Since the English Defence League was formed last year, it was inevitable they would come to Stoke because of the pockets of significant support the BNP has built up in the city. While the EDL claim to be hitting the road to protest against the existence of extreme Islamism, in reality this is a pretext for footy hooligans to mix it up with asian youth and anti-fascists. The EDL's record of their visits to Luton, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and now Stoke can leave no doubt that peaceful protest is the last thing on their mind.
In Stoke the police shipped the majority of EDL (who came in on coaches) to Wetherspoons in Hanley from midday. Below is footage from inside the pub:
This is not the first time Wetherspoons have played host to AND profited from an EDL outing (you can tell them what you think for making their outlets available to thugs here). According to Tony and Mike of local Stoke blog, Pits n Pots, the EDL's mood turned ugly very quickly. Several attempts by the EDL were made to break through police lines - presumably to reach the anti-fascist mobilisation around the corner. The irony of an avalanche of missiles pouring onto police lines while an EDL banner bearing the legend 'marching peacefully against extremist Islam' fluttered in the background was not lost on bemused locals. I was unable to estimate EDL numbers - the anti-fascist demo was only ever in line of sight with very small groups of EDL supporters. According to the BBC, there were 1,500 EDL in attendance - which is way above the numbers I heard on the day. According to two comrades who were mixed in with the EDL for a period, they had approximately 700 bodies on the streets/getting rat arsed in the pub. In all, the confrontation with the police and subsequent minor disturbances after the "demonstration" saw 15 EDL arrested for a variety of public order offences. There were also reports of scuffles *between* EDL'ers - hardly surprising considering their backbone is composed of rival footy firms with their own histories and animosities. By way of contrast, the anti-fascist demo, organised under the auspices of North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, North Staffs TUC and Unite Against Fascism was entirely peaceful. As we assembled we were treated to speeches from local trade unionists, as well as UAF secretary Weyman Bennett. Weyman's speech probably stood out - not confining himself to the usual anti-fascist nostrums, he rightly argued that the likes of the EDL and BNP scapegoat Muslims, and yet it is the banks that have wreaked social devastation across Britain. By the time we curled out of the North Staffs Afro-Caribbean Association and headed up the road to Hanley we had mobilised approximately 300 people. I marched near to Staffs Uni students' union president, Assed Baig (pictured), who was excellent on the loud hailer - it was a wonder he had a voice left to give a speech at the end of the rally! Once we fed into Albion Square the police formed cordons around the perimeter of the protest. Occasionally small groups of EDL would try and get through the lines while Weyman would taunt them from the platform. At one point three local BNP councillors reared their ugly heads and hurled abuse at us (I'm sure it was entirely coincidental these BNP'ers were in Hanley at the same time the EDL were spoiling for a ruck). I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the UAF/SWP presence. Lessons have clearly been learned since the demo against the BNP about 18 months ago. The SWP presence was large but low key - there were no 'smash the BNP' placards and comparatively few paper sellers. Even though the UAF did more or less take over the protest (an inevitability really considering they're the ones with an apparatus, staff and money) they were much more sensitive to local concerns. If there was one criticism I could make it was Weyman's frequent lapses into revolutionary inflation. Apparently we were bigger than the EDL - which certainly wasn't the case. And he often made the point that we had successfully "defended" the square from EDL "attacks" - a claim that writes out the 5-deep police line holding the EDL back round the corner and the two dozen plod around our protest's perimeter! Still, at least he provided some unintentional light relief. I'd estimate about half our crowd was local. The usual suspects were outnumbered by lots of - mainly young - new faces and it was especially good to see Staffs Uni turn out a respectable contingent. Assed Baig gets a lot of stick but his presidency has had a galvanising effect on what has been quite a passive student body (at least in the 15 years I've lived in Stoke). Cynics may ask what the point of this protest was. We were never in a position to "stop" the EDL and it was obvious had the police not been there the EDL would have beaten us to a pulp, but nonetheless it was important we mobilised. In the first place it nails the lie - often used by the EDL and BNP - that violence is always the fault of counter-demonstrators. But they cannot attempt to make that argument after today's events. It was they who attempted to break through police lines towards our protest. In short, one objective NorSCARF set itself has been met - anti-fascism kept the moral high ground while the EDL discredited themselves in front of the Potteries' public and national television cameras. Second, there were more local black and asian people on the march than last year's. The EDL seeks to divide people along racial lines. At a modest level we demonstrated today that they have not done so. Plus images of our rally shows the EDL grunts only for itself - there are many white people in Stoke prepared to stand against Islamophobic scapegoating and racism. More info on the #edlsot and #uafsot Twitter hashtags. Also keep an eye on the PottEye blog - its contributors were also at today's demo. Local priest @frpeter has uploaded his Flickr stream, as has Pits n Pots here.