When we met John Meighan – founder of the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) – in June of 2017, we didn't know quite what to expect. Following a series of terror attacks that had rocked the UK, the Spurs fan organised a march against extremism that attracted tens of thousands of football fans onto the streets.
Perhaps it's inevitable when a bunch of mainly white blokes take to the streets to shout about Islam, but speculation was already growing among anti-racist groups: could this be Britain’s latest far-right street movement? The most recent group that looked anything like the FLA, the EDL, grew out of football hooliganism and had used opposition to "Muslim terrorism" as a half-arsed cover for their fairly naked general Islamophobia.
But there seemed to be something different about John, and about the FLA.
Racist commenters, we heard, had been systematically kicked out of the FLA's private Facebook group. There were no union jacks on demos – "I got a barrage of messages attacking me for that, you know, like, 'Are you not patriotic?'" Meighan told us in a pub near Liverpool Street station. The FLA had even contacted anti-fascist activists before their march in London to make them aware of their intentions and re-assure them they weren't fash.
We wondered: are anti-racists writing off a large working-class movement against terrorism just because some of them have skinheads or wear flat caps? Surely people should be able to march against terror without being accused of goose-stepping?
When we met, Meighan was adamant that the group wasn't a new EDL. He repeatedly said that the group is "not right or left". He gave a convincing enough story about how he was simply a loving parent shocked into action by his own kids' fears about terror. "I had tickets for the Summertime Ball, but I actually had my children prompt me to sell the tickets because they didn't feel comfortable going to it," he told us. "That was a moment which, to me, almost says that I need to do something… It makes us think to check on our children and make sure they’re OK and make sure they don’t think something’s going to happen to their mummy or daddy." This was to be a respectable movement. He talked of a private security team working with the police to root out troublemakers and make sure it was family-friendly.
But after a bit more questioning, it seemed that the politics of respectability was about as far as the FLA went. Despite saying he had lawyer friends who would help him "look at how we can put some petitions together to change laws and terror laws", it wasn’t entirely clear what changes Meighan even wanted.
More police resources was one demand – but that doesn’t tell you much, so what else?
"There needs to be a strategy to deal with people at risk," he said. Ah yes, a strategy. Why had nobody thought of that before? And what strategy might that be?
"What that is, I don’t know, whether it’s a tag system. I’m not saying to discriminate against them – they might be a risk or they might reform, but we need to look at how can we change these people. I think they need to get into communities and show that they can, they talk about us, show we can talk to them, they haven’t got to fear us." Go into communities and tell them they don’t need to fear us, but we might tag some of them?
At the time, a controversial policy option was on the menu: internment. The indiscriminate detention of suspected terrorists without trial was controversially used in Northern Ireland by a desperate British government. As well as being manifestly unjust, it ended up worsening sectarian tensions and actually increasing terrorist activity. This reactionary idea was being talked up by such controversialists as Katie Hopkins, then still a columnist for the Mail Online. Anyone half paying attention had to have an opinion on it, but when we asked John about it there was visible head scratching. "Er… you probably know more whether there's going to be government reforms," he flapped, "...definitely there needs to be some direction, the public needs to see that something is happening."
We left that meeting less concerned with the idea that Meighan was a new far-right Machiavelli, and more confused that someone who had created such a large street movement barely even had any opinions. We wondered where it might lead.
The FLA's next march took place in October, and by then they had a more defined political stance, including advocating for internment. Several speakers at the rally, including Meighan, suggested every jihadi extremist identified by the intelligence service should be locked up. As well as being more politicised, it was a lot bigger, at least double the size of the first.
The march was also the scene of some violence. As attendees headed down Whitehall, a small group of left wing, anti-racist campaigners attempted to hand out leaflets questioning the FLA leadership over some of the dodgy characters who had spoken at previous events.
It's fair to say that many people in the FLA crowd weren't happy about this: they threw coins and beer cans at the anti-racists. In a display of nationalism, some people started singing "God Saved the Queen", arms aloft. Then came the insults: "Fuck off you lefty cunts", "Lefty shitheads", "Who the fucking hell are you?", "You let your country down" and so on. One guy walking past muttered a threat to "find them afterwards".
