Chasing racists

‘Muslim bombers off our streets’

‘We want our country back, we want our country back’

‘There were ten Muslim bombers in the air

There were ten Muslim bombers in the air

There were ten Muslim bombers

Ten Muslim bombers

Ten Muslim bombers in the air

The RAF of England shot them down…’

‘We love the floods, we love the floods’

– English Defence League chants, Bradford

Yesterday I went to Bradford with Martin and ‘I’m not an activist, I’m a photographer’ Rob. The English Defence League (for background see here) had been granted permission to stage a static demonstration in Bradford city centre. Unite Against Fascism, backed by several MPs and trade unions, were holding a counter-demonstration. We travelled on a UAF bus headed by a loquacious Scot named Roddy and filled with copies of Socialist Worker, a publication that alternately soothes me and irritates me. But usually irritates me. Arriving at the UAF demonstration, reggae music was playing from a stage, kids in keffiyehs were wandering around, and a nice man was selling plates of rice and peas. We had been told that if we left the UAF area that we would be arrested; but after ten minutes we left without incident and went to find the EDL, who were apparently near Barclays Bank. I asked an old lady for directions. She had come out to see what was going on  – ‘the trouble we’re expecting, with the EDL and the Muslims.’ She was a long term Bradford resident and, according to her, the town was being ‘overrun’.

The EDL had been corralled into a small patch of grass surrounded by a green fence and a police cordon. When we arrived, their enclosure was fairly empty, with a hundred supporters at most. Rob and I nipped in under a knife arch. A sound system was playing EDL songs, which seemed to mainly consist of the words ‘EDL, EDL,’ over and over again. The crowd was overwhelmingly made up of young and middle-aged men, some of whom were obviously drunk. Buses kept arriving with more EDL members, who were greeted by cheers from those already inside the camp. The chants would start up intermittently, usually in front of photographers (the EDL are total media whores, from what I could judge, and love dancing around in front of cameras). They were pretty risible. The most odious were ‘We love the floods, we love the floods’ and ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’ (Bradford’s Asian population is mainly Pakistani). A lot of the EDL were an odd combination of terrifying and ridiculous. ‘I’m gonna smash your camera and rape your mum,’ one shouted at me as I stood taking pictures. I spoke to some of the less threatening ones. An inoffensive-looking old man named Jim told me that all the problems in the world were due to religion. According to him, the Muslims in Bradford had called for sharia law, but of course the press had paid no attention. ‘The ethnic minority will be the majority in 20 years’ time,’ he said.

These girls were both fifteen. They had become involved in the EDL through a brother. Do you mind if I photograph you? Not bothered. How about if I record you? Not bothered. They told me their parents ‘don’t like us mixing with Pakis.’ Nevertheless, their mother had some Asian friends. I asked what these Asian friends thought of their involvement in the EDL. ‘Not bothered.’ I met a seventeen-year-old boy who gave the most coherent explanation I heard of why he was there. His priority was defending England, he told us. ‘The biggest threat right now is Islamic extremism,’ he said. If the biggest threat were, say, the IRA, they would be protesting that. He was articulate and bright; it sounded as though he had been fed some of his lines, but he knew what he was saying. He was especially concerned about the treatment of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We were right to remove Saddam Hussein, he said, because of the threat of chemical weapons; ‘the same as Iran,’ he added. In his opinion, the civilian deaths were a price we had to pay for that.

After a while, I got really sick of hanging out with racists and left the EDL camp. Later, I would not be able to return; the camp filled up, became violent, and all the journalists left. You needed a press card to even get close and my fictional employer, ‘Cambridge Daily News’, wasn’t cutting any mustard. Outside the camp, the EDL’s token Asian member, a Glaswegian named Abdul, was being paraded around for the cameras. ‘They wouldn’t touch me if they were racist,’ he said. A man nearby asked him about a recent incident in which some EDL members had thrown pork at a group of Muslims. ‘How do you know that was the EDL?’ Abdul asked. Later, I would hear Asian lads in the street chanting ‘Abdul is a dick, Abdul is a dick.’ One Asian policeman said to another: ‘Don’t you wish we could all just fast in peace and not be here all day?’

A fairly lively group of local people had assembled across from the EDL camp, behind a police cordon. They were chanting ‘EDL go to hell,’ and ‘Fascist thugs off our streets.’ A few of the shabab were getting a bit rowdy and older Muslims were reining them in slightly, telling them ‘They haven’t done anything yet’. At a certain point, the distance between the EDL and the locals was only a few yards. Separated by police, they screamed at each other. The EDL chanted ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’ and the local Asian kids chanted it right back at them, then shouted ‘Then what? Then what? Is that all you’ve got?’ We went around the corner for a sandwich and got talking to a Christian preacher who blessed both the camps. ‘Whose side are you on?’ Martin asked his female sidekick. ‘Jesus’,’ she said. As we were talking, we heard shouts from the camp. We ran back to find the EDL had thrown stones, bottles, and smoke bombs at the demonstrating locals. Rob caught us up a little while later. ‘Bloody preachers,’ he said. ‘I always get talking to them and they always go on for ages.’

EDL camp from a distance, with Israeli flag. They really are such idiots.

The atmosphere got more tense as the afternoon went on. The EDL camp was pretty full now, and the police were pushing them further and further into one corner. From our vantage point, it was a seething mass; they kept trying to push against the police lines and getting pushed back. I was in the middle of a large group of mainly Asian kids who kept charging against our police lines and getting beaten back. There were chants of ‘The police protect the fascists’. I nearly got knocked down a couple of times and didn’t manage to get any decent pictures. Then, all of a sudden, we saw a group of EDL break out of the camp and run down a side street. The crowd I was in started to run en masse down a parallel road.

mobb deep

We caught up with the breakaway EDL group at Bradford train station. They were running into the station as riot police stopped anyone from interfering with them. People were standing on cars in the car park, shouting at the EDL to come and fight, as they escaped on trains. We managed to persuade the riot police to let us into the station. A couple of EDL members with gory head wounds were slumped against the wall. Around the corner, riot police were escorting another group of EDL into the station.

We left soon after that. Back at the UAF camp, where we had spent a grand total of about half an hour, they were giving away the last plates of rice and peas. The buses were leaving; Roddy told us over the bus’s microphone that the day had been a huge defeat for the EDL and a huge victory for the UAF. On the way back, we had to pick our service stations carefully to avoid accidentally running into the EDL. We stopped at South Mimms at sundown so the Muslim guys on the bus could pray. I wandered around the back of the bus to find half of them having a fag instead. Rob called to say we were on Sky News. Doing what, I asked. Running in a mob, he said.

Throughout the day, I was never quite sure whether I was demonstrating or reporting. The line seemed to blur a lot. I would remove my keffiyeh to enter the EDL camp (not to would be suicidal) and would put it back on when I got out. I would talk to racists and nod along with what they were saying in order to get them to talk to me more. I would listen to people in the street chanting ‘Racist thugs off our streets’ and not join in because I was too busy recording it on Rob’s dictaphone. There was something, too, in the eyes of Jim or the bright young seventeen-year-old, that wasn’t entirely inhuman. Rob and I both tried to explain his argument about the IRA to some of the anti-fascist demonstrators, who totally dismissed it. The EDL are fascist thugs and I have zero sympathy for them or their cause. But they have their views for a reason, however warped or ignorant that reason might be. I went to Bradford to figure out what that reason was, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

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4 Comments

Filed under Politics, Travel

4 responses to “Chasing racists

  1. Ben

    Hey Elspeth,

    I enjoyed reading this. Is there anyway I can subscribe to this blog without having to keeping googling your name every time? 🙂

    Here is a recent talk I gave on the far right from a largely theoretical, historical perspective. Not exactly the best talk I have ever given, but it might be of interest…http://vimeo.com/14801963

    Ben

  2. Alex

    This is an interesting and bold bit of reporting. Bearing in mind the lack of ideological foundation amongst the EDF that you mentioned, besides the seventeen year old member, did you manage to find out about any of their back stories? What leads them to view radical Islam as highly threatening? If not ideological, something social within their own communities? Also, anything on the EDF’s members own perceptions of their organisational structure and how they relate to the group across the country would be interesting.

    • ecarruthers

      Most of them weren’t from Bradford, they had been brought in on buses from around the country. There’s a big sense of solidarity between them though – the welcome each busload got was very enthusiastic. A lot of them had EDL hoodies with the logo and ‘Wigan Division’ or ‘Leeds Division’, that kind of thing. So I think there’s a strong sense of regional identity coupled with a strong corporate identity as well. I have little idea of their organisational structure itself but certainly their perception is of belonging to something bigger.

      I think personal experience is broadly similar – either they live in communities which have seen a lot of immigration, and feel threatened by this, or have read about the imminent implementation of sharia law somewhere (or some other such media myth) and decided to ‘take a stand’. One elderly white woman I spoke to said she had had trouble with Asian kids in her neighbourhood and had spoken to her Asian councillor, who said ‘What do you expect if you don’t fit in?’. A lot repeated that they had ‘heard’ about sharia law being introduced somewhere and felt threatened by it. I think it’s a combination of changing demographics, vague racism, media coverage of Muslims, and poverty – most people there were working class, a lot from communities who feel as though they are underrepresented now that Labour has moved so far to the right. It was hard to tell how many were ideologically motivated and how many motivated by social reasons, but I’d say the two overlap a lot. Hope that’s fairly clear. I would have liked to talk to more of them but I was a bit scared of them and after a while just needed some sanity (and a sandwich).

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