While out on a jog this morning I received a text from my wife, “There’s some crazy racist demonstration at the Blackhorse Road station”. That’s right, I remembered, the English Defence League is in town. I had received a flyer earlier in the week asking residents of the area to attend a counter-protest organised by Unite Against Fascism and We Are Waltham Forest. I turned myself around and headed over to the tube stop to check out what the craic was.
Walthamstow is a racially and religiously diverse area of north London that is usually quite calm on the weekend. Families, young professionals, elderly couples, teenagers and others head to the marshes for a stroll, or go to the high street to check out Europe’s longest outdoor market, where you can buy food as diverse as the people. There is a large population of muslims, from a variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, most of whom speak in brilliant native London English. For a lot, if not most, their identity is British, which I have to say, caught me off guard, with my latent assumptions, when I first moved here from Belfast. For example, I once heard a woman dressed head to toe in a black all-encompassing, face-covering burkha speaking on her mobile say, in teenage-esque British English,“yeah, and I was like totally irritated with him, so, what-evah”. I had to stop and laugh—mostly at myself—because it was so unexpected. But today the choppy sound of a helicopter broke the calm and an eerie tension was felt in the air.
When I got to the station on Blackhorse Road the marchers had already left. But in their wake were the emptied busses they had come on and the emptied police vans of the men and women sent to escort them. Cars were blocked on the road and their drivers had become noticeably irritated. I heard one guy on the footpath say quite loud to his mate in a red Toyota, “It’s the fucking BNP. They’ve organised some sort of protest.”
I walked past the stalled cars to head in the direction they were pointed. On my way I passed by a group of forty or fifty police officers surrounding a group of men of various ages who had been pulled to the side of the road and seated against a wall. An older man who had been detained casually pulled out a newspaper and began to read it. Then up in the distance, I saw the main event. Huge red and white flags of St. George attached to long poles waving in the air above a sea of yellow police jackets. And I began to pick up the sound of husky, masculine voices yelling a familiar chant. “E-E-E-D-L! E-E-E-D-L!”
Before I tell you about the oddities and weird happenings of an EDL rally, I want to provide a little background to why the EDL organised today’s demonstration. Walthamstow is the home of firebrand Islamic preacher, Anjem Choudary, and back in September 2012, the EDL organised a demonstration which was, in their own words, “frustrated by the police”. According to the EDL website, they had taken to the streets to alert “the locals and, beyond them, our nation – particularly our nation’s decision-makers – to the threat of Islamification”. Today was about “wrapping up our unfinished business in Walthamstow”.
The thing about Islamic extremism—which is, we have to say, very real and extremely detrimental to young people and communities across the UK and Ireland—is that it has a symbiotic relationship with the far-right. The two groups need each other. As the anti-extremism organisation Quilliam puts it, “each party’s actions serve to provoke and fuel the actions of the other”. This symbiotic relationship leads to a unique clash of words, missiles, punches and other exchanges on the streets of Britain. It also leads to a fascinating culture of counter-protest at an EDL demonstration, at least among some of those present.
Let’s get back to Walthamstow. There’s no other way to describe it. The EDL is a subculture based as much around identity as ideology. They have their own symbols, their own cultural vocabulary and, to a certain extent, their own dress code. There were some eccentrics out today, including a gap-tooth older man with a mohawk and another man who looked like the combination of Santa Clause and a old-timey train engineer. But most in attendance were men between the ages of 20-50, the majority of whom had shaved heads, and quite a few with neck and face tattoos. Many take their style tips from classic Skinhead looks—the harrington is a favoured jacket, and Fred Perry shirts are worn by many, while boots are ubiquitous, even among the women. One poor bloke had gone to the trouble of getting EDL inked permanently to his scalp. Did I mention they were all white?
The counter-protestors at these rallies come from a variety of different backgrounds, but my take is that the majority of them today were local residents outraged that an intolerant group like the EDL decided to invade their community and disrupt an otherwise lovely day in the Stow. At various points during the day, I heard things like, “Look at us, black, white, muslim united—this is Walthamstow, innit? Fuck off out of here! You’re not wanted!”
I didn’t make it to the organised counter rally at the town hall, as I got prevented from travelling up the road by a group of police officers concerned at rising tensions. I hear from Twitter, that despite a few skirmishes, it went really well. There’s a video of those gathered breaking out into a a fun song that basically captures the spirit of Walthamstow: “We are black, white and Muslim, black, white and Muslim, black, white and Muslim and we’re Jews.” Unfortunately, something must have happened, however, because at one point, a young woman was brought down the road by a paramedic, holding her forehead, which was streaming with blood. As for me, I couldn’t go up to the town hall because of the police blockade. I therefore spent my time talking with those gathered at the junction just down from town hall where the EDL was holding its rally.
“They’re racist, mate, that’s it,” a bearded man told me. Another man, a data organiser for a major university’s HR department, said, “I was here in 2012. There was a much bigger group of them then. But we’re back to say ‘stay out of Walthamstow.’” Perfectly humble, normal people protective of the community they live in. While chatting away under a gorgeous sun, there was suddenly movement in the street. Police vans began to mobilise and the army of yellow-jacketed police officers yelled out to each other, “Helmets on.” An atmosphere of anticipation descended on the group at the junction. Then in the near distance the flags were back, sticking up above a ring of police horses and vans, and the chanting could be heard again. “E-E-E-D-L! E-E-E-D-L!”
