It’s just before 9pm on Wednesday evening, and the handful of customers in Woolwich Wetherspoons are distracted by the giant TV screen playing looped footage of a crime scene about half a mile up the road. It’s the main topic of conversation, and even the barman is arguing with the waitress, like people everywhere have been arguing: who did it, why, what it means. A few minutes later, a dozen men – youngish, in windbreaker jackets – enter the pub, looking jumpy. Several are talking into their mobiles. As his companions approach the bar, one steps back outside and unfurls a St George’s flag with “EDL – Bexley Divison” written on it.
As details of the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier near to the barracks in Woolwich filtered through yesterday afternoon, the leaders of the EDL set about trying to exploit it. Their street movement has all but collapsed, under the weight of public revulsion at its bigotry and violence, and the determined efforts of anti-fascist campaigners. Their only hope now is to provoke some kind of serious disorder: earlier this month, on the day of the Oxford grooming trial verdict, EDL leader Stephen Lennon and his sidekick Kevin Carroll spread unfounded rumours on Twitter of a child rape by “Muslims” in Luton.
Yesterday, the Woolwich killing – a personal tragedy for the victim’s friends and family, a shock for the local community, but with a political context guaranteed to make it front-page news – appeared to give them another opportunity. Jihadist terror and the rise of anti-Islam sentiment is widely discussed – but since 2008, with far less comment, the military has become an increasingly sensitive element of British culture. Uniformed soldiers play a ceremonial role in major sporting events; politicians use the issue of soldiers returned from Iraq or Afghanistan for rhetorical effect – as the communities secretary Eric Pickles did at last year’s Tory conference, when he accused “foreign immigrants” of being unfairly given housing ahead of “those who fought for Queen and country”. Is this a natural effect of more than a decade of war, or does it speak to a deeper unease? It was, after all, an incident at a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in 2009 – an insulting protest by a small group of self-styled Islamists – that sparked the creation of the English Defence League in the first place.
At the pub, more men arrive. The first group head off, while one of the new arrivals says “let’s get a round of sambucas in”. Leaving, I cross the central square – newly refurbished and overlooked by a giant, curvy new block of aspirational apartments – to find out where the first group is headed. If the “Bexley Division” flag is anything to go by, these EDL activists have come over from the neighbouring borough: whiter in ethnic make-up than Woolwich, and where in a little-reported subplot to the 2011 riots, a gang of EDL activists gathered to “defend” their neighbourhood from rioters.
There is an echo of that incident as, suddenly, a group of men come charging towards the lower end of the square, throwing bottles and chanting “E-E-EDL”. A train station borders that side of the square, and a mainly black crowd of onlookers scatter. I catch a look somewhere between disbelief and panic on the face of one man as he passes me. The EDL – along with their more respectable cousins in the political mainstream – claim that their islamophobia has nothing to do with race. Yet it’s striking how quickly one can slip into the other, as indicated by the careless description of the murder suspects as being “of Muslim appearance” that found its way into the main BBC News reports yesterday. Video footage later revealed them to be two fairly average-looking men of African or Caribbean origin, dressed in everyday clothes.
But the chaos is fleeting. The police, who had lined up on the other side of the square, catch up and block the road; the EDL crowd isn’t as big as it first seemed, numbering around 60. Confronted, its members run off down a street alongside the railway tracks, towards the Queen's Arms, a pub with a huge St George’s Cross flying from the flag pole in its front yard. As the EDL crowd regroups, their numbers swelled to a hundred or so, some have slipped into balaclavas. I see one of these men stuff what looks like a weapon into the waistband of his shorts. Their plan is to head towards the local mosque, which lies on the other side of the estate behind the pub, but their way is blocked by a line of police. Instead, they head back to the square, where they’ll play cat-and-mouse with riot officers until they get bored, or until the TV news crews pack up and go home.
My lasting image of the night is not of the EDL, but of the crowd that gathered to watch them, outside the the Queen’s Arms. These were local people – men and women on their way home from work, teenagers out for the evening – in a neighbourhood that only gets serious media attention when it plays host to a murder, or a riot. The mood was uneasy, but convivial all the same. When a dog starts sniffing a little too enthusiastically at someone’s leg, its owner jokes “don’t worry it’s not a police dog!” There’s a ripple of laughter when a newspaper reporter gets out his iPad to take a photo of the scene. A car drives past and its occupant swears in the direction of the police. The car is flying a stick-on Union Jack from its roof. Behind me, a man gestures towards the EDL, and says to his girlfriend, “I get where the anger’s coming from, but this is not the way.”
Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman and the author of "Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right" (Verso Books). Follow him on Twitter @trillingual