February 09, 2011

Luton: The day extremism lost

Police contain the EDL thugs
Now the dust has settled it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the weekend’s events in Luton. Despite the huge media coverage the day was a failure for both the English Defence League and the Islamist extremists of Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK.

The EDL must have been disappointed with their numbers. At its height there were somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 EDL supporters on the march, far fewer than everyone had expected. The EDL had been telling journalists that they were hoping for up to 8,000 to be there. Police briefings in the days running up to the march suggested 5,000 to 7,000. I put the figure at 4,000 to 5,000. We were all wrong.

EDL supporters came from across the country. There appeared to be almost 50 coaches, though many were far from full. Hundreds more made their way on trains and in cars. What was clear, however, was the lack of Lutonians there. Despite the bravado of claiming mass local support the vast majority of local people shunned the demonstrations. The profile of the EDL demo was the same as for previous events. It was largely made up of white men, aged between 20 and 45, many either former or current football hooligans.

There was a splattering of women and older people and literally a handful of non-whites, but to all intents and purposes the composition of the demo was the same as it has always been.

The day passed off relatively peacefully, with just seven arrests. Despite some provocation and the now customary fire crackers thrown at police horses, the police did a good job in containing the EDL and keeping them away from the general public. The authorities were helped by the absence of Islam4UK as we believe it would have only taken a handful of these extremists to parade around with their provocative placards for serious disorder to break out. While I had been critical of the approach taken by the police in the run-up to the demonstration they did a good job on the day.

The fact that there was no violence was largely down to the excellent work of the local Muslim community who self-organised, debunked rumours and calmed tensions. There were over 300 stewards on hand and several mediation teams who were used to intervene when tensions rose. At one point during the afternoon over 1,000 Muslim youths began gathering on the Dunstable Road following rumours that a mosque had been attacked. The mediation teams and stewards went in and the group soon dispersed.

Across the city, the council's cohesion team, faith and community groups did an excellent job in reassuring local people and showing solidarity to one another.

We were happy with our intervention in the overall campaign. Once again we avoided counter-demonstrating on the day, preferring a strategy of constructive community engagement which sought to educate people about the EDL, provide experience and good practice from previous EDL demonstrations and reassure local communities. In the run-up to the day there was considerable tension between the police and the council and the police and the local Muslim community. Given the lack of trust, particularly from many in the Muslim community towards the police approach, we played a vital role in supporting key community leaders and activists. Because of our relationship building, the information/background we were able to provide via the magazine, briefings and one to one meetings, coupled with our sympathetic stance on building community, we were a trusted source of information on the day. The community mediation teams in the Muslim community found it useful to speak to our team on the ground and share information on how events were unfolding direct from the scene. They wanted to know about numbers of EDL, the mood, what was being done by the EDL etc. As rumours flew around about Qur’an burning by the EDL (for example) we were able to scotch those rumours instantly as a trusted and 'on side' source. This helped the community mediators calm young people down and counteract the rising tensions.

Also losers were the Islamist extremists. They boasted of making an appearance on the day but in the end they were nowhere to be seen. They had claimed that only they could defend the Muslim community but in their absence local people were able to cope just fine.

It is unclear where the EDL will go from here. Given Luton’s importance, both as a birthplace of the EDL and the link with Islamic terrorism, its relatively small numbers will be a major disappointment to its organisers. Future street mobilisations will only be smaller. There are some inside the EDL who are pushing for a more political approach in preference to street actions but this will alienate many of its current supporters. With the obvious thuggery of the EDL a political path looks slim.

Luton survived the EDL demo and it appears that the vast majority of local people – of all races and religions – shunned the extremists. The job now is to build on this by actually bringing people together in a town where fear has for too long reigned over hope.

Hope not hate

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