Liam Monsell provides a fantastic account of Saturday’s events including interviews with members of the EDL and Exeter Together.
The English Defence League’s decision to embark on a peaceful protest in Exeter has not only tested the nature of the city’s multicultural values, but has also proved to highlight the national disparity between political and social sects.
Labelling themselves as a “Human rights group opposed to militant Islam,” the EDL is inherently nationalist, with fascistic principles present in their reactive hostility to Islam and multiculturalism. Despite this, they maintain that they are a peaceful human rights group opposed only to militant Muslims.
The demonstration which took place on Saturday 16th November was peaceful to the extent that no major fights broke out, but by no means was it a pleasant display on their part. This is nothing new. The group regularly tour around the country causing similar instances of disorder and chaos. Unfortunately their conduct has gained them a reputation that means they rarely get the opportunity to express the deepest of their grievances.
This is a sympathy I have toward the EDL. As much as I disagree with their ideology, I believe they should have the right to express their views in the same manner everyone else does. What many of them lack however is the capacity to do so respectably, but I understand that more often than not they get provoked into behaving barbarically before they even get the opportunity. This doesn’t justify their behaviour, but it highlights that there are issues on both sides that need to be addressed.
What was enlightening about Saturday’s demonstration was Exeter’s reaction. I spent many hours in Bedford Square on Saturday and witnessed a very impressive turnout of over 1000 locals of many ages, backgrounds and political persuasions. College and University students also gathered at the scene, asserting their desire to stand for equality, and to prevent the perversion of the core qualities of their multicultural Exeter. There was a real sense of togetherness. The event was organised by the recently established Exeter Together, along with Unite Against Fascism and the English Disco Lovers, with appearances from the Anti-Nazi league and academics from Exeter University’s centre of Arab and Islamic studies.
The message of protest against the EDL’s presence was strong, although the atmosphere was generally calm and peaceful. Volunteers read poetry, sang songs and offered messages of love, harmony and unity. Speaking to many people attending the demonstration, many of which were students, there was an abundant claim that the nature of Exeter’s diversity and multiculturalism made it a community that had no need for the EDL’s presence, whose perceived zeal in the realms of “hateful xenophobic hooliganism” is claimed to only strengthen the city’s stance against intolerance rather than fragment it.
With all the smiles (despite the slowly worsening weather,) music and conversation, you could have almost found yourself forgetting about the infamous group that catalysed Saturday’s demonstration in the first place. A swift walk down Queen Street revealed the alternative approach to political confrontation. Cooped up within the proximity of Northernhay gardens, and indeed a barrier of policemen, stood the Defence League in their hundreds.
Despite the leader’s peaceful claims, there was no warmth, and there was no peace, only the violent onslaught of chants and a sea of covered faces and British flags. What may indeed have started as a peaceful demonstration was certainly beginning to sour at an alarming rate.
Behind me, the story wasn’t much better. Unjustly praising themselves with being on the moral high ground, left-wing extremists and anarchists similarly found themselves hypocritically denouncing the hateful doctrine of the EDL with aggressive chants and threats of violence from behind a wall of high visibility jackets. Chants of “Off our streets, Nazi scum!” were met with the roar of “E-E-E-D-L!” and “You’re not English anymore!”
If you walked into the scenario with no contextual knowledge, you wouldn’t be able to tell who the demonstration was based around. The heavy presence of police prevented any major conflict from spiralling out of control, although everyone could tell that it would only take one spark to set the whole situation alight.
It was a fascinating, yet brutally eye-opening experience. Like many others, I had only properly seen the EDL on the TV, and even though their behaviour on the news was undoubtedly much worse than the events of Saturday, it still came as shock. Before, I withheld some opinions of the group on the grounds of not wanting to generalise, and the absence of sufficient exposure to their subjects. After Saturday, although still not in a position to totally generalise, I can see that there is an indisputable lack of consistency between what the party’s leaders claim to stand for, and how the followers of the group execute their protest. There also exists a flaw in how students like me view the EDL. Several members and sympathisers told me how they resented that fact that all members are generalised as “mindless Neanderthal thugs,” and that such opinions are invalid as students are “separated from what’s real, only reading about it in books and not experiencing it on the street.”
Much of what was said is true to a certain extent. It may be the lack of information and exposure to the sources of discontent on both sides that keeps this conflict spinning in perpetual motion, and perhaps the reduction of these complex topics into rather objective, political and therefore teachable principles drains them of the quality that enables us to understand them properly. This may be where the university comes in.
The University was right to request as little association with the event as possible, and as far as I am aware, no student responded to the League’s presence in a manner that undermined its credibility. Such matters, regardless of how important and interesting, are dangerous, and an onslaught of young impressionable students ardent for some desperate political glory can only threaten to dampen the dignity of any notion of tolerance that exists in our society. On a local level, the University undoubtedly and justly wants to protect its name.
To appropriately combat these issues, an element of grace and cooperation should be maintained, and whilst the University was right to remain distant from the issue, appropriate steps should be made to at least foster a notion of political tolerance in young students that may prevent conflict that devalues what the institution promotes. Saturday’s demonstration was a pragmatic way to promote such a mentality, displaying the ability for many different groups to unite in a gathering that preaches what really defines Britain as a modern nation. If Exeter wants to protect its status of vibrant diversity, it should keep walking in the direction suggested by the events of the 16th.