The EDL/UAF saga


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On Saturday September 3, the English Defence League (EDL) had planned to hold a march to Tower Hamlets in London. Tower Hamlets was chosen because it is strongly Muslim. I've been to a number of protests over the past 12 months, including the large gathering the EDL staged in Luton in February, and so with that in my mind I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach on Saturday morning. The march had actually been banned by the Home Office, but it was clear from monitoring EDL Facebook pages that there was still going to be some kind of "static" demo staged in London. Predictably, United Against Fascism (UAF) had called for a counter demo to be staged against the EDL.

The EDL and UAF have a history of attending each other's protests and confronting one another. I've said many times before that I don't particularly like both groups. The EDL's misguided nationalism is well documented and any valid points they may have put forward in the past have been undermined by the loutish behaviour of members across the country. There are some points of the EDL's far-Right rhetoric that do warrant discussion, but the sheer intolerance of the group's members makes it difficult to take any of them seriously. They claim to be defending Britain against the threat of Sharia law, but really all they are doing is nurturing a generation of hateful men and women.

It's easy to dislike the EDL – and with good reason – but the trouble with far-Left groups is that they are also intolerant and hateful. There was a great deal of sympathy shown for the rioters based on the oft-referred-to “bigger picture”. There were widespread calls from the Left to get to the bottom of the social context within which people took to the streets of London, Birmingham and Bristol to loot shops and wreak havoc. Let's not forget that one in four of those rioters were gang members and even more were known criminals. I've seen no calls to analyse the social context within which someone joins the EDL and spreads anti-Islamic hatred. EDL members are from working-class backgrounds and presumably face the same trials and tribulations many of the rioters do.

UAF at Whitechapel

My other reason for disliking UAF is because is because they unfairly demonise the police and attempt to provoke anyone who stands up to them. Wherever the EDL goes, UAF members will be there trying to instigate violence. They do this by confronting the EDL as they do the police. They want to spark a fight. Of course the EDL do as well, but it's important not to depict UAF as innocent bystanders in all of this and I think this extends to a lot of the far-Left.

The UAF demo

My first port of call on Saturday was the UAF demo at Whitechapel. I arrived a little after midday and caught a few of the speakers. A stage had been set up and there were several hundred people in attendance, many carrying Socialist Worker Party (SWP) signs and placards. If there's a protest going on you can be sure the SWP will be there handing out leaflets and trying to get people to sign petitions. I'm forever amazed by the sheer volume of printing those guys seem to do.

The UAF demo was lively but peaceful. The language being used by the speakers was aggressive and strong. There were calls to “crush” and “destroy” the EDL. Speakers were attempting to present the day as some kind of victory because the EDL march to Tower Hamlets had been cancelled, but this was somewhat misleading. About 10 minutes' walk up the road, police were gathering for the imminent arrival of the EDL in front of the Aldgate tube station. UAF and friends seemed content to chant to themselves in their pen and claim the moral victory.

Liverpool Street Station

There was an air of confusion and anticipation around Aldgate. I had previously seen a number of EDL members gathered at King's Cross Station and we'd been told that there were EDL at King's Cross and Liverpool Street and that they were going to be escorted to Aldgate. A sound system was being set up and all was quiet for the time being.

EDL outside Liverpool Street

A few Tweets came in about Liverpool Street and so we walked up to the station where a large group of EDL supporters was being held back from leaving the station by a line of police. The scene was chaotic. Also present were a number of anti-EDL protesters – possibly UAF, possibly not – who were screaming blue murder at the EDL. There was pure hatred on both sides.

I began taking pictures and filming only to have an anti-EDL woman palm my camera down and demand I stop filming her. I was particularly annoyed at this gesture and so I asked the angry young lady what she thought she was doing only to be mumbled at before she resumed shouting at the EDL. Slightly perturbed, I held my camera up in her direction and filmed for a couple of seconds before walking away. I was then set upon by an even angrier young woman who swore at me as if I'd just murdered her first-born. My press card was clearly visible during all of this, as it always is. It was juvenile of me to steal an extra couple of second's of footage of the initial woman, but I dislike people touching me and my equipment in such a manner.

UAF and EDL argue outside Liverpool Street

I told the second woman to calm down and that we were in a public space. She retorted that we weren't in a public space, even though we were outside of Liverpool Street Station in the middle of the day. My annoyance with all of this was for a few reasons. Firstly, at every protest I've been to I've seen members of the far-Left with cameras shoving them in people's faces, mostly the police's, and filming. If for any reason a policeman so much as gestures to push the camera away there are cries of assault and the usual spiel about being in a public space and having the right to film. Secondly, the girls who I angered were screaming and shouting in front of dozens of members of the press with video and still cameras. There was simply no way they could have avoided being filmed, not only by the media, but by CCTV. Ten minutes later those same women women were toe to toe with members of the EDL while a group of about a dozen press surrounded them.

