I wasn't totally sure what to expect as I headed to my first ever Britain First demonstration this past Saturday.
The far-right group, notorious for "invading" mosques and shouting at restaurateurs for serving halal chicken, called a protest this weekend against plans to build "the biggest mosque in Europe" in the Staffordshire town of Burton on Trent.
I wasn't sure why this would be a problem – freedom of religion is very much A Thing in the UK – and given that Burton on Trent has a population of around 65,000, I had my doubts as to how true it was. After spending literally 30 seconds researching it on Google, my thoughts were confirmed: the plans were to build an extension on to an existing mosque, which would then accommodate a minimum of 1,500 people. South London's Morden mosque can hold 10,000, meaning the Burton one wouldn't even be the largest in the UK, let alone Europe.
Still, Paul Golding – Britain First's party leader – had sent a video from Budapest to the organisation's Facebook page to encourage people to actually show up. At almost 1 million Facebook fans, the Christian group's online presence is kind of astounding; chances are someone in your newsfeed – maybe that guy from school who had loads of pet lizards, or your shut-in aunt – will regularly share their posts about "supporting our troops" or how we should all "treat extremists like paedos". Thing is, while these regularly receive thousands of Likes, it's rare that the turnout at their rallies surpasses more than a couple of hundred.
"People just watching this video who aren't quite involved in Britain First yet need to get to Burton on Trent," said Golding from Hungary, where he'd been meeting with "fellow patriots".
"You might be saying, 'I'd like to come along, but I'm not too sure about safety.' Our protest marches are always safe," he continued, reassuringly. "There is no reason why people can't come along."
It was decided: I would go along and have a safe experience in Burton on Trent, finding out what Britain First are all about.
Arriving in Burton on Trent, the police presence was high. As various cordons formed along the road, 150 or so anti-fascist activists stood behind a barrier while the local community watched on.
I headed into a car park, where flags and banners were being handed out. Within moments, one of the uniformed Britain First security detail came over, grabbed my collar and told me to "fuck off right now unless [I wanted] to get hurt".
As I was in the process of fucking right off, a guy draped in a Union Jack got very much in my personal space and shouted: "I'm gonna smash your face in if you take another picture."
I decided at that point that I didn't want to join Britain First. Golding had promised I would be safe; his followers had immediately let him and the reputation of his far-right street team down.
Just outside the pen were a handful of "patriotic" blokes who'd decided to keep an eye on the counter-protesters before joining in with the mega-mosque march.
"Would you mind having a chat with me about why you're here today?" I asked one of them.
Turns out he didn't. Instead, he showed off his Nazi salute, which he'd clearly been working very hard on.
As Golding talked to arrivals about how "our grandfathers didn't die for this", gesturing over at a multicultural crowd of local residents, while his pals saluted Hitler, waved Israeli flags and sang "God Save the Queen", I couldn't help but feel the event was already a little confused.
Stood outside a parade of shops was Saj Hussain, a local landlord, chatting with a crowd of mates. "We live in harmony here; we've got Polish, Slovakians, Latvians, Indians, Romanians and Bulgarians. We all live here," Hussain told me, as Britain First lined up to start their parade. "These guys, there's probably 100 of them. They're racist idiots."
Watching the crowds walk past was Josh and his mate, both locals. I wanted to know what they made of the whole thing, because if you took Golding's word, the non-Muslims of this town had become pariahs, force-fed halal curries as local vicars were burnt at the stake.
"If they want to build a mosque, then they're entitled to build a mosque. Only those pricks over there would do something like this," said Josh.
The Britain First members were vastly outnumbered by locals, who almost without exception stood outside their homes, shops and workplaces to tell the demonstrators to fuck off.
"I don't want to see racist scum walk the streets," said Niamh, who – along with her friend Jessica – had come to shout obscenities at the fascists. "I saw a photo on their Facebook page that said, 'By 2050, this country will be full of Muslims, is that what our grandparents died for?' Sorry, that's bullshit – our grandparents fought fascism so we could live freely, not so fascists could walk these very streets."
The parade passed through the town into a quiet, blocked off square opposite the local chippy. Up on stage, Paul Golding started talking, as crowds of locals stood behind heckling him.
"You'll have to get used to the fact that this is our country, a Christian country. If you don't like it, sod of back to Saudi Arabia," he shouted towards the "white, self-loathing traitors" and the "bunch of Muslims who worship a paedophile".
As he stepped down from the podium, I went to see if he'd be up for an interview. Unfortunately, my old mate the security man stopped me in my tracks, this time knocking my camera and pushing me backwards until some police stepped in to keep him off.
Up next on the podium was Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the party. However, I'd heard enough embarrassing, misguided rhetoric by this point (their brand of British pride made me feel very sad to be British), so instead decided to check out the subject of all the commotion: the mosque. A local Muslim kid called Calum showed me down; it looked nice and had a car park outside. Nobody I asked on the street was bothered by it. That was that, then.
As I headed back into the pen, arms were raised. I didn't dare ask what was going on, but there was something in the air that made me, a small Jewish man, feel quite uncomfortable. I couldn't help but feel that those gathered in front of me had just given up on trying to be the acceptable face of the far-right; I saw all the Nazi salutes, racism and thuggery I assumed they'd be desperately trying to hide.
As the Britain First gang were escorted back to their gravel car park, the local teenagers were able to sneak past the police, most of whom were unfamiliar with the town's layout, having been drafted in from all over the Midlands and beyond.
These guys wanted to keep on shouting at the fascists, but the police were having none of it. Things got pretty tense, as one local teenager was grabbed after a little fracas with one of the cops. It escalated quickly, as five officers jumped on him, using cables to restrain him, before cuffing him and sitting on his back. These teens didn't like fascists, and they didn't like the police much either.
As police lines pushed these young people backwards, it was apparent that the counter protest wasn't being led by the usual anti-fascist types, but young people, of all races and religions, who didn't want their town's name tarnished by a group of strangers' prejudices.
From my day spent among them, it became very clear that Britain First's attempt to build support in towns like Burton on Trent isn't taking off. Their Facebook posts might get some attention, but this was arguably their loudest call-out of the year, and the turnout was just as meagre as all their previous rallies. Rather than stirring up local tensions, the community came out together and told Britain First to fuck off back to where they came from.
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