A rightwing group, which has promised a summer of demonstrations against British Muslims, was in disarray today after its first significant protest ended in violence and 35 arrests.
The English Defence League staged a march near the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham this weekend but its small band of supporters was drastically outnumbered by anti-fascist campaigners and riot police. The protest ended in violent skirmishes and running battles through the city’s busy shopping streets on Saturday evening.
Members of the League resorted to bitter in-fighting today as supporters labelled the organisers “ridiculous” and the event a “shambles”. At least three people were injured as hundreds of police, some in full riot gear, broke up fights between anti-Islamic protesters and anti-fascist groups who came to disrupt the demonstration. At one point officers were forced to seal off New Street with a steel barrier.
Emily Bridgewater, who was shopping when violence broke out, told the Birmingham Post: “It kicked off very suddenly and there was stampeding and screaming. We ended up being herded into Primark, where they brought the shutters down to protect us. It was very frightening.”
The League publicised its demonstration in the weeks leading up to the march and claimed that another would be held in Luton on August Bank Holiday weekend. Despite efforts to promote the event, fewer than 100 were thought to have gathered. Left-wing groups including Unite Against Fascism were alerted to the march and were able to organise a counter demonstration.
One member of the League’s online forum, registered as Adder, wrote: “I support you guys but yesterday was a shambles and you made us English look like an embarrassment. What exactly happened to supposed 'In the high hundreds' who were supposed to turn up? I saw the video and it seemed like there was barely 70 of you. Holding it such a high profile public place, ridiculous idea [sic]. That's just asking for normal civilians minding their own business to get attacked.”
Neil Edy, another member of the website, said: “I went to the march ... the turn out to the event wasnt good enuf only a few of us were there supporting the cause.”
Another sympathiser, calling himself Bill, said that he had not been able to find the others: “We were in the City most the afternoon, but then left as we had no one to contact and meet with, and we werent the only ones.”
Despite the failure of the first large event, the League insists it will continue to hold demonstrations. Comments on the group’s website, and the affiliated football hooliganism site Casuals United said that the next one would be bigger. One message on the Casuals United site read: “We will arrange it via the Inner Circles secret forums, so we will arrive unnanounced and neither the police or the scum will know any details.”
Some members may find it more difficult to travel to future demonstrations after West Midlands Police said that they were studying footage of the violence and would consider applying for injunctions against troublemakers. A police spokesman explained that the English Defence League had not informed local police of their intension to march but said that officers had no power to prevent a demonstration.
The English Defence League claim not to be a racist group and say that they have no ties with the British National Party. One of the websites linked to the League is believed to have been set up by a known BNP member, but that has now been taken down in an apparent attempt to conceal any link. Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, insisted that there was no link with the group. He said: “It’s a potentially very dangerous development. I understand it mainly comes from Luton ... which is a tinderbox.”
The group, which organises events on its website and through a Facebook group with 198 members, plans to hold its next large official gatherings in Harrow and Luton in August and then in Manchester in October.