Exclusive: Britain's Street Protests – What is Going On? (Part One of Four)
by ADRIAN MORGAN
September 29, 2009
At this moment in time, I am deeply worried for the state of Britain. This year, protesters against Islam/Islamism have met with "anti-fascist" protesters on Britain's streets in a succession of events at varying locations. These protests have been accompanied by acts of violence. More such demonstrations are planned to take place, and I fear that – unless some form of sanity prevails – someone is going to get killed. The escalation of such confrontations has not been diminished by a mounting tally of casualties.
The skirmishes at present are not large but they are ugly. They project a dire image of social cohesion unraveling at the seams. Despite the media's attempts to downplay reporting of the events, images of bloodied faces and stories of police officers being pelted with bottles, bricks and even fireworks discredit the reputations of everyone involved – anti-Islamists, Muslims, socialists and anti-fascists.
On Saturday September 12th this year, John Denham, who is the UK minister responsible for "communities," spoke on BBC Radio Four's Today program to interviewer Justin Webb. The following is an accurate transcript:
JW: (The time is) 18 minutes past 8. Is the ghost of Oswald Mosley stalking our streets? The Communities Secretary, John Denham, has likened the right-wing groups demonstrating in British Muslim communities to Oswald Mosley's 1930s fascist group, the Blackshirts. He said they are trying to provoke violence with their protests and he's singled out the English Defense League, which is planning to gather in Central London today. Mr. Denham is on the line. Good morning.
JD: Good morning.
JW: How dangerous is the situation we are in?
JD: Well, it is nothing like 1930s, er, I was simply asked by the Guardian – put to me by the Guardian – where times in the past where people had tried to provoke an over-reaction by provocative actions. What we're seeing at the moment is small, but I think we do need to take it seriously enough to say that there are obviously people who would be provocative, hope that there's not just a reaction but there's an over-reaction and then people blame the people who over-react and the situation gets out of control. So we've got to move very, very quickly and we are doing with very good cooperation between police local authorities and community leaders just to make sure that does happen.
JW: The risk, though, is that you talk up people who are basically thugs and you make them sound rather more than they really are.
JD: Well, I think that risk is one that we need to take account of and certainly I did not, in any interview yesterday, say we were facing a situation like the 1930s or that it looked like the 1930s so I think we need to make that absolutely clear. But I think we also know, from the more recent past, that, um, provocation can lead to community division, and over-reaction unless we nip it in the bud very quickly. What we've seen I think in the last few weeks, compared with even a few years ago, is fantastically better coordination between council leaders, between the police and other people just to make sure that doesn't happen.
JW: Can I just get clear what you did say - the Guardian quotes you as saying "You could go back to the 1930s if you wanted to, Cable Street and all those types of things, the tactics, etc. –
JD: The Guardian, The Guardian said to me "Have we ever seen, er, an attempt to provoke an over-reaction like this before?" (JW - Ah yes) "Didn't we see it in the 1970s with the National Front?" and I said, "If you looked at it as a tactic you can go back to the 1930s." That is entirely different - and you would recognise that - from suggesting in anything that what we are seeing has the potency, the organisation, the threat or anything else of the British Union of Fascists.
JW: Of course, if you'd promised some –
JD: At the kernel of this, is something that we've sensibly got to respond to – These are small numbers of people, but if we did allow a cycle of over-reaction, response and so on to take place, then, it could cause wider divisions in the community, and that's why so much effort has gone in the last few weeks – in Harrow and Birmingham and elsewhere - to make sure that doesn't happen.
JW: Is part of this, the phrase "British jobs for British workers" coming back to haunt you, as a government?
JD: No, I don't think it does, but I think what people try to prey on, I think, is the idea that our society is changing in a way which undermines their sense of confidence about their own future.
JW: But have you, have you as a government, been clear about the value of that change?
JW: Have you as a government though, been clear enough all the time about the value of that change to all of us, including these people you want to target now?
JD: I think we have been very consistent, both about the value of change, and also acknowledging the - that there are perfectly legitimate questions to raise about rates of migration, people who come, and whatever. But we haven't finished the job yet, and we know that there are communities that don't feel that their questions are being answered, who may have beliefs, for example, about how the housing allocation system operates which are far from the truth but people will try to exploit, and so, much beyond this small organization we are talking about, we've got to make a really concerted effort over the next few months to make sure that people are able to express their fears, that people can address them, that we can show that on jobs, on housing, on how housing allocations work and on migration, we are really responding to issues which at the moment they perhaps fear we are not.
