On any normal Saturday, the crowds flooding in to the Bull Ring Shopping Centre in Birmingham paint a positive picture of our city: multiracial, multicultural. Birmingham’s diverse character is a reality.
And most people, most of the time, think that is something to be proud of. But three times this summer, an uglier picture has emerged. In August, and then again in September, the “English Defence League” assembled to demonstrate (purportedly against “Islamic extremism”). However, the placards – with slogans such as “Ban mosques” – as well as the vile racist abuse the crowd hurled, made it clear these were anti-Muslim demonstrations. They were attempts to target an entire community, to demonise and terrorise.
The demonstrators hoped that their presence would set one community against another. Social disorder, especially scenes of violence between Muslims and white people, would play into the hands of the fascists, and be held up as “evidence” of the failure of multiculturalism. Recently the BNP has successfully ridden a wave of “respectable” racism, but there has always been a violent undercurrent. These protests are a dangerous development, showing that some now have the confidence to bring this violence out into the open.
The response from Birmingham’s political establishment has been absolutely shameful. The city council and West Midlands Police consistently downplayed or denied the racist intent of the protests. The police even repeated the EDL’s claims that it was a non-racist organisation. Despite its involvement in violence in Luton, and clear evidence of racist abuse on past visits to Birmingham, the police continued to insist that the demonstration on 5 September would be peaceful – a straightforward expression of freedom of speech that should be facilitated. Astonishingly, while upholding the EDL’s right to freedom of speech, the council refused permission for counter-protesters to hold a positive, non-confrontational celebration of multiculturalism in the Council House.
Multicultural Birmingham has been badly let down by its civic leaders. Following the police decision to ban the EDL protest in Luton, however, the clamour for similar action in Birmingham galvanised support. It brought together Unite Against Fascism, Respect councillors, Christian ministers, the local media personality Adrian Goldberg and the Liberal Democrat deputy council leader, Paul Tilsley. The Birmingham Labour Party called forcefully at the last minute for more decisive action.
Calls for restrictions on the EDL were vindicated after chaotic scenes in the city centre led to at least 90 arrests. As Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe later conceded, the EDL was completely disingenuous about its stated intentions and not at all interested in peaceful protest.
If the violence of the EDL was predictable, it was also predictable that some Asian youths would ignore calls for restraint from myself
and others. Many young people are simply not prepared to turn the other cheek when faced with this brand of violent racism. But ultimately, the newly emboldened racist movement will not be pushed back simply by confrontations week after week in our city’s busiest shopping streets. The ground has to be cut from under the racists’ feet by a political campaign that challenges their racist lies and reasserts the strengths of our multicultural society.
If recent events in Birmingham demand anything, it is an end to the complacency and inaction that have marked the response of our political Establishment to the growth of the far right. After the events of 5 September, the shift in position by West Midlands Police is an important step. The assistant chief constable rightly characterised the EDL protests as an attempt to “gnaw away at the foundations of our vibrant, multicultural city”. Unfortunately, the Tory-led Birmingham City Council still lags behind, maintaining the pretence that this was no more than a minor inconvenience.
In the European elections at the beginning of June, a million people voted BNP. It was the greatest election success any fascist party has had in British history. Within weeks of his election, Nick Griffin has stiffened his party’s ideological resolve. The calls for “chemotherapy” to counter the “cancer” of Islam in Europe are chilling, coming from a man with a history of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
In many cases, mainstream politicians and ministers have not helped. They bend to the agenda of the racists in an attempt to hold on to voters who are deserting them. They piously profess to deplore racism, while conceding ever more political ground to the far right. Calls for “British jobs for British workers” or “Local homes for local people” do not challenge myths and lies, but give credibility to them. Support for the BNP is not a temporary “protest” vote that can be brought back quietly into the mainstream fold. On the contrary, this racism is becoming more open, more direct and more vicious. It must be confronted head-on.
On 4 July, when the first small group of EDL protesters came to Birmingham, I spent a pleasant afternoon at a community festival in my ward. It was one of those days when people who can trace their origins to every corner of the globe joined together. This is what we mean when we say, “One society – many cultures.”
This is the society that we must defend. No country is truly an island any longer. We are all connected. This is a good thing, a source of strength and unity. But people must speak up for it.
Salma Yaqoob is a Birmingham City councillor and leader of Respect – the Unity Coalition