Saturday, August 28, 2010

The E.D.L. - English Defence League - in Bradford: 28.08.10


I woke up this morning to hear Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate on the radio discussing free speech in relation to today's demonstration by the English Defence League in Bradford City Centre.

Given that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, had already ruled that a proposed march through the predominantly Muslim part of the city was an act of gross provocation and would not take place, I was surprised that a static demonstration was. On reflection enough members of the EDL would have turned up anyway and been a nuisance that I suppose the police had no choice, even though a significant number of Bradford's citizens had signed a petition against the whole thing. This meant for plenty of publicity.

The press pack out in force

The EDL, for those not attuned to the finer points of the British extreme right, is a loose confederation of racist groups and individuals who seem to spend their Saturday afternoons wreaking havoc in our city centres.

They are against terrorism and extremism.

Who isn't?

They claim not to be against Islam as such, just the suicide bombers.

Hard to disagree there either.

But such relatively sane rhetoric, as found on their website, is not matched by the reality on the ground.

So back to free speech.

I've always thought it somewhat overrated.

Rights have to be balanced against responsibilities and the right of an EDL member to scream offensive, racist expletives drunkenly in the face of a woman because she is wearing a headscarf isn't a right worth fighting for, balanced against her right to walk the streets unmolested.

Leeds City station had a significant police presence but my train was surprisingly empty. The twenty minute amble from one city to its near neighbour passed through two other minor stations both of which had a conspicuous police presence.

I had attended a similar rally last year in Leeds and there was a huge sense of deja vu as the day unfolded: it almost felt choreographed.

The lull before the storm

Taking the sun

Initially the demonstration area seemed to be holding its breath as groups of people stood around eying each other up as if deciding which side of the street to stand on. "Are they on my side?"

Bradford Folk

There was a huge police presence. I got chatting to a personable officer who turned out to have been bused in from Newcastle. He told me that he thought there were about 1,100 police on duty and he and his mate totted up nine different regional forces involved. The EDL laughably over-inflated the size of their demonstration: however many 53 seater buses arrive, if there are only 12-15 guys - and they were all guys - on board each, that doesn't amount to the ravaging throng found on P644 of the Old Testament.

The Flower of English Manhood

Just the thirteen police forces

The police estimate was something in the region of 700 which is pretty pathetic as this was billed to be the Big One which would bring 10,000 "patriotic" Englishmen on to the streets. They all matched the stereotype of everything which isn't the flower of English manhood: a shared I.Q. of 12 and a reading age probably considerably lower, bad teeth, beer guts, plenty of visible tattoos, shaven heads, corporate ugliness of appearance and manner and lots of St. George's flags, together with a couple of Stars of David. Doesn't being anti-Islam make for some strange bedfellows?

Man's best friend

They were all dead brave, gesturing from their buses, gurning and shouting at the good citizens of Bradford. Equally brave in the same behaviour from behind several lines of police in full riot gear and a hundred yards of cleared road between them and the public. The banners were predictable - if not quite on the "reasonable" message its organisers would wish to promote.

"No more Mosques"

"You aren't English"

"No to Sharia Law"

Bravery from a distance

"They're obsessed with Sharia Law." one Asian youth I was standing next to noted. "We don't even have it here and no-one I know wants it." He and I talked about how propaganda doesn't need a basis in truth and we also talked about the irresponsible role of our tabloid press in being the spokesmen for the far right. "The Daily Express knows Shit!" Couldn't have put it better myself.
"You know we should be flying England flags. It's our flag too." Said another youth.
"I've got one." said his mate and pulled down the waist of his jeans to reveal the waist band of his underpants.

Patriotism

It was at this point that a bridal party arrived at the Midland Hotel, to be cheered by a crowd of about 200 anti-fascist well wishers.