JW: John Denham, thank you.
Ghosts of the 1930s
The mention of "Blackshirts" in the 1930s appears to have been made by the Guardian staff and, at the present time, is not wholly appropriate. The struggles against Mosley's fascists were issues of survival for the Jewish communities. Jews were being physically attacked and continuously threatened by the uniformed British Union of Fascists and their supporters. On October 4, 1936, the famous Battle of Cable Street took place in East London (video footage). Socialists fought alongside local Jews to declare "No Pasaran!" (None shall pass!) to the Blackshirts.
In a wider historical context, 1930s fascism was a spreading international menace. World War II (during which Oswald Mosley was interned) showed many Britons what real fascism could mean. After the war, fascist attacks restarted in pockets in East London. Jewish ex-servicemen set up the 43 Group to protect Jewish communities in Stepney, Whitechapel and Hackney. Mosley attempted to stage a revival rally with a core of his Blackshirt protesters on July 31, 1962 at Ridley Road in Hackney (scene of some of the 43 Group's battles) and was met by a hostile crowd. He and his son Max were among the 54 people arrested.
The current demonstrations do not genuinely reflect the 1930s, in terms of either scale or wider historical context. Despite this, provocateurs continue to fan the flames of resentment on both sides of the political and cultural divide. Should the situation escalate, the damage to Britain's patchwork of constituent communities could become irreparable.
A Summer of Discontent
The Guardian newspaper spoke to Sharon Rowe, who is the West Midlands Assistant Chief Constable. Rowe had formerly been Borough Commander at Lambeth in South London until April of this year. Rowe had supervised the policing of two demonstrations in Birmingham which had been initiated by the English Defence League, or EDL. This is the main group named in the protests which have been met with fierce resistance from both Muslims and far-left activists.
The first EDL protest in Birmingham had taken place on July 4th, when a small number of the group had set themselves up in the Bull Ring shopping arena and had, according to the Muslim News "chanted Islamophobic slogans at Asian passers-by."
A much larger EDL meeting had taken place on August 8th this year. At the same time as the EDL members were holding their demonstration, counter-demonstrators, numbering "anti-fascists" and Muslim youths held their own protest. Both groups had been allowed to protest on the same day, a move criticized by a respected Muslim member of parliament. Khalid Mahmood, MP for Perry Barr said: "Certainly if there was going to be rallies by both these groups at the same time it would always lead to confrontation,"
At the August 8th Birmingham demonstration, the number of counter-demonstrators was higher than those of the EDL, whose website claims that it is "Peacefully Protesting Against Militant Islam." In the inevitable confrontation that ensued, most of the photographs show the more numerous South Asians (Muslims) attacking what appear to be EDL members. Thirty-five people were arrested, mostly for public order infractions.
A subsequent Birmingham demonstration was demanded by the EDL, as was a counter-demonstration. Both protests were planned by police to be held at different locations on Saturday September 5th. The EDL had arrived in larger numbers than they had in August, as had the counter-demonstrators. For two weeks preceding this demonstration, the police had urged Muslim community leaders to advise young Muslims to stay away from the center of Birmingham on the day of the protest.
Police tried to separate the two groups with some success. Section 14a of the Public Order Act had been invoked by Birmingham City Council to limit the protests. The Home Secretary approved their request to have no protesters allowed within the Bullring shopping arena. Neither group was permitted by the police to have more than 250 protesters and they were ordered to keep to separate locations. Nonetheless, bottles were thrown and violent confrontations did occur. At least 90 arrests were made.
According to city councilor Salma Yaqoob, Sharon Rowe would later concede that "the EDL was completely disingenuous about its stated intentions and not at all interested in peaceful protest." Writing in the New Statesman on September 17th, Yaqoob made apparently valid criticisms of the police, City Council and the EDL protesters, even though she made no real distinction between the EDL and the BNP, the far-right political party that has publicly disassociated itself from EDL protests. Yaqoob observed, as did other writers, that some of the protesters were chanting racist slogans. Her article was entitled "Fight the Far Right".
Yaqoob, who represents the Sparkbrook district of Birmingham, did not criticize the counter-protesters. Strangely, she made no criticism of Muhammad Naseem, the elderly head of Birmingham Central Mosque. Yaqoob was writing more than a week after Naseem had admitted to journalist from the Times newspaper that he had urged young Muslims to attend the rally, clearly contradicting the advice of the police, and moreover Naseem urged Muslims to link up with the anti-fascist protesters.
