edinburgh, responded that the responsibility to allow Griffin on to the programme was the BBC’s (57).
In words that would have been music to the ears of Griffin, Brown said:
“I think the days of Britain having to apologize for our history are over….I think we should celebrate much of our [imperialist] past rather than apologize for it, and we should talk, rightly so, about British values” (58).
The “values” that Brown was referring to were not made clear.
After having the ‘buck’ passed back to them by Brown, the BBC were effectively compelled to pass the issue over to the government-appointed business-friendly and Oxbridge-educated BBC Trust, after cabinet minister Peter Hain and others, appealed against the decision to allow Griffin on to the programme (59).
Although in principle the BBC Trust is able to intervene in cases like this, in practice the body never interferes in individual programme content prior to transmission. A BBC Trust spokeswoman told MediaGuardian:
“The trust is the sovereign body of the BBC and could, in principle, intervene before a programme is broadcast. However, there is a long-established convention that it does not take a view on the editorial content of individual programmes before transmission, but only reviews them after transmission” (60) – cold comfort for Britain’s ethnic minorities, many of whom would have been verbally and racially assaulted as a direct result of the programme airing.
Does the decision to allow Griffin on to the programme on the grounds that not to do so, would break the corporation’s alleged impartiality guidelines, stand up to scrutiny?
The BBC frequently break their “impartiality” guidelines. This often takes the form of  BBC journalists  accepting the views and pronouncements of those in political power uncritically and as a given. In 2007, for example, Justin Webb, then the BBC’s North America editor, rejected the charge that he is a propagandist for US power, saying:
“Nobody ever tells me what to say about America or the attitude to take about the United States. And that is the case right across the board in television as well” (61).
Webb began a radio programme from the Middle East thus:
“June 2005. US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice flies to Cairo and at the American University makes a speech that will go down in history: “For sixty years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East; and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Webb told his listeners in all seriousness:
“I believe the Bush administration genuinely wanted that speech to be a new turning point; a new start” (62).
Nobody had to tell Webb to say these words; he genuinely believed them.
Consider too, the pronouncements of one BBC correspondent, reporting from Iraq:
“This is not promising soil in which to plant a Western-style open society.”
And:
“The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights” (63).
When investigative journalists challenged BBC news director Helen Boaden on whether she thought this version of US-UK intent perhaps compromised the BBC’s commitment to impartial reporting, she replied that such “analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many of the speeches and remarks of both Mr Bush and Mr Blair” (64).
In March, 2009, BBC reporter Reeta Chakrabarti was asked why she had claimed that Tony Blair had “passionately believed” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. After all, an alternative thesis – based on a mountain of compelling evidence – is that Blair was lying. Chakrabarti responded:
“I said Mr Blair passionately believed Iraq had wmd because he has consistently said so” (65).
In other words, for the BBC it appears to be a given that the unchallenged pronouncements of Western political leaders who speak on behalf of powerful economic interests, are the truth.
In 1999, the BBC  made the clear political decision to allow its own high-profile newsreader, Jill Dando, to present a DEC appeal for Kosovo at the height of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbian “genocide” in Kosovo (claims that have since been quietly abandoned). Shortly after broadcasting the appeal, with bombing still underway, the BBC reported:
“Millions of pounds of donations have been flooding in to help the Kosovo refugees after a national television appeal for funds” (66).
This article linked to related reports on the conflict, which included comments from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair:
“This will be a daily pounding until he [the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms laid down by NATO” (67).
This contrasts with the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the Gaza Charity Appeal in response to Israel’s violent 22-day attack on Gaza late last year. The attack resulted in the killing of a minimum 1,300 people and the wounding of 4,200 others. Israeli forces repeatedly bombed schools, medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, UN buildings, power plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes. The BBC’s refusal to broadcast a national humanitarian appeal for Gaza, breached an agreement that dates back to 1963 and left “aid agencies with a potential shortfall of millions of pounds in donations” (68).
