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.

Justice carries a sword, but even that must be perfectly balanced

What is to be done with the rioters and looters? Many are asking this question, and I fear that the answers are being reached too quickly, without due consideration. The courts are handing out sentences at an astonishing rate – the Guardian reports that ’56 defendants of the 80 who have already been sentenced by magistrates were given immediate prison terms. This 70% rate of imprisonment compares with a “normal” rate of just 2% in magistrates courts.’ There is talk of cessation of benefits and eviction. Theresa May recently told the police that, in future, they need not worry about taking stronger measures on the basis of individual judgement – she will never ‘damn you if you do.’ While I don’t believe that the police in Britain are about to descend upon us all with batons aloft, such a statement makes me twinge.

Police on the beat

It isn’t just because I’m a simpering lefty that the idea of retributive punishment worries me; nor do I find such vague assertions as May’s troublesome merely because I’m an English graduate. The idea that stopping benefit payments to those caught and evicting them from their homes serves justice is absolutely ridiculous. It is plainly not a just punishment. And such vague statements as May’s are dangerous, in that their consequences are too often not considered at all – just as the consequences of draconian punishments are not being considered. One of the fundamental tenets of our justice system is (in theory, if not in practice) that it is rehabilitative, not retributive. Indeed, it is the basic principle behind the very idea of justice. A just punishment does not serve to further seperate the offender from the rehabilitation that he or she needs, and that society demands.

Recent reports suggest that 90% of those involved in looting come from that section of society that has almost nothing to begin with. A few stupid, flashy purchases like an expensve phone, or overpriced name-brand clothes do not neccesarily mean that somebody living on a council estate lives like a prince at the expense of the taxpayer – it only shows that the person in question is extremely bad at spending money wisely. While there are indeed a good many people who are taking liberties with the welfare state, there are far more who are simply so far removed from sensible values that they consider getting ‘next level phone’ and £30 boxers with some dickhead’s name on the waistband to be the most important part of their lives. This is unquestionably due (at least in part) to the ridiculous obsession that modern societies have with overt status symbol – as if true respect can be bought, not earned.

Writing plainly, there are a lot of prats in Britain, and they were out in full force during those stupid days of looting. If one person is a prat, then it may not be the fault of society. When so many of people, numbering thousands upon thousands (not just the looters; there are prats all over the bloody place) are a bunch of prats, then certainly the general society must shoulder some of the blame. We must assess the society and culture which allowed such misplaced values to arise on such a mass scale.I use the word ‘prats’ not completely pejoratively – rather, I hope that it serves as a far more sympathetic alternative to ‘cunts’, which I feel is the first epithet that springs to many minds when we consider recent events.

Did the Bullingdon Club loot Birmingham?

‘Cunts’ would be an expression chosen out of rage, and would serve only to express my anger – not to assess the situation with any objectivity. Prat may still be a subjective noun, but it is still, I feel, a fair (if perhaps a trifle vitriolic) choice. The greatest portion of society, I feel, would agree that a small amount of anger is understandable – but would also concur that the angry hand of justice must not strike out of rage,and nor can justice enraged speak. The hand must hold the scales in balance, and the words of true justice exist only with this balance in mind.

When society is aggrieved, then the offenders must be punished if justice is to be served. It is not justice, however, if we seek blood. If our society is injured, then it does us no benefit if we inflict deeper wounds through rash words and deeds. Sometimes the surgeon needs a needle and thread, not the scalpel.

Britain Needs Sweet Things


Tariq Jahan

Tariq Jahan is an inspiration to us all. If there is one man in Birmingham who could have been justified in an outburst of rage at recent events, surely it is him – the tragically bereaved father of two young men so needlessly killed during the chaos of the early week. Instead of succumbing to rage, he has helped to calm the city. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that his words played a part in quelling a (potentially racial) conflict that could have wrought untold destruction on our city. So powerful and heartfelt were his words that even the certifiable fuckwit running the Neo-Nazi Stormfront Twitter account (click here for up-to-the-minute, Web 2.0 bigotry) applauded him, saying ‘The old boy who lost his son in Brum is a legend. Asian or not. That’s a proper man.’ When a Muslim’s words are supported even by a mental fascist, who would in any other circumstance speak only of him in terms not worth typing, then we can easily see that the guy has got to the heart of the matter. Tariq Jahan has articulated what everybody with even the smallest grain of sense is feeling – and has asked us the mother of all questions, the one that must be answered in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow: why?


Birmingham riots

These are depressing times for Birmingham. Barely a single person in Birmingham could have predicted the extent of the damage caused over the past few days – damage not just caused to shops and businesses, not just to individuals tragically caught up in the unfortunate and shocking events (my heart goes out, as I’m sure do the hearts of all the sane amongst us, to the family and friends of those 3 individuals who were injured, two of whom fatally, during a brawl on Dudley Road), but to the social psyche of Birmingham. Let us not allow this chaos, this madness, to further divide our city. This is no longer, if it ever truly was, a protest about politics, or class, or race. These are attacks upon our city, upon our country, upon our society – all of us together. White, black, brown – these things should be irrelevant to us. My heart is warmed by reports of Sikhs and Muslims standing together in the north of our city to defend their homes, businesses, and places of worship, against the – and I fear there is no weaker term available – thieving little bastards who are currently running amok.

I cannot, in general, condone violence – but I can and will condone the necessary use of force in order to protect ones family, friends, and community. The north of Birmingham currently seems like a dangerous area to be in, – in the past few hours, the aforementioned incident on Dudley Rd occured, as well as reports of a shot fired at a police officer. I implore the residents of these areas to stay safe, and not to put themselves in any danger – but at the same time, I feel that those who stand together against those who would attack their community deserve undying praise. We are only strong if we are together. Please, do not put yourselves in any danger – stay indoors if at all possible, and keep in regular contact with people. Call the police if anything happens. I merely wish to offer my support for those who are unfortunate enough to have been forced to defend themselves over these nights, and a hope that this solidarity will continue and, together with police work, end swiftly these unneccesary events.

The individuals in the police force deserve credit – they are doing a tough job, and deserve credit for their bravery. To see such scenes on home turf is as distressing for them as for any other resident of this city – this is our home. However, their resources appear to be stretched thin. Politicians and the media seem mostly to focus on London, as if it were the only area currently experiencing problems. It is not. There is always a media and political bias in favour of London in our country, but surely now of all times our elected leaders must realise that the wellbeing of every affected area is of equal import, and not treat the problems outside of London as if they happened in a different country?

Finally, I must praise the work of both Sangat TV, a local Sikh-focused station in Birmingham, which has provided tireless coverage and calls for calm over these past fews days, and @CaseyRain, whose blog has provided me and countless other Brummies with information over the past few days. These 2 outlets combined have been far more informative and useful than the entirety of the mainstream media, and deserve credit and praise for their work.