As one of the most diverse and multicultural areas in the UK, Tower Hamlets has been an aim for the EDL for a long time; they called off a similar march into Tower Hamlets last year out of concerns for their own safety, but they felt confident that this year would be a success. It was supposed to be “marching into the lions den” for the racists.
The thirty day ban on marches in Tower Hamlets and neighbouring boroughs was the first blow for the EDL - they complained that Theresa May was delegitimising their serious criticisms of radical Islam; however it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to see how discussing how best to marinate banknotes in bacon so Muslims can’t touch them in any way needs delegitimising, they manage it themselves. They thought it unjust that while they were apparently trying to make the country safe from “radical Islam” through “peaceful demonstrations” their march was banned for the safety of the public; this comes from a group who meet up in pubs before protests, and when they tire of fighting the police and throwing emptied beer bottles at antifascists and mixed race kids, and resort to fighting each other out of boredom.
But in some ways the ban worked in the EDL’s favour - for a start, the number of UAF supporters on the counter demo was, while still impressive and enough to greatly outnumber the EDL, far smaller than expected. Many people simply thought that the demo had been banned completely, took that as a victory and forgot about it, and some who had campaigned for a ban on marches even tried to call off the counter demo after their ‘success’.
This setback for the antifascists, there were many more for the EDL - after being banned from various locations in Tower Hamlets to muster, including pubs and a Sainsbury’s car park, the RMT decided to close tube stations to the fascists leaving them scattered across London. Hilariously, Tommy Robinson (self appointed führer of the EDL) disguised himself as a Rabbi so he could give a speech - and because attending the demo broke his bail conditions, ended up arrested.
While the EDL demo essentially boiled down to a gathering of violent drunk racists fighting each other and getting arrested, the UAF counter-demo had music, speeches, and plenty of friendly faces amongst the anti-fascists from across the country. There were opportunities for tours around the local mosque, and much support from the locals - most of the merchants down Whitechapel Road had adorned their stalls with anti-EDL posters.
The ban on marching extended to the UAF supporters too, although the police seemed confused about the technicality of it. Just by walking down the road in a group of four to buy lunch while holding a placard down we were threatened with arrest by a couple of bored policemen. Although the demo at first was ‘static’ it did manage to drift down Whitechapel Road until all that separated us from the EDL was the (fairly heavy) police line, and culminated with the UAF supporters defying the government’s illegal ban (UDHR 29.2 perhaps? Legality is a sticky subject) by marching down the road, right through a line of police while singing “Are you watching Theresa May?”.
The day resulted in two massive victories for the left; firstly a mass defiance of the governments blanket ban on protests, which raises issues about civil liberties, gives hope for the other marches affected by the ban to go ahead and to an extent displays the governments incompetence and illegitimacy. Secondly, as was the initial aim, the EDL suffered a crushing defeat - they couldn’t even enter Tower Hamlets let alone get near the mosque, and now demoralised with their leader imprisoned this could be a turning point in their history.