The year 2009 could be described as a seesaw year for the newly formed English Defence League. Responding to a protest in Luton in March by the extreme Islamist al-Muhajiroun group against troops of the Royal Anglian Regiment returning from the war in Afghanistan, local football hooligans organised a counter-demonstration under the name United People of Luton. They in turn linked up with hooligans associated with a variety of football clubs across the UK. Using social networking websites such as Facebook as their means of communication, the hooligans concluded that Islamism was a national problem and they had to put aside club rivalries. By the summer the English Defence League had been born and was holding demonstrations across some of the major cities of England, with smaller ones in Wales and Scotland as the embryonic Welsh and Scottish Defence Leagues. All seemed to be going well for the EDL, but evidence has emerged that splits and divisions are rife within the organisation. The EDL has always insisted that it is not nazi or racist, even going to the length of holding a sham press conference complete with a pre-planned burning of a swastika flag. However elements in the EDL leadership are quite prepared to accept members of nazi groups as long as they behave themselves, much to the chagrin of more moderate members.
Joel Titus, the violent teenage leader of the EDL’s youth wing, has voiced loud concern, along with several other members of “the inner circle”, over the glib acceptance of known nazis such as Liam Pinkham of the British Freedom Fighters. Pinkham and his mentor Mike Heaton have been regulars at EDL events since Luton. The EDL inner circle has been well aware of this, yet has refused to distance itself from them. Pinkham received a four-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, with 200 hours’ community service and two years’ supervision back in July after he burst into the News from Nowhere community bookshop in Liverpool and threatened the female owners. Pinkham, from the Wirral, was taking part in a British National Party march through Liverpool city centre at the time. The women, who were justifiably terrified, testified that Pinkham threatened to “burn down the shop”. This comes on top of Heaton’s arrest in December by the North East Counter Terrorism Unit. Heaton is currently on bail charged with soliciting murder and using threatening, abusive or insulting words likely to stir up racial hatred. That will no doubt stick in the craw of Titus, who is of mixed race and claims Martin Luther King is his hero.
Following a recent demonstration in London, EDL supporters led by Titus clashed with Nazi-saluting Chelsea hooligans, leaving one of the Chelsea fans hospitalised. It is reported that Titus now wears a stab vest in fear of reprisals following threats made on the Stormfront nazi web forum. A closer look at the EDL inner circle reveals why its members may be reluctant to jettison their nazi friends. One of the global moderators on the EDL internet forum is Sean Corrigan of St Albans. Posting under the moniker “Road Rage”, what Corrigan fails to tell Titus and the more moderate wing of the EDL is that he is a gold member of the BNP. Another in the EDL inner circle is Chris Renton, a BNP activist from Weston-super-Mare, who now appears to be using the online name “John Sheridan” and controls a large number of EDL Facebook groups. One who recently fell foul of Renton is the veteran Bristol EDL activist Jerry “Wurzel” Watson, whom Renton blacklisted following allegations, strongly denied by Watson, of theft of a charity box. This led Watson to side with Paul Ray, the increasingly flaky self-styled “spiritual” leader of the EDL. Ray has formed his own St George’s Division of the EDL and has titled himself “Grandmaster Ray”, despite being disowned by the official EDL.
Another leading EDL activist now sidelined is the bullish Leisha Brookes. An ever visible member of the EDL, Brookes has led the women’s division and acted as the group’s police liaison officer. However, her abrasive nature is not to everyone’s taste in the EDL. One person in particular who has had numerous clashes with her is Matthew Kaplan, a Jewish student from Seattle who is studying history at King’s College, London. Kaplan is the paid EDL publications coordinator, responsible for leaflets and press releases. He has been seen at several EDL demonstrations complete with Israeli flag. He has clashed on several occasions on the official EDL Facebook group with Leisha Brookes and her supporters for a number of reasons, mainly because he is an American. Brookes has declared that she doesn’t trust him and accused him of working for the police. Kaplan revealed that Brookes and her colleagues threatened to attack him if he turned up at the Nottingham EDL event on 5 December. Other leading EDL members have accused her of posting racist comments on the EDL internet forum. Whatever the truth behind the fallout, Brookes has definitely been removed as the EDL’s police liaison officer and is no longer in charge of the women’s division. It is believed that the new EDL police liaison officer is none other than Corrigan, the BNP gold card carrying member from St Albans.