Some tried to break through police lines to attack the group. One man made a show of being frustrated and perplexed at the implication that the march was racist. "Show me a racist! Show me a racist!" he shouted. He was recognisable as Roy Price, who was jailed for violence at a racist demonstration in Dover. While doing this, Price was standing next to his associate, Tony Hyam, who has a conviction for being a racist.
But that wasn’t the whole picture. While some marchers reacted angrily, many broke out into applause when they saw the banners reading "Football for all". Other members of the crowd looked on at the group of left-wingers simply confused – why would anyone call an anti-terror event "racist"?
It was clear that most people there didn’t consider themselves to be taking part in a right-wing or racist event, but protesting against extremism.
We went through photographs of both the July and October marches, as well as the FLA’s social media accounts, and found there had been FLA banners or wreaths for FLA marches made by supporters of 38 of the 92 professional football clubs in the UK, as well as several non-league and Scottish teams. This means the FLA had built up some presence at at least 40 percent of the major clubs in English football. It was a mainstream event, with a small-c conservative law-n-order agenda, mostly made up of middle-aged "common sense" dads, with a few racists hanging around fringes.
Since that march last October, the FLA seems to have moved from having right-wing policy positions and far-right hangers-on, to existing in a far-right milieu and spouting far-right rhetoric.
There's another FLA march this Saturday in Birmingham, and the speakers' list includes far-right agitators. Tommy Robinson's cohort of anti-Muslim activists is now all over the FLA, while failed UKIP leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters – who has described Islam as "evil" – has been asked to speak in Birmingham because of her "expertise on Islam". Aline Morars from the German section of ethno-nationalist group Generation Identity will be speaking. The "anti-extremists" of the FLA are now inviting members of white supremacist groups to speak at their events.
When Darren Osborne was jailed for driving a hired van into a crowd of Muslims outside Finsbury Park Mosque, the FLA didn’t come out to condemn him, which you might expect for a group at pains to show that it is against all extremism. Instead, the FLA's social media accounts called the BBC "twats" for questioning Tommy Robinson over his role in radicalising Osborne.
Last week, the Observer accessed the FLA's private Facebook group and revealed that it was "full of violent, racist and misogynistic posts targeting Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott, as well as playing down the crimes of the Finsbury Park mosque attacker, Darren Osborne".
This wasn't entirely surprising, given the kind of things the FLA has been saying and sharing publicly on social media since last October. They’ve shared posts which claim Western identity is under attack, question if Islamophobia really exists and describe migrants as "invaders". The FLA has also repeatedly shared posts supporting the unofficial shrine to Lee Rigby in Woolwich, which is maintained by far-right hooligans with links to the EDL and neo-Nazi groups. In one post the FLA expressed its support for a huge far-right protest in Poland where anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi slogans and banners were on display. It has also attacked three prominent members of the Labour Party regularly – Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott. Some of the abuse of Abbot from the FLA has been explicitly racist, such as an image they shared of someone blacked up to look like her at a darts event.
Meighan recently denied that the group was right-wing to the Observer. "We are not against moderate Muslims. We are worried about people carrying out extremist attacks," he said. He stated that people who "show any form of racism" are expelled from the FLA Facebook group.
The respectable image that the FLA tried to build is coming off in another way, too. The organisation has split, with a number of senior activists upping sticks and setting up the "Democratic FLA", which they claim is the original – or "true" – FLA. The split hasn’t been over political differences; it’s been about a perceived lack of transparency about where money has been going and what some feel is a lack of democracy.
At Saturday's march, it's likely that, once again, many attendees will not consider themselves to be part of a far-right event. We’re just marching against extremists, they will say, and who can say fairer than that?
But the FLA's apolitical anti-terror message has quickly seen them lurch towards supporting internment – an unjust, authoritarian measure that would further pathologise and disaffect British Muslims. It would unintentionally help Islamic extremists with the aim of eliminating the "grayzone", where ordinary Muslims can fit into society. It is a lesson in how "common sense" protests can quickly reinforce a damaging status quo. Not only that, but the far-right vultures are circling, waiting to get a piece of flesh out of Britain’s newest big street movement if the organisation eventually keels over and dies.
Correction: This article previously stated that internment in Northern Ireland was a policy of Margaret Thatcher's government. In fact it was used from 1971-1975, before Thatcher was in power.