Naseem also stated: "If it was kept as originally intended, then everybody would have had a chance to give vent to their feelings without coming into contact with each other. And that I will take up with the police." Naseem is cited as the major donor to "Respect – the Unity Coalition." Respect is a coalition of the far-left (the Trotskyite SWP or Socialist Worker Party and others) and political Islamic groups (including Naseem's Islamic Party). Salma Yaqoob is described as the leader of the Respect coalition.
Yaqoob called for the EDL to be banned from further protests in Birmingham. In August, she had released a YouTube video in which she set out a case for the proscription of the English Defence League.
On Thursday September 17th, a meeting was held between senior police officers from West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Metropolitan constabularies, assisted by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. According to Sharon Rowe's boss Chris Sims, the aim of the meeting was to "build up a really clear view of what we're dealing with and make sure that the tactics we use are as appropriate as we can make them."
Rowe herself said of the meeting: "It is important that all [police] forces affected by this new kind of protest have an opportunity to discuss the operational implications. We’ll be sharing learning from previous operations and developing best practice, while also exploring whether current strategies used in other fields could be used in policing protest."
The following day, the Birmingham Post reported that the English Defence League would not be returning to Birmingham, as the city was considered by the EDL to be "too violent." The preceding morning, BBC local news had reported that the EDL had vowed to continue with its protests. The reversal of EDL policy was publicly welcomed by Salma Yaqoob who announced: "Everyone is entitled to express their opinion but these people are not interested in peaceful protests, but very interested in provoking an inflammatory response which brings tension and violence onto our streets. I’m very pleased they aren’t coming back."
The EDL had planned a further demonstration to take place in the city of Manchester on October 10th. Jim Battle, deputy leader of Manchester Council, applied to Britain's Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, requesting advice on handling the planned protest, apparently seeking a ban. The Home Secretary claimed that responsibility for banning or allowing the EDL protest should lie with Greater Manchester Police. The police force has been equivocal, preferring to assess the situation before making any banning orders.
The EDL is certainly not the only "anti-Islamist" or "anti-Islamic" group that has recently been making headlines. The group works in close association with "Casuals United," an organization of soccer supporters who have previous experience of conflict on the streets outside soccer matches. Another group, which calls itself SIOE or "Stop the Islamization of Europe" has existed for longer than the EDL, the Casuals, or related groups.
SIOE is part of a wider network with divisions in varying European countries and recently a branch was set up in America. Founded originally in Denmark, SIOE has been in existence for at least two years, but claims not to support any forms of violent protest. However, at a public meeting in Denmark two years ago, a 70-year-old woman was attacked with an iron bar, another woman was hit on the head with a bottle and Anders Gravers, the SIOE Denmark co-ordinator, was stabbed. Gravers was wearing a protective vest. The assailants had been apparently not Muslims, but far-left "anti-fascist" activists.
On September 11th this year, the British division of SIOE had been granted police permission to mount a small protest outside Harrow Mosque in northwest London. A group of between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims surrounded the mosque. Some SIOE members were physically attacked as they arrived in the vicinity. The protest was officially called off.
As there has been bewilderment concerning the politics and positions of these groups, made both by the media and by some of the groups themselves, I placed a series of e-mail questions to representatives of a Luton group affiliated with the EDL, to the head of Casuals United and to the founder and leader of SIOE England. I will present these questions and their responses later in this article. Firstly, I want to discuss the conditions that led to the emergence of the EDL this year.
The Emergence of the EDL
Most protesting movements start after a specific event, or a sequence of events, that are deemed by some to be "intolerable." In the case of the EDL, the event that triggered the formation of the group was a small gathering of extremist Muslims from Al-Muhajiroun who had assembled in Luton to insult British soldiers on their homecoming parade.
The soldiers belonged to the Second Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, known also as the "Poachers." On March 10th this year, 200 members of the 2nd Battalion staged a parade through Luton. Most residents who lined the streets (including some Muslims) appeared to be supportive of the Poachers, who were returning after a tour of duty in Iraq.
