Riot police made 33 arrests tonight as they fought running battles with rival protesters as racial tensions spilled over on the streets of Birmingham.
Two people were injured as violence broke out in the city centre between a right-wing group campaigning against Muslim extremists and anti-fascists. The rivals had held vocal but peaceful protests in separate parts of the city centre until trouble flared in New Street just before 7pm.
Terrified shoppers cowered in Primark and Saturday night revellers fled in panic as hundreds of police, some clad in full riot gear, struggled to keep the peace. As our dramatic pictures show, at one point a man shields his head as he lies prone on the ground while a young thug attempts to kick him in the face. Another photograph appears to show a middle-aged man throwing a punch as he is confronted by another man as tensions reach boiling point.
By 8.30pm police had restored order, but tensions remained high. A West Midlands Police spokesman said: ‘‘We can confirm 33 arrests have been made to date the majority for disorder. To date there has been one report of criminal damage to a car, although we expect further reports. We have also had reports of two people being injured and no known injuries to police officers. A high visibility policing presence continues. A post operation investigation has now commenced into any criminality that took place during this afternoon’s protests.’’
The unrest flared after a group called Casuals United (more info on the 'Casuals' here and here) organised the city centre demonstration against Islamic fundamentalists. The group rumoured to have links to the English and Welsh Defence League and the far-right BNP were formed after radical Muslims caused outrage by protesting against returning British troops in Luton earlier this year.
But Unite Against Fascism organised a rival rally after claiming the Casuals are made up of hardcore soccer hooligans intent on causing racial unrest. Their protest took place next to Birmingham’s Bullring, while the Casuals gathered outside the council house in Victoria Square.
It us unclear what sparked the disorder, but riot police were soon involved in a large number of incidents and at one point they were forced to seal off New Street with a steel barrier. Other officers were seen running ran across Corporation Street, desperately trying to keep the opposing sets of protesters apart.
Scared shoppers fled in all directions as chaos and confusion descended on the city centre. Emily Bridgewater was buying clothes in Primark on New Street when violence broke out. She said: "Everything seemed fine until suddenly it all kicked off outside and there was stampeding and screaming. We ended up being locked in Primark, the shutters came down and the alarms went off as the riot police tried to regain control of the street. It was very frightening."
Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood condemned those involved in the disorder. The Labour MP had previously called for the Casuals rally to be banned after the Sunday Mercury first revealed the plans. He said: "I predicted this would happen when the Casuals announced their protest. Lots of innocent people, children and families, could have been hurt in this idiotic incident and I wholeheartedly condemn both sides for taking part in these scenes which have brought shame on Birmingham.
"I condemn the Casuals for organising their protest and inciting this fighting but I equally condemn the anti-fascist campaigners who rose to the bait. People have a democratic right to protest. But perhaps in future West Midlands police should look at holding sensitive demonstrations on separate days. That way they might avoid the scenes which have blighted our city centre tonight."
A West Midlands Police spokesman said the force had been aware of the planned rally by the Casuals but no formal request to march had been received. He said: ‘‘An additional counter protest also took place in the city centre by Unite Against Fascism. West Midlands Police has been in talks with leaders of this organisation and they have fully co-operated with police throughout the planning stages for this event.’’