Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2012


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Across the Barricade

Counter demonstration

About a month ago I landed a job that brought me to Luton, Bedfordshire. Like many young professionals from around the world who come to the United Kingdom to live in London, gain work experience and travel, I had come here with similar hopes and dreams. As fate would have it, however, I landed my dream job in Luton, only 50 km north of London, and without a second thought I jumped at the opportunity.  

I knew very little about Luton before my job interview. However, it didn’t take long for that to change. Luton is associated with the name of the English Defence League (EDL) and its leader Tommy Robinson who comes from Luton.  Everyone in the UK knows what the EDL stands for: it specialises in street demonstrations that often turn violent. It took one mention of where I would be working for a friend to respond immediately with, ‘isn’t that where the EDL are.’  

The EDL emerged out of a hooligan football culture, and turned into a violent right-wing organisation. It aims to eradicate Islamic extremism. On the face of it, this idea might sound acceptable because ‘Islamic extremism’ should not have the title Islam attached to it at all.  However, the EDL is not merely combating Islamic extremism. Observers describe them as a far-right group that denies it is white supremacist, Islamophobic and racist.

On the 5th of May 2012 the EDL marched through Luton to showcase their support for the newly established far right British Freedom Party and to 'prove' that Luton is a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. For a town of 250,000 that is usually busy on any day of the week, especially on weekends, Luton became a ghost town on the 5th of May. People remembered violent street clashes years earlier.  

Having grown up learning all about South Africa’s apartheid era and the Nazi period, I wanted to stand up and be counted which is why I made the conscious decision to attend the counter demonstration against the EDL, organised by Unite Against Fascism.  As a non-white migrant, I felt personally affronted by the EDL. It’s also the reason why I have written this article to show others just how dangerous such movements are.  

On the day of the EDL protest, Luton was particularly eerie. The police presence was hard to go unnoticed. At my local shop I asked the shopkeeper why there were so many police in this part of town. He told me that the police were blocking off certain entrance points into town to control the EDL crowd trying to get access from the motorway.  

I remember saying ‘Stay safe’ to him. There was something about this day that felt exceptionally unsafe especially for the Asians and Muslims I frequently came across; a friend advised me that if I noticed a group of white men together on a day like this, I must avoid them at all costs. I knew about the EDL’s reputation from reading about their previous rallies.  

I walked towards the counter demonstration being held at Wardown Park. The park is situated on the River Lea and home to the Wardown Museum and gardens; it’s usually a serene tranquil setting. But on this day the park was surrounded by police brought in from all across the UK for the two demonstrations that were to take place.  

I joined about 600 counter demonstrators along a route negotiated by the organisers and the police. Overall it was a peaceful protest with only two attempts by some protestors to break away from the agreed upon route to try and occupy Bury Park and St George’s Square. The police handled these breakaways well. However, some Lutonians felt that those trying to break away were disrupting their own peaceful attempts at presenting Luton’s multicultural face. It didn’t help that the breakaway protesters happened to come from outside of Luton.  

In the end I saw nothing at all of the EDL demonstration. Both groups of protesters were segregated from each other; organisers and Police had carefully ensured that minimal clashes would occur. The Police did make two arrests on each side of the demonstrations. As an outsider it seemed ironic to me that a peaceful counter demonstration also needed to be heavily policed.   

The locals here just want to get on with their lives without everything coming to a standstill. It’s obvious that labelling and ‘othering’ is not everyone’s agenda. As quite a few stores closed for the day, Luton’s business community faced a significant financial loss not to mention the amount of public money that went into policing these demonstrations.  

Luton’s South Asian population is about twenty percent, but I observed that only a minority participated in the counter demonstration even though, at a community meeting two weeks earlier, the Imam of Bury Park Mosque had urged Muslims to participate. But opinion was divided for a postman told me that the imam at his local mosque advised his congregation not to attend and to make sure that the young ones stayed at home.   

On the day police were unable to respond to normal call-outs on the police emergency line because they were too busy policing these demonstrations. Many Lutonians were unhappy about this—everyone was paying a price.  

Clearly racism in any form is not acceptable. However, I came away at the end of the day wondering how Luton will progress in the future if both sides do not try to reduce the social distance separating them. Living in enclaves is clearly not the answer. I intend to keep a watching brief.  

Mona Said
(a pseudonym - Name supplied)