Policing the English Defence League

Searchlight Magazine by Nick Lowles | Tuesday, 22 February 2011

After eighteen months and over 30 protests, two distinct ways have emerged in which the police deal with English Defence League demonstrations. There are the examples of Bradford and Leicester where the police forcefully imposed their will on the EDL and made it clear they rejected its divisive agenda. That contrasts with Peterborough, Nuneaton and Preston where the police sought dialogue and agreement with the EDL and offered a much more neutral approach.

EDL clash with police in Bradford 28 August 2010
EDL clash with police in Bradford 28 August 2010

After eighteen months and over 30 protests, two distinct ways have emerged in which the police deal with English Defence League demonstrations. There are the examples of Bradford and Leicester where the police forcefully imposed their will on the EDL and made it clear they rejected its divisive agenda. That contrasts with Peterborough, Nuneaton and Preston where the police sought dialogue and agreement with the EDL and offered a much more neutral approach.

Several police forces believe this latter approach is both effective and correct and in this they are supported by the Home Office.

Superintendent Paul Fullwood, of Cambridgeshire police, articulated this position on BBC South East news. “We considered banning the march but actually we tried to facilitate it so we can control where the location is and conditions around that like numbers and restrictions.”

The reporter noted that Peterborough “saw just a handful of arrests while Leicester, which did ban the march, [had] more than thirty”.

It appears that Bedfordshire police initially adopted the Peterborough approach as they geared up for the EDL demo in Luton this month. They appeared to accept unconditionally the EDL’s desire for a march from the Farley Hill estate into the town centre, ending with a rally in St George’s Square, even before there had been a formal application.

Bedfordshire Police’s position derived from the view that the EDL had matured from the violent street gang that ran riot in Luton in May 2009 and by agreeing to its demands they were reducing the chance of the EDL causing trouble.

Outrageously, the belief that trouble was more likely if the EDL demands were not accepted has been promoted by the EDL itself.

Eventually, it appears, Bedfordshire police were forced to change their plans after complaints about the route of the EDL march. After leaving the Parrot pub in the centre of the estate, the EDL had planned to proceed along several narrow residential streets into the town centre. The route was 1.5 miles and as the marchers approached the town centre they would have passed through increasingly diverse neighbourhoods.

After representations from many quarters including HOPE not hate, the police have decided that the EDL cannot march from the Farley estate. They will be allowed to meet up at the Parrot pub but will then be bussed into the town centre where they will have a very short march through non-residential areas into St George’s Square.

Despite this backtracking over the route Bedfordshire police still wish to maintain a neutral and constructive engagement with the EDL.

Peterborough disorder

Not everyone agrees with this approach. The comparison of arrests is both misleading and inaccurate. While there were indeed far fewer arrests in Peterborough, that event protest only attracted a third of the numbers of Leicester and in fact the trouble in Peterborough was far worse. After the official EDL protest had ended a group of 50 EDL supporters fought a pitched battle with local Muslim youths and anti-fascists in a nearby park. At its height over 200 were involved and it went on for at least five minutes before the police arrived and restored order. Several people appeared seriously injured.

The police and the Home Office have also pointed to Nuneaton and Preston for proof that giving the EDL a demonstration increases the likelihood of the day going off without incident. Those who were at the two events, particularly Nuneaton, have very different recollections. In Nuneaton the EDL was allowed to march through the town centre and several marchers threw fireworks, smoke bombs and bottles into the crowd of counter-protesters who had been standing peacefully on the side of the road.

There have been other occasions when the EDL has been allowed to march and trouble has ensued, Dudley and Aylesbury to name but two.

While the EDL emerged as a reaction to the activities of Islamic extremists on the streets of Luton it is clearly motivated by opposition to all Muslims and Islam as a religion. Vile and abusive anti-Muslim chants are commonly heard on EDL protests, demonstrations against mosques and shops selling halal meat occur across the country and EDL-inspired indiscriminate attacks against Asians are increasing. From top to bottom, the EDL is racist and Islamophobic.

Defining the EDL

There is, however, something more fundamental determining the police approach and that is its misunderstanding of what the EDL is and the threat it poses.

The official police and Home Office position is being driven by the National Domestic Extremism Team and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, both of which are answerable to Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Tudway, the National Coordinator for Domestic Extremism.

In late November Tudway announced that while the EDL was a threat to community cohesion the street gang was certainly not an extreme-right organisation.

This view was explained by DC Chris Wyeth, of the National Domestic Extremism Team, during a briefing to the probation service in Luton. He repeated the Tudway line that the EDL was not an extreme-right organisation by presenting it as merely opposing Islamic radicalism.

Wyeth put up a slide under the heading “What do the DL [Defence League] stand for?” on which he quoted from EDL literature stating that they “oppose radical Islam and Sharia law. We are against Al Qaeda both home and abroad. We are NOT against Islam, nor are we against Muslims. It is only the more extreme sections of this community that we oppose.”

To emphasise the point another slide had a montage of EDL images with the wording “NOT National Socialists” emblazoned across it.

Wyeth even claimed that the existence of Muslim, Jewish and gay EDL divisions was proof of its non-extremist nature.

Then the presentation got even worse. Wyeth claimed that the police were concerned more with the criminal elements in the EDL, principally “football risk groups”, than with the political elements, which he dismissed as fairly harmless. He said that the violence that had been seen at some EDL protests was caused by these criminal elements rather than being politically motivated.

He added that there had been trouble at only 11 of the 27 EDL demonstrations – a figure Searchlight disputes.

With the EDL considered not an extreme-right organisation and the belief that the associated violence comes from a fringe element, it is hardly surprising that the police deal with EDL protests as a law and order issue.

Worse still, many in the police point to the EDL’s opponents as the bigger threat. In the run-up to the Peterborough demonstration the police in Cambridgeshire were being told by London to concentrate their intelligence on the activities of the Muslim Defence League, largely a Facebook group that has sprung up in reaction to the EDL.

The police approach is both misguided and very dangerous. Of course the EDL is not a national socialist or a fascist organisation but that certainly does not mean it is not a right-wing extremist organisation.

Right-wing extremism can be defined as “fascism” but it can also include nationalist, racist, authoritarian, xenophobic or extreme religious ideology. It could represent itself in support for supremacism – a belief of superiority of one group over another, just as it could promote segregation and separation. It can as easily encompass anti-immigrant populist parties, old-style authoritarian regimes or even monarchist groups.

While the EDL emerged as a reaction to the activities of Islamic extremists on the streets of Luton, it is clearly motivated by opposition to all Muslims and Islam as a religion. Vile and abusive anti-Muslim chants are commonly heard on EDL protests, demonstrations against mosques and shops selling halal meat occur across the country and EDL-inspired indiscriminate attacks against Asians are increasing.

From top to bottom, the EDL is racist and Islamophobic. One of its leaders has recently been charged for calling for Muslims to die on a recent EDL demonstration. Kevin Smith, a leading EDL activist from Dudley, received an eight-week suspended prison sentence for placing a pig’s head on the wall of Dudley central mosque. Ashley White was prosecuted for smashing a window and threat-ening staff of an Indian restaurant in Bridgwater. “I’m going to cut your face,” he told one employee, “because I’m EDL”.

When EDL supporters went on the rampage in Luton in May 2009, they indiscriminately attacked Asians and their property. During an EDL protest in Dudley last year a Hindu temple was attacked, and after the EDL demonstration in Leicester hundreds of supporters broke away and tried to enter a largely Muslim area of the city to confront local youths.

These were not acts against Islamic extremists but against the Muslim community. They were racist attacks.

Much of this anti-Muslim rhetoric comes directly from the EDL leadership. Officially produced EDL placards and merchandise carry blatant anti-Islam messages. Racist and anti-Muslim chants are regularly heard at EDL protests with no condemnation from the leadership and Stephen Lennon, the EDL leader better known as Tommy Robinson, repeatedly riles against Islam as a religion in television and radio interviews.

It was the EDL leaders who invited Pastor Terry Jones to the UK. It is the EDL leaders who have linked up with the French fascist and anti-Muslim group, Identity Bloc. It is the EDL leaders who have welcomed into their ranks many current and former British National Party, Combat 18 and Blood and Honour members, sometimes in senior positions.

