A normal Saturday afternoon turned somewhat as the EDL marched again in my area in protest against the building of a Muslim community centre in Goodmayes. “Great article content” I thought!
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Waking up later than intended on Saturday morning, I sluggishly made my way to the local barbers knowing I’d have to wait some time before getting my short back and sides. The five-minute walk took longer than usual as I walked headfirst into a carnival.
Chadwell Heath is not a place one would expect to see such a thing, but a sea of people, whistles, trumpets, England flags and chants of “I’m England till I die” made me think our football fans must be desperate if they were that enthusiastic about an U21 game due to take place that evening.
I was welcomed to the carnival with wails of “You fat Paki! Fuck off!” and was grateful for their concern for my health, what with diabetic parents and all, but this seemed to start off a brand new chant – “E-E-EDL! E-E-EDL!”. Of course it is! A nice Saturday morning in Chadwell Heath and the EDL are out in force, waving their flags and chanting their way through to Dagenham. I pinballed my way through, got my haircut and asked my hairdresser about the local gym.
I later heard that a bearded Muslim man was assaulted amid the chanting and the Metropolitan police reported some Asian youths were given the once over further down the road. Why wasn’t I assaulted? Well, I can only assume that when I’ve just woken up and am en route to get a haircut, I probably look like I’ve suffered enough – their compassion is welcome. This is the second march in my local area in the last three months – the previous march congregated at a local restaurant where I saw a little girl who looked under 10 years old leading the EDL chant. This time the crowd was bigger and, with no police liaison, the dangers greater.
The debates and explanations surrounding the EDL and BNP are well rehearsed and repetitive – ranging from “they are racists, pure and simple” to “they are disenfranchised”. All true, but to an extent. The issue in Dagenham is the opening of a mosque in the autumn and much wrangling has taken place over the buyers, the impact on local economic wellbeing and – the buzzword of the last decade – community cohesion.
It is all too easy for local councillors, Hope Not Hate campaigners and national policymakers to pass off a large group of racist thugs as just that. But the seeming frequency of these marches is cause for concern and requires some radical thinking on the part of those that can effect change. The need to engage and address the concerns of the white working classes has been repeated so often, it has taken the feel of a new year’s resolution – there to be said, but never to be met.
Yes, a lot of them are vile and negotiating with fanatics (left or right) is not the easiest of tasks. But, someone needs to take responsibility. The worsening local economic conditions, not just in Dagenham but across the country as a result of “policies nobody voted for” will only exacerbate the sense of injustice and failure this community feels. Granted, the issue with the mosque might have prevailed even in times of economic prosperity, but that should not surprise anyone – local communities will always be fearful of change.
It is a sad indictment of the progress our society has made 10 years on from the Oldham riots that issues such as this are still on the national agenda. Why can’t there be work programmes targeted directly at this community? Why does the Prevent strategy not recognise that a “hard power” approach to terrorism (Islamist or otherwise) or rightwing extremism both misses the point of participants’ concerns and serves to fuel their aggression?
No government can force people to get on with each other, the seeming underpinning of our community cohesion efforts over the last decade. But we can reasonably expect both that people will exercise their right to hold their own values and that they can learn to respect, if not agree with, someone else’s values. Nationally, we should not be afraid to speak up for the kinds of people that are within the EDL’s reach – those genuinely disenfranchised, frustrated souls who bear the brunt of the proposed economic and social policies of the coalition government.
Local engagement is one thing, but a stubborn refusal to enter the debate on the basis of a preconceived stereotype – whether EDL or government – gives no one any bargaining power. Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May would accept my invitation to set up a stall in the middle of the next EDL march?