By Sue Layparvey

There’s a new local group who call themselves the Hastings Freedom Fighters (HFF). They say that they are opposed to government restrictions imposed under coronavirus legislation. They have managed to organise one small demonstration in Alexandra Park but had a second one banned. It isn’t clear how much support they have in Hastings, as most of the participants don’t appear to live here. I’d like to show that their idea of freedom doesn’t quite add up.

They run a Facebook Group called Hastings Stop and Think (HST), which has some content about appropriate measures to take to combat the virus, buat mostly spills over into the outer fringes of ‘conspiracy theories’ where people talk about things like Covid-19 not being real, Bill Gates wanting to install microchips in everyone and wearing a mask makes you a slave and gives you cancer. Once you enter that world, you find people believe that Bill Gates also runs all the fact-checking websites, so it’s impossible to counter any of their unfounded arguments with rational fact. It’s a world that abuses and censors people who disagree with them.

Adam Niescioruk/Unsplash

But there’s a very serious side to all this. As I will go on to explain, it appears from the Facebook group tightly moderated by their organisers that HFF are also promoting far-right extremism. While they campaign against masks and social distancing, some feel that this is just a front for their real aims. 

There’s no doubt that there’s a great deal of confusion and fear in Hastings about Covid-19, as well as resentment at the inept way the Conservative Government has responded to it. It’s therefore inevitable that there should be a confused response from the general public and there is a danger that unsavoury organisations like HFF could use the current chaotic situation to promote right-wing ideas. 

HST is a closed Facebook Group. This means that you have to be a member to post or comment. It is heavily moderated by the organisers of HFF. If you make comments that the organisers disagree with, the comments are deleted – do it too much and you get banned. The moderation follows a clear pattern: posts that support Black Lives Matter are swiftly deleted but posts which promote white supremacist websites are not. 

This Facebook Group is the official mouthpiece of HFF. Although there is a focus on anti-vaxx and anti-science content, it is also a magnet for a whole ragbag of extreme right-wing ideas, from 911 Truthers to Qanon. There are many comments that rubbish Climate Change and others that show a visceral hatred of Extinction Rebellion. There are a large number of references to the “New World Order” and the “Rothschilds” which give the distinct impression of being used to justify anti-Semitic views. Anti-Semitic comments are not deleted by the moderators. Comments that challenge these conspiracy theories are deleted very quickly.

Many of the members of HST (including the two main organisers of the group) frequently raise another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that claims that George Soros is behind everything they disagree with. This particular conspiracy theory has been raised on multiple occasions in reference to Black Lives Matter. 

Both the main organisers of HFF have used HST  to state unequivocally that they do not support the anti-racist organisation, publishing posts that called BLM a “hate group” and stating plainly that they would “NEVER support Black Lives Matter” because it was supposedly created “by George Soros to incite hate, MORE division and civil unrest”. Others in HST have posted comments that called members of BLM “thugs” and “terrorists” and even made the offensive suggestion that George Floyd’s murder was “staged”. Any mention of Black Lives Matter on the Facebook Group unleashes a torrent of racist victim-blaming and insults (which are not deleted by the moderators). 

In reality BLM is a genuine grassroots response triggered by a series of horrible police murders which have compounded the daily racist experience of African Americans and minorities around the world. 

Although many people don’t realise it, due to the way the media loves to focus on conflict rather than peaceful protest, a study produced by the US Crisis Project, a joint effort by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University has shown that more than 93% of BLM demonstrations are entirely peaceful.

There are over a thousand members in the HFF-controlled HST but only about 40% of these live in Hastings or the surrounding area, with 10% based as far away as the USA or Canada. One member who was due to be a speaker at the Hastings Freedom Fighters cancelled demonstration, has previously been banned by Facebook for abusive behaviour. He frequently posts anti-Semitic conspiracies (he says that “Jewish Nazis are manipulating BLM, Antifa and Extinction Rebellion”) and has posted a large number of violent threats towards politicians and those he believes are controlling events in the world.

The group has also been actively promoting a series of events in London organised by a variety of anti-mask and anti-vaxx groups. It is at such gatherings that members of violent right-wing organisations like the EDL, football hooligan crews and flag-waving members of the British Union of Fascists have been identified amongst protesters who simply want a government that will support them through the crisis. Although these events aren’t organised by HFF they do raise alarming questions as to the sort of company they are keeping and world they are moving in.  

Inevitably, a considerable number of those posting in HST espouse alternative medicine as a reaction to the corporate control of the pharmaceutical industry. These beliefs can easily move from tried and trusted alternative medicines and therapies to extreme ideas that might actually cause harm. Investigations have shown that right-wing organisations have even used aromatherapy websites to promote their ideas. Within this turmoil, HFF are seen by some to be exploiting the genuine anger about the current situation for an agenda of their own.

Whilst many people are unhappy with lockdown and Government restrictions (even Boris Johnson doesn’t agree with what Boris Johnson said last week!), HFF have a tendency to act as if they are the only people who are challenging the status quo.

However, Hastings has a long record of kicking against the system and a proud history of showing support for those who need help in our community. All across our town, people are responding to the crisis with compassion and mutual aid. We will always need rebellion and solidarity. We don’t need HFF and their divisive right-wing agenda.

The writer lives and works in Hastings and has been part of the anti-fascist movement for over 40 years

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