On Saturday, the 3rd of September, 1,000 bald heads caught trains into central London and went bobbing along the underground to Aldgate tube. These bald heads belonged to the English Defence League, a gang mostly comprised of men whose fear of a Muslim planet is rivalled only by tandem fears of flat beer and political perspective.
The EDL had originally wanted to march through the east London borough of Tower Hamlets to provoke the area's large Asian community, but they weren't allowed to do that. (A 30-day ban on political marches, imposed by Home Secretary Theresa May after the rioting in London last month, was still in effect in that part of the city.)
Baton-wielding riot police and angry blokes shoved each other around London until 7PM. 12 arrests were made, but no one was seriously injured, other than a photographer that the EDL had set on fire. After the party, though, came the afterparty – the EDL march had long-dispersed, but somehow a coach driving 44 EDL members back home to Racist Land was allowed to leave Aldgate via Mile End Road, Town Hamlets' main thoroughfare.
The Asian community didn't like this. They saw it as a breach of the police's promise not to let the far-right group into the borough. Let down and feeling betrayed by the cops, they went out on to the streets to vent. It was only once the "march" was finished that the tension that had been building all day finally spilled over.
After taking a bit of a pounding, the ailing coach broke down at Stepney Green station, and its occupants were bundled into a London bus that had been commandeered by the police. When safely transferred from one bus to another, the EDL dipped into their big bag of racist party tricks, goading some pretty angry-looking Asian dudes through the windows.
The onlookers responded with missiles, and then the police truncheons came out. A long, deep line of riot cops formed, before a police charge further along the road at the junction of Mile End and Burdett Roads began to clear the way through to Mile End station. Politically, this was a much more sensitive job for the police to handle. Babysitting marginal extremist white guys in London's deserted financial district is far less fraught than standing between them and a community that wants to smash their heads off with traffic cones.
The police charged. “Get the fuck out of the way,” their darting baton raids seemed to whisper, gently; one particularly mountainous copper shoving us aside on his way into the melee. Another policeman told us not to get near him. He thought that his Alsatian would bite us, and then we’d sue him. The police spread into Mile End Park, and skirmishes started breaking out. Bottles came flying in and police drove parts of the crowd onto the canal and away down Burdett Road toward the Docklands. White-robed Asian elders turned up to survey the scene.
The main conflict came when the police pushed a large group back onto one of the bridges running down toward the canal. Bottles came flying down at the police who charged the bridge. A crush ensued, riot shield on fist, and the police, possessing the superior hardware, pushed the group back.
A number of Asian guys we spoke to told us the EDL should never have been allowed into their borough. Some believed that the police had failed to prevent the trashing of Asian shops in the area during the August riots, and for those people, the ferrying of the EDL through the Asian heartland was just another kick in the teeth.
They also suggested that it was a deliberate move and that the police had hoped for an Asian-led conflict as a way of detracting attention from the EDL. “They want to see a bunch of Muslims on the streets destroying property,” one guy told us. “If people see pictures of Muslims causing trouble then it will confirm all the Islamophobic prejudice that is out there. They knew we didn’t want the EDL here. They did it deliberately so everyone would say, 'Look at these Muslims, look what they’ve done.'"
Did that ring true? No. To give them their due, the police had (for the most part) done an excellent job. But after the August riots saw Muslims helping the police by protecting their shops and mosques, why did they have to suffer the indignity of seeing a bunch of racists bundled through along their main road? 75 years after the Cable Street riots, the East End had said no pasaran to the fascists once again. On Saturday, the East End showed its true colours by showing the EDL the door, but in letting the coach crawl out of the city by way of Tower Hamlets, the authorities threw petrol on the pyre.
By 9PM, the worst of it was over and everyone had begun to make their way home. The phalanx of police vans thinned out and the crossroads at Mile End station stopped being a battlefield and reverted back to just being a crossroads. Walking over a bridge in Mile End Park, we found two Asian guys who told us that, despite the fuck up with the coach, the police had done a really good job. It probably wasn’t the opinion of the majority but it was a reminder, at the end of a day that saw a lot of good police work, that compared to a bunch of scared, angry, drunk skinheads, John Law can be a pretty decent bloke.
WORDS: OSCAR RICKETT
PHOTOS: CORRADO CHIOZZI
VIDEO: IBRAHIM ABIODUN SULE