We are living in dangerous times. Over the past few months small groups of football hooligans, racists and assorted fascists have whipped up fear and violence in towns and cities across the country. Thirty-five people were arrested in Luton in May after hundreds of racists, hooligans and thugs ran through a predominantly Asian area of the town, attacking property and people. Over 150 people have been arrested in three disturbances in Birmingham over the past few months. More recently, ten people were arrested in Harrow protesting against an attempted anti-Islamic demo outside a mosque in which they made nazi salutes & screamed "Pakis out!" while bragging of their loyalty to the BNP. Over the next few months we will undoubtedly see more events and unfortunately more incidents of disorder. The English Defence League is planning protests this month in Manchester and Leeds. Their Welsh counterparts are organising events in Swansea and Newport and the Scottish Defence League will be protesting in Glasgow next month. So far the disorder, with the exception of Luton, has been on a small scale. This might not always be the case. An EDL protest in Dewsbury, Oldham or Bradford could well lead to mass disorder. But there are potential flashpoints all over Britain.
Last month 60 people were involved in a mass brawl in Swansea. Four white men stood outside a mosque during Friday prayers and began hurling abuse. One ran in and threw some punches. Some young Muslim youths came out to confront the racists and soon afterwards dozens more white men came out of a nearby nightclub, some armed with bottles and chairs, and a mass fight ensued. Now the fascist Welsh Defence League, hoping to capitalise on this trouble, has anno-unced a protest for later this month. There should be no underestimating the potential damage this disorder can cause. We only have to remember the events of 2001 to see how the actions of small groups of white racists – some nazis, some not – triggered three riots which ripped communities apart and catapulted the British National Party into national promin-ence. The scars from these disturbances still run deep today. And these riots were before 9/11. They were before the BNP had become firmly implanted within many communities around the country. They were before British troops were dying in Afghanistan.
A new wave of disturbances could have more serious consequences. In 2001 there was widespread chatter among football hooligans about travelling around the country to join in the disturbances. Very few did. Now it appears that far greater numbers are willing to get involved – perhaps not in travelling across the country but certainly in their own areas. Islamic fundamentalism and the fabrication of militant homosexuality has replaced the IRA as the biggest perceived challenge to British identity and masculinity among football hooligans. Chants of “No Surrender”, which once dominated pubs and sections of football grounds on match day, have increasingly been replaced with racist “anti-Paki” songs. Racists, homophobes and general bigots are uniting to cause hatred and division in a once tolerant country. On the other side of the spectrum there are growing numbers of disillusioned and angry young Muslims who will defend their communities and meet violence with violence. On 26 May 2001 a few dozen football hooligans and nazis sought to provoke a violent reaction from Muslims in Oldham. They repeatedly tried to get into a predominantly Asian area of the town but failed due to Searchlight intelligence and police intervention. During one exchange, one of the Oldham hooligan leaders told police: “There’s going to be a riot tonight”.
Later that evening 12 of the group ran down an Asian street smashing windows and attacking people. Residents came out of their houses to defend themselves and their families. When the police arrived they took the white men into protective custody hoping it would stop the trouble. The sight of the whites being given protection infuriated local people and the police became the target of their anger. The Oldham riots had begun. It is the incendiary concoction of racism, alienation and suspicion that is so dangerous. The EDL is not a fascist organisation but there are fascists in key organisational positions and it is fuelled by ignorance and prejudice. That it is not an open fascist organisation and can mutate and manifest itself in different forms and in different places actually makes it more dangerous. It is against this backdrop that the HOPE not hate campaign has been pushing for the authorities to ban EDL events. The racists themselves and the violent reaction they seek to incite will have consequences well beyond that day’s activity. Violence breeds fear and fear breeds more violence. Only extremism wins. In Luton we proved successful. Over 14,000 letters were sent to the Home Secretary and Bedfordshire Police calling for an EDL demo to be banned. It was. We won, striking a blow to the undemocratic far-right thugs.
