On their Twitter stream, the English Defence League announced that they’d be meeting at the Lord of the Moon pub on Whitehall before marching to Downing Street, but the Moon didn’t want them and closed for the day. Instead they gathered at pubs around Trafalgar Square (including Halfway to Heaven: ‘loads of patriots here,’ someone tweeted – did they realise it’s a gay bar?). As I passed the Silver Cross on the corner of Whitehall and Craig’s Court, a group of EDL marchers were chanting ‘who are you?’ at a busload of tourists, who were taking photos. Football casuals and hardened racists drank in the sunshine. There were cries of ‘Sieg Heil!’ from the crowd as the police pushed them back onto the pavement.
Further down Whitehall several hundred anti-fascist protestors had gathered. The counter-demonstration was organised by Unite Against Fascism: ‘We reject the attempt by fascist organisations such as the English Defence League and British National Party to exploit the murder of Lee Rigby to whip up racism and direct hatred towards all Muslims.’ When I joined them they were arguing with a man in a black shirt and suit who sipped water from a bottle in between telling us ‘you should all be ashamed of yourselves’ and that we were all ‘traitors’. He turned out to be Kevin Carroll, joint leader of the EDL. A woman jumped over the barriers and started pushing him, but was quickly pounced on by policemen and dragged away. Carroll gestured for more water. ‘Tell you what lads I better not get beheaded today,’ he said.
As the EDL column approached, riot police pushed us back. Out of the thousand or so EDL marchers, I counted four women. There were chants – ‘We want our country back’; ‘E-E-EDL’; ‘Allah is a paedo’ – met with our counter-chants: ‘EDL off our streets’; ‘Fascist scum’; ‘Yes, you’re racist’. The EDL marchers held signs that said ‘Hate! Murder! For God’s Sake Do Something!’ (though all they were proposing was more hate and murder) and ‘GB: RIP’, and waved flags of St George. A few gave Nazi salutes.
As the riot police pushed us back I slid behind a barrier to stand among a group of Sikhs holding a vigil for a militant on death row in India. They’d been there for 45 days, they told me, but the media didn’t seem very interested. I asked them what they thought of the EDL march. ‘We’re caught in the middle,’ one of them told me. ‘The anarchists are saying, “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be supporting them, they’re against you,” but we get shit from Muslims too.’ He said he was embarrassed about the protest, but didn’t specify which one. ‘It’s bad for tourism isn’t it? Our country depends on tourism.’ I asked if he really doubted that the EDL were anything other than racist thugs and he just shrugged.
The EDL speeches cited Churchill (to loud cheers) and Martin Luther King (to muted applause), said the government were traitorous and weren’t listening to them, periodically shouted ‘no surrender’ and stopped every so often to applaud the police. ‘What they have done to Lee Rigby has changed us,’ someone said. ‘This will be looked on in history as the counter-jihad era.’ They held a minute’s silence, broken only by a cry of ‘Shut up you cunt.’ Tommy Robinson, the other leader of the EDL, climbed on a wall. ‘Hero, Hero,’ people shouted.
Just as it seemed they were about to leave, the EDL threw a shower of bottles. Several fell among the Sikhs. The anti-fascists threw some back. There were scuffles. After it had all died down, and most of the EDL had marched off, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll came over to the group of Sikhs and apologised for bottling them. ‘We were trying to hit the others,’ they said. ‘It was a set-up, they put you in between us, it was a fix.’ They shook hands, posed for the cameras, thanked the police, saluted the ‘Sikh warriors’ and stalked back up Whitehall.
The EDL have always been quick to capitalise on attacks on the military (they were formed in 2009 in response to a poppy-burning protest in Luton), but the murder of Lee Rigby seems to have galvanised a racist movement which appeared, until a few days ago, to be in terminal decline. Last week Tommy Robinson announced he’d be doing a sponsored walk across London for Help for Heroes. Yesterday the charity said it didn’t want his money.