The EDL is an organisation set up to protest against the Islamification of Britain. Although the group claim to be a non-violent organisation, it has staged a number of marches across England that have led to numerous arrests and displays of gratuitous violence. This is what happened when I went undercover with them to a high profile march in the highly multicultural city of Manchester.
As the crowd of furious Asians blast against the fences screaming “evil fascists”, I’m hurled forward by a sea of white hooligans charging towards them baying for blood. Separating us is an army of riot police guarded heavily with armour, weaponry and rabid Alsatians. As I try to fight my way to the back of the brawl I’m flung forward again by the bodies storming into the officers. I suddenly see the glare of a wild dog thrashing its head as a riot officer awkwardly tries to restrain it. The officer begins to march towards me. The dog salivates and snarls, bracing itself to pounce. It crouches and its frantic eyes pierce into mine. As it flies towards me through the air with its mouth gaping, revealing rows of dagger-like teeth, all I can think is “how did I get into this?”
On 20th August this year I become a member of the English Defence League – a group that purport to be a “non-violent, non-racist organisation”, whose principle aim according to its website is to “peacefully protest against militant Islam”. The group’s most recent protest have proved far from peaceful. On 5 August 2009, Birmingham bullring played host to a series of brutal clashes between EDL members and the anti-fascism group United Against Fascism (UAF). With 90 arrests and many injured, the event signified the grim reality of growing racial tension in Britain. Speculation has also risen within the press about the EDL’s involvement with right-wing groups such as the BNP, although the group claim it is not affiliated.
I sign up to the website and I am alarmed at how easy it is to join. Perhaps this explains why the group has risen from seven members to 4,482 in less than two months. The forum leads me to discussions between fellow members. Their indignation and anger towards the rise of Britain’s Islamic population is all too clear. One member under the name of HeanorEDL said, echoing Winston Churchill: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall never surrender.”
One of the main members, under the name of PatriotMissile states: “History will hail the bravery and the stoicism shown by certain individuals, the same individuals that are today being labelled ‘Fascists’, we shall be recognised for our individual sacrifices, soon!”
I read on and many members on the forum seem to stand by the fact that the EDL are a peaceful organisation. Yet how can this explain why an organisation proclaiming to be peaceful activists is filmed on YouTube chanting from the top of a bus “Mohammed is a paedo” to young Muslims, and how violence had so easily erupted in Birmingham?
EDL members clash with police in Birmingham
I decide there is only one way to find out just who was responsible for all the violence – to go and see it myself. Under a false email address, I get in contact with the EDL’s Birmingham administrator nicknamed Pricey (real name Richard Price). He explains to me he is organising a coach to take members from Birmingham to Manchester city centre for the EDL’s next protest – one which many members are now calling “the big one”. I’m sent secret emails warning me about the UAF and quotes from the police stating that there may be “serious consequences” if we are to meet at the proposed spot of Piccadilly Gardens. According to one of the main organisers, who goes under the name of ‘Lady England’, the police have informed her that some members of the UAF have warned that there will be violence in the centre if the EDL proceed to march in the gardens. I’m later sent an email stating that the EDL are not to move and that it is “our protest so fuck the UAF”. The march is set.
I find myself waking up in a cold and cramped hotel room in Birmingham city centre. The date is 15th October. The knowledge of what is ahead of me and the violent ramifications make me feel sick to the stomach. According to EDL, members of the UAF are “lusting for blood”. Unless the police have complete control, there is certainly going to be violence. The question is, just how serious is it going to be?
I have no recording equipment except for my phone camera. I was warned the police were strictly searching any member of the EDL before the protest began. My only possession besides my phone is a small notebook. My excuse is that it is to keep directions in and numbers if I needed to call anyone should my phone die out. If the members see my notepad laced with damning short-hand notes, I believe I’ll almost certainly be at risk of a vicious attack.
