John Tranter attended the latest demonstration against the English Defence League.
Photo credit – trevorjono
Last Saturday, the EDL marched and demonstrated through the Lancashire city of Preston, congregating on the Flagmarket and marching back down Church Street (one of Preston’s main high streets). The demonstration was rowdy and buoyant, extremely loud smoke bombs were thrown at police horses and EDL chants could be heard all over the city centre. During the march back to their coaches, a breakaway group of around 100 attempted to make a break down an alley towards the largely Asian area of Avenham, before being contained by police. Towards the end of Church Street, police lines were aggressively broken a second time and a large group attempted to charge into the mixed-ethnicity area of Deepdale but they were rounded up and corralled back into the main group by mounted police and riot officers. The police estimated 1000 attendees at the event and from the crowd numbers in the upper hundreds could be clearly seen. On the streets surrounding the demonstration, members of the public seemed to have mixed reactions to the EDL’s presence; many young men joined in the chanting from outside the cordon and racist chanting and abuse could be heard from large groups of young men up and down Fishergate (the main high street). Few Muslims turned out to oppose the demonstration and opponents of the EDL in the town centre for the most part remained silent. 14 members of the EDL were arrested on Public Order charges.
In opposition to the EDL event was a counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism in the Fishmarket. Police estimated 150 attendees and organizers claim 250 at its peak – however, at different points of the day numbers as low as 50 to 80 were present. There was a high turnout from local Labour Party councillors and Trades Council members, however the broader mobilization was very limited and the tone of the protest very mild. Organizers arranged music and dancing but no attempt to move into visual proximity with the EDL demonstration was made.
The Flagmarket is by far the most prominent open space in Preston Town Centre, in comparison with the Fishmarket which is tucked around the corner further away from the main shopping streets. Originally, UAF had successfully booked the Flagmarket for their demonstration but were later informed that this decision had been revoked by the Police and that they would be relocated to their final space on the Fishmarket. Further, active attempts to discourage locals from attending both events were undertaken by the Police, with official warnings about the levels of violence expected cropping up in local papers from all around the region, alongside warnings insinuating extreme police responses to any disorder.
At around 12 O’clock on the day of the demo, UAF supporters were informed that police had set a time limit on their demonstration – 2 O’clock – and that if this was breached local socialist councillor and UAF organizer Michael Lavalette would be arrested. Despite this, a large portion of attendees remained in the Fishmarket after being instructed to disperse, and only did so after being told that the EDL had left the Flagmarket.
By contrast, the EDL demonstration was allowed to noisily assemble in the Flagmarket, equipped with fireworks and smoke bombs and then march the length of Church Street, whilst engaging in skirmishes with officers along the way. Eyewitnesses claim that EDL members were seen climbing on the back of police horses and openly fighting with officers during the march back to their coaches. Alongside these scenes, large groups of EDL supporters made several attempts to charge into Asian areas of the City, only to be ultimately contained by the police. Whilst marching down Church Street, groups of wandering EDL youths were freely able to pour racist abuse on local passers-by.
The police report from the day claimed that the EDL march had been largely orderly and that no major outbreaks of violence were seen. Preston UAF have claimed the Police treated the EDL demonstration with disproportionate respect to their own and are campaigning for an inquiry into the reversal of UAF permission to assemble in the Flagmarket.
It would be fair for the EDL to claim the 27th as a success. Mixed but distinct support was present from the general public, despite the aggressive nature of their protest and they were ultimately able to march unhindered through the town centre. The turnout was greater than many had expected, especially when compared to their recent national mobilization in Bradford, and was especially successful considering that organisers had arranged another EDL demonstration in Nuneaton on the same day.
However, support for UAF was surprisingly low. Tucked away in the bottom corner of the Fishmarket, their demonstration made little impact on the city centre shoppers and certainly didn’t register on the radar of the EDL. Poor turnout was indicative of a marginal base in the local community and their weak position was further defined by their inability to oppose the encroachments of the police both before and during the day. Music and dancing further de-fanged the UAF event and contrasted starkly with the confident and angry showing from the EDL.
Further to these criticisms, local activists claim that UAF deliberately hindered their attempts to organize in the Flagmarket in their eagerness to appease the demands of the police. The movement from the Flagmarket to the Fishmarket, and the organization of bands for the UAF demonstration, were decided and agreed upon without the consent of many local activists who had been helping to publicise the event. Moreover, when a group of disgruntled activists began posting messages on the wall of UAF’s facebook event telling people to assemble in the Flagmarket as initially planned, UAF organizers deleted both the facebook event and even the facebook group, replacing them with an ‘official’ group and event requiring moderator permission for membership. These official groups failed to attract as many followers as the original groups and some local activists believe that these actions fed into the poor mobilization for UAF on the day.