He was right up in my face, so close I could smell the booze on his breath. “You’re a paedophile lover!” he shouted. “You like rape do you?” The man reeked of violence. They all did, him and the crowd behind him chanting “you ain’t English anymore!” at the four of us, defiantly stood, thumbs down as the hate march passed.
This is my defining memory of the day the English Defence League (EDL) came to Oxford. They were scheduled to march from the train station at 2:00pm, up past the council offices, behind the Westgate centre and on to the St Aldate’s police station where they would rally and listen to their speakers.
The counter-demo had been organised by UAF and the SWP on Bonn Square. Most of the demonstrators were middle-aged, probably seasoned veterans of protests. They were interspersed with perhaps 20 young people dressed in black, their faces obscured by hoods and scarves, with the odd anarchist flag on display. A few students were present. I have no doubt that had this rally been in term time, there would have been thousands.
Unfortunately the EDL are not that stupid. Easter weekend was the ideal time to stage a visit to Oxford, outside the term times of both universities, with the revision-swamped finalists home for Easter. The clearest presence (helped by the high-vis jackets, horses and riot gear) were the police who had flooded into Oxford from as far afield as Kent to ‘keep the peace’. The old lefties muttered that when they marched the police never seemed to have peace on their minds.
Their prophecies were proved right as we drew closer to the march. We were separated from the route by 25 meters of ‘no-man’s-land’ between two walls of helmet clad officers, and a barricade of riot vans. How was our message of condemnation going to hit home if only the police were there to witness it? I hadn’t come all the way from Catz to watch the tops of flag poles march past!
Me and my friends had checked out the march route on the EDL Facebook page, and slipped away to work our way round. We made our way down St Ebbes Street and cut back up behind the Westgate centre towards Castle Street. It seemed the police had not done their homework on Oxford’s back alleys, as we quickly slipped under the cordon. By the demolished multi-storey carpark we were stopped by some workmen. “Only members of the public can go further, no protestors allowed,” we were told by a workman gesturing to our placards. We put them down, and with that we found ourselves on the march route.
We hurried up the road quickly, passing EDL members waiting outside of Baby Love, and placed ourselves in front of some bleary-eyed daytime drinkers who had spilled out of the Swan and Castle to watch. The EDL (the association of English Drinkers of Lager by the looks of them) came down the street. Muffled shouting could be heard from the hidden demonstrators but, apart from noise, the protest was obscured.
It seemed we would have to do it for them. The first rows had passed us when one of my mates’ friends raised her hands thumbs down. Seconds later the rest of our hands rose showing the marchers what we thought of them. Abuse came our way, the march faltered as demonstrators slowed to scream idiotic remarks at us. We stayed silent; with no wall of police in front of us, a silent protest was as far as we could go. The EDL quickly surrounded us and made their feelings very clear. The police reacted just in time, pushing between us. Within seconds 20 officers and a horse separated us and the march. We stepped back, our hands still, firmly raised and staring down the enemy. It was terrifying.
After the confrontation we followed the march and joined up with the rest of the demo. The remainder of the afternoon was spent marching and chanting, playing cat-and-mouse with the police as we tried to get as close to the EDL as possible. One memorable moment came when a lone EDL man appeared from round the corner shouting “EDL, EDL!” The scarf-clad crowd from earlier saw him and, to shouts of “get him!”, charged with a roar of support from the rest of us.
At the end of the protest I felt relieved. Relief that that was all the EDL had. A ‘national demonstration’, but maybe only 100-strong and most incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together. If that is all the fascists have got we have nothing to fear. There were no brains, no numbers, only self-isolating violence. If only UKIP were so toothless.