Last night, Pricey gave me directions to a pub in Birmingham where ‘The Birmingham Division’ would meet before travelling to Manchester. I feel uneasy that my first encounter with a group of right-wing extremists will be set in such an intimate venue. I will have to sit and drink with them, crack a few jokes, and above all try not to act suspicious. When I arrive, the coach is waiting outside the pub. I feel slightly relieved yet this is soon overtaken by a feeling of intimidation as the eyes of several members holding cans of lager become fixed on me as I walk towards the coach. “Alright boys, is this coach heading for Manchester?” I said. “Yeah mate, how’s it going?” one member said. He is small and stocky with a tattoo on his neck. “Fucking knackered mate, too early for me,” I said. He laughs in agreement and leads me onto the coach.
I’m greeted by the driver, whom everyone calls ‘Deano’. He is tall, well-built, and his face is covered in scars. “Pricey’s been nicked,” he said. “The police did him for inciting racial discrimination.” I try to look as shocked as possible, as if was a close friend of mine who has been arrested. He frowns and turns to another member sitting at the front of the coach. “They found him in possession of stun guns and cocaine as well,” he laughs, almost as if it was a matter of fact. The other member shakes his head and smiles. I began to realise the sort of people I’m dealing with.
From the outset, I realise that words like “Paki” and “raghead” are commonplace between the members. Early into the journey two Asian men begin to drive past in a lorry. One member sat in front of me pulls out a porn magazine of a mixed race ‘woman’ with a penis – her legs bared as wide as possible flaunting a huge erection. He presses it against the window. The member then shouts in a voice mimicking a Pakistani accent: “You like this yes? Stick your Qur’an up your fucking arse,” to which everyone on the coach then responds with a chorus of laughter.
The longer I spend with the EDL, the more I realise that many of them are members of violent football firms. I can hear a large group at the back talking about different firms with a sense of respect at their size and capacity for violence. One member says: “Luton boys, they ain’t the biggest but they’ll have a go. Now Cardiff, that’s a firm that’ll really fuck you up. We had a good go against them when they came to city.”
The EDL Nazi salute - a group they strongly claim they are not affiliated with
Later on, a bus full of Asians slowly drive past our coach. I can instantly feel tension as members begin staring and some start cracking jokes about ‘terrorist bombers’. One member suggests to “break through the fire exit door and storm the fuckers”. I can’t quite tell how serious his intentions are. I hope not, as half the people on the bus are children.
As we approach Manchester, one member receives a call from one of the EDL’s main organisers telling him we are to drive to Bolton and get the train from there, as Manchester MET police are not allowing EDL coaches into the city’s bus station. We change course and head for Bolton.
On arriving into Bolton we are stopped by a small army of police and escorted to a pub opposite the train station. I’m greeted by many members of the Bolton, Manchester and Luton divisions – mostly skin-heads. I feel an overwhelming sense of camaraderie as many of them shake our hands and pat us on the back like we are members of their family. I realise why many of the members have joined. The feeling of belonging to something big gives me a rush but I have to remind myself what I really belong to, and of course its purpose. I try not to let myself fall into a false sense of security. I know I’m surrounded by some of the oldest (and hardest) football firm members in the country. One member boasts of how he nearly beat someone to death in a “fucking legendary game back in the early Nineties”.
I buy a pint and before I have time to finish it we are moving on. Many members begin to put on masks as a ‘direct protest to Bhurkas’, but rather than making a political point I feel it makes the crowd look even more threatening.
By the time we’ve moved into Bolton’s overcrowded station the EDL is an intimidating sight. Nationalist chants rattle around the station walls accompanied by a chorus of God Save The Queen. Members then begin chanting “We like Bacon” and “Muslim bombers off our streets”. I can see members of the public (particularly Asians) rush out of the way with fear. I quickly pull out my phone-camera and begin recording several videos. One member, a well built skin-head – who from his accent was likely to be from the Chelsea division – stares at me for some time until I put my camera away. He looks enraged. He storms over to me.