The BBC apparently had no concerns that this might damage its alleged reputation for impartiality. The BBC argument is made absurd by its consistent and very obvious pro-Israeli bias. An early version of January 28 BBC online article (since amended) commented:
“Israel has carried out an air attack in the Gaza strip and launched an incursion with tanks and bulldozers across the border….The incursion follows a bomb attack which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three near the Gaza border” (69). As usual, the BBC presented the Israeli attack as a response to Palestinian violence in which it was falsely claimed that they (the Palestinians) had broken an earlier ceasefire. In fact, Israel forces had already violated the ceasefire at least seven times (70).
The BBC’s claims of impartiality, are further compromised in relation to the nature of their senior management appointments. These are made by the government of the day. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies and his director-general, Gregg Dyke, were supporters of, and donors to, the Labour Party. Davies’s wife ran Gordon Brown’s office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair has stayed at Davies’s holiday home. “In other words”, noted columnist Richard Ingrams, “it would be harder to find a better example of a Tony crony” (71).
BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan lost his job after intense government flak in response to Gilligan’s report that the Blair regime had manipulated intelligence over Iraq’s supposed WMD (72).
Consider too, the establishment links of the members of the BBC Trust whose duty it is to uphold its public obligations, including impartiality. Notwithstanding the unrepresentative nature of the trust, as reflected in its members educational and professional backgrounds (see above), the BBC’s claim for impartiality cannot be sustained on the grounds of ideology alone.
One of these trustee worthies is Anthony Fry, formerly of Rothschilds and later the ill-fated Lehman Brothers where he was head of UK operations. Fry boasts on the BBC website:
“Having spent my career in the City as an investment banker, for over a decade specializing in the media industry, it’s a great privilege to bring my commercial understanding of the sector to help the BBC deliver value for licence fee payers in today’s rapidly changing broadcasting environment” (73).
Are we to believe that these individuals are independent of the government that appointed them and of the elite corporate and other vested interests in which they are deeply embedded?
Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, was honest in his assessment of the corporation and its relationship to the establishment:
“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial” (74).
What these clear examples of double standards and bias illustrate, is that the notion the BBC were obliged to invite Griffin on to the Question Time programme on the spurious  grounds that to deny him an invitation could conceivably undermine their claims for impartiality, are clearly bogus.
The BBC’s close ties to the British establishment undermines their credibility for impartiality at the first hurdle.
To recap: Many of their top executives were educated at one of the two elite universities Griffin was educated at and allowed to speak at. Moreover, having clearly made contradictory and politically-motivated decisions in the past – the latest of which was to invite the leader of a fascist political organization, whose existence is legally open to question, on to one of their flagship-political debating programmes – further undermines the BBC’s credibility.
The kind of cosy relationship the corporation has with the government of the day and with people like Nick Griffin and the BNP, makes sense when one considers the British establishments well documented historical links with the political far-right. The Daily Mail newspaper, for example, whose then owner Lord Rothermere, was both a supporter and friends of Hitler and Mussolini (75), propagated anti-Jewish sentiment at the end of the Second World War, as a catalyst for the then government to stem the flow of Jewish immigration into the country (76) (77).
This is the same establishment newspaper which, under the guise of the “war on terror”, regularly sensationalizes anti-Muslim stories on to its front pages, whilst relegating the relatively higher amount of terrorist activities of the far-right in its inside pages (78) (79).
Were the BBC justified in granting Griffin a slot on the programme on the grounds of freedom of expression?
This brings into sharp focus the concept of freedom in a liberal democracy like Britain. Unlike the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Britain does not regard unconditional freedom of expression as a right. In this sense, Britain (and most of Europe) regards such freedoms as necessarily restricted by the interventions of the state. The aim of such intervention is the restriction of some freedoms which are deemed to undermine the public good and society in general. In this regard, a persons freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded public space like a theatre, is limited by the right of other people not to be crushed to death in the resulting stampede.
