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When the EDL Came to Luton

Ten years ago, a series of EDL marches hit the communities of Luton – and made clear the consequences of a media and political class that capitulates to the far right.

Members of the English Defence League gather for a demonstration on 5 February 2011 in Luton, England. Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Just over a decade ago, thousands of EDL thugs arrived in Luton to hold their ‘homecoming’ march. For young people like myself, along with others who call this town home, the events which occurred at that time were seared into our memories as we braced ourselves for racist violence simply for daring to exist.

The repeated EDL marches, which started in 2009, would turn the town into a ‘no-go zone’ on weekends, catapulting it into the imaginations of some as the ‘epicentre of the global clash of civilisations’. The intimidating marches meant we couldn’t venture into town with our families for fear of being attacked on the basis of our religion and colour of skin. The experience left an indelible mark, especially for teenagers like myself, making us very quickly aware that our identities were considered ‘problematic’, and that it wasn’t just skinheads who thought we didn’t belong, but also members of the establishment media who sought to portray the likes of Tommy Robinson as misunderstood free speech martyrs or just ‘political activists’.

Luton is a town that had long been neglected and left behind as a result of industrial decline. The collapse of the hat trade and decline of Vauxhall motors, which had once opened the largest car plant in the UK in the town, led to growing unemployment, inequality, and a sense of loss. More than four in ten of Luton’s children live in poverty, and the town has one of the highest homelessness rates among local authorities throughout England. It was against this backdrop in 2009 that Tommy Robinson rose to prominence, after a small minority of extremists from the now banned Al-Muhajiroun group protested against the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment in the same year.

The EDL was subsequently formed – a group that called themselves ‘patriots’ seeking to defend their country against the ever-creeping threat of Islam and the ‘Islamisation’ of society. Never mind that for decades tens of thousands of British Muslims in the town had rejected the dozen or so extremists from Al-Muhajiroun and even confronted them as they set up a stall in the town centre, demanding they leave. In the eyes of so many, we were all guilty of harbouring extremists; the whole community was to blame.

Commentators like Douglas Murray sought to portray Robinson as a ‘free speech martyr’. Others conducted interviews with him on our news channels and invited him to the Oxford Union. It always struck me that they didn’t have to worry about being in the same vicinity as him, while Muslims like myself were told we had to stay away from his gangs for our own safety. Robinson was offered the chance to discuss matters on his own terms, giving his views the credibility he so craved.

But away from the screen, it was clear what Robinson stood for. Actions speak louder than words: I remember how he would roam around the town with his camera, marching up to South Asian youths, shouting obscenities and demanding they explain the actions of others. We didn’t need to be told how a former BNP member like Robinson was being misunderstood when we’d experienced first-hand his groups of thugs attacking Asian-owned businesses.

What made matters worse were headlines that portrayed Luton as an epicentre of extremism, not only smearing an entire community but also providing the far right with a target. It was left to us to pick up the pieces – editors far-removed from the consequences of it all didn’t have to worry. We watched as they shouted ‘p***’ and made it clear we didn’t belong, and our parents had to once again confront a threat that they thought they’d seen off in the 1980s with the marches of the National Front.

The moral panics over halal meat and Muslims trying to ‘ban Christmas’ or generally take over schools and the rest of society were not just pushed by Tommy Robinson – they were also ever-present in sections of our media, who made the same arguments in the columns of newspapers as those being heard on the streets of Luton.

Many of us were not willing to keep our heads down and silently accept the situation. We decided to stand firm and organised counter-demonstrations made up of working people of all races. These efforts in 2011 proved the exact opposite of what many had heard about Luton – a story of a town in which those of different faiths and races were at constant loggerheads. Luton wasn’t the epicentre of the global clash of civilisations: it was where the working classes came together once more to oppose the far right.

But it wasn’t just the EDL we faced in Luton. We bore the brunt of other far right groups who picked up where Robinson left off: Britain First, led by Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding—also a former member of the BNP—carried out ‘Christian patrols’ and ‘mosque invasions’ while worshippers went about their prayers. Many of us wished that the government and others had listened to our fears about the rise of the far-right and their marches which so often spilled into violent disorder earlier; instead, it was our communities being marked and policed through measures like the Prevent scheme. We were portrayed as too sensitive to criticisms of our faith.

The trauma of this time has stayed with us since. Some of us watched our sisters and mothers decide to stay home out of fear of attack – a fear not unfounded, given that Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic hate crimes. Others have always had to carry the knowledge that our very existence is seen by some as a threat.

We witnessed then the real-life consequences of the casual demonisation of minorities by the media. Ten years on, one would hope that the lessons had been learned—that nobody would ever again be told they couldn’t go about their business because a group of far-right thugs were in town—but we now have a government keen to exploit the same tensions, all for the sake of electoral gain.