A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.
It’s unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.
As marches go — and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march — this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.
At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.
By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.
Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Mosley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren’t wearing any shirts at all.
They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.
Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone’s memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.
Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.
The EDL claim to be opposed only to the “threat” posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.
“Scum, scum, scum, scum!” yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face. The EDL really hate these boys, and it’s a wild, hopeless hate, and it’s not just about religion. “You’re not English, you’re not English, you’re not English anymore!” they chant, in an ugly parody of a football song. “YOU’RE not E-e-ngli-ish a-ny-mooooore!”
Behind some railings, Connor, a sixteen-year old white boy, is standing with his mother, applauding the EDL as they go past. “I agree with them,” he says. “They’re the only people speaking for us.”
“You’re not allowed to be British in Britain anymore,” says Connor’s mum, who doesn’t want to give her name. I ask her what she means. At first she is hostile — “what, don’t you agree with them?” — but when I say that I’m a journalist, she visibly relaxes, almost as if she’s been waiting for someone to talk to about what’s really bothering her. As if the connection was obvious, she immediately launches into a diatribe about services.
“You have to fight for everything, you’re fighting to get into a doctor, you’re fighting to get into schools, you’re fighting to get housing. You see him?” She indicates Connor, who grins. “I had to fight to get him into high school because of all the ethnics in the area. My friend, she’s got six kids, she’s been on the council waiting list for fifteen years, she’s been in hostels, no deposit to put down to privately rent, and the council will not house her.
“Now, it’s not about religion or anything, but it’s like my mum says, we grew here and they flew here, so we should be first on the list. If you’re going to let all these people in” — we both know which “people” she’s talking about — “then build more hospitals, build more schools. They’re closing the schools, aren’t they?”
A bottle smashes into the pavement a foot in front of us. The EDL bellow at the boys disappearing down the alley, a sing-song crowd chant that bounces eerily around the bright, deserted sidestreet.”Allah is a paedo! Allah is a paedo!”
“You’ll be picking up your benefits on Monday morning, won’t you?” hollers one man in a blue football shirt.
Clearly, this is about more than just Sharia law, whatever the EDL’s leadership claim. I catch the man’s eye, and he must be able to see the horror in my face, because he laughs, loud, and points at me. He feels powerful. He is with his friends. “Whose streets?” they shout, claiming the space aggressively. “Our streets!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!” chant the anti-fascists three roads away, behind a double row of police lines and riot vans. The Unite Against Fascism rally began with music and speeches, but several hours later, hundreds of activists from Tower Hamlets and the surrounding areas — black, white and Asian; old and young, though mostly young — are waiting for the EDL, the mood tense and frustrated under the mad glare of the afternoon sun. Prayers have finished, and the Muslim boys from the area have turned out in large numbers to defend the Whitechapel mosque.
Every so often, there is a rush into Leman Street, or another side street, and running scuffles with the police; there are some young men here who are, one suspects, more than a little disappointed that they won’t get the chance to scrap with the far-right today.
There is anger here, too. There is frustration and fear, and a willingness to protect the community at all costs. Later on, a coach carrying members of the EDL is attacked as it goes through Stepney Green, its windows smashed and placards and traffic cones hurled inside by young Asian men who do not bother to cover their faces: confident, perhaps, that the retreating proto-fascists will not be able to tell them apart anyway.
Less than a month ago, when young Muslim men came out to defend their homes, mosques and places of business against the violent despair of mostly non-white rioters from the inner cities, they were lauded as heroes. Today, when young Muslim men use the same vigilante justice to defend themselves from the violent despair of a mostly-white, racist rabble, no one knows quite where to look.
On both sides of the political spectrum, politicians and policymakers have urged us to try to understand the disenfranchisement of white, far-right groups like the EDL, rather than dismissing their protests as “mindless violence”.
Rioters from the inner cities, by contrast, are sent to jail for six months for stealing bottles of water; their rage at a system which does not want to educate, house or employ them written off as “pure criminality”.
Behind the mounted, armoured cops, you can see St George’s flags waving, and you can hear the thump and echo of smokebombs and the chanting of hate-tourists out to scrap with members of another disenfranchised community that happens to look and pray differently. The East end is in lockdown, and there are hundreds of police everywhere. The horses are spooked, and so am I.