In theory, existing UK law is designed to restrict the freedom of individuals like Griffin to publicly use inflammatory language that is intended to incite religious and/or racial hatred and violence. Perhaps the BBC thought Griffin’s arguments would be sufficiently ridiculed by the other panelists on the show?
Indeed, this kind of argument is often used by those who defend the right of people like Griffin to be heard. In theory, this might appear to be a plausible position to take. Clearly though, Griffin’s arguments were not adequately challenged by members of the panel on the Question Time programme (80).
Government minister Jack Straw’s performance, for example – whose position on race relations had itself been compromised by his refusal to meet with a female Muslim constituent at his Blackburn surgery – was regarded by many as inept and ineffectual (81) (82).
This begs the question as why it was the government hierarchy made the decision to use Straw as their representative (and therefore, by extension, the people) on the programme?
Could it of been that in the almost certain knowledge of Griffin’s arguments surviving the programme unscathed, they would have been aware of the likelihood of an increasing potential for racial tension and social conflict in the country?
The social policy objective of  “divide and conquer” implied by such a strategy, has served various governments both past and present very well (83). Thus, there is no reason to believe why such a strategy would not be repeated.
But Straw was not the only guest on the show who failed to expose the policies of the BNP. Many of the audience would have felt alienated by what seemed to be an attack by the whole establishment on one individual. Griffin was attempting to tap into this alienation. The biggest problem with Question Time was the lack of a genuine workers’ representative that could have punctured this attempt. Instead, Griffin was on a panel with establishment politicians, all of whom support anti-working class and pro-big business policies (84).
Whatever the reasons were for the government and BBC establishment deciding on their choices to confront Griffin, the fact that the latter effectively side-stepped the laws relating to conditional freedom of expression by granting him the platform of Question Time, highlights the limitations of applying existing British law in what clearly is a legal “grey area”.
Such a controversy would not be an issue in a country like the US, on the basis that one of the principles of the US constitution is the notion of unconditional or unlimited freedom of expression. Many people clearly remain convinced of the merits of unlimited freedom of expression and the First Amendment that overrides it, on the basis that all views in a “free” society, no matter how potentially offensive and repugnant, ought to be heard. The American, Michael Harrison, editor of “Talkers Magazine” is one such person.
When questioned by talk show host and British MP George Galloway on this subject, Harrison defended the rights of Nazis and their supporters to provocatively goose-step up and down the streets of a Jewish community in a major city, openly preach support of Hitler and to deny the Holocaust in which the relatives of the people living their would have probably been gassed to death (85).
For Harrison, the clear potential for civil unrest and violence resulting from the state legitimization of such behaviour, was a price he considered was worth paying in the defence of unconditional unlimited freedom of expression (86).
It is worth remembering that Hitler, under the guise of unlimited freedom of the kind espoused by Harrison, came to power as Chancellor in Germany in 1933 with one-third of the vote, only for him to abolish freedom altogether. Democratic freedom and the right to vote was only restored following the overthrow of the fascist regime by the allies over a decade later.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in countering this unlimited notion of freedom from which emerged Hitler fascism, put it well when he said:
“One is free to move ones fist in the direction of my face, but ones freedom ends at the point at which the fist makes contact with it” (87).
Sadly, for many of Britain’s ethnic minorities, the price to be paid for allowing people like Nick Griffin on to programmes like Question Time, is an increase in the incidence of the fascist fist and jackboot to their faces.
Copyright: Daniel Margrain, 2009.
For details of specific references applicable to the above article, contact the author at: margrain.daniel@yahoo.co.uk
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2 thoughts on “The Rise of the BNP: Time To Question Freedom?

  1. An interesting article. The BBC decision to allow a fascist on to one of their programmes is a disgrace, and illustrates that governments’ and the BBC are a part of the same establishment that are sympathetic to fascist parties like the BNP. Why is it that very few establishment politicians publicly make a stand against fascist parties, or lend their support at ant-fascist demonstrations?

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