The English Defence League and anti-fascists descended on Bolton on Saturday 20 March, with up to 2,000 on both sides. We were met by a heavy and violent police presence — mainly violent against the anti-fascists. Police violence seriously damaged the ability of anti-fascists to confront the EDL.
Anti-fascists, including local community activists, trade unionists and Asian youth, were separated from each other, kettled, and subjected to considerable force during the long and restless counter-demonstration.
The main demonstration was at Victoria Square in Bolton town centre. The square was split in two, with one side for the EDL and one side for us — with a “sterile” area of a few metres separating the two with solid steel barricades.
Many of us, including UAF members, attempted to leave the square by breaking police lines, but the police aggressively held demonstrators inside the square. Not long after, riot officers were brought in to reinforce the police line.
The police put a stop to any feeder marches attempting to enter the square and forced a tight kettle around the main demonstration. A sizeable group of demonstrators was kept outside the designated area. It was at this point that things began to escalate. The police began to use real violence — batons were swung, fists repeatedly smacked into the faces of frontline demonstrators, and demonstrators repeatedly pulled from the crowd and arrested for no particular reason.
All official organisation seemed to crumble once it had been announced that leading UAF and SWP member Weyman Bennett had been arrested (on “conspiracy to commit violent disorder”).
The EDL made their way into their side of the square at around 1pm, after a bout of drinking at a nearby pub. They were clearly less confident and aggressive than in Stoke and Nottingham, but still ready for confrontation. Noticeable were an EDL LGBT Division flag and a swastika with a red circle and line through it. But St George and Ulster flags and “No More Mosques” signs were present as ever, reminders of the EDL’s real, far-right character.
Apart from a few missiles flying in from the EDL demo, the barriers kept the opposing sides from engaging in anything other than an exchange of slogans.
Physical confrontation between police and anti-fascists calmed down once the EDL arrived. Instead, many hundreds of demonstrators moved to engage in chanting at the EDL demo. Chanting over two steel barricades and several ranks of riot police became frustrating after a while.
Around 3pm the EDL finished their static demo and were escorted by police to Bolton train station. The anti-fascists were tightly kettled for half an hour, the police claiming this was to “keep us safe”.
Once released, an unofficial march formed, comprised largely of local Asian youth committed to tracking down any EDLers still hanging around Bolton. The march split after a few minutes as those willing to find and confront EDLers split from those who just wanted to hold up placards and chant “Whose streets?” around town.
Around fifty Asian youth, accompanied by a few anti-fascist demonstrators, ran through Bolton seeking to chase the EDL out of town — but a massive police presence blocking the station stopped any confrontation.
Once again, the EDL were allowed an unchallenged free rein over half the city centre. But had the police not constrained us, the EDL would have been confronted by a sizeable number of demonstrators.
UAF/SWP didn’t behave as usual. They were militant, angry and pissed off with the police. The large number drawn to oppose the EDL in Bolton was positive, and the local mobilisation impressive. Some, but not all, of the UAF/SWP contingent inside the main square seemed genuinely committed to breaking lines and moving towards the EDL. How this sentiment develops remains to be seen.