By Saqib Deshmukh
You had to wonder and at the same time be extremely concerned about mass kettles and any rights to free assembly and movement suspended on the 4th of February 2012 in Leicester. The police used their extensive Public Order powers to limit the right of people to protest against the English Defence League (EDL) marching through Leicester City centre. From where I stood (kettled) EDL marchers could wander without hindrance in the city centre, making gestures of defiance and enjoying the actions of the police.
It was business as usual in Leicester, EDL were free to march again and this time the new Mayor and Leicestershire Constabulary acquiesced to their demands and allowed them to march through the city. In contrast Leicester United Against Fascism (UAF), independent anti fascists and groups of young Muslim people were tightly controlled.
I have attended a number of EDL demos up and down the country over the last three years as a Legal Observer and stewarded at the UAF demo on the 4th of February and in 2010. In both years together with the Network for Police Monitoring and agencies such as The Racial Equality Centre (TREC) and the Highfields Centre I have co-ordinated the deployment of community based Legal Observers.
In some towns and cities experienced legal observers from across the UK have been deployed, but in Leicester we took a different route. By training up people from local agencies and community groups we are recognising the local knowledge and understandings that they will have. The Legal Observers are representative of the communities but also have clout at street, so are well placed to be effective monitors. As always the Legal Observers are independent and document police mobilisation and use of powers. In March 2011 Network for Police Monitoring published a report on policing at the last EDL rally in October 2010.
It was clear that this year the police were set on a strategy of controlling dissent on the day from anti-fascists and Muslim young people. Throughout the day the story that emerged from activists and Legal Observers was the same. The number of kettling operations conducted by the police on the UAF and young people was in stark contrast to how members of the EDL were treated. When you have a situation where long standing senior councillors are harassed and a newly elected female councillor pushed by the police whilst monitoring the demonstrations and protesting themselves it begs the question about how ordinary citizens are being treated. Throughout the day it was also evident that young people particularly young Muslims people were being stopped from going into the town centre.
The mayor proclaimed that it would be ‘business as usual’ on the 4th of February but many businesses were impacted by the route given to the EDL. Many closed for a half day and the busy outdoor market was reduced to running one stall. Many Muslims – black and brown citizens of Leicester stayed away especially families with children. In one sense it was ‘business as usual’ for those young Muslims men who did venture into town because they were persistently stopped and searched and harassed by officers from the 17 forces on duty on the day. Legal Observers witnessed countless incidents where local young Muslims were constantly being moved on, stopped & searched and in some cases brutalised. Young men from St. Matthew and Highfields (the main Black areas of the city) were involved in skirmishes with the police in Abbey Park where dogs were set on them.
The end of rallies and marches should have been the end of business that day. However, I learned from a legal Observer that an EDL group had managed to get to Charles Street so I ran to provide support and reassurance. At the same time a group of Muslim young men ran into the town centre, and I was caught in a police kettle with them. These lads became very angry about how they were being treated. We have to ask the question about why groups of EDL supporters in the town were not being controlled in this way and allowed to walk around town unchallenged.
On a wider level we need to understand the anger and frustration that many young people felt with the decision to allow the EDL to march through the city and why in the face of a local leadership abdicating their responsibility to combat racial and faith discrimination, they took this role up. That they wanted to challenge the EDL on their home turf was understandable, but that their very movement was criminalised is extremely worryingly. In many ways this was a continuation of what happened in 2010 in Leicester where Muslim participation in the democratic right to protest was curtailed and controlled. 3
Let’s get this straight – this was appeasement of the English Defence League on a massive scale. It is alleged that the EDL were offered 11 routes by the police/mayor before agreeing on one that would take them into the City Centre Clock tower. It seems to us that the police and authorities bent over backwards to facilitate the EDL and in contrast tightly control the counter demonstrations and spontaneous mobilisations that young Asian men were engaged in.
There does needs to be a full and proper enquiry into how policing of the 4th of February was conducted by Leicestershire Constabulary, the local authority and the Mayor. The enquiry must address the question: Why there was disproportionate policing of one section of the community and the impact that this will have on further marginalising Muslim young people from the political system?
About the author:
Saqib Deshmukh is an experienced manager, senior youth worker, writer and activist in Leicester and High Wycombe. He has worked in predominantly Muslim communities up and down the country for more than two decades. Currently one of the key organisers of the Justice for Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah campaign who died in 2008 after being arrested by the police in a car park in High Wycombe.