Saturday, October 31, 2009

An afternoon in Leeds City Centre with the EDL: 31.10.09

For some time I have been receiving e-mails from an organisation called Hope Not Hate. It is an organisation which aims to defeat the far-right by galvanising into action people of goodwill regardless of faith-stance: the sort of people who might be a bit apathetic about the idea of taking action. "What difference can I make?"

About a month ago HNH started to talk about an organisation called the English Defense League. This is a new kid on the block and has only been going for a couple of months. Their website states:

"The EDL was formed on the 27th of June, 2009 due to frustration at the lack of any significant action by the British Government against extremist Muslim preachers and organisations....Some organisations and media reports have branded the EDL as ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘far-right,’ or even ‘Zionist.’ All of these accusations are flat out untrue. We take an actively anti-racist and anti-fascist stance. In addition, the EDL is non-political, taking no position on right-wing vs left-wing. We welcome members from all over the political spectrum, and with varying views on foreign policy, united against Islamic extremism and its influence on British life. Everyone from those whose ancestral roots are in pre-Roman Britain to immigrants just arrived yesterday will be welcomed into the EDL with open arms as long as they are willing to stand up with us for English values and against Islamist hate. Too many English are afraid to stand up and say "Enough!" because of the fear of being branded "racist.” We hope to change this.

So in short, we invite people of all races and faiths to join us in this campaign to awaken our sleeping Government to face up to and deal with the Jihad in our country, which threatens the very foundations of the freedoms won so dearly for us by past generations."

Given that a great deal of EDL material is based on Daily Mail reporting they might as well just go ahead and put up a sponsorship link.

HNH's strategy was to encourage citizens of Leeds to e-mail the City Council and the West Yorkshire Police Authority and demand a ban on EDL's proposed march in Leeds and then to pass on the requst to friends. This strategy had been enough to stop such marches in other cities, particularly following the running battles in Birmingham City Centre, amidst the shopping public, for most of that afternoon.

I was one of the Leeds Citizens who sent such an e-mail and forwarded it to my friends. There were, I am told, 15,000 such e-mails received by the police and the City Council who, in their wisdom, decided to let the march go ahead.....well until the anti-fascist league decided, quite predictably, to hold a counter rally. Now the police have a serious policing and potential public order issue on their hands and belatedly decided that no one could march but both groups could rally but in different parts of the city centre, less than a quarter of a mile apart. The anti-fascist coalition were outside the Town Hall and Art Gallery and the EDL were in City Square. The police presence was absolutely huge.

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The Mounted police were out in force, there were at least three helicopters and police from all over the north of England were in attendance. I spoke in passing to a Police Officer from Northumberland.

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Outside the Art Gallery the ant-fascist rally was in full swing by mid day. I looked out for a Christian presence but only came across a retired Anglican Bishop, Bishop Derek, not in clericals, which I thought was a missed opportunity for an overt Christian witness. I was amused, though, to see a Father Ted placard which said "Down with that sort of thing". I kept wandering down to City Square to see where the EDL was but there was no sign. They were, it turned out, in the pubs but the police presence around the square was even heavier than outside the Art Gallery.

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Several marches had set out from other parts of the city to converge on the Art Gallery and it was as they arrived that the police strategy began to dawn on me. As the contingengt groups arrived they were heavily escorted to the main rally. It became clear that if you were in the main rally you were likely to be cordoned in so that there would be no mingling of the two protests, which would have been catastrophic in fairness to the police. I didn't particularly want to be trapped behind the barriers for the afternoon with the Socialist Workers' Party and the range of grungy interest groups that made up the Anti-Fascist Alliance and I wanted to see the EDL so I got out while the going was good and headed back to City Square...

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...only to find that access around the city centre was now seriously restricted. Leeds is Britain's fourth city. It is a significant centre of retail, commerce, finance and culture, but most of the folk on the street had no idea what was going on. They clearly hadn't been listening to BBC Radio Leeds.

