Should the EDL be banned from marching in Tower Hamlets?

This post was written by Owen on August 22, 2011
Posted Under: Civil Liberties,East London,Islamophobia,Protest

On Saturday one of my fellow Third Estaters (I’m assuming Reuben) tweeted:

Definitely don’t think the left should be calling for a state van [sic] on the EDL march

Image: lionheartphotography/flickr

While compelling, I think this view is seriously mistaken. Granted, it’s always a good idea to be wary of calling on the State to do anything which limits either civil liberties or freedom of expression, given the countless occasions when it’s proved itself willing to do so in unjustified and harmful ways. And yes, the recent riots have given rise to a volatile political environment in which any number of unpleasantly authoritarian measures are far more politically viable than they were just a few weeks back. Even before the riots concerns were being raised about the criminalisation of political protest, from the anti-royalist demonstrators at the Royal Wedding I linked to above to the UKUncutters arrested at Fortnum and Mason’s in March. You don’t have to be a die-hard liberal defender of the principle of “I disapprove of what you say…” to think that this isn’t a tendency we should be doing anything to encourage.

There are, though, a couple of very important counter-considerations. The first is that banning the Tower Hamlets EDL march wouldn’t exactly be an unprecedented step. The English Defence League has already been banned from holding marches at least three times in the past couple of years – in Luton, Bradford and Leicester. Whether those bans were right or wrong, a ban on the proposed 3 September protest wouldn’t be sliding further down the slippery slope of authoritarianism, just a continuation of the same policy towards the EDL that’s always existed; letting them demonstrate as they please, except when practical concerns about the likely consequences of a march are judged to outweigh the right to freedom to protest – and the second counter-consideration is that in this case such concerns are very well-founded indeed. It’s hardly a secret that EDL demonstrations have a strong tendency to turn violent. How likely is it that an EDL march through a largely Muslim area less than a month after the worst riots the country’s experienced in decades is going to pass off peacefully? (As an aside, I’m well aware there are some on the left, whether they openly admit it or not, who are quite keen on the idea of a ruck with the EDL, but suffice to say that while I’m not such a naïve liberal that I think violence can’t ever be justified when it comes to countering the far right, actively desiring that it occur is stupid beyond belief.)

There are real and pressing concerns about the growth of State restrictions on political protest in the UK, but they pale into insignificance compared to the danger of serious violence if the 3 September march goes ahead. I don’t relish being in the position of calling on the government to shut down yet another political protest, but it’s by far the least worst option.

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Reader Comments

Duncan

What generally happens when the Home Secretary bans a march is that they don’t ban a particular demonstration but all demonstrations in the area for a period of several months. When a second EDL march in Luton was banned in September 2009, the order from the Home Office banned all unofficial demonstrations in the town for a period of 3 months.

I can’t imagine why a ban in Tower Hamlets would be different. This would mean, for example, that if workers in the borough took further strike action against the cuts in the autumn it would be difficult, if not impossible for them to hold demonstrations in support of their actions. No anti-war demos either, in the not unlikely event of increased conflict in Israel/Palestine.

Encouraging the government to take these sort of actions is dangerous. By the same logic, future anti-war or summit protests could easily be banned. Both have indisputably turned violent on previous occasions. This is not the least worst option, it’s conceding that the state is the arbiter of legitimate forms of political activity and, having made the argument above, you can’t with consistency oppose bans on left-wing demonstrations imposed on the same grounds. You can’t have it both ways.

#1 
Written By Duncan on August 22nd, 2011 @ 10:08 pm
DavidR

Tricky one. The EDL have no base in the area. They are not coming to try to convert the largely Bangladeshi community in the area they are planning to march through, to fascism, merely to intimidate, They want to get a violent reaction that may end up – as a result of racist policing – with many young Bangladeshis being criminalised.

Not surprisingly many local Bangladeshi community organisations are calling for a ban and saying that their freedom form intimidation is more important than the the EDL’s freedom to march there. if leftist anti-racists don’t support they should at least acknowledge that this puts them in conflict with the bulk of the organsitions of the area.

The EDL are smarter than they look. They have timed the march for the end of Ramadan – a moment of release – and a month before the people of the area celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.

When Mosley wanted to march in 1936 100,000 locals called by petition on the Home secretary to ban the march but were prepared to take to the streets to enforce it through numbers – which they had to in the end. In this case I think we should support the call for a specific ban to defend the community, but not allow bans to become central to our strategy to defeat the EDL and other far right forces.

#2 
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