English Defence League (EDL) in Birmingham – Redux

English defence league in Birmingham – Redux

So, the EDL were back in Birmingham’s Centenary Square on Saturday (October 11 2014). I’ve filed copy elsewhere, but these are my own thoughts on the day – with some commentary which doesn’t really fit in any newspaper.

Compared to last year, this year’s protest was positively laid back. There were no arrests, a few scuffles and no damage to property. Why? Well, the EDL and the counter-protests were here in far fewer numbers than last year. My headcount put the EDL’s presence at well below 300, and the counter-protesters at fewer still.

The police easily outnumbered both of these combined. West Midlands Police were joined by Thames Valley, the MET, West Mercia and Warwickshire, but most of these were not used, they simply sat round in holding areas…looking bored. So there was far less opportunity for those who wanted to cause trouble. In fact, individuals from both sides ‘raided’ the other’s demonstrations at various points to hurl abuse, but the police dealt with them quickly and effectively, and so never allowed trouble to flare up. Incidentally, no riot police but lots and lots of blue-jacketed ‘police liaison officers’ who did a good job, with a ‘softly, softly’ approach. This tactic seemed to give no-one anything to fight. My own experience of police liaison officers has left me more than a bit suspicious of them, but hey, credit where it’s due.

Ok, so let me talk about EDL. No, I don’t agree with them. At all. But there were some positives, there was competent and friendly media team – I’ve attached a PDF of their media briefing. Also, I personally saw their stewards working hard to calm down some of the hot-heads intent of breaching police lines and get to the counter-protests.

And now to the negative. Their chanting was openly abusive and indicative of their visceral and unreasoned hatred of Islam. For instance, the main stage at the demonstration was decorated with a number of placards one of which said more than 90 percent of paedophile groomers are muslim. I spoke to a very pleasant and thoughtful member of the media team and asked him where their figures had come from. After a little prevarication he said that this was taken from the Rotherham case. So the placard was an unreasonable statistical projection. And that is the problem with EDL’s case, is that they cherry-pick the worst cases of a Muslim minority and apply them to all Muslims. Broadly, the EDL came across as pissed up, abusive and spoiling for a fight.

But it made me think of my own research into deviance and protest. The theory is this there are three concentric rings of dissent within the public sphere. In the inner circle there is an accepted sphere of of common sense – things we all supposedly agree on (e.g. murder is bad). Outside of this there is a circle of accepted debate. – things we’re willing to talk about (e.g. fracking is bad).Outside this there is an area of deviance in which the ideas are not presented for debate. EDL sits in this zone, as do UKIP…except the latter now has a member of parliament. So, should we be accepting EDL’s ideas into the ‘zone of accepted debate’. I’m not sure, although UKIP are forcing our hands, and anyway I think there are real dangers in ignoring their point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. However, I don’t think it would help in EDL’s case, because, what I saw on Saturday makes me believe (and this is just my opinion) that these people enjoy being deviant – i.e. they like being outsiders. So if it’s not this, it will be something else.

It was interesting watching the pre-demonstration gathering on Broad Street, where much of the chanting was aimed at the assembled media; there was no-one else to chant at, so what was the point…self-identification, self-definition, group-identification? Again, this is just my opinion. If this is true then, letting them protest in the middle of Birmingham is a useful and arguably necessary act, it allows them to shout.
I think this is also evident in the counter-protests. Incidentally, both sides had young men who insisted on masking up. Why? (there was no Section 60 in place preventing this, another good call by the police IMO).

So where does that leave us? Are we seeing the globalized right-wing moving from the streets to ballot box? Is this a good thing? Is this yet another sign that democracy as we knew it is failing in the face of increased individualisation and networking?

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