The Al-Muhajiroun members probably numbered no more than 15 men and women. They bore placards accusing the soldiers of conducting an illegal war. As well as being the "Butchers of Basra," the troops were described on the placards as "Cowards, Killers, Extremists." Police contained the small group in an avenue, set back from the road. These few Muslim extremists, themselves an embarrassment to most Muslims in Luton, were photographed. Their images were flashed around in the national press and on TV. Through satellite links and YouTube they reached an international audience.
Liam Fox, the Conservative politician who is Shadow Defence Secretary, said the behavior of the Islamist protesters was "disgraceful, appalling and offensive," adding: "It is only because of the sacrifices made by our armed forces that these people live in a free society where they are able to make their sordid protests."
Major General Andy Salmon, a senior British army officer who serves in Iraq, said of the Al-Muhajiroun demonstration: "It is always unfortunate to have these kind of protests for soldiers who have just come back from delivering the goods on the ground. So, yes, it's upsetting, and a total misrepresentation of the reality of what's being done, and the gravity of what's been achieved." Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, condemned the group's actions.
The event in Luton, insignificant in respect of the number of people protesting, was the defining catalyst for a backlash. This reaction was against the British society's politically correct tolerance of an intolerant minority of Muslim citizens. Some people have warned against such a backlash, fearful of the consequences of uncontrolled "reaction" and others (including many American bloggers) had positively wished for such a backlash against Islamism. Over the next eight weeks, small protests developed.
The EDL claims on its website that its first march as a distinct group calling itself the "English Defence League" took place on June 27th this year in Whitechapel, East London. Their next "official" demonstration happened on July 4th in Wood Green, North London to protest an apparent recruitment drive by Al-Muhajiroun. The EDL website does, however, acknowledge that a large demonstration took place on May 24th in Luton.
On this date, a Sunday before a Bank Holiday, a number of protesters assembled in Luton town center. The protesters apparently went under the name "United People of Luton" (UPL). The Telegraph reported that the body of around 500 protesters had been expected to follow a clearly-defined route which had been approved by the police. The initial impression made by some of the protesters was one of intimidation. Some wore balaclavas, completely concealing their identity. Such headgear is irredeemably linked to media images of terrorism – the 1972 Munich Olympic Village killers, the Provisional IRA, Hamas "operatives" and so on.
Some of the May 24th protesters broke away from the organized route and began to threaten South Asian residents. Some also tried to march in the direction of Bury Park, home of many Muslims and also the site of the local soccer ground. Police officers became engaged in scuffles, and reinforcements were brought in. The protest reached the steps of Luton Town Hall and dispersed around 5pm. An Asian business had its windows destroyed, and vehicles were damaged. Nine people were arrested. A group named "March for England" had earlier applied to Luton Borough Council for legal permission to mount a protest on the same date, but had been refused.
However, "March for England" had been involved in the demonstration on May 24th, the Daily Mail reported. One South Asian man was hit with the post of a placard. The website for "March for England" claims: "We are not a racist group nor do we condone any racism, nor are we affiliated with any racist group. We are English and proud – proud not racist." Several of the protesters wore balaclavas. Other protesters wore home-made masks of the face of Sayful Islam (Ishtiaq Alamgir), leader of Luton's Al-Muhajiroun. These cardboard masks also carried red horns.
The EDL is still the main group associated with protests against Islam/Islamism. It has regional chapters across the country. The leader of the EDL is a man called Tommy Robinson (a pseudonym), who is a carpenter. One of the co-founders of the EDL group is a man called Paul Ray, who blogs under the name of Lionheart. Paul Ray is one of three individuals who replied to my questionnaire. Ray's original weblog was highly critical of Muslim taxi-drivers in Luton, whom he accused of open drug-dealing. Ray perceives himself as a modern "Crusader" and maybe for this reason he soon broke ranks, or was pushed, from the main EDL movement. According to the Muslim News, an EDL spokesman told them that "Chris Renton and Paul Ray have been removed from the group due to their religious and political views," Chris Renton, who designed the EDL website, is known to have been on the BNP's membership list which had been leaked.
Paul Ray insists that he was a founder of EDL. He earlier claimed that an extremist clique, including Chris Renton, had taken over the EDL. Ray now leads his "Saint George" group.
I can only imagine the horror and fear of Muslim families living in a region where riots take place, with rioters attacking one's religion. Even having racist groups "campaigning" in a neighborhood can be intimidating. It is an indisputable reality, backed up by 30 years of evidence, that when far-right groups such as the National Front or BNP "agitate" in ethnic neighborhoods, physical attacks against those ethnic groups increase.
