EDL: Peaceful protest or fearful march?

EDL: Peaceful protest or fearful march?

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News Editor Owen Keating gives his thoughts on the recent EDL march.

Exeter’s thriving city centre is often full of shoppers looking for the ideal bargain. However, on Saturday 16 November, the city was full of another kind of pedestrian: the English Defence League were holding their national demonstration in Exeter, and a counter-march, organised by Exeter Together, was opposing them.

“While that morning’s Exeter Together march was a positive occasion of diversity and disco, we were all expecting something slightly different from the EDL’s march. We weren’t wrong.”
Photo Credits: Niklas Rahmel

The week before the marches was filled with fervent activity on social media and in the local press, as well as, for those (including myself) who would be covering the march for Exeposé, no small amount of safety briefings.

On the day itself, my role involved covering the EDL demonstration. While that morning’s Exeter Together march was a positive occasion of diversity and disco, we were all expecting something slightly different from the EDL’s march. We weren’t wrong.

The Locomotive Inn, where the EDL met, was not only heavily policed, but also the venue for an incident that has already earned national attention. Men in burqas pretended to pray on the street, causing widespread outrage across the street, where a number of observers had gathered. Police Liaison officers were involved, angry onlookers were moved on, and the EDL kept slurping pints and singing hackneyed ex-football chants about being English until they eventually die. Obviously.

Pretty soon after this, the actual march began. Between 225 and 300 EDL supporters crowded into one tightly packed group, while policemen riding horses and journalists wielding Twitter accounts did their utmost to not get in each other’s way. I moved in front of the march with our photographer, who jumped onto ledges and inbetween hi-vis police to get some stunning photos along the route.

The atmosphere wasn’t so much threatening as just surreally aggressive. Men with megaphones claimed back the country, as the previously mentioned police horses did a very good job of keeping the march to just the one, designated route. In the interest of fairness, I will say that if the EDL, as they claim, do actually own the streets, it was very nice of them to let the police have this particular one for the afternoon, as swathes of law enforcers were very effective in controlling the march at this point.

On Queen Street, the atmosphere changed: a small but vocal crowd lined the streets, and the constant EDL chants were punctuated by minor scuffles and bouts of prolonged, impressive swearing.

Devon and Cornwall Police described the marches as “peaceful”: while this is certainly true in that there were no major flashpoints, the EDL’s turning into their rally point at Northernhay Gardens left little doubt as to the vitriol surrounding their march. Anti-fascist protestors hurled abuse, and only a particularly determined wall of police personnel stopped the two sides from clashing.

Some journalists, including myself, another News Editor, and our photographer got behind the cordon and inside the EDL’s final rally. The atmosphere changed significantly here, as a stall appeared out of nowhere to sell t-shirts, and marchers milled around chatting as if they were at a garden party, except with more explicitly fearful prejudice towards other people.

While our journalistic presence on the march had been tolerated, if not welcomed (the EDL do NOT like cameras, or Twitter, or pretty much anything that you can’t chant, apparently), it soon became clear that our presence at the rally was causing some tension. Along with major news organisations, we were threatened with physical violence if we didn’t leave immediately. As the situation escalated, we were advised by the police to move away from the scene, before the EDL decided to move us away themselves.

As we walked back towards our base in the centre of town, we reflected on what had been an exciting afternoon. While the EDL claimed that Exeter had made them feel welcome, all I saw was disbelief at the bigotry inherent within their views. Having both followed the march, and indeed talked to demonstrators, I can say that the overriding emotion I’d associate with the EDL was fear, be it fear of the other, fear of equality, or even just fear of a student journalist with a Twitter account.

Owen Keating, News Editor

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