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Leeds is also a multiracial city and I love it for that.

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At the Art Gallery the numbers grew.

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It wouldn't have been a good afternoon to travel to or from Leeds by train: the EDL were coralled in the station forecourt and then led the hundred yards or so to City Square under police escort.



Ordinary members of the public stopped to jeer and trade insults. Those of us watching were told that we weren't English any more.

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I was reassured by the fact that there appeared to no more than 300 EDL members. Three hundred and fifty tops.

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They were overwhelmingly male and fitted the standard far-right stereotype: Mainly young, often shaven headed, visibly tattooed in many cases, often with beer bellies and with a great deal of poor dental work on display. Most were not from Leeds.

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For a multicultural non-violent group thay did a good impression of racist football hooligans with their flags and chantings of IN-GER-LAND. (Where is that exactly?)

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I was approached by a journalist.

"I saw you up at the other rally. Could I ask you why you are here?"

I had heard that some EDL supporters were claiming to be guardians of our Christian heritage, so I talked about that a little. I wondered when hatered and intolerance had become Christian qualities. I also lamented the hijacking of my flag and the implication that only those now tightly inside City Square, and largely cordoned off from the rest of us, were patriots.

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It was still just possible to move in and out of the square and my journalist friend (the Mail on Sunday, I may die of shame) set off into the mele. I declined his invitation to join him on the basis that I wasn't suicidal. That and the fact that the police dogs were now on display together with the riot police. I was, however, determined to stay as close to the centre of activity as the police would allow. My strategy was simple: I would watch and listen and seek to be an overt Christian witness. I would not indulge in name calling or shouting and wherever possible I would attempt to engage in calm discussion.

I was deeply disappointed that there were no other dog collars or Christian banners, though. Where were Leeds's Christians?

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Soon enough the entrance to the centre of City Square was cordoned off and there were several attempts to storm the barriers from within but the police presence was too heavy. I got chatting to three young men who had travelled down from Durham and had found themselves trapped outside the barrier. They were in their mid twenties and were all, they told me, ex-army. They were probably a bit confused by my English flag lapel badge and asked me what I though of the event. I told them I was not impressed and pointed out the huge mismatch between what I had read on the website and what I saw in front of me. At that point there was another surge from inside the square as one group tried to storm the police and tear down the barriers.

My phone rang. It was Claire.

"Have you finished protesting? Could you pop into Primark and get me some tights?"

"If I were black or Asian..." I said to the army guys "If I were a woman or a gay man or disabled, what I am seeing in front of me now would not recruit me. I think the organisers of this group have been naive. This group is in the process of being taken over by the far-right"

They were nice guys, respectful and courteous: under other circumstances we could have sloped off to the pub, the four of us, and had a civilised conversation over a few pints and I sensed they weren't entirely convinced by what they were seeing inside City Square. We talked a bit about Christianity and I repeated my feelings about Christian values.

"What about Sharia law then?"

"What about it?"

"Well in our lifetime it will take over."

"How?"

"Its taking over now."

"No it isn't. Sharia law is active in this country in a very small number of civil not criminal matters, things like the dietry regulations and marriage and family law. Muslims can put themselves voluntarily under the authority of Sharia Law but if they don't like the outcome of a Sharia court they still have redress to English law. Sharia law is secondary and subserviant to English law. We won't have stonings and the chopping off of hands."

"It's what they want."

"No it isn't. Not my Muslim friends anyway. They think Sharia Law's irrelevant in this country. There are what...two million Muslims in Britain? Let's be generous and say that a million are religious although that still doesn't mean that they want Sharia Law. How is that million going to impose Sharia law on the other sixty million or so of us? It's just not going to happen."

We chatted for a bit longer and after another pack mentality surge from the EDL showing their true colours, my three new mates shook my hand and headed off back to Durham.