In Bradford the EDL rally was on a piece of land enclosed by a large green wooden fence. The public saw little of them and they saw little of the public although we could hear each other. There was, of course, the ritual attempt at a break out but the whole afternoon was an object lesson in professional policing. We could see missiles, bottles, bricks and the occasional smoke bomb being thrown at the police but they held the line and moved us back to be out of danger.

Just step back Sir

I was very impressed by the local Muslim youth in their response to the EDL provocation and the policing methods. There was much good humour, albeit accompanied by a great deal of cat-calling.

E-E-EDL from one side and EDL BURN IN HELL from the other. What irked me, almost beyond measure, were the tactics of a small group of anarchists and Socialist Workers. (Nearly called them something similar there) who were determined to rile the police - and failed spectacularly. Every time the police moved us back ("For your own safety Sir") they would start with "Why are you moving us? The enemy's behind you. We haven't done anything. Don't move everyone. Don't cooperate." Whenever a group of mounted police passed by, or riot police, they would boo them. "The police are protecting the fascists" and "How many police are racist?" I moved away in the end.

Thanks for your cooperation

After one bottle of water I needed a pee and, as nothing much was happening I set off for a coffee and a comfort stop. One visit to the facilities, one latte and a piece of pecan pie later (protest lite?) I returned to my post as near to the centre of it all as I could get. I tried in vain to hear the speeches. Once again I took up my well-thumbed copy of the Book of Revelation to search through the harbingers of apocalypse searching for the words "And lo, it shall come to pass that right-wing fascists shall consider themselves serious thinkers." No: what we got was an exhortation to God to save the Queen and shouts of "Allah, Allah, who the f**k is Allah?" and "We love the floods."

Classy.

My chest remained relaxed with all the breath is wasn't holding waiting for an intelligent speech.



Lovely, but they do make a mess

I was impressed by how much better prepared the people of Bradford were for this event than the people of Leeds had been. But then this had been all over the news. At 11.00 there had been a service of prayer in the Cathedral which remained open as a sanctuary with staff in attendance and an alternative "Be Bradford - Peaceful Together" rally was taking place to affirm Bradford's multi-cultural heritage. I was disappointed though that I only saw two dog collars all day where the action was, but all power to them: every time I saw them they were surrounded by people and were talking animatedly. There was even a guy dressed as Santa giving out sweets and telling people that Jesus loved them and that his message was to love our neighbour. It was strangely unsatisfactory in that respect: I would have liked to have seen more clergy about. It is not easy making a Christian witness in a crowd without some method of identification. It really needs to be overt: dog-collars are an obvious way but we needed the sort of banners that were out and proud at the Leeds Pride so that Christians could gather under them and make a powerful statement. something like "Christians against racism" would have done nicely.

The thing is, the EDL have got their side of the choreography down to a fine art: it's pure repetition for them: same clothes, some banners, same flags, same chants. Practice makes perfect. Their unwilling hosts tend not to organise too much, after all (God willing) it's a one-off abberation.

The police have got it down to a fine art too and the public never really got close enough to engage. Under the circumstances I am sure that was appropriate: the atmosphere was potentially volatile, but that meant that, unlike in Leeds, I couldn't talk to any of these guys face to face and I regret that. My conversations with local people were great but, in jeans and a T-shirt, I lacked the gravitas and authority to have much of an impact.

It was only towards the end of the day that things might have turned a bit nasty. One or two hot-heads amongst the local youth were frustrated that they hadn't been able to engage the EDL and were trying to provoke the police who weren't rising to the bait at all.

And from out of nowhere...

Now let's not get silly

Eye in the sky

And then I came across some of my kids from the Knowledge College.

Nice Kids - of course: I teach them!

"Hello Sir. What are you doing here? Did you come to see the pond life?"

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Given that we are in a recession and the policing for these ongoing events must have cost enough to go a long way towards the rebuild of my school which that nice Mr. Gove cancelled, one wonders if it might not have been better if Bradford had gone out for the day and left the place empty for the EDL. There's nothing quite like being ignored to deflate the ego.

UPDATE: Just the fifteen arrests.