Last Tuesday, I wrote on the Free Speech Blog about the English Defence League’s intention to march through Tower Hamlets this weekend and the calls to have it banned. I argued that a ban would prove counterproductive because a static demonstration, predictably descending into chaos, would take place anyway. I also argued that state intervention in protests – any protest, for that matter – is not something to be welcomed, but rather it paves the way for further limits on our civil liberties. My final point was that the movement against fascism must look beyond the state if it is to succeed simply because there is no such thing as a left-wing faction in government operating in the interests of minorities. British politics, as elsewhere in Europe and America, has shifted entirely to the right. There no longer exists a mainstream political left – only shades of right-wing.
Since its formation in 2009, the EDL has been itching to march through Tower Hamlets. Until recently, a poster on its website had described the borough as the ‘heart of militant Islam’ and that they would be marching into ‘the lions [sic] den’. The accompanying article had boasted that all previous demonstrations were actually practice runs for this one. The ‘events’ page that had carried the incendiary poster and article is now empty, but on a different page reference is made to an article by The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan in which he calls the borough an ‘Islamic republic’. (Further proof, as if it were needed, that right-wing ‘tabloidised’ pundits are also to blame for the rise of Islamophobia and the far right.)
But then the news broke on Friday that the home secretary Theresa May had agreed to the Met’s request for a complete ban on all marches in five London boroughs for a period of 30 days beginning on 2 September. This is ostensibly to prevent disruption and violence on the streets of the East End so soon after the riots. The ban will also prevent the large counter-demonstration called by United East End – a broad alliance of local organisations, politicians, trade unions and religious leaders – as well as a host of ‘unity events’ that were planned to take place across Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham, Waltham Forest and Islington. This, it seems, will also include East London Pride (scheduled for the end of September) and, ironically, a march in early October commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.
On the face of it, banning the march would appeal to our common sense: the EDL is not the sort of organisation one could convincingly associate with peaceful protest. Its track record proves this. But this is not the first time an EDL march has been banned. In August last year, the Home Office wrote to Bradford council confirming a weekend-long prohibition on public processions through the city. But the static protest, which was still allowed to go ahead, nevertheless descended into chaos. The Telford march, planned for mid-August, was also banned but, again, it was the static protest that ended in violent confrontations between organisers, counter-demonstrators and the police – resulting in 40 arrests.
EDL demonstrations, then, are less about exercising the right to freedom of expression than they are about committing acts of violence. The organisation has open and close links with the football hooligan firm Casuals United; and its leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, has been a member of the Men In Gear firm, associated with Luton Town Football Club. He has even written two books charting his 25-year career in football violence. Hardly surprising that last winter he threatened violence against student protestors, calling them ‘communist scum’; and that, in May, his followers teamed up with the BNP to violently attack an anti-racist meeting in Barking, resulting in a female NHS worker being rushed to hospital.
But it doesn’t end there. Add to this the cost of policing these protests –from £170,000 to £850,000 in Dewsbury and Leicester respectively, as well as £2million in the Midlands alone: money that local councils could have spent on vital services elsewhere – and we have the profile of the most nefarious far-right group ever to emerge in this country.
I still oppose the ban however, due to the questions that perplex me most about it. What will be the consequences beyond preventing the EDL entering east London? And, who will ultimately benefit?
The state has gone all out in its mission to put down dissent. Of the thousands who protested against Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2009/2010, 119 young men and women were arrested and 90 found themselves before the courts – the highest number of arrests in the UK in relation to a demonstration since the poll tax riots of 1990. Thousands of students who protested against the cuts last winter were kettled for hours in the blistering cold, charged by mounted police and are still being dragged through the courts. The charges against the 109 UK Uncut protestors, who peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason back in March, have only recently been dropped.
In 2009, the Convention on Modern Liberty published an audit of laws introduced in the UK since New Labour took office in 1997. It listed almost 60 new powers contained in more than 25 acts of parliament that have irreparably damaged freedoms set out in Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act. The co-director of the Convention, Henry Porter (columnist for the Observer and editor of Vanity Fair), said at the time that this presented ‘a crisis of liberty in Britain’. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index for last year showed a decline in democracy across the world since its previous survey of 2008. The UK did not even make it into the top ten: it came in at 19. (The US fared a little better at 17; France came in at 31, as a ‘flawed democracy’; at the bottom, predictably, was North Korea). It’s not mere pessimism to say that governments fear the streets. They fear the anger it might unleash. They fear the speed with which ordinary people can gain control of them. Recent calls – from both sides of the political ‘divide’ – to extend police powers and to clamp down on social networking sites demonstrate the extent of this fear.
There should never have been calls to ban the march. The EDL should have been allowed to come to Tower Hamlets, which has a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants as well as of fighting fascism. And, as I argued last week, we have the Battle of Cable Street to draw on for inspiration: the Black Shirts came but they did not pass. Instead, it was local residents themselves who dealt Oswald Mosley the death blow. If the EDL is to be defeated, it must be on the streets of Britain, in its homes and pubs. We are the ones to do this, not the state. Banning public protest can only ever be a step towards banning public dissent.
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