A Day of Division – EDL and UAF demonstrations in Birmingham

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.

Occupy birmingham protestors fenced off by police

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.’

EDL security try to calm the crowd

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.

EDL and the police

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.

Youths at the UAF/Unity demonstration

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?’

Protestors break the police line

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.

Kaliningrad Zoo

Videos in this post may not be pleasant/safe for work.

On a recent trip to Kaliningrad, I paid a visit to the city zoo.  To say that Kaliningrad Zoo shocked me doesn’t cover the emotion that I felt. I can lay no claim to expertise in animal welfare or conservation, and so therefore cannot write with any true authority upon the matter, but I feel the necessity of sharing what I saw there. Let me state first that I do not accuse the staff of Kaliningrad Zoo of anything; nor do I presume that I am so perceptive as to fully understand the normal working conditions of a zoo, or any of the needs of the animals. I have been informed that similar conditions are to be found in British zoos (whether this is true or not, I cannot truthfully say) – a claim which shocked me further, as to think that such conditions which I considered to be abhorrent are standard for zoos and expected as normal either betrays a deeper level of ignorance on my part, or shows that zoos still do not live up to the childhood myth.

Kaliningrad Zoo is not the most miserable place on earth. In no way do I wish to imply any wilful mistreatment or neglect of the animals under the care of the staff of the zoo. From my understanding, the staff there have long struggled against financial problems, and have on occasion had to resort to feeding the animals out of their own cupboards. For this nobility and dedication to the care of their animals, they deserve applause. Fortunately, in recent years, the zoo has recieved sponsorship from various companies, which has gone some way to help with their financial problems – although exactly how far, I cannot say. Others have noted poor conditions there –  for example, an elephant at the zoo, Pregolja, was briefly the subject of international attention when news of her cramped living conditions became widely known. An appeal was launched for her removal from the zoo, but to no avail. I don’t know whether conditions are the same now as then (certainly, a further public appeal for aid proved fruitful), but they still don’t look pleasant.

Again, I must reiterate that I could be mistaken about things – but, I must say, the zoo really shocked and disturbed me. Maybe I’m soft, but seeing animals in such conditions isn’t pleasant to me in the slightest. When I saw the bears standing, waving, and posing for the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the animals (so many of which approach anybody who stands near their cage) have been conditioned so that they are not, in fact, any longer the noble beasts of the wild – but are now broken and degraded examples of their respective species, no more representative of their species than an animatronic puppet would be.

Bears Fighting

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iFEk2flads[/youtube]

Finally, I must discuss the birds at the zoo. .The cages are far too small. This video will show it more concisely than I shall be able to write.

Bird Cages

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W7auUAlBJM[/youtube]

Birds, in general, fly. A small number lack this gift, but for the most part, avialae are characterised by their mastery of the air. A bird denied flight is as a writer denied words – a situation so ridiculous that it defies sane comprehension. Freedom of mobility characterises birds more perhaps than any other type of animal, even free roaming fish of the sea – a pelican may swoop, dive, and return to the sky, but his piscine quarry gains the freedom of the air only in the cage of the avian mouth. Yet, it is considered normal for us to cage birds, to imprison them – to deny them their evolutionary birthright. Surely part of the magic of seeing animals in the flesh is the sense, no matter how small, that these animals are getting on with their day-to-day business with the minimum of disruption from their surroundings and captors? That we are, in some small way, seeing, and perhaps understanding these animals in a way that we just can’t experience through pictures and words? In a way that is lost completely to us, when this is how we see them? I do not propose that we do away wth zoos – but perhaps they should be designed and run in ways that suit the animals more, so that we in turn may better experience them.