“Where are your mates?” he says. “I don’t really have any, I came here on my own,” I reply. “Why the fuck do you keep filming, I know it, I know it, you’re Old Bill,” he shouts. I tell him that I was due to come up to Manchester with a mate but he had been “pussy-whipped by his girlfriend” and therefore couldn’t make it. By this point I’m scared. I’m six foot and I feel insignificant in comparison to him. He grabs my shoulder with his thick arm. It is covered in tattoos of bulldogs and flags. “You’re a fucking journo aren’t ya?” he snaps as his teeth grind together and his eyes penetrate into mine, shaking with rage. “No, you’re the fucking journo,” I whisper quietly into his ear, and then quickly disappear into the crowd.
When the train arrives for Manchester I place myself among the oldest group of members – all late-30s and 40s. Again, talk of football firms seems indigenous. One member, around six-foot-four with a skin-head, brags of his initiation into Birmingham City Football Club’s firm at fifteen years old. He says: “I remember when one of the heads asked me if I wanted in, I said ‘yes’ so then he smashed my face in and told me to get used to it,” to which other members of the group laugh hysterically. He goes on to brag how he always tried to carry a knife to football games. I begin to feel very uneasy and find it hard to chat to them without feeling suspicious. I keep quiet and listen, trying to nod and laugh at the correct times.
Arriving in Manchester we are met by hundreds of police officers and are tightly escorted outside the station. Police begin to tell all EDL members to take their masks off to avoid being arrested, inciting the anger of fellow gang members. One member refuses, snapping at a woman police officer: “If Muslims can wear Bhurkas, why can’t we wear these?” The officer tells him that Muslims wear them because of their religion, to which he screams: “Well this is our fucking religion! One country, one rule.”
We are then led around the city centre marching on main road traffic lanes that the police have cordoned off to let us through. We are heavily guarded by officers. The EDL begin to sing as loudly as possible. Rule Britannia choruses over the traffic. We are praised with thumbs up by some drivers who pass us by but most just keep their heads down and carry on driving.
I suddenly feel a hand on my shoulder and I’m pulled around so fast it feels like my body has contorted. It’s the man who had earlier accused me of being a journalist. “Why the fuck are you still here? Where the fuck are your friends?” he said. By this point I was getting increasingly agitated. Weighing up his size and my increasingly-aggressive mood the thought of smashing him down to the ground with a quick right hook runs through my mind but is instantly suppressed with the realisation of its likely consequences.
“Mate,” I say, “I’m not a fucking journalist. It’s hard enough coming on my own so why don’t you just leave me alone. We’re in the same boat here alright?” He seems unconvinced by my attempt to rationalise. He then turns to other members and begins shouting about me. He attracts a lot of attention from members who also start questioning why I have a bag and what’s in it. I’m able to lay them off by jovially saying I’m Al-Qaeda and I have a bomb in it. They start to laugh and I realise this is a good time to head towards the front of the march, where members aren’t as suspicious of my identity.
When we eventually hit Piccadilly Street – Manchester’s main shopping street in the centre – the police have aligned officers on horses to escort us to Piccadilly Gardens. As we pass through the streets chanting “Get Al-Qaeda off our streets”. Many cheer while some protestors scream “fascists” and “Nazis” at us. We’re snapped with cameras from the long line of news photographers. I cover my face with my hand. Suddenly violence erupts at the back of the march. I hear screaming and many members turn and charge towards the conflict. I stand back. I have never been this close to such chaos and it terrifies me. I turn to an officer and blurt out: “You have to let me out, I’m an undercover journalist.”
He doesn’t hear me and pushes me back into the crowd. I turn and there stood behind me is a member of ‘The Birmingham Division’. As he glares at me, I realise he has heard what I said to the officer. He instantly begins texting people on his phone. I fear the worst – a black eye, a broken nose, and cracked ribs. Before I can further panic, the police have retained control and we are moving on again.
As we reach Piccadilly Gardens, I hear heavy growls and barks coming from all angles. The police have lined up a fleet of Alsatians. We are marched into the gardens. Metal fences separate us from the counter-protestors, including the UAF. In between us and the fences are a large unit of police in riot gear. I’m desperate to leave but they have cordoned off the entrance. I feel trapped like an animal in a steel cage waiting to be slaughtered.
