On Tuesday 10 March the Royal Anglian Regiment were heckled by a fringe group of extremist Muslim demonstrators as the soldiers marched through Luton Town Centre. This predictable action frustrated and angered nearly every section of the community – above all the local mosques, which had already banned the 15 individuals. The blaze of negative publicity produced strong comment both locally and nationally, with robust condemnations from town hall politicians and a forthright debate in the letters’ columns of local papers.
Soon afterwards it was possible to distinguish the comments intended to heal from those that sought to open up division and further an entirely different agenda.
One ex-soldier, James Yeomans, started to organise a “Respect the Troops” march to take place three weeks after the original incident. Far from a troublemaker, Yeomans intended this to be a genuine gesture to express regret at the incidents on 10 March and thus go some way towards repairing the reputation of the town. Unfortunately, individuals started to emerge from the darker corners of Facebook and other sites, chewing over the possibility of using the occasion to create a confrontation with the town’s sizeable Pakistani and Bangladeshi population. Keyboard warriors encouraged fellow group members to “bring their tools”, going on to say “it’s going to be messy”. Momentum was gathering to the extent that coaches were being booked to carry protesters from as far away as Chester and Portsmouth. Even “The Welsh Defence League” pledged attendance, although you get the feeling that its entire membership would fit snugly into a single Ford Mondeo.
Alert at every opportunity to create division, the BNP hauled Peter Fehr back from retirement to do what he does best – leading the branch into oblivion. Despite telling a supporter in 2008 “I’m no longer active. I go to the occasional meeting in Biggleswade or sometimes Aylesbury and no longer organize anything,” Fehr began to swing the 80 local members behind the march. He quickly organised a branch meeting (the first in six months) at the sympathetic King Harry pub for the day after the march and rounded up three out-of-towners (parish councillor Simon Deacon, bottle-blonde Shelley Rose and Steve Sherwood from Milton Keynes). He wrote to members on 15 March: “I would therefore ask all members/patriots to attend this parade and support OUR troops. Please bring a Union Jack flag with you and fly it proudly when the troops parade. Lets all rally together and lets make this a day to remember.”
Sensing events were running out of his control, Yeomans cancelled the march. In an attack destined to feature in our leaflets for months to come, he cornered on the fascists:
“How do people make the link between respecting our troops and a fascist parade? It’s pitiful. We had invited people from all corners of the community. Including Muslim leaders. These people call themselves patriotic and proud to be British but I wonder what they have ever really done for our country? It makes me sad that they seem to have a copyright on the Union Jack. If they want to come to Luton to have a fight they need to have a look at their sad lives.”
Despite being told that the march was off, much online sabre-rattling could be heard and pledges were made by local hooligans to ignore the police and carry on regardless. In response, Three Counties UAF decided to mobilise around our usual weekly stall in the town centre. On the day we had a good number of supporters from the trades council, Labour Party, Asian community, UAF and an elderly couple inspired by the HOPE not hate website to start their own local campaign. In a 90-minute operation we maintained a lively presence, gave out a good deal of literature and managed to deal with the few dozen football hooligans who skulked around before being moved on by police.
In the aftermath, the motley online crew of BNP supporters (and those simply up for a fight) were apoplectic. Who could blame them? In a single week the local freesheet carried the banner headline “Fascists Stealing a March”, the BNP meeting the next day was cancelled and their patriotic mass parade was turned into an anti-fascist rally with a report on Anglia TV thrown in for good measure.
In desperation, they turned to Paul Ray, aka “Lionheart”, to leave his fantasy world of dragon-slaying and put together a march of their own on St George’s Day that no one would pull at the last moment. To be fair, this idea had its merits. Ray was committed to the cause and had notoriety for producing his own long-running anti-Islamic blog. Secondly he was local – living in Dunstable – this was close enough to have influence but sufficiently far not to have to live with the consequences. Thirdly, he acted as a lynchpin for the various strands of nationalism in the area – from the football-orientated Luton MIGs (Men in Gear) to those drawn into BNP membership.
Thankfully, that’s where it all started to go wrong.
Mistake 1 – put the wrong people in charge
To apply for a parade, you need to make the case before a sub-group of the borough council, with representation from Community Cohesion and the police. Bad idea therefore to have the person in charge (ie Ray) currently being investigated by the CPS for inciting racial hatred in articles on his blog. Worse still to have the number two in your organisation, one Laurence Jones, a declared supporter of the BNP. Final nail in the coffin, to have the support of the “March for England” organisation with its links to the Portsmouth 657 hooligan element.
Mistake 2 – get everyone confused over dates
In wades Peter Fehr to announce another march on Bank Holiday Monday, 13 April. In an email to supporters he does a reasonable job of organising the event, saying:
“This Demo is being well publicised all over Great Britain and over 20,000 people are expected to descend to Luton on the 13th April to show their disgust towards Muslim extremists. So please attend and bring friends, relatives and work colleges, and show your support by bringing along a Union Jack flag. The 13th is on Easter Monday, so this is a bank holiday, so no excuses, turn-up and show your support.”
On the other hand, later in the email he goes to some lengths to distance the BNP from the event, saying:
“I MUST STRESS THAT THIS DEMO IS NOT BEING ORGANIZED BY THE BNP. Please do not wear any BNP badges if you plan on going to this event.”
Hiding behind the false name of “Peter Fisher” in the letters column of The Luton News, Fehr is given space to state, ludicrously:
“Many of your readers will be aware that a demonstration is going to take place in Luton on Monday April 13th …. The British National Party wishes to make it clear that we will not be attending in any way, shape or form.”
Who are you kidding Peter?
Furthermore, a flyer for the march on the 13th was sent to the Searchlight offices on Blood and Honour notepaper. On it was a phone number, which turned out to be that of NF activist Stuart Hollingdale, the person who was jailed for three months in 1999 for daubing the Stephen Lawrence memorial with white paint. Hollingdale said that his erstwhile NF chum, none other than BNP parish councillor Simon Deacon, was briefing him on events in Luton.
Thankfully, Ray’s application for a march on St George’s Day appears to have hit the buffers. A few individuals will probably try to stir up trouble on both the 13th and the 23rd, but the police undoubtedly have contingency plans up their sleeves.
Three Counties UAF aim now to move from a defensive to offensive posture, mindful that the European and County elections are a mere eight weeks away. Unity between different strands of anti-fascist support in the town has been a distinct feature of our success to date and this pooling of expertise and resources gives us good reason for looking to the future with confidence.
HOPE not hate