September 20, 2011 Leave a comment
Reggie, a young woman tending to a stall on Whitechapel Road, was optimistic about her September 3 demonstration against the English Defence League (EDL). “It’s a celebration,she said, “a day for multiculturalism… the Trade Unions are here, Muslims, white people, gay people, all of us as a community”. With the UAF, the Socialist party, Socialist Workers Party, Stop the War Coalition, Right To Work and many more, Reggie was handing out leaflets, carrying placards, playing music, and campaigning on the corner of Vallance Road and Whitechapel Road.
But there was a feeling of apprehension along with the music and smiles. It was like being at a party that everyone was afraid would be crashed by unwanted guests. Cedric, a Socialist Party member, was deeply concerned about the EDL. “There’s a breeding ground at the moment” he said, “It’s allowing certain groups to develop influence, and it’s really anti social”. The responsibility, he thinks, also lies with the government: “the cuts, not just here but in Europe too… it’s an emergency and we need to unite against the EDL.”
Having received word that the EDL had arrived in London, myself and two other QMedia reporters rushed to Kings Cross Station. As we climbed the stairs and emerged from the underground, the sound of the national anthem greeted us. Euston Road was awash with England flags and police officers surrounding their bearers. The EDL were being guided by the police towards the underground the station, and their chants were loud and proud. “Don’t surrender, don’t surrender, don’t surrender to the Taleban” was a popular strain, with “Taleban” often punctuated by pointing at Asian bystanders.
They were reluctant to speak to us. “What do you want an interview for?” a large man with ‘EDL Team Leader’ printed on his back replied to my request, before agreeing to “find someone for you”. That someone was Leon. Why are you here today, I ask him. “We’re going into Tower Hamlets, the most Islamified, radical borough in London, probably in Great Britain as well, for a few simple reasons: there’s an R.E. teacher been attacked for teaching religious education, there’s [anti] gay posters going up, abusing the gays in the east end there’s all different sorts of Shari’ah controlled zones. We’re coming back to take our country back, simple.”
I ask Leon whether he thinks his demonstration will intimidate the inhabitants of Tower Hamlets.”Not really,” he replies, “it’ll only intimidate the radicals. If the normal Muslim people, the good people, listen to our mission statement, and find out about us, then they’ll know what we’re all about instead of believing left wing bias press.”
I’m unconvinced by Leon’s claim that the demonstration is about opening a dialogue with “normal” Muslims. Just before speaking to him the crowd have been chanting “there was four Muslim bombers in the air” and “then the RAF from England shot one down” to the tune of 99 bottles of beer. It’s a chant that combines both a nostalgia for the Battle of Britain, and a football-stand celebration mentality, to perfectly describe the EDL.
In order to get ahead of their progress to Aldgate – the rumoured assembly point for the final demonstration – we run over to Liverpool Street. Groups of EDL members were already arriving, and were being guided by the police to the rear of the station. Their numbers seemed to be growing – perhaps over a thousand now.
Kev, a tattooed – and lightly irrigated – man wearing a florescent jacket over a bear torso, stopped to speak to us. “We’re not having Islam in our country mate” he says, “we’re not having Shari’ah law.. we’re not having Muslim drug dealers or Muslim paedophiles”. Kev is an angry man, and repeats the all too common concern about Shari’ah civil courts, that the EDL constantly stress, with a more aggressive conflation of Islam and criminality. “They’re coming to our country, milking our benefit system, raping our under-age girls, selling drugs to everyone, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg he continues, “they’ve got Shari’ah law going off right now in Tower Hamlets, and everyone is turning a blind eye to it, the EDL is turning a blind eye to it.” They certainly aren’t; it’s barely possible to get through a sentence with an EDL member without hearing the tautological phrase “shari’ah law”. “I would just like to say that we are not a racist organisation”, Kev repeats again and again.
At Aldgate, the EDL coalesce into a single crowd. They are separated from the SWP, UAF, and Muslims who have come from the East London Mosque, by 200m of empty road, and multiple lines of police officers. Their leader and founder, ‘Tommy Robinson’, gives a speech. “Islam rules by intimidation and violence” he says, “we are here today to tell you, quite clear, every single Muslim watching this video on Youtube… on 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens, you got away with it.” This statement is greeted with deafening cheers which destroy the credibility of the EDL’s claim to be an anti-racist organisation that is merely protesting against specific interpretations of Islam.
We will not tolerate it,” he goes on, “and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the EDL if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again”. Is this the message – expressed directly by the leader of the EDL – that Leon wishes “normal” Muslims to hear; the message that will show them the EDL is not a racist organisation intent on attacking them?
It’s difficult to draw any conclusions from the EDL’s demonstration. They are angry, confused people. They are mobilized by the belief that they are a vanguard in a coming conflict. They seem to genuinely believe that ‘England’ is under attack. And they are isolated. The ‘love music, hate racism’ message doesn’t appeal to them, and they feel alienated from the world of politicians and journalists, whom they mistrust. If the words of their leader are anything to go by though, one thing is certain: they must not be ignored.
(Additional reporting by Kamil Ahmed and Matthew Taylor.)
This report first appeared in Qmessenger.co.uk on September 6th 2011.