I went down to the EDL’s protest against the killing of/tribute to Drummer Lee Rigby on Monday. It was mostly uneventful, the police’s response calculated, if not clever, and there was little violence.
The opposite of the Thatcher party a while ago, the weather was perhaps a little too nice, making the whole thing feel a little like an (aggressive, charged) day out. People ate sandwiches, drank beer; ironically, it felt much more like a party than that event.
I arrived at around 3.10, accidentally getting stuck on the EDL side of the partition. (The two groups were divided up according to which end of Whitehall they arrived from; I’d unthinkingly gone to Westminster tube station.) The event was heavily policed: in terms of the ratio between protestors and police, probably the highest that I’ve ever seen. There was probably around 500-1000 EDL, though I’ve no real way of knowing.
There was a wall in the middle of the area that the EDL had been put in, which people stood on. That stopped the sound from getting from one half of the group to the other. One side were stuck listening to muffled words, occasionally joining in with chants that were initiated from the other side:
While people on the other side listened to speeches from a couple of serviceman, Kevin Carroll and Tommy Robinson (twice). Carroll kept talking about how a soldier had been beheaded “in this city”, the terror of it fairly clear; and Robinson managed to incite a good number of chants.
Both warned the crowd to stay calm, which it largely was until that point. People were bored, even: I heard one say “I’ve been to a few of these, and this is the worst of the lot.” There was very little direction: the speeches were inaudible, the opposition were too far away to see, very little was going on.
When those speeches stopped, at around 4.30, there was a short period where the protest didn’t necessarily seem to be going anywhere – the time, it seems to me, when flare ups are most likely. And flare up it did – with glass bottles flying across from both sides. People were hit and bleeding. This was when the police put riot gear on, though they didn’t really do anything in the end.
A group of Sikhs, there for the Free Bhullar protest – who throughout the speeches had been praised by members of the EDL, which occasionally chanted “Sikhs, Sikhs, Sikhs” – took much of the flak from that, owing to their position stuck between the two groups. It’s hard to believe that placing wasn’t intentional – neither group wanted to hurt them, and they couldn’t move, so they served as a sort of buffer between the two groups.
Later, EDL members – including Kevin Carroll and Tommy Robinson – spoke with Sikh members of the protest group and exchanged conspiracy theories about this.
It’s hard to believe they were wrong, and it certainly worked. While the bottles were thrown, EDL members berated one another – “They’re Sikhs, dickhead!”, the rebuke having taken on new power as a result of the respect that they’re being treated with by the EDL recently, here and elsewhere. It worked, and everything started to fizzle out. People started to leave, slowly, off up Whitehall and into Trafalgar Square and the sunny evening.
While I was leaving Tommy Robinson – who seems to be wearing sunglasses a lot now – was treated like a celebrity. This happens a lot:
Here’s Kevin Carroll’s take on the whole thing: