On the video of the White Pride Worldwide gathering in Manchester (28 March), among the tanked up skinheads waving flags covered in fascist iconography was one yelling, “You’re entertaining!” to the huddled attempt at a black block on the other side of a fluorescent police line.

The insult was oddly apt. 50-odd crust punks, hippies and assorted spectators had assembled, many from an aborted pro-Palestine demonstration. It was the depressing best the left could pull together with only a week’s notice, a few shouting attempts at slogans while one mumbled about a culture of racist imperialism into a microphone, for reasons known only to himself occasionally still going onto a tangent about Zionism in Palestine. The apartheid taking place in Palestine is undoubtedly a human rights travesty, but I can’t imagine that Zionism is particularly high on the agenda of a guy holding a National Front banner.

Part of the low turnout will have been due to the considered move of the White Pride Worldwide organisers to not publicise the demonstration until a week before the event. Having seen a strong anti-fascist presence at a recent similar event in Swansea, it seems the fascists have realised that, given sufficient notice, the opposition will significantly outnumber them and even prevent events from taking place. But without notice there was no organised or well-publicised counter demonstration and the lacklustre presence on Saturday speaks to the success of this tactic.

It was entertaining, in a horrible sort of way, even funny. But in a broader sense it also felt like entertainment as a distraction.

What good does it do to shout “Nazi scum” at a gang of self-admitted Nazis? Somewhere around the same level of harm we feel when they yell “lefty scum” at us? All you end up with is a lot of noise. Maybe you feel like you’ve done something. Maybe the bloke with the face tattoos and the Combat 18 flag left for the post-demo nationalist disco in Oldham feeling like he’d done something as well. Maybe you feel like you’re engaging in some bigger political picture. Maybe you think you’ve fought in a skirmish of a larger war, that you’re on the front lines. But to me it felt like a sideshow, even a performance of politics. We’re human, and we like to anthropomorphise our problems. As much as it might be nice to imagine we have enemies that look like enemies – with flags, combat boots and death head masks – the real enemy is far less visceral. It’s an amorphous bloated system that produces people who are so disenfranchised and angry that they will stand in Piccadilly Gardens screaming about a race war. You can’t punch a system in the face.

No matter the boiling anger I felt when I stared through the police lines, I don’t think those people were my enemies. One man in particular stood out – looking like any number of men I’ve served a pint of Carling to in the past, but his tongue undulating obscenely and mouthing curses. Next to him was a girl with bleached blonde hair and a nose ring. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, looking like she’s be more at home hanging around outside Urbis than at a White Pride march. What good would it do to scream “scum” in her face?

Adding to the atmosphere of performance were the cameras. It’s almost like a political action isn’t an action unless it’s filmed, photographed and blogged. The lefties read about it on the antifascist blogs and watch a clip of a guy in combat trousers being slapped to the ground over and over. The Nazis read about it on the EDL website and trawl through another stream of blurred photos on Redwatch. Both of them say things like, “If the police hadn’t been there, we’d have shown them”. Everyone comes away feeling like they’ve had a victory. The rest of the population read about it in the Manchester Evening News. They shrug or shake their heads, turn the page and read about what’s new on Corrie or the entirety of Trafford Council’s services being sold off to a private company for 23 years. Nobody wins.

I don’t think anyone will misunderstand me by imagining that I believe the fascists ought to be allowed to demonstrate unopposed or that I agree with the appallingly blasé liberal view that militant fascism is ‘people having their say’, merely a by-product of living in a democracy. Fascism and white supremacy must and will be opposed. Still, we can’t be uncritical of our activities. The idea of skulking around the streets with a scarf wrapped round your face and looking for someone to kick, to take out your problems with your fists, is not only romantic but appealingly easy. It’s far quicker and more satisfying to punch someone than to take on the seemingly impossible revolutionary political project. I am unconvinced that standing in a cold square for two hours on a Saturday, feeling full of anger and hatred, and looking at a gang of people probably feeling exactly the same way, albeit for different reasons, contributed anything to that project at all.

Maybe the conclusion I’m coming to is that the loud, brash political statements don’t feel as genuine as the quiet ones. This week, one of my colleagues agreed to come along to a union meeting. It wasn’t exciting or entertaining. It certainly wasn’t anything to write on your blog about. But I managed to influence someone in a small way, and they’re taking the first step to making their own and other people’s working lives better. For me, that was a success. We can show up to all the counter demonstrations and wave all the flags we want, but unless we engage with people personally as well, all of our victories will be hollow.

Frankie Hall