With the aid of an overwhelming police operation and in the absence of any effective counter-mobilisation, the anti-Muslim racists of the English Defence League marched and rallied through Luton. Anywhere between 1500 to 3000 EDL supporters (media and police estimates vary) massed from across the country for what the organisation called a “homecoming” event.
At the same time, up to 1000 anti-racists and perhaps as many more local people – mainly from Muslim, Pakistani backgrounds – took to the streets to protest and defend the most vulnerable areas of Luton.
Elsewhere in the city a UAF-organised rally was contained by a massive police operation. Despite the best efforts of the demonstrators very few were able to break through police lines to join the protest and defence.
From the very start of the day police effectively contained and managed rival groups of protestors; stopping, sometimes searching and then escorting coaches, vans and cars to different parts of the city.
The large number of EDL supporters who arrived by train were marshalled to a congregation point. This operation was disrupted when supporters of Unite Against Fascism arrived on the train from London and blockaded the station for a short period.
From this point onwards it was near-impossible to follow the movement and activities of the English Defence League: racists and anti-racists were kept apart by barriers and police lines for the remainder of the day.
As soon as the majority of anti-racists – UAF and others – had congregated in one place - the UAF in the town's shopping centre which had been closed down and boarded up — the police moved in to ‘kettle’ or contain them. At this point it was still unclear whether the police operation could or would effectively prevent EDLers from breaking out and making their way to the mainly Muslim, Bury Park area.
A number of anti-racists – including members of the AWL – had already made their way through police lines to Bury Park and were sending reports to those assembled elsewhere of the many hundreds of locals out defending the streets. A near successful attempt to march to Bury Park was eventually resisted by the police.
The largely unsuccessful attempts by the majority of protestors to reach Bury Park were a rational reaction to the situation on the ground that day. It made absolute sense – indeed it’s an anti-racist ABC – to want to defend those under attack or threat of attack. However, a number of things are unclear.
UAF had been operating in and around Luton in the run-up to the EDL demonstration. As far as we can tell – from what limited information we have and from the evidence of events as they unfolded – no substantial attempts were made to liaise or organise with the main targets of the EDL: the local Muslim community.
Such attempts would have needed a short but intensive period of leafleting and door-knocking in the area, meetings and discussions. These activities should have been possible given that UAF and the Socialist Workers Party have organisation on the ground in Luton. Perhaps such efforts were made, but rebuffed – possible, but not likely given the character of those massing on Dunstable Road.
The hundreds of mainly male, not obviously religious – or at least not devout – Muslims who assembled were very clear in their intentions. They ignored and rebuffed demands of ‘stewards’ (who did not appear to represent anyone but themselves and who included at least one vicar) to move back along the road and reacted quickly to rumours of sightings of the EDL.
Rumours circulated on the internet – including the ‘Hope not Hate’ blog – of the involvement of the clerical-fascist Al-Mahahiroun group were ultimately unfounded. Members of the AWL were told that this group had turned up to one meeting but had been told in no uncertain terms to keep away.
There was no religious chanting whatsoever until the closing minutes of the demonstration and when earlier on in the day a small number of people stopped to pray, the majority stood by indifferently.
On Dunstable Road itself, the only organised ‘Muslim’ groups with any presence were about twenty young men in YMC t-shirts and a smaller number wearing ‘Muslim Defence League’ clothing. The majority were ordinary working class Muslims out to defend their community from attack.
Given these facts on the day and given the ample previous experience of SWP/UAF leaders, the repetition of the same ineffective strategies seems beyond reason. Whilst not denying the individual bravery of those involved in blockading the train station and those who pushed through police lines to reach Bury Park – many of whom had no choice but make the attempt – the political leadership of the largest anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation leaves a lot to be desired.
Lessons need to be learned quickly if we have any chance of organising effective, mass, labour movement mobilisations against the EDL. The possibilities for such action look greater now than at any point in the past twenty years. They may well be necessary.
The police operation was the biggest in Luton's history and UAF's official mobilisation in Luton's Park Square was kettled for almost the entire day.
The official demonstration was abysmal. It amounted to nothing more than several hundred anti-fascists shuffling around the Love Music Hate Racism stage listening to (sometimes rather ill-chosen) music. Speakers would then encourage the “whose streets?” slogan, but without much point or reason. The EDL were over a thousand feet away and the police had protesters heavily locked in. Not exactly our streets.
Militancy among the majority of activists hoping to break the kettle was at times impressive. Early on in the day several hundred anti-fascists broke away from the official mobilisation, breaking one police line on Dunstable Road, and headed towards Bury Park. The march was then halted by police and demonstrators were kettled for 15 minutes, before being marshalled back to Park Square. The square was then locked into a rigid and long lasting kettle. There were two solid yet unsuccessful attempts at pushing through police lines. One attempt was near successful, but police split the surge and forced one group forward into a tightly packed "hyper" kettle for over an hour.
Most UAF stewards, perhaps not surprisingly, were intent on keeping demonstrators well within the main kettle throughout the day. One steward was heard openly saying that he had lied to activists attempting to break police lines by saying that the EDL were “attacking” from the other side of the square; a pathetic and conniving method of "crowd control". To falsely claim that the EDL were literally attacking from another direction, in order to manipulate a sizeable crowd of anti-fascists, was not only dreadfully dishonest, but wildly irresponsible.
Effective anti-fascist activity does not involve staying within a designated protest area, nor does it involve over cooperation with the police. It is high time the SWP/UAF leadership recognise that militant, socialist anti-fascists understand that confronting groups like EDL and showing solidarity with local minority groups is key to defeating the rise of far-right activity on our streets.
The attempts to move out of the square were positive. The fact that the EDL were kept well out of sight and marched through closed and empty streets should be viewed as a minor achievement on part of both the general anti-fascist movement and the local community. But UAF's staging of a mini-festival, while the police enforced a rigid kettle, was frustrating for hundreds of demonstrators and a poorly judged effort.