For one day, the streets of central Birmingham were tense on a level not felt since the riots. Separated from each other by police lines, the monolithic Central Library, and the Hall of Memory, both the EDL and Unity/Unite Against Fascism came out to protest. Two fundamentally opposed groups – one a proponent of multiculturalism, the other a vehement opponent; each protesting against the ideologies of the other in a city that is both a hotbed of racism and one of the most proudly multicultural cities in Europe.
Thankfully, the expected chaos never manifested; the two groups were kept well apart from each other by a police force that seemed to have learned its lesson from the last EDL protest in Birmingham, with officers from Wales brought in to bolster the West Midlands constabulary.. The EDL were rumoured to be extremely unhappy that their demonstration site had been moved from the planned Victoria Square, in front of the Town Hall and Council House, to Centenary Square, due to the presence of the Occupy Birmingham camp in Victoria Square. Protestors at the camp told me that the fence surrounding them had been put in place by the police for their protection from the EDL.
Despite a crowd surge by the EDL during their speeches, the police held their ground; with pleas from the EDL’s own security team for order, the sudden anger of the crowd was quickly placated and a relative amount of order was restored. I say relative, for the police were unable to stop the throwing of glass and detonation of fireworks among the EDL supporting crowd. One officer acknowledged to me that fireworks were indeed not allowed, his Laconic brevity speaking volumes to me about the nuances of crowd control.
A minor argument between a few participants in the demonstration and a small group of non-EDL supporting observers quickly turned into something much more potentially dangerous; as the police intervened, the crowd seemed to move as one, ignoring the speaker on stage and rushing towards both the scene of the previous verbal altercation and the police line. Thankfully, what could have resulted in an extremely volatile situation was quickly calmed, in part due to the efforts of the EDL’s own security team. I spoke directly with one of the people who were the target of the EDL’s crowd surge – he told me that a few EDL supporters had overheard their conversation, assumed that they themselves were being discussed, and reacted angrily. When I questioned him about how he, a young black man, had the fortitude to stand fast in the face of the crowd, only moving back when instructed to do so by police, he didn’t seem to give much thought to fear – his reply being ‘They’re cowards, really.’
The EDL have long been fighting to shed their violent, racist image, and scenes like this seem to me to signify a struggle within the group itself – while the high rankers may see the need to be more publicly presentable, and indeed make many attempts to portray the EDL as such, the question still remains as to how much of this ideology filters down to those who don’t hold rank, but do follow and support the EDL. For a public demonstration, there was a surprising amount of hostility towards anybody holding a camera – my first attempt to photograph the group drinking outside the Brasshouse on Broad St resulted on one of the group warmly shouting ‘don’t be fuckin’ takin’ photographs!’
Photographers were personally hassled by demonstrators, me included – even while standing next to fellow EDL members who were themselves posing for the photographers. Some who objected to being photographed at a public demonstration retaliated with their own photography – others were more threatening. Despite the EDL’s protests that they are not a racist group, it is hard to hear chants such as ‘Who the fuck is Allah?’, ‘Allah is a paedo’, and ‘Burn your mosque’, and witness an Asian cameraman being malevolently stalked out of the square, while reconciling these scenes with the image of an organisation that neither promotes nor desires violence or hatred.
After the EDL demonstration had finished, I made my way over to the Unity/Unite Against Fascism demonstration in Chamberlain Square. Barely a few hundred metres away from the EDL, the atmosphere here was different – tense, but at the same time far friendlier. There was certainly a feeling amongst the crowd that, with the EDL in town, and a massive Asian presence in Chaimberlain Square, something big and nasty could happen – I overheard one young man saying to his friend that the EDL could ‘come, cos we will knock them out.’ However, the crowd were by no means as overtly hostile as the EDL were – those who I spoke to were friendly and talkative. There was still an underlying sense of anger, and the sentence that I missed the start of but caught ‘…but not all white people’ wasn’t the most positive thing I’d heard all day – but all things considered, it was delivered in a far more welcoming atmosphere than I’d encountered just a few hundred metres away.
A group comprised mostly of Asian lads noticed my camera, and asked me what I was taking photographs for. As soon as I mentioned that I was a reporter, their arms were around each other, all wanting to get their picture taken. They asked me if I was in the EDL – pointing to my shemagh, I asked if they thought the EDL would have someone who wore one of these. ‘Nah, not with your Taliban scarf!’ was the reply. Immediately afterwards, another shocked me by saying ‘You’re my brother Barry!’ I like to think that Chris Morris would have laughed as much as I did.
Within minutes of this comedic exchange, however, the mood changed, and the tension escalated. Just as the EDL did, the crowd here began to run towards the police lines, looking for an exit. Unlike at the EDL demonstration, the riot shields were not out – there was simply a line of police blocking each exit. Despite pleas for calm from those inside the group, and advice from the police to ‘stop or you’ll be arrested’, the push was uncontainable. Breaking the police line, the crowd sprinted in groups through the streets of Central Birmingham. I followed them, but there seemed to be no real objective, nor any one group large enough to track. A group of young Asians is hardly an uncommon occurrance in Birmingham, and I didn’t feel that it was either wise or necessary to approach any of them and ask ‘have you just been running from the police?’
There was no organisation in this breach of the police line, no grand plan to reform in a different place, or to intercept EDL members – although that last point may have been hoped for by some of the crowd, the real intent seemed merely to get away, to be released from the police cordon. With this breach, the demonstration, and indeed the day was over – confirmed by the new emptiness of Chaimberlain Square upon my return. The only significant reminder of the events of the previous hours was the continued police presence, and the fence which still encircled Victoria Square.
Overall, a day which could have been marred by violence was instead relatively peaceful. Despite tense feelings, and a noticeably nervous police force (a nervousness completely understandable, given the circumstances), the city remained as peaceful as could ever have been expected. While remaining as objective as possible, I must note one final thing. Namely, that I, a white English male, felt far more at home and welcomed amongst the Asian demonstrators with whom I met yesterday, than with those who would consider me their brethren. I guess I’m not English anymore.