Despite the fact that they seem to regard it as some kind of spiritual home, the English Defence League are not well liked in East London. Their last public knees up in the area was in Walthamstow a year ago and after they were chased from that, covered in their own blood and other people's piss, it was difficult to see them making a comeback. But then Lee Rigby was murdered and the fires of Islamophobia in Britain were stoked once again. While Tommy Robinson's mob can't yet be considered a credible threat to British society as a whole, they have enjoyed something of a mini-revival.
The last time the fascists demonstrated in Tower Hamlets, they ended up having a traffic cone thrown through the window of one of their buses by hacked off locals. I went along to see whether the EDL would be humiliated again as they once more tried to march through an area where everybody hates them.
We started the day in Altab Ali Park on Whitechapel High Street. The park is named after a Bangladeshi man who was murdered by racists in 1978. Classily, the EDL had planned to march to the park, but the police wouldn't allow it. Instead, it was filled with members of the local community who had turned out to oppose the EDL, which said happier things about modern Britain than a bunch of racists congregating at a memorial to a man who was murdered by racists.
The EDL, meanwhile, were allowed to march across Tower Bridge to Aldgate, which is technically just about in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Despite its numerous pubs, bars and strip clubs, the EDL seem to believe that the borough is a mini Islamic state, a prototype for a nightmare future-Britain ruled by Sharia law.
At the anti-fascist rally, there was a seemingly endless list of speakers, many of whom played it safe by making vague statements like, “No to hate,” affirming that they were, “Against injustice, for justice,” or declaring that, “We will not be divided.” I guess there’s nothing particularly wrong with saying stuff like that, but at what was supposed to be a passionate rally against xenophobic nationalism, it felt a little muted.
The appointment of some of the other speakers was more dubious, such as that of Lutfur Rahman (above). A few years ago, the controversial Mayor of Tower Hamlets was linked by Channel 4's Dispatches to the pro-Sharia group Islamic Forum for Europe, which also had their own speaker at the rally. Neither of those things struck me as a great look for a protest against a bunch of idiots who think that Tower Hamlets is a "Sharia controlled zone".
People seemed much more comfortable with the presence of Max Levitas – a 98-year-old veteran communist whose fash-bashing credibility dates back to clashing with Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists at the 1936 Battle of Cable Street.
Max’s speech, like all of the more interesting ones, moved beyond platitudes and attempted to look at the reasons why the EDL exists. He touched on stuff like an anger about a lack of jobs and affordable housing, which – the various speakers pointed out – should probably be blamed on the government rather than "evil" Muslims who may or may not want to ban Foster's.
We were treated to a song or two by Apache Indian, whose lyrics included, “Some doing good / EDL doing bad / this kind of bad is driving me mad.” He wasn't Penny Rimbaud, but was fairly charismatic and fun, so of course was followed by the dullest speaker of the day, who managed to successfully clear the dancefloor as soon as he had taken to the stage.
Meanwhile, towards the back of the park, a more militant bunch of anti-fascists were gathering on a mound.
After a while, the bloc congregated behind their banner and started chanting “Alerta, alerta, anti-fascista!” before leaving the park. They managed to drag a fair few people away from the speeches and they all headed off to confront the EDL.
The march soon turned into a run, as antifa attempted to give the cops the slip and meet their rivals head on. Masked-up anti-fascists were joined by a number of locals in a sprint towards Aldgate, where the EDL were gathering.
The police weren’t best pleased with this. From a legal standpoint, the anti-EDL march had set off 15 minutes before it was supposed to, and the Territorial Support Group are notorious sticklers for accurate timekeeping.
This may shock you, but standing near anti-fascists, raising your arms and shouting, "Woah, woah, stop!" is not often enough to convince them to head home and put their feet up with a copy of The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
So the police instead reverted to a game of full-contact British bulldog, wading into the crowd and snatching up anyone they could.
As the police were kettling antifa on Commercial Road, a breakaway group of about 150 ran along Cable Street to Tower Bridge in an attempt to stop their enemies from rallying at Aldgate. They succeeded in a sense – once the anti-fascists had successfully blockaded Mansell Street, the EDL were forced to change their march route.
Problem was, the police had 3,000 officers on the case and by that point they'd surrounded the breakaway bloc.
Their time in the kettle had begun.
For some, it was all too much.
The EDL members were doing what they always do on their demonstrations. Namely, standing around with English flags, drunkenly giving it the large one and singing songs about how they won't allow the imminent takeover of the UK by militant Islamists.
Their turnout was pretty poor, coming in at around 500, which is about half as many as there were clogging up Westminster shortly after the murder of Lee Rigby.
A few of the EDL members attempted to lighten the mood with fancy dress. There were the usual cads who thought it would be funny to dress up as pigs – which I think is meant to be offensive because Muslims don't eat pork.
And someone else dressed up as a guy from the Crusades. Because the Crusades were hilarious and are definitely still a relevant reference in Britain, 2013.
Overall, it wasn’t the best of days for the EDL – Tommy Robinson, their angry man-child of a leader, was arrested for not adhering to the conditions of the march and inciting others to do the same.
It was a worse day for the anti-fascists, however. Getting stuck in a kettle for six hours is pretty brutal at the best of times, and not everyone was thrilled when a guy turned up with a sound system attached to the back of his bike, blaring Black Eyed Peas and Jessie J (apparently playing "Price Tag" was meant to be a satirical dig at the cost of the policing operation). After hours of containment, when any hint of public disorder had passed (considering the EDL were long gone), around 280 of them were arrested and bussed out to various police stations around London. (I was also arrested – you can read about how fun that was here.)
The protesters' bail conditions prevent them from rallying against the English Defence League, the British National Party and the English Volunteer Force (an EDL splinter group) anywhere inside the M25 for at least a month. These are the three groups that militant anti-fascists have been most active against recently, so this looks suspiciously like a concerted effort to disrupt that. It seemed like the Met had used the protest as a huge intelligence gathering opportunity and an attempt to remind everybody how incredibly boring and ineffective protesting can be if the police choose to make it so.
Unite Against Fascism – who are way more into waving placards and making speeches than engaging the police in aggressive stand offs – has declared the day a huge success and only mentioned the arrests in passing, which seems a little negligent.
Not that this should be mistaken for a day of triumph for the EDL. Despite the kettling and arrests of antifa, they seem to be on the wane again after their brief renaissance in the wake of Lee Rigby's murder. As the reaction to that tragic event demonstrates though, a news story can quickly stir the latent racism lurking in a number of Britain's angry, bald men. It's not hard to imagine the EDL picking up momentum again if more shitty things happen and the EDL think they can blame those shitty things on Muslims.
Meanwhile, the recent actions of the Home Office – the racist van, the immigrant purges – make you wonder if groups like the EDL leave a larger mark than just a more expensive than normal policing bill and a few discarded cans in the street.
More stuff about the EDL: