Original publication: The Tab, 14 February 2015
Not Racist. Not Violent. So goes the slogan of the English Defence League. Any movement that carries such a disclaimer is bound to arouse suspicion, and the various banner images on EDL social media pages depicting angry white men with faces covered does only bolsters the organisation’s reputation as quasi-fascist. Since co-founder Tommy Robinson’s acrimonious departure from the movement in 2013, the EDL has been seen by many as on the ropes, for the recent documentary Angry, White and Proud Jamie Roberts claiming that that the movement had ‘broken up’.
Whatever remained of the organization was grouping together on Saturday 7th February for its first demo of the year. This was to be a protest in Dudley against the proposed construction of a mosque, the same ongoing contention that had led the organization to this Midlands town twice before. I attended the march with the intention of testing Roberts’s assertion that the current strength of EDL was virtually nil, and whether or not there was in fact any future for the organization.
I also often felt that reporting on the EDL was so biased and removed from the events at hand that it was hard to find any sense of perspective behind the images of white men shouting from behind placards with Islamophobic slogans.
Angry, White and Proud had started to reverse this trend but its focus on a handful of individuals in splinter cells left it devoid of a wider scope, and the presence of a cameraman in the midst of those present was inevitably going to have some effect on their behaviour.
I felt an interesting, perhaps even unique, way to get an idea of the EDL without it being seen through a glass wall was to go to Dudley and learn about the EDL by, for one day at least, posing as a member.
Arriving at Dudley Port station I was met by a phalanx of police officers to my right and rows of empty coaches parked across from me. Wherever the EDL were it wasn’t here, so I jumped on the bus to Dudley city centre, aware that Rock Zombie nightclub had been the designated rendezvous point for the march. As police pulled back a cordon to allow the bus through I entered into a ghost town. When I feigned naiveté and asked a woman on the bus what was going on she told me about ‘the fascists’ and how ‘it was a shame for you see Dudley like this. Unless you’ve come to take pictures of it’. She served as a reminder that while the EDL claimed to be welcomed by residents, the protesters, the mass police presence and the gawpers like me were not wanted in Dudley, and it was the residents of this town who suffered, regardless of their stance on or even knowledge of the proposed mosque.
Walking down a street that would have been open for business on any other Saturday I was met by rows and rows of boarded shop fronts amidst smatterings of police officers every few feet.
Nightclub ‘Rock Zombie’ was the only establishment open in the entire area, as the owners had agreed on it being a meeting place for EDL members, with the understanding it was betters to have them in one place than spread across town (the club also promised to donate their hire fee from the day to charity).
There were fewer than a dozen people milling about a lightless, airless dancefloor when I arrived on the morning of the march. Knowing they would have to assemble here eventually as the designated starting point of the march, I decided to grab a pint of Carling (the EDL bar staff served other beers, but when in Rome) and wait for the masses.
The EDL may claim to have a Jewish and an LGBT division, yet as Rock Zombie slowly began to fill up the members present slotted perfectly into preconceived notions of poor white men alongside a few wives and girlfriends.
Some children were present also, ranging from some young teenagers taking full advantage of the golden opportunity to get served underage to kids no older than ten years old wearing black hoodies identifying themselves as ‘English Defence League Foot Soldier’.
A team of blue jacketed ‘Police Liaison Officers’ entered and introduced themselves to everyone inside, an officer named Amanda smiling and making general chit-chat about my touchscreen friendly gloves.
This team represented a change in tactics, the chants I would hear of ‘if you wear a yellow jacket you’re a cunt’ signalling to me that this police ‘chummy teacher’ approach was an attempt at abating the EDL’s anti-police sentiment and avoiding a repeat of the fracas and mass arrests at the 2010 EDL march in Dudley.
A couple of pints later I was at the bar talking to a man wearing a Dudley EDL (one of the few locals) division hoodie about the current state of Wolverhampton Wanderers when a shabbily dressed man approached him, identified himself as a reporter and asked for ‘his side of the story’.
After giving a typical spiel about ‘their country they wouldn’t allow a church’ the Dudley EDL man refused to give his name and the reporter left. Once gone the Dudley EDL man turned to me and muttered “What a twat. You just want to whack him, don’t you?’. After I murmured my agreement I began to realise that while the EDL needed journalists to spread their message they resented being treated like odd curios (which I of course myself was guilty of), leading to an uneasy relationship between the two sides.
From my own perspective it was clear that if I announced myself as a reporter at this stage to him or any of the surrounding EDL members I would at best be met with a wall of silence. Yet outside of my limited conversations with this one man I had still failed to integrate myself. I was all too aware of how little I fitted in, the Brummie accent was proving impenetrable, and I was starting to feel like the whole venture had been both an unnecessary risk and a waste of time.
Leaving the club I found many more EDL members that had finally started to arrive and were congregating outside, and to my blessed relief I heard London voices. These belonged to Danny and Maurice, and we soon struck up conversation, from topics ranging from MI5’s attempted recruitment of Michael Adebolajo to Danny’s supposed arrest for showing an English flag in his window ‘while they put up Islamic State flags next door’.
