This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.
Since 2009, supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) have repeatedly targeted the borough of Tower Hamlets, styling the area as ‘Britain’s Islamic state’. While EDL marches have undoubtedly presented the local council and police with major challenges, the borough’s strong tradition of anti-racist activism and its history of engagement between local activists and the council have meant that community resilience has not been damaged. Indeed, EDL marches have led to the formation of new, inter-community alliances.
In July 2011, the EDL announced a national call out of its supporters to Tower Hamlets, ‘Britain’s Islamic state’. A march was planned for 3rd September and a YouTube promotional video was posted on the EDL website depicting the Bangladeshi Muslim community in the borough as a threat to English people and their way of life. This was the latest in a series of on-line and on street activities by EDL supporters targeting the borough. Since 2009 EDL supporters had used social networking sites to attack Islamic institutions and Muslim individuals in the borough, small numbers of supporters had carried out ‘flash demonstrations’ and in June 2010 they threatened to protest outside an Islamic conference. The local impact of activity by the EDL in the five years since they were formed has been complex – there has been fear, anger and threatened and real disorder and violence, but also moments of great unity and pride. In this article I explore two features of the reaction to the EDL in the borough since 2009: firstly the lack of widespread violence, and secondly, the steady improvement in survey measures of cohesion over the period. Whilst it is clear that the EDL’s targeting of the borough has put strain on relationships between communities and led to fear among individuals, I’ll suggest that a strong and longstanding commitment to anti-racism among local politicians and activists, rooted in successful anti-racist activism against the National Front and BNP in the 1980-90s; a vibrant civil society sector; and long term and meaningful engagement between local actors and the Police and local authority have given the borough an unusual degree of resilience to the divisive message of the EDL. A number of these points could inform wider debates about the response to the EDL at a local level.
The language and imagery used by the EDL in their 2011 campaign demonstrates the symbolic significance of the area for the League leadership. Official EDL publicity for the planned demonstration in May 2010 and a number of social media pieces in 2010 and 2011 targeted Muslim individuals who had spoken at events which, it was claimed, promoted a ‘militant Islamic ideology’ antithetical to human rights. Unofficial social networking groups, including the EDL’s Facebook supporters’ group, were overtly Islamophobic. What made the 2011 campaign different was that for the first time official EDL publicity carried an overt and general attack on Tower Hamlets and it’s Muslim, predominantly Bangladeshi, community. The campaign conflated the presence of a large Muslim community with activity by extremist Islamic groups in east London and the international terrorist threat by Al Qaida inspired networks. The League’s promotional video attacked the local community on the grounds of both race and religion.
“Since 2009 EDL supporters had used social networking sites to attack Muslims in Tower Hamlets, and small numbers had carried out ‘flash demonstrations’.”
As has been the experience across the country, opinion locally has varied about how best to respond to activity by the EDL and the approaches and tactics of different actors have changed over time. A key debate involving politicians, civil society groups and the police has centred on whether to encourage local people to take part in counter demonstrations or to ‘deny the EDL oxygen’ by ignoring their protests. Despite these differences of opinion during both the 2011 and 2013 EDL protests, networks of local civil society groups ran demonstrations aimed at challenging the EDL’s divisive messages. The management of local protests activities has been a key focus the Police, local authority, civil society groups and residents, all of whom recognised the potential for serious disorder and violence. A key tool in maintaining calm has been the development of a model of stewarding by local volunteers. The efficacy of this approach demonstrates the strength of local civil society networks, the credibility of community leaders and meaningful engagement between police and civil society actors.
Stewarding of protests
A key concern in the run up to the 2011 protest was that provocation from EDL supporters would incite a violent response from local people. The potential for large groups to gather quickly was clear from an incident in 2010 when a group of young men were involved in volatile public order situation in response to a threatened demonstration by the EDL. The approach to the planning of the policing operation on 11th September was highly collaborative with local community and youth groups seeking and being sought out to inform tactics. Through discussions at a variety of levels, it became clear that youth and community groups could marshal significant numbers of local volunteers to act as stewards on the day who would seek to ensure that the counter protest went off peacefully. On the day over 80 stewards from local authority youth services and several faith organisations were organised to assemble along the line identified by the police as the limit of the counter protest demonstration, facing across the 500 yard gap behind which the EDL were gathered. In a highly volatile situation in which provocative shouts from the EDL protest could be heard, the stewards were able to mediate and manage tensions and no arrests were made.
The achievement of the stewards in maintaining public order should not be underestimated given the disorder which has characterised a number of EDL protests and counter demonstrations in other parts of the country. This approach relied on both police and volunteers being willing to take risks. Leaders on both sides needed to know and trust one another – the Police that the stewards would be able to maintain order and the stewards that the Police would deliver on their promise that EDL supporters would not be allowed across the gap that divided the two demonstrations. They also needed each other’s unique credibility and authority – the stewards’ ability to engage young people and reverse rising tension and the Police’s legal authority and power to restrict and manage the movement of EDL supporters. In a debrief meeting following the demonstration, a number of stewards said that they felt the presence of high profile community leaders further reinforced their credibility – councillors, faith leaders and senior local authority and police officers made visible their support for the stewards, taking time to talk to them and engage with the young people at the edge of the counter protest. The success of the stewarding approach was only possible because of the investment of time and energy by people from on all sides in establishing relationships of trust in the months leading up to the demonstration. This enabled key local authority and police actors to understand the context in which their policing and youth work response needed to be planned.