Personal gripes aside, it didn't take long before the EDL found their way out of the station and started pouring out onto the streets. The police were caught totally off guard and the EDL and anti-EDL sides came together pretty quickly and a number of slagging matches ensued. There were a few pushes and shoves and a little posturing but ultimately I didn't see any punches thrown. The police were slow to act but did eventually start pulling people apart. And so the EDL, apparently banned from marching, marched to Aldgate.

Police prepare for the EDL

I followed the group and filmed a number of the altercations on the way, but I felt slightly anxious by the number of threats I was receiving. The EDL dislike the press. I learnt this in Luton. I knew what to epxect but it's still always unsettling to have someone threaten to smash your face in and break your equipment. One EDL member even went so far as to ask if I had a license for my camera before telling me he'd beat me up if I took any pictures of him.

Aldgate

The march made it round to Aldgate and the EDL gathered in front of a stage of their own. I really hadn't expected there to be so many of them. A number of them bought bottles of beer from an Indian restaurant, which I thught was somewhat ironic given how intolerant the EDL generally are of non-white people. This was emphasised when a number of people of Asian descent passed through the crowd only to be literally chased by the EDL. This was the only prompting the police needed to swarm in, and swarm in they did, containing and kettling the EDL. The Left has generally been vocal in its crticism of kettling – it's all about human rights, supposedly – but of course the Left works on the basis that members of the EDL have no human rights.

Police move in on the EDL at Aldgate

Tommy Robinson spoke and for a moment it looked as if all hell was going to broke loose, but the police did a stellar job and kept the EDL together. There was little else to see at this point. A few of the angry women from earlier on showed up on bicycles and tried their usual scream-and-shout tactics, but they weren't able to get close enough to really cause any agro. We took this as our cue to leave and called it a day.

Thoughts

The amount of money it costs to police anything the EDL does is astronomical, as is the amount of money it costs to keep the EDL and UAF apart. While the SWP and UAF attempted to claim Saturday as a victory for the Left, it clearly wasn't. The UAF chanted to themselves in their pen while the EDL marched defiantly through the capital city. There were 60 arrests made for violent disorder and there were a few incidents later in the evening. There was some anger that some of the EDL had been allowed to pass through Tower Hamlets on a coach and so about 200 angry Asian youths confronted the police later on. Locals were understandbly unhappy about the EDL being able to pass through their communities. The Observer's Mark Townsend Tweeted about the incident:

Mile end rd, clashes with Asian youths and police. Huge amount of riot officers. Unsavoury end to EDL demo.

Hundreds of Asian youths on Burdett Rd, riot police amassing. Police now confronting hundreds in Mile End Park. Truncheons out.

According to locals, coaches carrying EDL allowed along Whitechapel and Mile End Rd – Tower Hamlet's main artery, sparking fury.

Locals say they feel betrayed that police allegedly allowed coaches carrying EDL to travel through Tower Hamlets.

Stand off between several hundred Asian youths and police in Mile End Rd, bottles coming over. Day's tension has boiled over.

Considering the volume of angry people out of the streets on Saturday, there could have been a lot more trouble than there was. For this I think the police take the bulk of the credit. There were those on both sides who would have been happy for things to kick off. There were more than 1,000 EDL supporters out on the streets and I would have said they outnumbered the UAF crowd, but I've read there were up to 1,500 UAF supporters and friends out. I thought there were fewer. There weren't huge numbers out on the street protesting against the EDL. People maybe just don't care or else perhaps they've become wary of protests given how frequently they've been occurring under this Tory government.

I think there's some irony in the UAF/EDL saga. Without wanting to generalise too much, I look at the EDL and see working-class people with limited education taking out their frsutrations on minority groups. When I look at the UAF I see a predominantly middle-class group of educated people who have taken it upon themselves to fight a grassroots struggle. Have Laurie Penny and friends been down to Luton and spoken to people living there? Penny was at the EDL march but was unable to really offer any valuable analysis on what happened.

The EDL's message is clearly wrong and misguided, but I don't recall UAF being appointed as the country's moral guardian. I want to see EDL disbanded as much as anyone, but this doesn't mean I'm going to get behind the far-Left and join UAF protests because I see far too much hypocrisy, naivety and ignorance among those groups. UAF and their supporters are not peaceful protesters and they never have been.

In short, I think we'd be better off without the far-Left and the far-Right.

For my of my photos from Saturday visit my FlickR page. The video in this post was shot on my Flipcam and edited with Final Cut.

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