Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw has called a city centre clash between a right-wing group and rival campaigners a "scandalous waste" of police resources.
Describing the views of English Defence League (EDL) supporters as "obnoxious and racist", he said there was no place for their opinions on the streets of Exeter. He was speaking after angry exchanges as a group of men claiming to represent the EDL clashed with Unite Against Fascism (UAF) supporters in Exeter's High Street.
The EDL Exeter Division had organised a "ban the burka" demonstration with leaders suggesting in advance that 140 people were expected to attend. In response, anti-fascists planned a "celebration of diversity" in Bedford Square. This was attended by an estimated 300 people including representatives from UAF, the Devon branch of the National Union of Teachers and Exeter Anti-Cuts Alliance. It was supported by Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem city councillors.
A spokesman for the EDL Exeter Division said the High Street protest was called off at the last minute to avoid "inevitable friction" with opponents. He said the group of around 15 people in the High Street – who were wearing balaclavas, waving St George's Cross flags and chanting "EDL" – may have been EDL supporters, but they were not members and did not represent the group. He said: "Our members did not go into the High Street. We heard about the counter demonstration and we knew there would be trouble, so we decided not to go ahead.
"We did not want to cause any friction or a drain on police resources. We wanted to hand out leaflets in a peaceful demonstration. We told the police on the day that we would not be there. Everybody had a message to say the plan had changed and to contact us. Instead of going to the High Street, around 30 members went around other parts of Exeter. We will look into further events in High Street."
Anthony Harris, 19, from Heavitree, Exeter, was among the group of EDL supporters in High Street. He said: "We've come to peacefully demonstrate, show who we are and what we're about, and speak to members of the public about what we believe. We're here to stand up for our country and stand up against militant Islam. We're not safe. We're not against Muslims, but Islam needs to be put into the 21st century."
Dimah Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Muslim student, was wearing a burka when she met the group in the High Street. Miss Mahmoud, who comes from Sudan but lived in various countries before moving to England in 2006, told the Echo: "I tried to have a debate with them but they weren't knowledgeable. They seemed to think all women are forced to wear a burka.
"This is supposed to be a free country. A woman might choose to wear a burka because she has a scar or skin disease, or she's beautiful and doesn't want to be envied or raped, or she likes the mystery, or she's convinced it's the right thing to do. To focus on being forced to wear a burka is very misleading. They say we need to forget our traditions – how welcoming to a country is that?"
Around 20 police officers were in High Street to ensure there was no significant trouble. Inspector Mike Robison said: "Our role was to facilitate lawful protest by both groups. From our perspective, it went relatively well. There were no arrests."
But Mr Bradshaw said: "This was a scandalous waste of police time and resources at a time of swingeing Government cuts. We don't need or want these obnoxious, racist views being expressed on the streets of Exeter. The turnout indicates that most Exonians abhor the views of this fringe neo-fascist group."
Mike Gurney, from Exeter UAF, said: "It was a great day for Exeter, for anti-racism and for all those who oppose prejudice. It was great to see Christians, Jews and Muslims standing together side by side to oppose the EDL. The people of Exeter showed that the EDL's politics of hate are not welcome here and will be challenged whenever they arise. Burkas aren't an issue in Exeter. Scapegoating one section of the community for society's problems is just trying to divide people."
Lib Dem leader Cllr Adrian Fullam attended the counter demonstration. He said: "I was thrilled with the turnout and support for the diversity of Exeter. The EDL are a minority and their views don't have any place in Exeter."
Exeter City Council and Labour leader Cllr Pete Edwards said: "I'm totally opposed to the views of the EDL but if they want to protest, it's up to them. There are more important things to focus on, like the massive budget cuts."
The Lord Mayor of Exeter, Cllr Marcel Choules, added: "Exeter is a friendly and welcoming place for everyone, and everyone has a right to march and protest. Diversity exists in the city and that is a good thing."
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