The attacks this year in Luton against anyone who appeared to be Muslim have been threatening. On May 4th, a mosque in Luton was subjected to a midnight arson attack. The "Call to Islam Education Centre" on Bury Park Road was believed to be the mosque used by Sayful Islam (pictured) and his clique of Al-Muhajiroun members. The mosque trustee, Farasat Latif, has emphatically denied that Sayful Islam and his affiliates belong to his mosque community. The cost of repairing his mosque center will come to £50,000 ($81,800).
The protests within Luton were having a destabilizing effect on the community's Muslim and non-Muslim members. As a result Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, announced on August 21st that right-wing groups would be banned from protesting in Luton for three months. Andy Frost of Luton police said: "The risk the proposed marches pose to public safety has left us with no alternative but to apply for a banning order." Four groups were listed in the ban: March for England, UK Casuals United, United People of Luton and English Defence League.
After the official ban, some young Muslims in Luton also staged their own protest. On Sunday August 30th, a mob of about 200 Muslims in the Bury Park region of Luton attacked police. Their original targets were a group of Police Community Support Officers who were on patrol in the park. Fireworks were thrown, leading to an influx of police reinforcements, some with dogs. The unrest was kept contained within the park.
Andy Frost said: "I am extremely disappointed that some members of the Asian community have used today as an opportunity to commit disorder and undo much of the excellent work that has been done by both the police, council and community leaders to ensure today passed without incident."
The EDL may claim to not be racist, and even to eschew violence. Once a certain number of angry people gather together, and the hysteria of "rage mentality" sweeps through the crowd, there is no way of appealing to anyone's higher or rational instincts. When riots happen, few rioters are considering the individual humanity of those they have chosen to represent "the enemy."
The same hysterical rage has also affected counter-protesters. There is nothing noble in using violence against one's enemies. It is never a legitimate response when one's opponents are merely carrying flags and shouting, surrounded by police. The United Against Fascism (UAF) organization appears to actively encourage its members to use violence and intimidation to stop the EDL and other groups' rights to express themselves. Its commentary on the Harrow Mosque event of September 11th is triumphalist and hagiographic.
The UAF report states: "The racists were chased off by groups of Muslim youths, leading to occasional clashes with police. UAF believes the blame for these incidents lies firmly with the racists trying to intimidate Muslims, not with the youths trying to protect their community." The community was not being physically threatened. The report downplays "occasional clashes." These, as described by the BBC, involved young Muslims who "turned on police, throwing bricks, bottles and firecrackers."
Weyman Bennett is joint secretary of the UAF and said: "We have a simple message for these racist and fascist groups. We will not let you turn the clock back to the 1970s when your thugs could attack black and Asian people with impunity. An injury to one is an injury to all – and your attempts to target and scapegoat Muslims will fail."
Such language may be appropriate when referring to people who are violently attacking innocent civilians, but for a group that claims to have some moral high ground it is inflammatory. The rhetoric appears to condone the use of violence against people who – no matter the nature of their views – had gathered in a protest that was arranged legitimately, and was already being supervised by police.
In a democracy, attacking people physically because they are expressing opinions one disagrees with is undemocratic. The UAF's tactics of physical intimidation are reprehensible. It is shocking that the leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, along with many other leading politicians, has granted official support to the UAF, a group that uses vigilante tactics to achieve its ends. Combating fascism is seen as a noble cause, but engaging in acts of street violence and thuggery to suppress the legitimate rights of others to freedom of association and freedom of assembly, right under the noses of the police who are there to prevent violence, damages democracy.
The UAF has been entirely partisan in its condemnations. I personally find that it is easier and morally fairer to condemn anyone and everyone who employs or supports the use of violence at police-supervised political gatherings.
David Aaronovitch commented in the Times newspaper: "For years now the British far Left, acting under the banner of the fabled 1936 Cable Street riots, when the British Union of Fascists were prevented from marching in the East End, have given themselves an ideological pass to incite interesting mayhem in the name of anti-fascism."
In Part Two, I will explore the dynamics of earlier British street protests and trace the parallel growth of Britain's fascist and anti-fascist movements since the 1970s, to show their relevance to the current situation.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Adrian Morgan is a British-based writer and artist who has written for Western Resistance since its inception. He also writes for Spero News. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. He is currently compiling a book on the demise of democracy and the growth of extremism in Britain.