A smartly dressed young professional next to me put his iPhone into his pocket and, as the EDL marchers drew near, broke into a fret of screaming along with everyone else around me. “Scum, scum, Nazi scum!” Other chants and taunts erupted from the footpath. “Smack-head, and your mum’s a probably a smack-head too!” Along with an ensemble of counter-protestors, local residents caught in the flow of people, and an assortment of professional and amateur journalists, I walked with the parade, often at a remarkably slow pace set by the police.
Just three feet to my right were the EDL members. I spent long moments looking at their faces and trying to understand what brought them here today. Young boys draped in English flags. Some with balaclavas on. Older men with the weight of poverty pulling at their drooping faces and eyes. Some wore t-shirts with the location of their branch. Coventry EDL one man’s t-shirt said. “You’re a disgrace to Coventry,” a voice yelled out behind me. One EDL protestor held a sign that said, “Non racist, non violent, no longer silent.” A woman standing next to him yelled out to a group of muslim protestors, “You can’t even pray next to your women! Shame on you!” Later, another EDL protestor yelled out, “fascist scum off our streets!” though I wasn’t sure who it was directed at (the EDL has at various times accused the police and counter protestors of fascist tactics to silence them). Another voice yelled out from the footpath, “Brush your teeth, you racist scumbag!”
Among those walking beside me were a couple of men in jubbas, head covering, trainers and sun glasses. They targeted a particular woman who had yelled out something about Rotherham and Jimmy Saville. She was a bit fat so they started in, “Hey fat girl, who ate all the pies? who ate all the pies?” Her mate, standing next to her, looked back, noticed their traditional muslim attire, and yelled back, “nice dress mate!” The two men in jubbas then started taunting a particular man in the EDL march who had a particularly thick regional accent. “Speak English mate, I can’t understand you!” To which he retorted, “Fuck you I can’t speak Arabic.” To which one of the two muslim men then said, “Start with English mate, the learn Arabic.” In instances like this, when the banter drew too hot, someone on either side would burst into a chant. In this case, the EDL man began, “terrorist supporters off our street!” Back and forth commentary like this went for forty minutes.
Even stranger were the lip reading bouts. The police quickly intervened when yelling got too aggressive. One counter-protestor got in the habit of making eye contact with an EDL member, locking them in his attention, then silently mouthing the words, “You are a fucking cunt.” A police woman next to him kept looking over, as this would cause a stir, but the man, probably in his forties, would quickly turn his head away. And on it went like children in a classroom.
Whole families came out to protest—with one dad giving the universal sign for wanker with his right hand while his daughters yelled out, “Nazi scum! Nazi scum!” A rather blank-looking guy within the EDL ranks looked back at one of the teenage daughters and wagged his tongue in a grotesque way, and I wondered if the father of the girls should take them away. Later in the day I saw a child essentially skipping into his house singing loudly, “racist scum, off our streets! racist scum, off our streets!” The chants are quite catchy, and usually drawn from football tunes.
Despite the hatred poured on them, the 75 or so demonstrators in attendance seemed to enjoy the feeling of solidarity they got by facing adversity together. Men comforted women, parade marshals checked in on their comrades who were getting too heated, the old looked protectingly over the young. Those of use who want to understand extremism need to learn to separate the human beings from the poisoned ideologies they harbour. A recent documentary on Chanel 4—I think it was!—chronicled the experience of a man who found a real sense of family within the far-right. Attending rallies was the peak dramatic experience of the group and led to a sense of deep bonding. He was a lonely man who suffered from depression and feelings of isolation. Joining the far-right gave his life meaning, and though he was skeptical about some of the more extreme beliefs, he didn’t wish to question them out of fear of being rejected. I wonder what his life would be like if he found a sense of meaningful belonging in other ways?
The heroes of today, if we can call them that, were the police, who handled every situation with grace, gentleness and a calmness that I found really surprising. They seemed to have a bit of humour about the day, while at the same time, kept a sharp sense of when things were getting dangerous. One man draped in a Palestinian flag charged at the march and, after the police herded together to stop a clash from ensuing, I saw one officer pull him aside and try and talk to him and calm him down with a friendly hand on the back. There were smiles during the day. One counter-protestor started a chant that caught on about one of the EDL member’s tattoos. “It’s a very shite tattoo, a very shite tattoo…” which pricked the ears of a couple officers who couldn’t help but laugh. At the end of the march, the police faced a group of anarchists who turned their attention from the EDL march, once it had dispersed, to the police themselves. “Who the fuck do you think you’re protecting?” a young woman yelled at them. I was near one of the officers, and I heard him mumble, “We are here to protect you actually.” Then a crazed man wielding a black flag ran around in front of them before kneeling down and yelling about how our forefathers who died fighting fascism would be ashamed—apparently missing the point that the police were there to protect free speech.
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.