The EDL begin to sing the national anthem. This is greeted with mainly silence from the counter-demonstrators, but suddenly things begin to turn nasty as the EDL’s chant becomes increasingly racist. Hundreds of EDL members scream “we want our country back” and “you dirty Muslim bastards”. The chanting goes on for 20 minutes. I feel it’s just a matter of time before UAF members will react.
Angry UAF members demo against the EDL
Just as some EDL members turn their backs, young Asians storm the fences trying to rip through. Hundreds of EDL members burst towards them but are quickly fended off by the large barrier of police, heavily guarded by armour and weaponry. Some members are dragged to the floor and quickly handcuffed while others keep charging forward. As I try to move back I feel myself being dragged to the front of the conflict by the mass of enraged hooligans rushing forward towards the fighting. As I try to fight my way back again I’m pushed further towards the pit of flying fists.
By now, the police are marching the dogs towards the front of the conflict. One officer armed with a large and fierce Alsatian paces towards me and I can see its sharp teeth bare as it barks and salivates. As it goes in for the kill I suddenly fall back. A man from behind is pushed forward into the dog. The Alsatian clamps his arm and rips it apart like a piece of meat. He begins to scream. His arm displays a huge laceration like a sliced piece of raw chicken.
Police dogs violently attack EDL members forcing them to retreat
I clamber out of the way and head towards the middle of the protest where I feel the safest, surrounded by bodies. I’m wrong. It’s him again. “You fucking journo.” This time he’s surrounded by raging faces all pointing at me – the journo. “I knew it, Damo told me he heard you talking to a fucking pig,” he screams. I stand my ground. “What Damo heard was me telling the pig that you thought I was a journo,” I scream back. “Listen,” I say. “I can’t fucking be assed with this anymore.” I open the insides of my bag and show him the contents – a bottle of water, a pen and a print off of my rights. “See,” I said with conviction. I know how close I am to my identity being found. It could have been further compromised hadn’t I hidden the small pad of shorthand in a secret pocket earlier. But the thugs don’t believe a word. I realise I only have one choice – to run. I quickly flee to the back of the crowd where the police guard the entrance.
Many members who didn’t want to join in with the violence wait patiently to be let out, but I can see The Birmingham Division stalwarts standing right next to the police officers. I whisper over to one officer “Can I be let out please?” “No,” he replies. “You signed yourself up to this now wait.” I can’t help but agree yet waiting is the last thing I want to do. I can see other members in the distance looking over at me. I have to reveal my identity. “Look I’m an undercover journalist. My identity has been compromised and I need to get out for fear of my own safety.”
“Do you have a helicopter? Because that’s the only way you’re getting out of here,” he smirks. I consider breaking through using brute force but then realised that a criminal record would ruin any ambitions I have, yet it seems an increasingly good idea as the group march over to me. I walk away from the police and try not to look suspicious. The group follows me, lead by the same man again.
“You fucking prick, you wait till this is over. I’m gonna fucking stab you,” he snarls. I’ve had enough. I race through the bodies of screaming youths to the police Chief-Super-Intendent. I quickly tell him my story. “I don’t believe you,” he said. My heart sinks. “But I will let you out. Just make sure you let the officer take a picture of you before you officially exit.”
As I walk away I turn and look back to discover the same EDL member stood there shaking his head. Despite all the chaos, his eyes are still fixed on me. I feel relieved but extremely shaken by what had just happened as the officer leads me through the riot officers and out a covert back exit. I’m quickly snapped by his camera in probably the most shameful photo I have ever posed for. I run out the exit and join into the crowds of shoppers casually going about their day. I’m back in civilisation. I make my way as quick as possible towards Manchester Victoria Station trying to avoid Piccadilly Station should any members be waiting for me. I jump onto the first train heading to safety. On the journey home, all I can hear is the chorus of chants repeatedly ringing through my brain, yet one particularly stood out. ‘I’m English till I die, I’m English till I die’. I smile and sit back. I know the feeling.