Maurice seemed less the conniving fascist than an older guy lacking a few marbles, on a few occasions referring to the EDL as the ‘EDF’ and confusing the shuttered halal foods supermarket opposite Rock Zombie for a mosque.
We were soon joined by perhaps the shortest EDL member struggling to hold the biggest flagpole there, and as part of this makeshift quadrant I felt that for better or worse I had to some extent been accepted as part of the group assembling for the march.
Maurice offered to bring me an English flag from his car. Soon enough I was wearing the English flag as a scarf, while Danny was wearing his as a bandana.
Streams of coaches came flooding into the street, arriving EDL members given a hero’s welcome by those already present. Photographers and journalists lined up opposite Rock Zombie, with seas of English flags, those clad in EDL balaclavas and an individual in a pig mask being given the red carpet treatment.
For these five hundred or so rowdy but not aggressive EDL members scores of police officers on the ground and a helicopter above were keeping close watch.
Rock Zombie was now crammed full of EDL members (the toilet queue was so long that some had resorted to pissing in the sink ), and two proclaimed journalists made fools of themselves by trying to enter before being told in no uncertain terms to rejoining the rest of their pack.
I had imagined the march to move into Dudley centre, to be likely met by a Unite Against Fascism counter-protest, and had been content to stand with Maurice and Danny at what I presumed to be at the back of the crowd.
As the last coach arrived on the scene and EDL members wearing high-vis orange ‘STEWARD’ jackets began to form a line in front of me I realised Dudley council would have likely only permitted a march if it moved away from the city centre and the UAF. Myself, Danny and Maurice were to be at the front of the march.
As the march began to creep forward Amanda and her fellow liaison officers had lost their smiles, anxiously instructing the EDL stewards to stop the crowd and then slowly inch them down cordoned, barricaded streets. Roberts may have claimed that the EDL had disbanded, the far right splintering into various localized groups, but the fair size of this Dudley march showed that while a long way from the Tommy Robinson heydays, the EDL retains enough of a central core to be a force to be reckoned with.
With my place at the vanguard of the march and chants of ‘with St. George in my heart keep me English’ ringing in my ears I was starting to understand how Hitler had so much support at Nuremberg when all of a sudden it was over. The march had turned a couple of corners and come to its designated finish, covering a distance little more than a few hundred metres.
The march had finished in a park for a concluding demonstration. Great steel walls had been drawn across nearby roads to segregate EDL from UAF, and none of the journalists had been allowed past the barrier.
The EDL had assembled a podium and a table selling merchandise beside a nearby war memorial. Maurice handed me one of the wristbands he had bought at the makeshift store bearing a ‘black and white unite’ slogan.
I began to listen to the speakers justify the EDL, framing it as an antidote to issues ranging from the lack of media coverage of Boko Haram to the Rotherham child grooming scandal. The second speaker began to lose the audience’s interest, and with a great irony his claims that the EDL was not Islamophobic were drowned out by chants of ‘Allah is a paedo’.
The talks were soon over, Dudley council only allowing for a forty-five minute demonstration after the march.
With the coach fully boarded we were given a police escort of a size typically assigned to royal dignitaries, led past the police cordon and through Dudley. As I listened to the chants of ‘I don’t know what I’ve been told, but Muhammad’s wife was six years old’ coming from inside the bus I tried to get a look outside at the reactions of the people of Dudley to this EDL motorcade.
The most receptive was a man opening the front door to show his son and give us a wave, the most opposed was a woman simply sticking her middle finger up at us. Most residents on the street tried to just ignore it, and I had no doubt that the mass majority of Dudley were glad to see the back of the EDL, perhaps this time for good.
The most sinister event of the day occurred on the train from Dudley Port to Birmingham. The still jocular EDL members had spotted an Asian man sitting on the opposite platform and commented that ‘all this is for people like at him’ and ‘look at him, he can’t look at us. He doesn’t know where to look’. This focus on an individual who these people knew nothing more about than the colour of his skin served as a final reminder that for all the empty platitudes there were members of the EDL who were undeniably racist.
This incident went to underline that while the EDL as an organisation came across to me as having a lot of bark and no bite, the potential for individuals associated with the movement to act out its rhetoric through a more violent Islamophobia remained a genuine threat.
Throughout my day with the EDL I had seen no arrests or overt confrontations with police. Reading news reports I was expecting to hear details of how in spite of initial fears the demonstration had passed without incident.
While the BBC and ITV News took this line, The Independent and Express and Star instead reported of thirty arrests and conflicts with counter-demonstrations. Only the BBC report on the subject confirmed that all arrests were made prior to the incident free march, and that the EDL and UAF were successfully kept apart.
My experiences gave me the impression that the organization would quickly melt away once people ignored rather than fixated on them.
As it is now the EDL so clearly thrive off the press attention. Outside Rock Zombie I had smiled and waved at one photojournalist before he quickly moved on, clearly quite irritated that I had ruined his shot of angry white yobs.
I was left wondering that, for all its moral outrage and anti-EDL bias, intense journalistic attention, including my own, only contributed towards keeping this once crumbling protest movement extant.