There's something peculiar going on in Great Britain. Misinformation and ignorance are eating up the airwaves like never before. Propaganda, half-truths and blatant lies muddy the waters to the point where you can no longer see the fish from the rocks. Nowhere is this state of confusion more visible than in the public battle between the ultra-right-wing English Defence League (EDL) and the so-called anti-fascist Unite Against Fascism (UAF). What do these two groups have in common? They're both as bad as each other.
Saturday saw about 3,000 EDL supporters converge in Luton from around the country, and some parts of Europe, to take part in a march through the High Town to St George’s Square, where there were speeches by prominent EDL members in front of a mall. On the other side of the mall, about 1,000 UAF supporters gathered to hold a counter rally.
The UAF and the EDL have a storied history that has seen them violently clash on Britain's streets in recent years. However, with more than 2,000 police scattered throughout the city centre, there were high hopes that the day would pass peacefully. The city was in virtual lockdown mode with nearly all shops closed and many boarded up in anticipation of chaos.
The EDL is a far-right group that opposes the spread of Islamism and sharia law. You don't have to be a scholar to immediately realise just how ridiculous an idea it is that Britain might be threatened by sharia, as Paxman demonstrated so ably.
The EDL has held a number of protests since 2009. I spent some time in the EDL camp before the Luton march got going and I was stunned by what I saw. EDL members were predominantly white males from working-class backgrounds, wearing football attire and carrying patriotic flags and placards. They were aggressive, drinking heavily and yelling about how the time had come to stand up to Islam.
A number of EDL members approached me threateningly as I was taking photos and demanded I stop. The atmosphere was tense and it felt like it could explode at any minute. There were a striking number of young men and women, even children, among the rabble.
At one point, a man put his arm around a young Asian lad and said, “See, we're not racists.” Token gestures like this form the backbone of the EDL's public face. EDL leader Stephen Lennon claims the EDL is a peaceful organization that isn't racist or targeting Islam in general, but after seeing the EDL for myself, it's hard to see many members differentiating between radical Islam and liberal Islam. Furthermore, all they know about Islam comes from each other. It's a cycle of ignorance and lies.
Furthermore, EDL protests cost the UK millions of pounds in policing. This one in Luton will set taxpayers back £800,000. As Searchlight has pointed out, the EDL is essentially a street army, ready to be mobilized around the country.
You would think that a simple walk through Luton from A to B would have been easy enough to contain, but the EDL marched like a herd of raging cattle. Hundreds of police, include mounted officers, were pushed to their limits keeping the EDL from running amok. At times it looked like EDL members were even fighting among themselves.
The speeches at St George’s Square were nothing out of the ordinary. To his credit, Lennon did call on EDL members to leave the area peacefully and not cause any trouble, but at the same time, his words made it very clear that the EDL sees this as an us-versus-them scenario. He was very vocal in his opposition to plans for a multi-faith prayer room to be built in the shopping centre, which he claimed nobody wanted and people were actually afraid of.
Lennon also gave thanks to the police. However, these are the kind of token gestures that EDL members make use of in an attempt to clean up their public image. The fact was, I overheard a number of EDL members talking about how they were going to try and get to the other side of the mall, where the UAF were demonstrating.
As you may have guessed, there is no love lost between the UAF and the EDL. The two groups despise each other. The UAF rally was rather dull, but at least there was none of the tension I'd experienced mingling with the EDL. There were speeches, music and a lot of chanting. I completely understand why someone would oppose the EDL, but the UAF is not the group of angels it parades itself as.
You only need to have a quick look through the UAF's website to see that this group is as big on propaganda and misinformation as the EDL. The UAF is a breeding ground for ignorance and members tout a very idealised image of the world. The UAF's sole purpose is to oppose far-right groups like the EDL, and the British National Party previously.
The UAF claims to be a peaceful organization, which makes me wonder exactly who it is then that keeps clashing with the EDL and getting arrested. It's happened time and time again: In Birmingham in August 2009, in Leeds in October 2009, in Bolton in March last year. The police aren't keeping the EDL apart from themselves.
At Saturday's protest in Luton, there was virtually no way for people to get from one camp to the other without a press pass. Police had all the routes covered. It needed to be this way to stop the two groups from meeting. If they had have met, the UAF would have been massacred and Luton centre would have been trashed. There's no way of getting around this: The police needed to be there and they needed to keep the EDL and the UAF apart. It would have been like putting Mike Tyson in a ring with Graham Norton.
One of the problems I have with groups like the UAF, and Counterfire for that matter, is that its members are very confrontational with the police. It happens regularly at protests in the UK now, and it's mostly young, floppy-haired youths doing it. They get right in the faces of police officers, call them every name under the sun, thrust video cameras in their direction and generally try and provoke. When the police do their job and have to physically control a crowd, the fanatics immediately begin ludicrous chants about police brutality. It's disgusting and totally unnecessary.
Why do groups like the UAF feel the need to make enemies out of the police? The police haven't done anything wrong. You can point to isolated cases like that of Ian Tomlinson, but that's a weak line of thought.
At some point a rumour went round the UAF camp that the EDL was attacking a mosque. There were also rumours of hit squads wandering around town. While there were EDL members on the prowl looking for trouble, there were no mosques being attacked. Before anyone could see sense, the UAF mob stormed the police line, pushing back police vans and squaring up against officers. This was ugly and uncalled for. “We must protect the mosque,” they chanted, like brain-dead wannabe-aid-worker zombies.
It was pathetic. What exactly did they think would happen if the police let them out and onto the streets? Were they were going to raise up their placards and do battle with Luton's pissed-up thugs? The police had a hell of a time controlling a small yet determined group of UAF rebels.
It struck me just how clueless many of these kids are. They have this juvenile image in their heads of what it means to do their bit, to make the world a better place. They have very unrealistic ideas of how the world should work and how they can contribute to it.
I'm not saying that it's wrong to oppose the EDL: I'm saying the UAF isn't the best group to do it. The UAF works against the police and they are the ones causing trouble at a lot of the recent protests in the UK.
However, the rally on Saturday was relatively peaceful, with only eight arrests, thanks only to the impeccable job done by this country's police force.
On a side note, I think David Cameron's pledge to make Britain less tolerant towards Islamic extremism was extremely ill-timed. The PM's words were taken by EDL members as supporting their cause. It only fuels the fire and gives the EDL more reason to continue while further enraging the UAF.
The next EDL demo is slated for Birmingham in March.
More photos on my FlickR.