I don’t really remember the exact moment the foul stench of the EDL’s particular brand of bigotry wafted into my consciousness. But I vaguely recall learning of their links to football hooliganism, and that they had formed to oppose Islamic extremists. In trying to pin down the precise time that proved the catalyst to my interest, I discovered that the watershed moment was probably due to a series of ‘anti-extremist’ marches held from April to August 2009, organised by a group called ‘March for England’. But there was no mention of the EDL at this point.
On the 10th of March 2009 the Royal Anglian Regiment, on their return from Afghanistan, were welcomed with a home coming parade in Luton. The march was marred by a demonstration by a hand full of Muslim men wielding offensive and inflammatory placards. This wasn’t an anti-war protest as such, but an intentionally tasteless piece of opportunism carried out by the Al-Muhajiroun group led by Anjem Choudary. Who were also unknown to me at the time. The first march took place in Luton under the guise of the ‘United People of Luton’ as a direct response to the disrespectful display from Choudary and his cohorts.
Learning that a man by the name of Tommy Robinson, who claimed to be the founder, was a Luton resident seemed to make sense. But knowing of the historic links between football firms and far right organisations, along with a natural leftist gut feeling of discomfort when minorities are targeted, my suspicion was aroused.
The spate of demonstrations continued with events in Birmingham and London. It appears that it’s around this time that the moniker ‘English Defence League’ was adopted, and picked up on. Further events took place in Birmingham (twice), London, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham before the end of the year, all under the banner of the EDL.
The media coverage had been steadily increasing since the first article was published in April, with inevitable attention being drawn to possible links to the racist BNP, and due to the hooligan element, violent neo-Nazi organisations like Combat 18 and the National Front. In an attempt to distance themselves from this image, they held a press conference ahead of their Manchester demonstration, and proceeded to symbolically burn a Nazi flag. This is the first vivid memory I have of the EDL. Balaclava-clad men, burning a flag, in a sparse and dingy room.
It didn’t take a great deal of investigation to realise that my reluctance to give them the benefit of my doubt was justified. Not that it required a sixth sense, as a Google search at that time would have revealed images of men baring more than a passing resemblance to the sinister paramilitary terrorists of the IRA & UDA.
It was at this point I made a discovery that was to cement a special place in my life for the EDL. Being a Cardiff City supporter I’m no stranger to terrace culture and all that goes with it. Despite not taking part in football violence, it’s impossible to follow a club like Cardiff City and not be exposed to it at some stage. Even if you’re not a hooligan, you either know someone who is, have seen them in action, or read one of their inevitable biographies. The names of individuals, rival firms and infamous battles become part of club folklore.
I’d seen it mentioned on a Cardiff City message board, that one of the founding members of the EDL was a City fan and Soul Crew member. Whilst reading a blog post about one of the EDL marches, I followed a link that took me to an article on the Hope not Hate website that profiled the hooligan leaders. My heart sank when reading about Jeff Marsh, Casuals Utd and the part he’d played in forming a movement of this nature.
Cardiff City fans have had a bad reputation that’s followed us around ever since I can remember, and genuine, law abiding supporters have always suffered from guilt by association. Telling someone you were a Cardiff City supporter when meeting people usually elicited one of two responses. Aggression. Or fear. Neither particularly welcome when on holiday or a night out. It’s a stigma we’ve had to endure as fans and a club, and have made huge strides in eradicating. Seeing a convicted Cardiff hooligan playing a lead role in the group I was already developing an unhealthy hatred for was depressing. I was angry at them for the bigotry and hatred they were spreading, I was angry that they were using the beautiful game to spread their message and recruit, and angry that the name of my club and hometown was going to be part of it’s history.
That was over a year ago now, and a lot has happened in the meantime. Unfortunately we’ve seen a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, and even more unfortunately, actions, due to the English Defence League and affiliated splinter groups. The right wing, mainstream media are doing their best to fan the flames with their anti-Muslim and anti-immigration scaremongering, whether they intend to or not.
Unfortunately they are tapping into a disillusioned and angry white working class, which now has a scapegoat to blame and a vent for their anger. How many of these are gullible kids being manipulated, or genuine racists playing the ‘Islam is not a race’ card, and hiding behind the ‘I’m not against all Muslims just the extremists’ fallacy, it’s impossible to tell. But my hope is that by exposing the lies for what they are, we can go some way to stemming the tide.
Even if convincing existing members and sympathisers that they are misguided is being optimistic, and a little naive. By challenging their misconceptions, prejudices and general bigotry, these racist organisations will realise they will not go unopposed.
The more scrutiny the EDL comes under, the more dirt gets uncovered, and their true motives will be laid bare for all to see. This, coupled with a clearer understanding between communities is what the anti-fascist and anti-racism movements in Britain are striving for, and what most decent people want.
The EDL has grown, but so has the opposition. I’m hoping maybe, even in just a small way, my hometown will be part of EDL history for another reason.