In his presentation DC Wyeth spoke of a difference between the EDL in the north of England and the organisation in the south. That is the case but let us not delude ourselves that the EDL leadership, which is mainly based in the south, is somehow not extremist. After all, most of the EDL leaders in Luton have passed through the ranks of the BNP over just the past few years. While they might say, perhaps genuinely, that they have moved on, they still joined and obviously agreed to a large degree with the BNP’s racist agenda.

A correct definition and understanding of the EDL as an extreme-right organisation would surely lead to a different policing approach. Contrast this laissez-faire attitude to the EDL to the heavy surveillance and infiltration of the green movement.

Fear in communities

There is a further deficiency in the policing of EDL demonstrations, which partly derives from a failure to understand the organisation. The Home Office, guided by the National Domestic Extremism Team and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, appear to view the EDL simply as a law and order issue. This, I suppose, is logical if the starting point is that it is not an extremist or inherently violent organisation and where violence occurs it is instigated either by its opponents or by a fringe criminal element.

The policing of the EDL is largely left to individual police forces to deal with as they would a high risk football match. A peaceful EDL protest is the police’s priority and they respond accordingly with little concern or interest about the wider impact.

This short-sighted approach is dangerous as the real impact of an EDL protest is this wider impact.

The activities of the EDL give comfort and encouragement to racists up and down the country. They also provide these people with an identity and apparent justification to carry out acts of violence and criminality. There are growing reports of people identifying themselves with the EDL when carrying out racist attacks. A disturbing number of reports have come, from across the country, of identification with the EDL by kids in playground and gang fights.

Conversely, the EDL brings fear to Muslim communities. An EDL demonstration creates the same tension and unease among minority communities as would a National Front march, if not more so because of the numbers involved. To many people, particularly in those communities being targeted, the EDL is indistinguishable from the NF and BNP. That itself should be instructive for the police.

Even more worrying is how the activities of the EDL wind up and assist the very Muslim extremist groups the EDL claims to oppose. This view was advanced by Det Supt John Larkin, head of the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit.

In a radio interview late last year he commented: “In some areas, we have evidence that once they have gone and the high-profile policing of the event has occurred, there’s fertile ground for those groups who would come in to encourage people to have this reality – this is the way white Western society sees us.

“And that’s a potential recruiting carrot for people and that’s what some of these radicalisers look for – they look for the vulnerability, for the hook to pull people through and when the EDL have been and done what they’ve done, they perversely leave that behind.”

By refusing to look at the wider impact of the EDL and instead seeing it as a narrow law and order issue the Home Office, through the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, is only making the problem worse.

With 2,000 officers on duty Bedfordshire police are probably correct in believing that they can control the EDL demonstration on 5 February. The question is, at what cost?

There is already evidence that Islamic extremist groups in the city are using the EDL demonstration as a recruiting tool, both to call for a defence of the Muslim community and to castigate British Christian society as inherently anti-Muslim.

By agreeing to the EDL wish to start its march on the Farley Hill estate before proceeding into town, the police were reinforcing the perception of segregation and separation of the town. The EDL plans amounted to nothing more than a carnival of macabre.

EDL Casuals advert for Luton demonstration

Alternatives

It does not have to be this way. Bradford and Leicester showed how the police can adopt a quite different approach that not only keeps the EDL away from local people but actually reflects the wishes of the community they are supposed to serve.

In both cases the police worked with the local councils to restrict the activities of the EDL. They also went out of their way to reassure people, including minority communities, that they were on hand to defend them even to the point of having officers stationed outside key mosques on the day of the protest. Officers wore peace ribbons ahead of the EDL protest and actively engaged with the media about not allowing trouble.

And in both cases people responded appreciatively. They felt that the police and council were on their side and as a result there was little momentum to take to the streets to “defend” the town against the EDL.

Obviously in both Bradford and Leicester there was opposition to this approach, not least from the Home Office, which made it quite clear that it opposed banning and restricting the EDL. However the political leadership of the council, combined with police chiefs with strong community ties, forced through this approach and they have been warmly applauded as a result.

As long as the police refuse to see the EDL as a right-wing extremist organisation and fail to appreciate the wider impact it has on communities and social cohesion there is going to be trouble. The EDL is emerging as a new social movement and is the largest threat to peaceful communities at the moment. As such it requires a political response.

Leicester and Bradford, however, have shown us that another approach is both possible and successful.


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