Today hasn’t been a particularly pleasant one. It is not a nice thing to feel uncomfortable walking around your own home town, which is how I felt today. As I write this up I am feeling a little drained and unsettled.
I chose to go into the town centre today to see the rally by the English Defence League and the counter demonstration by Unite Against Fascism. As a local councillor I felt that I should be a witness to the day’s events.
I got to Luton station at about 2.30 and found myself amongst EDL supporters who were already heading back from their rally in St George’s Square. I had failed to appreciate how tightly locked down the town centre would be so found my movements very restricted. Looking for a way through, the police cordon funnelled me down to the Square but all exits were blocked off. The end of George Street leading into the Square looked like a fortress with huge grey barriers in place. So I had to double back and ended up finding my way out through the car park where the EDL supporters coaches were parked.
The crowd were much as you would expect. Although some appeared to have decided to come in fancy dress. It was also apparent that the vast majority of those from the EDL were from outside Luton. As political rallies go what was happening in the square wasn’t that impressive. There were some people making speeches, but it did look like many attending were not particularly interested.
In one of those bizarre coincidences, on the way out I met a police officer who I had gone to school with. I hope he didn’t get the wrong idea as I didn’t get a chance to explain why I was there!
I then did a long circuit round to the top end of Park Street to have a look at the UAF demonstration. This sounded more impressive and lively, but I couldn’t see what was going on through the forest of police. It did appear that the UAF demo was being more tightly contained than the EDL one was.
I then had to make another circuit round to get access to the Town Hall. The Mayor, the council leader and a few other councillors and politicians were there monitoring the situation. It was a chance to catch up on the events of the day from their perspective. It also meant that I could have a cup of tea and wait for things to die down before heading home. When I left at about 4.30 the EDL had left the Square and the UAF demonstration was being dispersed by the police. Things seemed calm. There was still a gathering of residents in the Bury Park area with a large police presence keeping an eye on it. But it was peaceful.
In all the police estimate was about 1,500 EDL demonstrators and 1,000 at the UAF demo. To my untrained eye that sounds about right. As political events this makes them I think something of a damp squib. But in terms of impact on the town it has been huge.
The BBC report on today’s events is here and Bedfordshire Police have issued an update which you can find here.
The tactic used to deal with these events was to use an overwhelming police presence and physical barriers to control the two rival groups and so squeeze out any chance of trouble. This has worked and the day has passed off without any significant incidents. So it was the right choice. The police behaved with great professionalism and all those I spoke to were friendly.Yet the only word I can use to describe the nature of the atmosphere in the town centre is oppressive.
The inevitable conclusion is that the actions of a small totally unrepresentative extremist group has been allowed to turn Luton town centre into a no go area for Luton people. The EDL have today disrupted the lives of thousands of people, restricted their liberty, and caused hundreds of thousands of pounds of public expense.
This Englishman doesn’t need defending from my Muslim friends and neighbours. But in the future I would like my town to be defended from groups like the EDL.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.