On Saturday, the "anti-extremist" Football Lads Alliance (FLA) was in Birmingham for its third protest since launching last year – and, in the words of one attendee writing on Facebook, it was a "fkn washout". A vicious split has torn the organisation in two, so there were two separate protests on different sides of the city centre, and anti-Muslim hatred was rife at both.
Numbers were down significantly on previous protests, with around 2,000 attending each and no more than 5,000 in the city in total. The first FLA protest, in June of 2017, pulled thousands onto the streets. The second, last October, attracted more than double the numbers of the first, with around 20,000 marching through central London. This time, organisers had expected over 25,000.
Numbers wouldn’t have been helped by the split, caused largely by a debate over what happened to a donation promised to the Royal British Legion – which FLA founder John Meighan was expected to pay last year. Meighan says the donation will be made this week. As a result, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) was founded, taking with it many of the ex-military who had been involved.
On arriving in Birmingham it was clear the numbers were going to be down on the previous two marches. While the leadership of the DFLA set up their stage, PA and banners in the historic Victoria Square in the very centre of Birmingham, the FLA gathered outside the old Curzon Street station on the dilapidated fringe of the city centre.
At previous protests, large groups arrived en masse as firms from football clubs around the country made their way to the starting points, but this time the groups arriving for the FLA rally were in their dozens rather than their hundreds.
The diminished numbers of lads meant that right-wing activists were more visible than in the past. Before the speeches began, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – AKA Tommy Robinson – arrived at the FLA march, getting more attention from the crowd than anybody else present on the day. When the former EDL leader appeared, the crowd erupted, singing his name and mobbing him for selfies. His personality cult is clearly growing.
Robinson eventually reached the stage, where he hugged Anne Marie Waters, the failed UKIP leadership candidate and anti-Muslim fanatic. He then posed for photographs with Meighan, who seemed a little jealous of the level of attention Robinson was getting.
Waters was the first to speak, and went on a bizarre crypto-racist rant in which she described the European Union as a "totalitarian fascist tyranny", before claiming it had "deliberately imported hell on earth" through having open borders – which the EU doesn't have with the rest of the world.
The last speaker before the march departed was Aline from the #120db campaign. 120db is a front group set up by ethno-nationalists Generation Identity to co-opt the #MeToo movement into anti-migrant racism by focusing on sexual violence by migrants. Aline described herself as a "patriotic activist from Germany", before telling the audience about "imported sexual violence against women resulting from uncontrolled and illegal mass immigration", and attacking the #MeToo campaign as being unfair on white men. The incredibly quiet PA cut out during Aline's speech, which resumed with her telling the few attendees who could hear her that the UK was "turning into a hell of a totalitarian state right in front of our eyes". With the company she keeps, I can see why she's got this impression. Back in the centre of town, one of the feeder marches for the DFLA rally went past around 100 anti-racists, predominantly from the Socialist Workers' Party, who were protesting against the presence of the FLA in the city. Police had to intervene to keep the groups apart, with the football supporters chanting "Who the fucking hell are you?" at the assorted leftists, who responded with a less catchy chant about refugees being welcome.
The DFLA rally in Victoria Square was predominantly focused on the campaign for justice for the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings which killed 21 and left 182 with injuries. Julie Hambleton, from the Justice for the 21 campaign, gave an emotional speech and revealed the campaign had been denied legal aid for a sixth time the previous day.
The campaign is the main reason Birmingham was picked as the location for the protests, and was mentioned in nearly all of the DFLA speeches. Speaker after speaker attacked the decision to deny the campaigners legal aid, with several complaining it was a cover-up by the state.
UKIP’s interim leader Gerrard Batten also spoke at the DFLA demo, telling attendees they had the party's official support. Speaking to Robinson for his YouTube channel afterwards, Batten – who is hoping to become the next leader of his party – asked why it wasn’t acceptable to hate the "totalitarian system of Islam", before correcting himself and calling it "Mohammedism".
Richard Inmam from the DFLA, who is involved in ex-military anti-Muslim campaigning, adopted an apocalyptic theme, saying "our country is in grave danger". Inman told the crowd the Labour Party had "overseen the rape of our daughters by Muslim rape gangs" and did nothing because "Muslim votes were more important than your daughters".
Inman introduced Simon Bean MBE as someone who had killed jihadists and "bathed his garments in the blood of those jihadists". In an innovative approach to right-wing speaking, Bean attempted to apply the stab-in-the-back myth to the Vietnam War as part of a metaphor for why the DFLA needs to carry on campaigning "whatever the cost", saying: "The Americans didn't lose the Vietnam War; they were forced to abandon it because of the attitude of the far left and the mainstream media."
In his video of the day, Tommy Robinson says "there's no racists here" while standing at the DFLA rally. On the day, I observed Robinson, I then walked around the corner and saw Welsh neo-Nazi Luke Pippen, who has a huge tattoo of Hitler on the side of his chest and is covered in Nazi tattoos. Pippen was standing with what’s left of the Pie & Mash Squad, a gang of racist football hooligans who used to hang around EDL demos.
The day was a flop for Meighan’s FLA, and it's not guaranteed they will bounce back. Many attendees will have wondered why they turned down a three-day sesh in Amsterdam during England's friendly with the Netherlands for a boring trudge through Birmingham’s back streets with what felt like a middle class EDL.
The FLA declined VICE's request for a comment on their demonstration.
Before this weekend, the FLA had the wind in their sails. Now, it seems only a matter of time till it eventually disappears. The several months old splinter group, the DFLA, looks like it could could last a bit longer.
If it goes out of business, the undercurrent of anti-Muslim feeling will remain, and we’ll have to wait and see what its next stupid iteration looks like.