Rotherham is a town with an identity crisis. The coal pits are all closed, unemployment is high and investment is low. Having been a reporter here for a few years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that Rotherham feels like a town lacking confidence in itself, unsure of its place in Britain. Unfortunately, it has now taken a place – as the most shamed town in Britain, maybe the world, with news that 1,400 local children were abused by British Pakistani gangs while police, councillors and social workers stood idly by.
As if being the shame capital of Europe wasn't bad enough, it has temporarily become a magnet for English fascists. Critics have claimed that “multiculturalism” and political correctness are to blame for the failure of officials to act – so nationalists are trying to capitalise on the situation. Last week, protesters from the EDL, which seems to be some kind of undead organisation that resuscitates with every front page news story involving Muslims, started camping on Main Street — the home of Rotherham Borough Council and the central police station. They say they’ll stay there until South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright steps down.
Wright was cabinet member responsible for child services in Rotherham and was warned about the abuse of children, but failed to act. So, it’s a fair demand and one which people from across the political spectrum are making. But obviously since the EDL is a group with a history of drunkenly marching around towns shouting racist things, people are concerned that they’re using the situation to whip up racial tension.
Andrew Edge, an EDL member from Stockport, was first on the scene. “This is about the children,” he said. “It isn’t a race issue, but Islam is a problem and it needs to be looked at in this society,” he added, contradicting himself. “As soon as Shaun Wright goes we’ll leave, but I think heads need to roll first.” He told me that they had dubbed the collection of tents, Camp Sangin. "Like in Afghanistan?" I asked. He said, "No like that refugee camp in France”, which is called Sangatte. Having said it wasn’t a race issue, he then confusingly added, “I don’t mind being called a racist if it stops another child in this country being groomed and raped by a Pakistani.” Would he be here if the abusers where white? He insisted that he would.
“We’re gonna be here as long as it takes,” he said. “We’ve got all we need, provided by the local community. They’re happy that we’re here. We’ve got food to last a month, two months,” he said, raising the prospect of an even more depressing version of the Occupy camp.
The reaction of people passing the camp on Friday was mixed. A fair few cars were beeping and giving the thumbs up to the “SHAUN WRIGHT out BEEP TO SUPPORT” sign, which wasn’t all that surprising, given that Shaun right is pretty much the biggest pariah in the UK right now.
Other people chose to ignore it. Among them was Mark Wilson, brother of local teenager Laura Wilson. Described as “Britain’s first white honour killing victim”, Laura was murdered by a British Pakistani boy in 2010. I asked him what he thought of the camp. “I’m not happy the EDL are here,” he said. “They’re dividing the community when we need to stick together.”
Some stopped to condemn Islamophobic posters that were on display. Among them were Ruth Cummins and Vicky Hilton, who were staging a two-woman counter-protest opposite, putting up a signs like “UNITY is STRENGTH” and “Be creative Don’t be racist”. Vicky said, “I wish those people actually went into the community and did some work – something constructive which made some changes.”
“They’re not helping anyone, they’re just making us look bad,” Ruth added. “It scares people. The town centre has been so quiet the last couple of days because people know the EDL’s in town. That’s how people are showing they don’t agree with them.”
Zafran Khan leads plans to replace the now decrepit Chapel Walk Mosque with a high-tech Wondermosque. I met him as he left after Friday prayers, hurrying to an appointment. I asked how he felt about EDL protesters camped around the corner. “Can I just laugh? Is that a response?” he said. As he left he turned, adding, “People are losing interest in the EDL. That’s why they’re doing this.”
Before long, the camp had become a hotspot for nationalists trying to capitalise on the gloom and the divisions within the British far-right were being played out on Main Street. First, Britain First turned up in their pseudo-military garb to lend their support but, according to one EDL member, “the EDL scattered the cunts”. Later, a few members of old school neo-Nazis the National Front turned up and were jeered. The National Front were back in Rotherham on Saturday, I heard, but kept well away from the Main Street camp.
Saturday saw the arrival of the BNP. They came from Cumbria, Lancashire and Manchester, gathering at Parkgate Retail World. Around 20 waved flags and held signs saying “PROTECT CHILDREN fight grooming gangs”. North East regional organiser Chris Thornton preached through a megaphone that Mohammed was a paedophile, until three cops made him stop. Plenty of shoppers beeped and took leaflets. One woman took a fistful of flyers, promising to post them to her neighbours. Another said she “totally appreciates” members for calling out the council.
Two guys brushed leaflet-wavers off. I asked why. “I don’t pay any attention to them. They’re not viable as a party,” said one. “You couldn’t possibly print what I think of those guys,” said the other.
BNP Treasurer Clive Jefferson explained why they were here. “Children in this town are victims of paedophile Muslim rings,” said Clive. “It’s fact now. If the people of Rotherham had elected BNP councillors, this wouldn’t have happened.” In fact, the people of Rotherham did elect BNP councillors in 2008, during the time the abuse was taking place, and they didn’t seem to do anything.
In lieu of their elected councillors doing anything at the time, the BNP drove to Shaun Wright’s house to theatrically take charge. Clive wanted to try a citizen’s arrest, but the PCC wasn’t in. Within seconds three police cars were on the scene and that was that.
The failed citizens arrest seemed to sum up the presence of the far-right in general – an attempt to be seen to be doing something to gain political traction from a tragic situation, carried out while holding an Islamophobic placard.
Self-appointed Muslim spokesmen have hopped aboard the condemnation train, but there needs to be a more serious, probing exploration of why Asian gangs have been able abuse girls and boys. I’m pretty sure the EDL, Britain First, National Front and BNP aren’t helping that discussion take place.