“Tommy’s coming home, he’s coming home,” chanted the almost exclusively white, male crowd outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice in response to the news that far-right agitator Tommy Robinson was to be released on bail.
To show their support for the English Defence League founder, around 30 of his biggest fans showed up for the judgement, which for now overturns one of two contempt of court convictions against Robinson (real name Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon). Dressed almost uniformly in short-sleeved shirts, shorts and trainers, with bald heads and large stomachs, Robinson’s fans were there to support a man who has become an icon to a certain type of disgruntled Englishman.
“We have no leadership, we need him. We used to have Nigel Farage,” said a man in the typical uniform, holding a laminated piece of paper featuring Robinson’s face and the words “Free Tommy Robinson Now” printed below. “Tommy stood up for me. He stood up and talked for me. The least I could do is be here today and stand up for him.”
The case that was overturned concerned Robinson filming defendants in an ongoing trial outside Leeds Crown Court back in May 2017. The video was viewed by over 250,000 people within hours of being posted on Facebook. It will now be heard again and Robinson could end up being returned to jail.
“They talk about the rise of the far-right. This isn’t the rise of the far-right. People like me have always been here. I’ve never been racist in my life, but when they say that I am, I go ‘Oh yeah, OK, I’m a racist,’” said a man in a t-shirt printed with an image of Robinson’s face with his mouth taped shut.
Over the course of the morning, Robinson’s supporters came and went in dribs and drabs – in pretty stark contrast to the counter protest organised by Stand Up To Racism, which appeared all at once ten minutes before the verdict, banners, placards and loudspeakers at the ready, chants and songs memorised.
Their appearance prompted one man, wrapped in an England flag, to say animatedly: “Oh here we go.”
Before the arrival of the counter-protest, the crowds outside the court had remained calm.
One of the organisers announced their arrival to the gathering crowds: “We’re here because we believe Tommy Robinson is no working class hero. He’s no friend of the oppressed and we’re sick and tired of him being paraded as a working class hero in this country. We are not going to let racists divide us.”
The protestors present to support Robinson were not quite so organised or united. One man said: “I’m here to support Tommy but I do think he needs to tone down his rhetoric a bit. Otherwise people are just gonna say he’s racist.” Another supporter said: “[Robinson] is not a racist. He’s against the rise of Islamism. That doesn’t make him a racist.”
One protestor, wearing a black #freetommy cap, covered his own mouth with tape, presumably to make a comment about free speech.
But this disorganised, disparate (in views if not appearance) crowd is only one small part of Robinson’s burgeoning fan club.
Ezra Levant, a Canadian journalist, live-tweeted from outside the hearing, and a video he posted of the scene outside the courthouse received over 80,000 views within a few hours. His tweet announcing that Robinson had won his appeal, quickly received thousands of retweets and favourites. Online is where Robinson gets the numbers.
Before being banned from Twitter back in March of this year, Robinson boasted 413,000 followers. He has over 200,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and the videos he posts routinely get hundreds of thousands of views. On Facebook he has over 800,000 likes. American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has previously endorsed Robinson, helping to secure his international following, and varied American alt-right figures have held up the Englishman as a poster boy for their own ideologies.
Given the amplification, it’s perhaps unsurprising that after Wednesday’s announcement “Tommy Robinson” trended worldwide on Twitter for hours with over 80,000 tweets about him from both critics and fans.
In contrast the protestors in London seemed not all that committed to their cause. A husband and wife, out to support Robinson, were escorted by police away from the counter-protestors they were shouting abuse at. At that point they decided they would rather go for a pint.