Newcastle has a cosmopolitan feel in the sunshine. I walk along the quayside and turn up Dene Street, past a group of stag-doers readying themselves for an all-day drinking session. Past the seagulls on the river screeching at tourists to the Sage and Baltic on Gateshead’s riverbank. This could be any summer weekend. But then I spot an Asian man standing outside his shop looking nervous, and as I turn left towards Central Station I hear the chanting.
I push my way through the crowds and start to ask the English Defence League supporters why they're here.
“To stand against Islam,” says Scott, who’s come up from Surrey. “It’s being pushed on children. It’s being pushed on everyone. We don’t want sharia law. We don’t want halal shops.”
“All you have to do is memorise the Koran,” says Frank from Croydon. “And the man with the most Kalashnikovs is the Imam. And he can dish out punishment and its happening in this country. Those fellers are acting according to their manual. I don’t know how many references there are to killing infidels in their book.”
And then come the references to Lee Rigby, the soldier so terribly murdered in Woolwich last Wednesday.
“If he didn’t get killed I wouldn’t be here,” says a lad from Northallerton.
“I’ve come from Darlington to protect my country,” says another. “It’s an absolute disgrace. My brother’s in the army. I want to get them all out the country.”
St George flags display hometowns; Bristol, Bournemouth, London, Middlesbrough. I wonder if anyone is actually from Newcastle, find a couple of drunken lads outside Rafferty’s, which – along with another pub called Gotham Town – has agreed to host the EDL and house a merchandise stall.
“Last year when that black lad got shot, every single black person got mad and smashed all the towns up. There was hell on all across the country,” says Karl. “Our English soldier got butchered and not one English person has rioted about it.”
Perhaps I should explain that the vast majority of black people are not Muslims, but I’m finding it hard enough to extract myself from his drunken monologue already and the march is about to start, even if hundreds are still inside pubs and drinking on streets.
Off they go, led slowly by the police, flags waving, chanting "England till I die" and "Whose streets? Our streets!"
Beforehand, the official EDL mission statement was carefully worded but Facebook pages and tweets had been full of hate, threatening violence. Here comes the first test; a group of five shouting girls on the street corner. There’s a surge and a roar. Bottles are hurled. Photographers duck their heads and run into position. The police stand firm and the crowd moves forward again, officers lining the streets, blocking left and right turns, bussed in, like the EDL, from around the country. Then what looks like an instant decision, to turn right down a cobbled street. Instructions from a police officer with a megaphone. Shutters go down. People in a café look out nervously as the throng moves through chanting "Allah! Allah! Who the fuck is Allah?" Past the kebab shop they go, Vietnamese and Turkish restaurants, towards a blue Land Rover blasting out 80s ska to celebrate a march that lasted less than half an hour.
Speeches start, but I don’t want to hang around. Through the police lines I go, beneath the blue tape, inside a shopping centre when a friendly policeman refuses to let me go any further, around to the counter demonstration.
“Don’t believe their lies,” shouts Yunus from Unite Against Fascism, pointing to Union Jacks just a hundred yards away above lines of police on foot and horseback. “We don’t want a sea of racism and division in our communities. Nobody in their right mind would support what happened in Woolwich. To say the EDL represent the English people is ridiculous. They are fascists but they’re trying to pretend they’re not.”
And then a different form of music plays, and there’s dancing. It’s a different form of protester on this side of the battle; as many females as males, children in pushchairs, no sign of alcohol. The two groups do have one thing in common, though; the majority are white, many Asians seemingly taking advice from Imams and staying indoors, or perhaps realising it’s too dangerous to be on the streets today.
Yunus asks the crowd to boycott Rafferty’s and Gotham Town. Three EDL members march into the middle, arms aloft, chanting and staring daggers. Police move quickly, bundle them out. And then another march starts, the counter demonstration, except more EDL have made their way around this way and there’s groups of them on most side streets, shouting abuse but hemmed in by police. Isolated scuffles break out. Chants on both sides. And credit where credit’s due, because they don’t get much of it these days; the police, who’ve done a sterling job all day, get the crowd moving again until they reach the Haymarket and start to disperse.
And then the EDL go back to where they came from, or take to the pubs. Businesses breathe a sigh of relief, or decide they’ll stay closed until tomorrow because it’s still not safe for them to open just yet. A staff member from Demon Barber hangs out the window, says they’ve been under siege all day from the EDL, have been intimidated and scared, pulled the shutters down and had an anti-fascist party inside. And Newcastle city centre starts to return to what it’s noted for; a multi-cultural city that welcomes people from all over the world, with a bank holiday weekend full of stag-do leprechauns and hen-do bumble bees mixing with locals.
More on the EDL:
English Fascists Took Their First Beating of the Summer in Brighton This Weekend