After a night out celebrating my birthday, I’d left a pub with a group of five others. The CCTV shows us cheerily exchanging goodbyes while Healy creeps up on us, hands in pockets, before suddenly karate kicking me to the ground from behind and throwing wild punches in what the court ruled was a “frenzied attack”. A melee ensued as our assailant was joined by two friends, who later pleaded guilty to affray. My companions helped prevent a far worse incident, three of them taking blows to the head in the process.
Healy had already pleaded guilty to affray and actual bodily harm; his defence was that his rage-filled attack was provoked by a spilt pint earlier. In fact, either he or a friend had, just before the attack, masqueraded as an admirer of mine, double-checking they weren’t about to assault another stranger with a passing resemblance to Macaulay Culkin. Healy’s home was stashed full of far-right memorabilia: Combat 18 regalia (one of their stated aims is to “execute all queers”), White Power logos and Nazi death heads and an SS flag adorned with the stamp of Chelsea Headhunters, a notorious football hooligan group associated with the far right.
Healy was merely a hoarder, he protested: he simply believed these were football-related souvenirs; a birthday card recently sent to him, adorned with loyalist terrorist imagery, was a prank by his friends; he could not possibly be homophobic because his own solicitor was gay; and the police, he claimed, had been in my pocket from day one. Healy’s housemate – a man with a list of violent convictions – vouched for his honesty. He would trust Healy not to sleep with his attractive girlfriend.
The defence collapsed: the judge ruled she was “satisfied so that I am sure that [Healy] holds particular beliefs that are normally associated with the far-right wing”, and the attack was driven by both homophobia and antipathy to leftwing politics.
Healy will be sentenced next month: but if prison is his destination, what will be achieved? This is an important question. As I am a white journalist with a media platform, this far-right attack can draw more attention than most. The incident had a broader context – I’d been increasingly targeted by the far right both online and on the streets. Yet it was itself far less severe than many of the attacks endured by those without the privilege of attention – not least minorities who suffer hate-driven abuse, violent attacks or even death. Hate crimes overall have more than doubled over the past six years; far-right referrals to the official anti-extremism programme Prevent have reached a record high; and, according to the Metropolitan police, the fastest growing terror threat today is from the far right.
While our criminal justice system disproportionately locks up poor people suffering mental distress, or gives black men life-destroying jail terms for nonviolent drug offences, then perhaps there is little to mourn from a homophobic fascist being incarcerated. But again, what will be achieved?
The Ministry of Justice boasts of multiple programmes that help deradicalise prisoners – they are “tailored towards each individual”, a spokesperson claims. Yet as Chris Daw a barrister and writer on criminal justice issues, tells me: “In broad terms, the whole of the prison system is a complete failure when it comes to deradicalisation.”
Whether extremists are locked away for months, years or decades, Daw says, they are not deradicalised: often it’s quite the reverse, as they associate with people sharing views similar to their own, sometimes reoffending in the most horrific way. He refers to Usman Khan, the Islamist terrorist who murdered two people at a rehabilitation conference in November: in his eight years behind bars, he perhaps spent a matter of days engaging with any form of deradicalisation. Meanwhile, Khan could have spent years mixing with those with similar extreme views, discussing their philosophies and ideas. I have to ask: if Healy receives a custodial sentence, how will he emerge back into society?
And there is a broader political context that also cannot be ignored. David Renton, a barrister and author specialising in rightwing extremism, speaks of the left’s anti-fascist folk memory, of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in the 1970s. Back then, the far right could be isolated as a small bunch of extremists who could be defeated through popular struggle. But in the US, Britain and elsewhere today, the demarcation between centre right and far right has collapsed.
Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are treated as icons of the contemporary far right, quite unlike their Republican and Conservative predecessors. Britain’s prime minister has the avowed support of far-right extremists such as Britain First and Tommy Robinson. Nations such as Hungary and Brazil can accurately be described as being ruled by far-right governments.
While the National Front of the 1970s recruited through membership lists and magazine subscriptions, Renton notes, today the online world has become a central portal of radicalisation. Helping to legitimise the far-right worldview, the conservative press systematically scapegoats minorities such as Muslims, migrants, refugees and trans people, all the while demonising the left as dangerous traitors.
My attacker is likely to go to prison a far-right thug and leave much the same way
And what is the current “anti-woke” backlash other than an attempt to reverse progressive social values – the hard-won gains of minorities and women – in order to reimpose conservative norms and ingrain inequality?
So what should we do with the violent far right? There seems sense in Daw’s suggestion that extremists should not be warehoused together; instead, for example, we should bring in mandatory, high-quality expert interventions and psychological services. Yet all of these are drastically underfunded. Renton argues that divisions on the right should be exploited: many Conservative voters do not approve of rightwing extremism, and we have to “recreate the dynamic of peeling apart centre right and far right to create anti-fascist majorities”, he says.
Conceding there are no easy solutions can surely not detract from the basic fact that there is no judicial solution to fascism. My attacker, James Healy, is likely to go to prison a far-right thug and leave much the same way, perhaps even more entrenched in his belief system. In a society that portrays the left as the principal dangerous rabble – often based on online rudeness by leftwing activists – here is a growing menace lacking the attention it requires. The danger, surely, is that without an effective strategy far worse will happen to others than what I experienced on that warm Friday night outside an Islington pub.
•Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist