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12 November 2023

Inside London’s day of rage

The night descended into skirmishes between protesters, the far right and the police. Is this the new normal?

By Freddie Hayward

London this weekend was charged with bigotry, conspiracy theories, Islamism and cocaine. Chaos reigned. Riot police rushed from street to street, trying to keep the far right away from the pro-Palestinian protest. Some of the latter protesters beat a man with sticks during a confrontation. Football hooliganism morphed into vigilante nationalism.

Armistice Day remembrance and calls for peace in Gaza were shunted to the background. Masked men from both sides took over streets as the police struggled to contain an outpouring of resentment. This country is angry. 

And Tommy Robinson is back. The founder of the anti-Islam English Defence League led a mass of men to the Cenotaph on Whitehall on Saturday 11 November to purportedly protect the remembrance ceremony from the pro-Palestinian protest. In the week before the march, Elon Musk restored Robinson’s Twitter account, along with that of the former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins. He had returned to the mainstream.

In Westminster, the story is framed in terms of whether the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s characterisation of the Palestinian protest as a “hate march” triggered the far right. That is naive. Hatred towards Muslims in this country long predates the Home Secretary. In 2017 Mark Rowley, now the Metropolitan Police commissioner and at the the time its head of counterterrorism, credited Robinson’s campaigns with radicalising the far-right terrorist Darren Osborne – a drunkard and loner with 102 previous criminal convictions – who drove a white van into a crowd outside the Finsbury Park mosque killing one person and injuring nine. The radicalisation of the far right runs much deeper than the political posturing of an ambitious cabinet minister.

This week, Robinson’s News Telegram account, which has 140,000 subscribers, linked to Elon Musk on wokeness, a Breitbart article on the rape of Israeli women during Hamas’s attack on 7 October, videos of violent pro-Palestinian protests in America, a clip of Justin Trudeau receiving a vaccine, updates on Jeffrey Epstein’s flight log, sympathetic posts about radical right parties including the AfD in Germany and Vox in Spain, and a video of the Spectator commentator Douglas Murray declaring, of the pro-Palestinian protests, that, unless the army was sent in, “the public will have to sort this out themselves. And it will be very, very brutal. It will be very brutal because there is no reason the soul of England, the soul of Britain, is about to be trampled on.”

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But it was the founding of the English Defence League (EDL) in 2009 that Robinson harked back to in his call for a “show of force”. Robinson said he created the EDL in response to Islamists holding placards calling British soldiers returning from Afghanistan “butchers” and the war in Iraq “illegal”. The night before the protest, Robinson told his supporters: “If you’re an English man and you’re watching this video, share it. Man the f*** up, get out on the streets. Where is your English pride? Where is your honour?”

Hundreds answered his call, mostly men, some masked, some from football hooligan firms. They claimed to be in London to protect the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph from the pro-Palestinian march. I saw no pro-Palestinian protesters at the Cenotaph. But that did not matter. Many were there to confront the protesters regardless.

Early on, the far right rushed a thin police line before being jammed in by fencing as they awaited the two minute’s silence at 11am. The air stank of cigarettes and occasional whiffs of marijuana. It was 10:45am but people were drinking cans of Scrumpy Jack, Strongbow, Stella Artois and Captain Morgan. Chants of “I’m English till I die” started up and then fell away. When a woman on a wall tried to start the same chant a group of men shouted back “you’ve got a nice arse”. Two men wearing balaclavas and St George’s flags as cloaks climbed a lamppost to tear off pro-Palestinian stickers. “Good lads,” an elderly man commented. The atmosphere was gleeful, expectant. They were here for a good time, and they were having one.

Chatter focused on the prospect of violence later on. “If it gets too rowdy, I’ll be off,” one chap informed a friend. Another man with a tartan cloak, tweed three-piece suit, thick grey side-burns and a bowler hat, who was flying a St George’s flag, told the crowd that the concept of being British was now redundant. “You’re either English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish,” he said. Only migrants claimed to be British. “I don’t mind when they fucking come and work hard,” said someone behind me. “They’re all fighting age men,” another shouted.

Over the debate, the harmony of bagpipes signalled the start of the ceremony and applause began. The two minute’s silence at 11am was observed but once it was over, chants of “Engerland, Engerland, Engerland” broke out before people started moving off, uninterested in the rest of the ceremony. One protester, a member of a football firm, made his plans for the rest of the morning clear: “Meet Tommy Robinson, see the Churchill statue, head to Trafalgar Square.”

This, for many, was an away day. They hung their flags with pride, got pissed and scrapped with the police. But their team this time wasn’t a sports side. They were nationalists fighting against what they saw as a foreign threat. Illegal immigration, Muslim grooming gangs, left-wing protesters and Islam were all bundled into one.

For that reason, they were not going to head home once the silence was over. They dispersed around Whitehall. Robinson departed in a taxi, leaving his supporters to entertain themselves. Some headed to the pubs. Others moved towards Hyde Park where the pro-Palestinian protesters were gathering. Nine young men from the Cenotaph swaggered into Green Park nearby and unfurled an English flag while a group of Muslims prayed on the other side of the green.

Streams of people filled the streets to attend the Palestinian march. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell led the slow procession from Hyde Park towards the US embassy in Nine Elms behind banners for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, trade unions and the Stop the War Coalition. A child wore a placard around her neck that read “Israeli target”, others featured the Star of David fused with a swastika and depicted Braverman and Rishi Sunak as coconuts (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” rang out from speakerphones.

The greatest risk of violence lay in the far-right protesters and pro-Palestinian activists converging. The police knew this. Side streets were blocked off with police vans parked end to end. But as the main procession approached Lambeth Bridge, a group of masked thugs cut into the road ahead of the main protest, gesticulating merrily as a group of young, pro-Palestinian men gathered and started shouting abuse. Stewards desperately tried to move the men on. But a young, angry man from the pro-Palestinian side stepped forward and threw a can at the thugs before the group peeled off into a garden.

They would be back. But the march pressed on over Lambeth Bridge and arrived at the American Embassy. As the speakers, including Corbyn, took to the main stage, I got talking to two young men, wearing balaclavas and holding a German Shepherd on a chain. A 25-year-old told me he thought Israel created Hamas and that the Israel Defense Forces committed the massacre on 7 October at the Re’im music festival as a pretext for invading Gaza. “They killed their own people,” he said. “It was on the news, on Twitter.”

The night descended into skirmishes between the protesters, the far right and the police. Fireworks set off by pro-Palestinians were heard across the city. The question now is whether this is the new normal.

[See also: Is Israel’s grisly PR failing?]

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