The atmosphere was now decidedly odd: there were a great many members of the public who had stayed on to see what was happening and there was a bit of a party feeling. The mood in City Square itself was becoming much more confrontational though. Then the police moved in and moved us away from the barricades. The horses and the dogs went between us and the EDL and the riot police arrived. The general public were more bemused than anything else. I was intrigued by the police tactics but never less than impressed.

"Where are your women? You'll never procreate." (A woman's voice from among the shoppers to the amusement of the crowd.) "We're not that daft." came another female voice in reply "Look at the state of them."

A young African-Carribbean man was talking to his friends about the recent lamentable T.V. appearance of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Griffin had foolishly got into the issue of what makes one British. For any member of a Heinz 57 nation like the British, talk of racial purity is a mistake and a joke. The young man used Griffin's own remark about the pre-Roman Neandethal peoples of Britian and noted that most of the Neandethals were, in fact, currently in City Square.

"Their website says you are welcome to join them" I told him "They are multi-cultural."

"You don't believe that do you?"

"No, but the quickest way to subvert them is to take them at their word and for Black and Asian people to join."

"Now that's an idea but a better idea would be for one of those suicide bombers to slip in there just now.....I bet they wouldn't try this on in Bradford."

"I'd shake his hand" said one of the girls with him.

"If you could find it...."

Ah, gallows humour. I love it.

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Then it became clear that a group of EDL had never been inside the barricades and had mingled with the crowd in order to be provocative and to stir things up. They started to barrack the crowd nearest to me. I found myself in no-man's land with a group of journalists on a small pedestrian island in the middle of a bus lane, the EDL splinter group on one side and the general public on the other and police horses between me and the side I would have preferred to have been on. I decided to stay put while the police did some more phalanx stuff that moved people on.

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I found myself next to a pair of middle-aged white woman, a young Asian woman and two or three EDL blokes.

"What are you for?" ventured one of the middle aged ladies.

"You're just parasites." an EDL guy responded. What? Did I hear that right?

"Excuse me. I've worked all my life.!" She wasn't standing for that.

"And you lot" he continued to the Asian girl "You don't give anything to the community."

She wasn't having it either. "What? And Asian businesses don't pay tax?"

"You all just spread it around amongst yourselves."

"I've just been shopping in Marks and Spencer's."

"Jews. Just as bad."

So much for a multicultural membership.

The blokes moved off. Seen off by three determined women.

I chatted to a young Englishman and a a couple of young Asian men who were clearly overseas students and a bit confused by what was going on.

"This is bad for Britain's reputation" one said. I wasn't so sure.

"Look at how few there are of them in comparison to the ordinary members of the public who are standing by in disapproval. These folk aren't demonstrators. The counter demonstators are coralled in up at the Art Gallery. No. I think this is good old fashioned democracy and free speech at work at its best.

Word came down that the Anti-fascist group had voted unanimously to march on City Square. (Wrongly as it turned out as they were still coralled at the Art Gallery). Taking no chances though, the police swiftly moved us on and escorted the EDL back to the station to much booing and catcalling from the crowd and some charming abuse in return from the "non-violent EDL". As the flower of British manhood passed by they felt able to be really brave behind two cordons of riot police. Some of these guys were by now clearly the worse for alcohol and many were seriously looking for a fight.

There was a break-out from the EDL chased by about thirty police and I found myself "kettled" - surrounded and circled by police in a group of about thiry five members of the public with no escape. As if any of us were going to set off in hot pursuit of the EDL! "My" party included a lady with an obvious learning disability and half a dozen teenaged girls who were trying to get to the H&M sale. We also had a very unpleasant member of the EDL with us who was trying to provoke the men in the group, all of whom refused to play. He kept ignoring me even though I attempted to engage him in conversation.

"You should know better" he said to me in the end.

"I do. That's why I'm here." but before I could follow that up our little group was moved on again, surrounded by our escort, and released into an empty street. Empty that is except for about fifteen police vans with flashing lights and a dozen mounted police.

I wished I'd had an apple.

I never did make it Primark.