In Birmingham, over 5,000 letters were sent to the city council from local people urging them to prevent the EDL gathering there but we were ignored and 90 people were arrested. We are now using our online network to campaign to stop the EDL in Leeds and Manchester. For Leeds, we sent out 9,800 emails and as a result over 8,200 letters of complaint have been sent to the council and West Yorkshire Police. In Manchester, we are working with the city council to urge the Home Secretary to intervene and over 3,500 people have added their support. The online campaign has been effective in mobilising awareness of the EDL threat and giving our supporters a simple way to make a difference. But it is not enough. Firstly, there are only so many times we can ask people to carry out the same action. People will complain once but it is harder a second time, especially if the first action has not succeeded. There are limits to what the authorities can do. Organisers of a demonstration need to give police at least seven days’ notice of a planned event. For a static protest they do not. Timing, location and stewarding of a demonstration need to be agreed with police beforehand but not for a static protest. Following the Luton ban the EDL changed tactics and has begun calling for static protests, which limits the ability of the police – and ultimately the Home Secretary – to ban them outright.
Other measures can be employed but most of these can only be carried out on the day of a protest. The loose nature of the EDL also makes prior intervention, such as stopping known individuals from entering a town, harder. More fundamentally, we need to start being more proactive. At the moment our actions are simply reactions. The EDL does not operate in a vacuum and while few people would support its violent intent, many would unfortunately share its negative and hostile view of Muslims. The EDL, and other hardline anti-Islamisation groups, oppose Muslims. They might claim they are opposed only to Islamic fundamentalism but their actions tell a different story. In Birmingham their supporters held up placards reading “No more mosques”; in Luton they indiscriminately attacked Asian shops and people; and in Harrow a protest outside a new mosque to oppose a Sharia court soon turned into a 9/11 memorial after the mosque leaders strenuously denied any such courts would be held there. We must also recognise that by attacking the Muslim population they are attacking our modern multiracial society and that is an attack on all of us. As a result we must not only defend the Muslim population but defend our society.
The HOPE not hate campaign is launching a People Together initiative as a way of mobilising opposition against the EDL and other racist bigots such as the BNP, and in the process defend our multicultural society. We aim to bring together people of all religions, and none, the labour movement, the political parties and ordinary people around a simple statement opposing fascism and defending our society. The statement can be adapted locally and support for it can be built online and offline. We want all those who oppose bigotry to stand together and stand up for what unites us. The bigger and wider the campaign the more likely we are to succeed. We can challenge some of the discriminatory stereotypes that exist and also build alliances within and between communities, which hope-fully will be useful when combating the BNP in future. Opposing the EDL cannot and should not be left to the Muslim population. They might be the targets of the current wave of intolerant persecution, but if it were not them it would be another minority group, like so many times before. This might involve taking to the streets if the authorities do not or cannot act, but we will do so as a mass movement – a cross section of society – positively saying no to racism and fascism.
At first glance the newly founded English Defence League (EDL) might appear to have its origins in the disturbances surrounding the parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment through Luton on 10 March this year. Indeed, Nick Griffin, the British National Party leader, was right for once when he identified the town as providing the organisational hub for the League’s shambolic anti-Islam demonstrations. However, an investigation into the background of several high-profile EDL members shows that their activities are only the latest manifestation of a historical link between Luton Town football hooligans and far-right politics. EDL makes three claims very publicly: firstly, that they are very distinct from the BNP; secondly, they do not advocate violence; and thirdly that they are opposed to racism. There is clear evidence to show that these declarations do not stand up to examination. Leaked documents written by Barry Taylor, a former Milton Keynes BNP member, reveal that the hooligans – otherwise known as the MIGs (Men in Gear) – played a key role in the local BNP branch.
