The English Defence League’s march into Tower Hamlets, scheduled for 3 September, has been met with a broad alliance of politicians and organisations — including council leaders from across the country, prominent trade unionists, religious leaders, the Canary Wharf Group, London Citizens and local LGBT organisations — calling for it to be banned. This week, a delegation from the Hope Not Hate coalition, led by London Assembly’s John Biggs and Rushanara Ali MP, presented a 25,000-name petition to Scotland Yard calling on Theresa May to ban the march, no doubt gaining inspiration from her recent decision on the Telford march earlier this month.
Of course, Tower Hamlets has been here before: Stepney in the 1930s, Brick Lane in the 1970s (and again in April 1999) and Millwall in the 1990s. The cosmetics are different but the fascist face beneath remains the same. The impact and attendant dangers of this march — into what the EDL claims is the “heart of militant Islam” and “the lions [sic] den”— are significant. The EDL is not planning a “peaceful” demonstration. The pattern is predictable: massive disruption to local communities and businesses, mobilisation of far-right activists from around the country ending in attacks on Muslims and other counter-demonstrators. So banning the march should be common sense: ban the march, stop the danger.
Unfortunately this logic is skin deep. When the Home Secretary banned the Telford march, it did nothing to prevent the EDL from staging a static protest. Nor did it prevent violent confrontations between the organisers and counter-demonstrators — there were 40 arrests. When the EDL’s Bradford march was banned last year, its members were still allowed to stage a static protest and, from their fenced-off park, they threw rocks and gas canisters at the police and counter-demonstrators. Some broke out of the pen and ran through the streets causing mayhem. During the Manchester demonstration in 2009, the police erected a steel fence around parts of Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of the city. The EDL circumnavigated the lockdown by marching from various assembly points (usually pubs) to the city centre. In the end, the bans achieved nothing.
I was born and raised on the Mile End Road, but I don’t believe the march should be banned for three reasons.
First, it will do nothing to prevent disorder and racist violence. If anything, it will still allow the EDL to hold a static demonstration as well as numerous parades into this area. And when they break out of it, they will turn Tower Hamlets, a densely populated inner-city borough with its warren-like streets, into a riot zone impossible to police.
Second, state intervention in protests is not something to be celebrated. Banning this march is a surely a harbinger of interventions in future protests not just those organised by the far right.
Third, the movement against the rise of fascism must not become dependent on the state. For inspiration, we have only to look at the Battle of Cable Street: the fascists came but they did not pass. Instead, local residents of diverse backgrounds united and fought back and dealt Oswald Mosley and his BUF the death blow.
If the EDL are to be defeated, it must be in the streets of Britain, in its front rooms, in its pubs. We are the ones that must do this — not the state.
Akkas Al-Ali is a playwright, director and dramaturg living in London.