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10-08-2009

Demo in Birmingham

There was a depressing inevitability about Saturday’s disturbances in Birmingham city centre says Steve Beauchampé, who witnessed both the protests and their aftermath for The Stirrer. Next time though, perhaps Brummies could try a different approach.

From the moment the far-right English and Welsh Defence League (EWDL) announced plans to repeat the anti-Muslim protests they had carried out in the city on July 4th, a train of events was set in motion that sent both EWDL sympathisers and the more vehement elements amongst their political foes on an unstoppable trajectory.

Whilst it is understandable that many politically active and socially aware Brummies wish to publicly express their disgust at the policies of the extreme right, especially when those messages are delivered directly to the city’s streets, Saturday’s disturbances brought disruption to the life of Birmingham, placing innocent bystanders (including visiting football supporters from Newcastle, Spain and Italy) in some physical danger whilst causing distress to many others going about their lawful business.

Naturally, when a community’s beliefs and culture are under such hostile attack as that launched by the EWDL, it is tempting to confront those responsible directly, to try and drive them from the streets. Yet however repugnant the views and activities of the EWDL and their acolytes may be, tactically the far right are not stupid.

Outnumbered though they were, but by successfully baiting a section of Asian youths already angered at the incessant attacks on their religion, dress codes and lifestyle by some politicians and sections of the media, the EWDL achieved much of what they set out to do. Images of young Asians confronting lines of police and running unfettered around the city spoiling for a fight speaks volumes to an audience fed a diet of negative stories about Islam in general and Muslim youth in particular.

The police, whose management of the situation on the day appeared to be measured and professional, were placed in an invidious situation. The right to demonstrate and protest is fundamental to a free society and this must hold true across the entire political spectrum. It has been claimed that the police were too slow to close down the first EWDL demonstration back on July 4th, even after complaints that the protests included incitements to racial and religious hatred. They may have been caught off-guard on that occasion, but on Saturday they corralled the EWDL inside Victoria Square, limiting (initially at least|) their ability to act and disseminate their messages to the bare minimum allowed in law.

That unlike Unite Against Fascism, who co-ordinated the counter-demonstration, the EWDL had not worked through official channels, might be grounds to have prevented their demonstrating at all. This is something the police and city council will have to consider if, as expected, further protests take place in the weeks ahead. Questions should also be asked as to why a sizeable pocket of EWDL symphasisers were able to confront and charge members of the anti-fascist contingent around the New Street and Corporation Street after the main demonstrations had ended.

The EWDL (whose message is at best at the margins of incitement to racial and religious hatred) have vowed to return to Birmingham later this month. Yet if there is one thing that a bully craves most it is attention; criticism can be dismissed, being ignored is utterly frustrating.

So next time perhaps Unite Against Fascism should simply do just that and instead organise a multi-cultural, multi-faith happening elsewhere in the city in celebration of our diversity. After all, the sight of a smattering of Neanderthals penned by the police in Victoria Square as they shout slogans and wave placards whilst absolutely no one pays them any attention both fulfills their right to free speech whilst frustrating their attempts to whip up disorder.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can carry on living in the real world of a 21st century, multi-cultural city.

See details of yesterday's clashes in Birmingham here

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Today's edition of The Stirrer edited by Steve Beauchampé

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