I spent some time on Monday afternoon at the “public information and reassurance meeting” organised by Luton Council in preparation for the rally planned by the English Defence League in Luton for the 5th February 2011. I blogged about these last week.
The meeting was well conducted, despite the fact that it was obvious that emotions were running high. Its purpose was to calm and reassure those concerned and explain the legal situation and the role that the Council and the Police are playing. Overall, I am reassured by the way the Council and the Police are handling a very difficult situation.
It seems clear that on Saturday 5th we should expect to see the EDL holding their rally, and a counter demonstration by anti-facism groups, in Luton town centre. This will be accompanied by a large police presence. It was claimed that on the day there will be more police officers in Luton than are employed by the whole of Bedfordshire Police. The local police will be supported by officers from surrounding authorities.
It is also clear that no one in authority in the town, and very few people in the community, want this event to take place. The EDL rally is unwanted and unwelcome. It will cause great inconvenience to residents and business, cost the tax payer considerable expense, and, while many are working hard to prevent this, cause strains to the fabric of our community. Also, with such events, comes the risk of violence and disturbance. So it is right that the priority is finding a way to ensure that the event takes place without incident.
However, in this country people have a right of assembly and peaceful protest. This is an important part of the democratic values of our society. So while Luton doesn’t want the EDL to come here, we can’t stop them. The Council has applied to the Home Secretary for a ban on any procession or march and they are still waiting for a response. But they cannot lawfully stop them assembling for their rally.
At the meeting there were representatives from groups that are planning to hold a rival demonstration in response to the EDL’s rally. I think it is important that there is a counter demonstration. There needs to be a response that makes clear that the views of the EDL are not the views of the people of Luton. However, managing this causes further headaches for the Council and the Police.
So negotiations are taking place between the different parties about how the day will be organised and where the rival demonstrations will take place. A particular issue of contention is the potential use of St George’s Square by the EDL. The Square is the primary area of public space in the town centre, it has been used in the past for concerts, events, and for anti racism demonstrations, so it has great symbolic significance. There are some very strong feelings that the EDL shouldn’t be allowed to use the Square. I have a great deal of sympathy with that argument. However, ultimately the decision should be taken on what will best serve maintaining public order.
However, the most important message to come out of the meeting for me was, regardless of what the EDL want to achieve, is as the Leader of the Council said, the fact that Luton is a town of harmony.
Finally, I thought I would pass on the news that there will two further public meetings:
- 2nd February in Bury Park
- 4th February in Farley Hill
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.