“A key debate has centred on whether to encourage local people to take part in counter demonstrations or to ‘deny the EDL oxygen’ by ignoring their protests.”
It would be wrong to suggest that the stewarding operation was without costs for those involved. During a recent debrief session youth workers who stewarded spoke of the questions raised in their minds and spoken by young people about their independence from law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, although the counter protest itself went off without incident, several hours after the protests finished there was an incident involving a coach carrying EDL supporters out of London travelling through the borough. Once the coach was identified it attracted large numbers of local people and a number of young people and stewards were caught up in a confrontation with police officers. It is clear that whatever the degree of planning and engagement, these situations are volatile.
Counteracting divisive messages
The very real and specific threat of public disorder provided a key focus for local cooperation; responding to the impact of the divisive messages of the EDL has been attention has been a longer term challenge. From June 2010 when the EDL announced its intention to come to the borough to protest against an Islamic conference there has been an awareness among community and political leaders of the damage that the targeting of the borough’s Muslim community could have on local community relations. During a debrief workshop with statutory and voluntary sector participants in the EDL counter protest in 2011 a complex picture of the impact of the EDL protest emerged: for some of those involved there was a sense of pride that the EDL were prevented from marching in the borough, for others relief that there had been no widespread disorder during the protests. Some highlighted the results of the independent annual residents’ survey commissioned by the council which has shown a continuing improvement in the proportion of local people who believe that ’people from different backgrounds get on together’, rising from 69 per cent in 2008/9 to 81 per cent in 2012/13. But there were also reflections on the impact on local people of targeting by the EDL and the costs of responding to this threat. Participants spoke of anxiety and fear among local people that such events would happen again and some spoke of worries about hearing the divisive messages promoted by the EDL being translated into playground taunts. It was clear that the costs of responding to the EDL protest went far beyond the considerable financial resources required to mobilise policing resources to manage the threat of disorder.
“The ‘United East End’, a coalition of faith and community organisations, Trade Unions and political parties which came together in the weeks leading up to the 2011 protest, has spawned a number of initiatives.”
Reinforcing the resilience of local communities to the divisive message of the EDL has been a key focus for local leaders and activists since September 2011. Activities such as joint visits to youth centres and community organisations by the Mayor (himself a Bangladeshi Muslim) and members of his Cabinet with Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders have been organised to demonstrate their commitment to standing side-by-side against hate. The ‘United East End’, a coalition of faith and community organisations, Trade Unions and political parties which came together in the weeks leading up to the 2011 protest, has spawned a number of projects and initiatives to strengthen relationships between different sections of the local community. A number of these projects have sought to draw on the unity shown in response to the response to the EDL and the incorporate it within a narrative of the borough’s history alongside the repelling of the British Union of Fascists in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and the electoral defeat of the BNP in the borough in 1994.
The political and social context of Tower Hamlets has had a significant impact on the response to the targeting of the borough’s Muslim community by the EDL. High levels of civic participation assisted in the mobilisation of local activists and volunteers who acted as credible community leaders in the response to the protests. The close working relationships between the local authority, police and civil society groups contributed to the effective management of tension and potential disorder in the face of EDL provocation. The investment of time, energy and resources by statutory and non-statutory local partners in promoting messages of unity and building relationships of trust has paid real dividends in strengthening the resilience of the community of Tower Hamlets to targeting by the far right.
Frances Jones is a senior manager at Tower Hamlets Council where she leads the organisation’s work on equality, community cohesion and Scrutiny. She is also currently a Senior Research Associate at the Local Governance Unit at DeMontfort University, where she is undertaking a national project on conflict management in local communities.
 EDL video advertising the national call out to demonstrate in Tower Hamlets: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnF4X2wOdnE
 The EDL were not able to march through the borough. In the wake rioting across London in August 2011 concerns grew that a protest by the EDL would result in violence and the Home Secretary imposed a ban on any marches in London throughout September. Unable to march, the EDL did hold a static protest on the edge of the borough on 3rd September, attracting an estimated 1000 supporters.
 The proportion of people who identify themselves as Muslim is in fact approx. 35%, compared to 27% of those who identify as Christian, 19% who said they had no religious belief and 15% who declined to state a religious belief (2011 Census)
 Following the massacre by Anders Breivik of 77 people in Norway and coverage in the UK media of links between Breivik and members of the EDL leadership, the video was removed from the EDL website.
 The 2011-12 Annual Residents Surveyed showed that 78% of those surveyed felt that ‘Tower Hamlets was an area where people from different backgrounds get on well together. Whilst not significantly different from the 2010-11 result (76%) viewed over the long term the survey data shows an upward and improving trend on this indicator.
 For example, the Vision for Tolerance and Diversity project seeks to explore the history of the East End and “challenge prejudice, intolerance, racism and hate” with a focus on the political activity of the BNP in the 1990s as well as more recent activity by the EDL http://www.history.org.uk/resources/general_news_1528.html
The image of the protest on Whitechapel Road is included courtesy of Alan Denney and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The image of Cable Street is included courtesy of Richard Symonds and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.