DEMONSTRATIONS by the English Defence League and opponents of the organisation brought parts of Middlesbrough to a standstill at the weekend. Reporter Julia Breen reports from within both groups.
I’M trying to order a pint in the Pig Iron pub, on Corporation Road in Middlesbrough, on what would normally be a quiet Saturday lunchtime.
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But I’m struggling to make myself heard above the chanting of the English Defence League (EDL).
Insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad ring round the pub as the crowd sings in unison.
There is a sea of England flags across the pub, displaying EDL branches from as far afield as Essex and Scotland - and outside there is more chanting and shouting. A much-hyped and carefully planned EDL demonstration is about to start and the tension in this pub, one of the official “muster points” for the protesters, is reaching fever pitch, with well over 350 people about to march.
Earlier in the day the Teesside Solidarity Movement and associated groups held an anti-EDL rally, starting from a park on Linthorpe Road and marching down towards the town centre.
It was a more sedate affair, with about 150 people – including Middlesbrough’s Labour MP Andy McDonald, councillors, and the Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger in attendance - but the message was clear.
“We want to celebrate the diversity in our area. We don't want the EDL splitting out community," said Middlesbrough Councillor Len Junier, before bellowing to the crowd: “Whose Streets?”.
“Our streets!” they shouted back, and the march was underway, with whistling and drumming as they made their way down Linthorpe Road.
Unison, TUC and Unite joined the Teesside People’s Assembly and the Teesside Solidarity Movement on the demonstration. Once they reached the town centre there was an open mic for residents to make speeches.
Councillor, and local restaurant owner Shamal Biswas, took the microphone, his anger spilling out.
“EDL, you are never welcome in this town, so next time don’t even try coming to Middlesbrough,” he shouted.
Dr Pete Widlinski, of the North of England Refugee Service, was next.
“I think we have a fantastic anti-fascist movement in Middlesbrough," he said. "We don’t want the EDL coming into our town. We don’t want them to spread their hatred here. It is recognised nationally that there are very few problems in Middlesbrough – and let us keep it that way.”
But, outside the Pig Iron at 2pm, where the EDL gather, hatred is in the air.
A n angry, fidgeting mob is gathering, contained by orange-clad EDL stewards and surrounded by police on every side in fluorescent yellow. The tension and excitement of the crowd is palpable as they set off down Corporation Road.
It is broken briefly as a firework goes off. The march is immediately stopped and there is confusion. A bottle sails past my head as I take video footage, and smashes on the road behind me.
One man is dragged out of the crowd by his arms by stewards and handed to waiting police. The march is underway again, and slowly winds its way down Albert Road.
More bangers are let off, and one unlucky spectator gets her leg cut by a broken bottle.
The crowd turns the corner to Borough Road, where, on the pavement, stands a woman wearing a traditional hijab, watching.
Immediately, the crowd pushes against the police lines towards her, while officers try to contain it. There is shouting and abuse drowned out by more abuse, fingers pointing at her, people trying to reach her. The woman knows they can’t get to her through the police and she taunts them, shouting back.
Officers are suddenly everywhere, moving the crowd on and away, down Melrose Street to the park in front of the law courts, where speeches take place. As the crowd spreads out on to the grass, the tension is diffused and the police disperse to the edges.
One EDL marcher gets up and tells the crowd: “My dogs were poisoned by Muslims.” The crowd cheers him on.
“My sister was raped by Muslims,” he carries on, while a sea of voices shout more encouragement.
One of the EDL's flags waves in the breeze, the words "not racist", just visible on it.
There are 300 police officers on the streets of Middlesbrough for the march, brought in at a cost of £30,000 to the public purse, from Cleveland, Durham, Northumbria and the British Transport Police.
Later, Acting Assistant Chief Constable Ciaron Irvine says he is pleased that the demonstrations passed off peacefully. Cleveland Police has been liaising with organisers for months and only two arrests represents a good day's work.
“It was not just about policing the two marches,” he says. “It is about a commitment to keeping the streets safe.
“But all those involved have conducted themselves well and I think the public feel reassured. We are keen that people’s legal right to protest is upheld and that anyone can come to Middlesbrough and display their particular message.”
BLOB TWO men arrested during the marches have been charged to appear at court in mid-July. A 26-year-old man was charged with possession of a bladed article and with being drunk and disorderly. A 37-year-old, who was arrested on suspicion of assaulting police, was charged with being drunk and disorderly.
VIDEO: Anger as English Defence League protest in Middlesbrough
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