Just after 1pm, below the white cliffs of Dover, Nigel Marcham offered his take on one of the summer’s most potent symbols. “Take a knee for the brethren of this fucking country,” Marcham screamed into his megaphone.
Around him a ragtag collection of far-right supporters, white nationalists and neo-nazis knelt on the A20 outside Dover’s Eastern Docks. “Thanks for taking a fucking knee in the proper way,” he said, clearly delighted with his perversion of the global peaceful protest symbol adopted by millions following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Marcham, also known as “The Little Veteran” and an increasingly prominent far-right figure attacking asylum seekers crossing the Channel by boat, had accomplished his aim of shutting down entry into Europe’s busiest ferry port.
Not many among the 400 or so who had assembled on the A20 to stop traffic in both directions could believe their feat. “We did it. We shut Dover. No more illegal immigrants! Now we need to do what Trump says – help your own first, then the others,” said Paul Brockley, 27, from Buckland, north Dover.
By 1.30pm the tailback stretched three miles west outside Dover to the Samphire Hoe nature reserve. In the other direction, lorries and frustrated tourists sat bumper to bumper deep into the port as figures brandishing the flag of St George danced around the stationary vehicles.
From 10am a disparate collection of far-right supporters had gathered in Dover to protest against the Channel boat crossings.
Identified among them were members of the Pie and Mash Squad, football thugs with a nazi following, the fascist Britain First and the anti-Muslim For Britain party. Former Combat 18 and English Defence League supporters were also spotted among the crowd.
Later, with the port blocked, some could be seen waving QAnon flags, the Donald Trump-backed antisemitic conspiracy theory, with others holding banners attacking the Tories for housing “illegal immigrants in 4-star luxury”, a reference to the mid-range hotels where some asylum seekers are being housed under emergency coronavirus measures.
Chants of 10 German bombers, the song associated with English football hooligans, Rule Britannia and “no soft borders” frequently rang out.
Other messages were brazenly racist, reflecting a summer when the UK’s extreme right wing put aside its anti-Islam posturing for a more overt white nationalist stance in response to the international Black Lives Matter protests.
“There is a problem with the black community. The fact is all knife crime is carried out by them. We need a real debate on the black community,” said Robert from Gillingham in Kent, who would not give his last name. His girlfriend nodded vigorously.
Others, such as Nicole Bushill, attempted to distance herself from the far right, saying she was just weary of the “global United Nations department on orderly migration”.
She added: “You’ve got to be so careful with your words. You can’t call them illegal immigrants any more. Now they are known as people seeking help.”
Scuffles broke out as police lines slowly forced the protesters off the A20 and along the A256 towards the town centre, where by mid-afternoon many had congregated in its pubs. Police said later that they had arrested 10 people.
Support for the protest has been amplified by a number of political figures inflaming tensions over refugees arriving by boat.
Chief among them has been the Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage, who has posted pictures of himself on the lookout above Dover for vessels carrying refugees and has regularly described the recent arrivals as an “invasion”. Farage even made a widely ridiculed boat trip into the Channel in an attempt to monitor asylum seekers arriving in the UK.
Marcham has also posted his own footage from Dover, garnering more than 100,000 views since starting his channel in 2018, with much of the content focused on asylum seekers arriving on the south coast.
Others have resorted to violence, with one migrant attacked last month on a Kent beach within minutes of arriving from France by dinghy, believed to be the first known assault on an asylum seeker arriving on a small boat.
The young man was targeted by an assailant who had watched him landing at Kingsdown near Deal after making the Channel crossing.
Earlier on Saturday, Dover had hosted an outdoor event titled “We Stand With You” in solidarity with refugees and the 4,000 asylum seekers who have reached the Kent coastline by boat so far this year.
Among the hundreds present was charity worker Hope Jackson, 26, from Thanet in Kent, who said: “I just feel so completely sorry for these refugees who are fleeing war and persecution. How desperate they must feel.”
NHS worker and Londoner Donna Carr, 50, said immigrants had sustained the health service throughout the pandemic and it was important to remember their contribution.
“Where were the far right then? Were they on the front line risking their lives? Were they caring for the elderly?”
Fears that the far right might target the event never materialised, possibly because a heavy police presence including horses and blockades of vans encircled the crowd.
The potential for violence had drawn comparisons to the ugly scenes of 2016 when anti-fascists fought against far-right protesters in Dover’s streets and more than 60 were arrested.