For a movement that was on the verge of implosion less than a month ago, the English Defence League has staged a major show of force in central London, signalling that the death of Drummer Lee Rigby has breathed new life into the far-right protest group.
More than 1,000 supporters – including football hooligans, veteran fascists and others – assembled under tight police security at the entrance to Downing Street, where they listened to their leaders blameIslam for the killing in Woolwich last week.
A counter-demonstration of several hundred people, organised by anti-fascist groups, was kept apart from the EDL protest, which chanted “scum, scum, scum” as their leader, Tommy Robinson, railed against the left and Muslims. Flags of St George fluttered and placards with messages such as “wool which 2013: no turning back” were held aloft.
Amongst those at the EDL gathering was Ben Roberts, a former soldier waving a flag of St George and wearing service medals from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I am here to show we stand together against the killers of Lee Rigby. It seems there is one law today for Muslims and one for everyone else,” he said, adding that other ex-service personnel were also present. “I’ve had it with parties like Labour and the Conservatives,” said Roberts, who identified himself as a Ukip voter.
Both demonstrations passed off peacefully until they neared their end shortly after 4pm, when some glass bottles were hurled between the two groups. Police said 13 arrests were made. Later, a group of around 100 anti-fascists mobbed around five men arriving late to the EDL protest draped in union flags and wearing England football shirts. Police stepped in to put up a cordon around them.
While many of the EDL protesters were young men with close-cropped hair wearing casual sports gear or England shirts, there were a small number of women and children. A handful of Sikhs, the presenwhose presence in tiny numbers at past EDL gatherings has been condemned by leaders of their community, also shook hands with the EDL supporters and walked alongside them as they made their way to a separate protest outside Downing Street in support of a militant on death row in India.
Varinder Singh, who has set up a group called Sikhs against the EDL and was present at the demonstration against the EDL, said: “We believe that the EDL is out to pitch one community against the other. They have tried to recruit Sikhs to their cause, but only a handful have been with them at any one time. These people should know that the EDL is a dangerous fascist organisation.”
Watched by bemused tourists in the bank holiday summer sunshine, those taking part in the EDL demonstration started to gather outside two pubs near Trafalgar Square at around 2pm, guided by messages posted on Twitter.
Anti-fascist protesters had occupied an area near Downing Street which appeared to be intended for the EDL protest. However, they were moved back and the EDL contingent, which included large numbers from outside London, marched down from the square to the area, where microphones and a sound system had been set up.
Weyman Bennett from Unite Against Fascism, who was with the counter-protest, said: “We have come out in our hundreds, Muslim and Jew. The EDL want to use the tragic death of Lee Rigby to tear apart our society. We’ve seen it before and we have to stand against it.”