There were three demonstrations in Oxford city centre yesterday, on Easter Saturday, April 4th. One by the English Defence League, one by Unite Against Facism, and one by Thames Valley Police, aided by reinforcements from several neighbouring forces.
The police greatly outnumbered the two other demonstrators combined, judging from my own eye witness estimates as well as official reckonings. Neither the EDL or UAF had dogs, vans or horses of course. So the police won in terms of how impressive their show of force was. A loser of course was also free speech, rescued thanks to youtube.
I had actually wanted to hear what the EDL were actually going to say – being interested in free speech of course, and well aware of how the media, including social media, distorts things, it seemed too good an opportunity to see and hear for myself.
My sister and I first went along to have a look at the UAF group assembled in Bonn Square, then walked up to Oxford railway station to see the EDL gathering there. I spoke briefly to a couple of the EDL women, and they were polite and didn’t seem at all thuggish. Not all the supporters were white either.
We then had a very long detour to try to get into position to hear what the EDL said at their rally, because the city centre was just blocked by walls of police vans, police dogs, and horses, all in the aid of preventing the two groups of demonstrators from seeing each other, and preventing members of the public from getting anywhere near the EDL either. A very long way round later, we arrived outside the little Tesco Express near the police station and the magistrate’s court. A solicitous police officer asked us if we wanted to leave the area ‘while we still could’, like it was under siege or something, and the manager of Tesco came out to advise some other people that they could go inside the store if they wanted, and warned us that ‘if it gets bad, I’m locking the store.’
‘Don’t worry’, we told the police officer, ‘we feel quite safe, we don’t think the EDL will attack us, two middle aged white ladies, we’ve come here to see what’s going on, and in any case, you can protect us. You’re bigger than we are.’
The area was then completely sealed in. A walls of vans, rows of police, and three constantly barking police dogs had us well and truly trapped. Meanwhile, from a row of police vans adjacent to St Aldate’s police station itself, extremely loud discordant pop music blared intermittently. Is that a tactic?
We’ll be fine, we laughed, ‘If the worst comes to the worst, we can always go into the Alice in Wonderland shop, (which was inside the cordon) and disappear down a rabbit hole,’ I joked. We had a clear view of Tom tower of Christchurch College, where the previous Sunday, Palm Sunday, I’d heard Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, give a sermon in Christchurch Cathedral in which he compared Jesus’s peaceful arrival into Jerusalem on a donkey with the many battles Mohammed fought. At least anyone could get in the Cathedral and hear him. But practically no members of the public were able to hear the speeches given by the EDL. A strange contrast.
They couldn’t hear them because of the policing. When the marchers arrived, we saw that they were completely and utterly surrounded by police. I myself didn’t see any of the demonstrators behave in any thuggish way. The marchers were stopped a couple of times and eventually came round the corner and gathered in front of the police station, a thick wall of police all around them. (Since when did the police get to be so big? Many of them seemed to be well over six feet tall. They looked like cybermen.) The EDL speeches began. We could kind of hear snatches, but not much really, not enough to be able to tell what they were saying. There were a few other ‘members of the public’ standing around as well, some just trapped there by the policing tactics, perhaps some others like us just wanting to exercise our democratic rights and stand wherever we like on the pavement in our own home city.
After a while we left, getting permission from the police to get through the barriers. We had to cross through two lines of police officers to do so. I guess we didn’t look like EDL supporters or they wouldn’t have let us through. But they never asked. So, EDL supporters, next time if you want to go through a police cordon, just wear a nice smart green wool coat with a nice black velvet collar and cuffs like I did, and you’ll pass for middle class and nobody will ever suspect.
Then as we walked up St Aldates, the UAF group came down towards the police cordon. I can’t imagine that they would have been able to see the EDL, since the line of police vans was blocking their view, and was at least 50 or 100 yards away from the EDL group, which was of course behind its own cordon of police. Some of the EDL had face coverings, and those are the pictures that always get out there, but some of the UAF also had scarves covering their faces. Some of the UAF were running – the EDL of course could not run as they were controlled by the police. There were far fewer police with the UAF group. The EDL carried home-made banners, the UAF had mass produced banners, some saying ‘smash the EDL’, which disappointed me – surely in Oxford, you could argue against the EDL, rather than just ‘smash’ it? Many of them were chanting ‘Nazi scum’. Now, on demonstrations, you don’t usually get much in the way of reasoned debate, but is ‘Nazi scum’ the best the denizens of the city of dreaming spires can do? What did strike me is that, judging only from what I myself saw of what happened on that particular day, the EDL behaved less provocatively than the UAF (although there were three arrests, I did not see them). A striking difference though of course was class – the EDL seemed more working class, the UAF more middle class.
Later I found an EDL speech from the march posted on youtube. This was the speech which our democratic policing prevented anyone in Oxford from actually hearing, apart from the police themselves. Which was perhaps fitting, given that one of the main complaints was how the policing of the Oxford ‘grooming’ gangs had been handled. The very police station they stood outside had been one where a twelve year old girl, bleeding from the groin having been raped, turned up at two in the morning and was sent away for being naughty. The EDL did at that point chant ‘scum’ to the police for acting like that.
Was it really necessary to have so many police that they outnumbered demonstrators and counter-demonstrators put together? Is it really necessary to police such demonstrations so that members of the public can’t even hear what is said? Is this the best our democracy can do? I could not help but wonder how the decisions about policing were made, and whether the police perhaps had a vested interest in portraying a group who were vocally pointing out the failings of the police, as nothing other than mindless thugs from which the public have to be protected, as so dangerous that the whole of Oxford city centre has to be completely disrupted for hours. Which had the side effect of ensuring that few if any members of the public were able to hear the EDL speeches, whilst the police themselves were forced to listen.