I spent a day with the EDL
I posed as a member to see how they’re getting on
Not Racist. Not Violent. So the English Defence League slogan goes. With the existence of a Brighton EDL division and the town tackling a nationwide influx of members of the far right organization every year for the “March For England”, B-town is no stranger to the reality of the EDL’s Islamophobia and the disturbance its conflicts with Unite Against Fascism can cause.
However, since Tommy Robinson’s acrimonious departure from the outfit in 2013, the EDL has been thought to be in terminal decline. The recent Channel 4 documentary Angry, White and Proud focusing on splinter groups focused on the assumption that the main organization had “‘broken up”. But before Sussex students put down their UAF flags and dropped out of the English Discover Lovers I thought it’d be best to know for certain whether the EDL was truly down and out.
I had heard that whatever was left of the organization was going to be in Dudley protesting the proposed construction of a new mosque. I felt an interesting, perhaps even unique, way to get an idea of the EDL and its current strength without it being dubbed some nobody journalist was to go to Dudley and pose, for one day at least, as a member.
Walking down a Dudley street that would have been open for business on any other Saturday I was met by rows and rows of boarded shop fronts and small groups of police officers every few feet. Rock Zombie, the agreed rendezvous point for the EDL march, was the only thing open in the entire area, and as I moved past the white skinheads at the door I found myself on a lightless, airless dance floor.
As Rock Zombie slowly began to fill up, the members present slotted perfectly into preconceived notions of yobs alongside a few wives and girlfriends. There were also kids no older than ten years old wearing black hoodies which identified them as “English Defence League Foot Soldiers”.
Leaving the club I found that many more EDL members had finally started to arrive. Looking at the hundreds of loud, opinionated white men around me. If the EDL was defunct a fair few clearly hadn’t got the message. I overheard London accents and was soon speaking to EDL marchers Danny and Maurice about topics ranging from MI5’s attempted recruitment of Michael Adebolajo to Danny’s supposed arrest for showing an English flag in his window “while they put up Islamic State flags next door”.
We were soon joined by perhaps the shortest EDL member struggling to hold the biggest flagpole there, and as part of this makeshift quadrant I felt that for better or worse I had been accepted as part of the group assembling for the march.
As the march began to creep forward police liaison officers had lost their smiles, anxiously instructing the EDL stewards to stop the crowd then slowly inch them down the cordoned streets. With my place at the vanguard and chants of “with St. George in my heart keep me English” ringing in my ears, I was starting to understand how Hitler had so much support at Nuremberg when all of a sudden it was over. The march had turned a couple of corners and come to its designated finish, covering a distance little more than a five minute stroll.
The EDL had assembled a podium and a table selling merchandise next to a war memorial. After Maurice handed me one of the wristbands he had bought at the makeshift store bearing a ‘black and white unite’ slogan I began to listen to the speakers justify the EDL, framing it as an antidote to issues ranging from the lack of media coverage of Boko Haram to the Rotherham child grooming scandal. The second speaker began to lose the audience’s interest, and with a great irony his claims that the EDL was not Islamophobic were drowned out by chants of “Allah is a paedo”.
The most sinister event of the day occurred on the train from Dudley Port to Birmingham, and was perhaps the only point in the day where my stance of undercover reporter carried any advantage. The EDL members had spotted an Asian man sitting on the opposite platform and commented that “all this is for people like at him” and “look at him, he can’t look at us. He doesn’t know where to look”. This focus on an individual who these people knew nothing more about than the colour of his skin served as a final reminder that members akin to those on the train were undeniably racist. While the EDL as an organization came across to me as having a lot of bark and no bite, the potential for individuals associated with the movement to use more violent Islamophobia remains a genuine threat to the British Muslim community, no matter what town you are in.
Angry, White and Proud may have claimed that the EDL had disbanded, the far right splintering into various localized groups, but the fair size of this Dudley march showed to me that while a long way from the Tommy Robinson heydays, the EDL retains enough of a central core to be a force to be reckoned with. Brighton better be bracing itself for the 2015 March For England.