According to Taylor: “A lot of the activism and support in Luton was due to the group of friends known as the MIGs. When Nick Griffin made a visit to our area in February 2007 the MIGs were not invited. Subsequently they discovered that they had been excluded from the guest list and were very disappointed. This was a very disrespectful way to treat our allies. The ‘loss of face’ that this caused for their leaders caused them to stop attending meetings and also prevented their campaigning on our behalf in Luton. These men had previously represented about 50% of the available workforce for Luton.” One of these MIG activists was Davy Cooling, who lived in Luton at the time although he has since moved to Daventry, where he works as a council driver. A fully-fledged BNP member, Cooling is now a key activist in the EDL Luton “division”. This is demonstrated by his status as administrator of the Luton division’s Facebook group. Cooling still shows interest in the party, as shown by his posting on the Facebook site of the BNP’s 2009 Red, White and Blue Festival, which said: “I may attend, it will be my first one – what’s the score?”
The positioning of a BNP member at the helm of the EDL’s core division runs contrary to the League’s strenuous attempts to distance itself from far-right political parties. As far as Luton is concerned this was compromised very early on when a man arrested twice for using foul and abusive language during EDL demonstrations was revealed to be David Tull, a well known former National Front member. The EDL makes great play of being innocent bystanders when violence kicks off at its demonstrations. Indeed, it put much of the blame for the disturbances at its Birmingham event of 8 August on the presence of Unite Against Fascism. However, the UAF has not been visibly present during the two disturbances in Luton, particularly the May event when 300 EDL activists went on the rampage overturning cars, smashing windows and attacking passers-by. Sean Walsh, a Luton EDL activist, uses the EDL Luton division Facebook page to suggest some particularly dangerous tactics to use against the police when being hemmed-in. Walsh suggests: “if the police make a square surrounding you the protesters should all be in organised groups specializing in their strengths and weaknesses there should be a core of strong people (heavy infantry) with the ability to penetrate a weak point in polices defences with a wedge attack and create a opening and be able to hold the opening for the other protesters to break through the opening. Adaptability is the key.” Interestingly, Walsh is a signed-up member of the Bedfordshire BNP Facebook group.
Matt Unsworth, a 19 year-old EDL member, made strenuous attempts to introduce a “cultural” dimension to the demonstration in Luton that was scheduled for 19 September before it was banned. He sought to secure the Leeds-based singer Anglo-Saxon to play a gig in Luton that evening, with a Facebook message that read: “Respect to you for sticking to what you believe in and I admire your work. You are a credit to soceity! [sic]. Also I might get you to come down to Luton for a show in September on the day of the protest if you are interested?” It is fortunate for Luton that Anglo Saxon was not available on that day, as the singer was arrested in 2007 for incitement to racial hatred for the lyrics of his song, This is England. It is very hollow for the EDL to make banners bearing the slogan “black and white unite and fight” if at the same time they seek to promote artists who spread the creed of race hate. Unsworth attracted the attention of the national EDL leadership through his attempts to book Anglo-Saxon, in particular a shadowy character called EDL South, who clearly has a key role in the organisation. Soon after his encounter with EDL South, Unsworth created a new Facebook persona by the name of Luton English, separating his feverish political postings from the social chit-chat. No doubt he is following instructions from his new political masters.
The organisers of the English and Welsh Defence Leagues, along with SIOE and Casuals United have announced their intention to hold several more racist protests across the country, including in Manchester, Dewsbury and Bradford. Whether these go ahead remains to be seen but the dangers lie less in the big cities than in the smaller conurbations where tensions already exist. Hooligans will not travel in large numbers across the country and they will be even more put off by the threat of arrest and football bans. However, in places like Luton, Oldham and West Yorkshire there are more than enough people to cause trouble without the need for outsiders. With the prospect of violence and communities tearing each other apart very real, HOPE not hate will be campaigning to get these events banned. The online campaign was a victory for the people of Luton and for common sense. Allowing extremists hell bent on confrontation to be allowed to whip up hatred and violence has no place in a democratic society. It also sends out a clear message to the hooligans and rightwing extremists that their actions will not be tolerated. This time it was Luton, but we will act swiftly to prevent them taking their hate to other towns if needed. The victory is also a further demonstration of the power of our online campaigning. That thousands of people will respond to a call within minutes shows what is possible when we get motivated and organised.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.