A detailed account has today emerged of last weeks protest hijacking by the English Defence League (EDL) in Luton. The account confirms the opportunistic actions of the EDL leadership and the very public disapproval by the local Sikh leadership as previously reported. The account goes further to debunk claims that the EDL had supported a protest the following day outside the Magistrates Court.
The below account has been provided by Peter Adams, who works in Interfaith Relations and Peacemaking, based at St Mary’s Church in Luton, England.
Tuesday evening – I was not at the main protest, but heard of it after an evening out. I understand there were maybe 200 people; the report of 20 EDL present was probably generous from reports I got. EDL leaders Stephen Yaxley Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) and Kevin Carrol were both there. I arrived at the Gurdwara at about 10.30pm, some 500 metres from the police station where the protest was held. The crowd had just been moved back to there, loosely contained by police, in part to keep them apart from some wandering young members of the Muslim community.
Lennon was still there, working the crowd. He knows me and came over, saying something like “See, they [gesturing to Bury Park, about 300 metres away] shouldn’t be allowed on the streets, dirty paedos…”
He went to leave soon after and as he did was clearly talking to his main contacts among the Sikhs. These were not community or religious leaders I know, nor younger mainstream community activists. He had apparently not been officially invited to the earlier community meeting by anyone in leadership, but he had been asked to come by someone. He clearly was seeking to widen his relationship base, but in my opinion it was pretty clear he was not well linked in. There were Sikhs there from Birmingham and London. Possibly others. Everyone was dispersing by time I left at 11.45.
Wednesday am – An early meeting of Muslim community and religious leaders initiated by the Chair of Luton Council of Faiths (and with all the key groupings of Mosques present) agreed to initiate a meeting with Sikh leaders. A small number visited the Gurdwara to start the process – to offer sympathy, regret and concern, open up an agenda for conversation, and build confidence. Early and frequent interfaith engagement at times like this is key, and throughout the day good and close interfaith relations were demonstrated on many occasions.
The media were outside the Magistrates Court from first thing. There was a strong but low key [public order] police presence. Soon after 10.30 when I arrived it was confirmed that the Muslim lad had been charged and hearing would be in the afternoon. Kevin Carrol turned up soon after and not long afterwards community leader Jaswinder Singh Nagra. He told Carrol EDL were not welcome. When asked who had invited him to be there he could name no names. He withdrew and called Lennon. He hung around and then left. I did not see him again, and though I was around court several times contrary to reports there was no obvious EDL presence after that, even when the court case was finished.
I had meetings elsewhere, but after that met up with the Assistant Minister of St Marys Luton, and we returned to the court. We spoke again to a few Sikhs outside, learned some more. We then went to the Gurdwara to offer sympathy and concern from the Christian Community. We were welcomed by many, and offered the usual gracious hospitality and langar.
Wednesday pm – After lunch I joined the community leader Jaswinder Singh Nagra along with a group of some 20 in going to the court to be there for the court appearance. There were no EDL present. The feeling on the public gallery in court was tense, and more so when the defendant entered. The explicit nature of the witness statements understandably caused upset and led to a call for order from the magistrates. Fortunately everyone was quiet after that – being thrown out of court would not have helped emotions.
The immediate hearing was to hear the charge and fix a trial date and then assess bail. The charge was common assault; apparently the alleged victim would not press for any more than being held and injured. Witness statements indicate sexual assault or more, but if she won’t allow more the police cannot go further. Most information came out as the prosecution argued that bail, usual for a common assault, be denied due to potential danger to the victim and family and to the defendant due to community anger. The magistrtaes bench gave bail with regular reporting and curfew by electronic tagging at an address away from Luton. The Sikh community very angry – but many did understand that it was not possible to do more in circumstances. On leaving there was no indication of protest by EDL – it was raining hard at the time!
Wednesday evening – A meeting hosted at the Gurdwara, chaired by Zafar Kahn of Luton Council of Faiths and with some 35 Sikh and Muslim religious and community leaders and a few from Council of Faiths led to very open, honest and gracious dialogue, and agreed a working group to monitor this issue and look at actions forward from here. Allegations of police inaction will be discussed. Lasted just short of two hours. Very positive, and a warm and friendly meal afterwards. Police and council had offered to attend but it was felt that with them, and local councillors, it would become political. Groups will meet subsequently with them.
Police and council had prepared for a large operation in event of another expected protest, and I had a team of community mediators on call. However it was clear from all i was hearing was that there was already a growing confidence and any protest was being called off. I drove around afterwards and all was quiet. No sign of EDL..
First, there was a real issue, and one that seemed be reinforced by previous history of community relations. It needed to be taken seriously. I cannot comment on whether the early response of the police was quick enough, but they and the community are loooking at the matter.
Second, the EDL have been seeking since their beginning to exploit historical issues between Muslims and other faith groups. Their claimed allegiance with the Sikhs was for a long time mainly through activist Guramit Singh, but increased community opposition and a statement, and Guramit’s departure has removed that. I have heard rumours locally they have been seeking to cultivate the Sikhs but this was evidence of a link with a least a few.
Third, the Current EDL focus on Muslim grooming and paedophilia means that they are likely to try again to exploit community tensions over cross community relationships as well as more any rumour of organised grooming gangs. They clearly make no differentiation between the two, though we know there are very different issues involved.
Fourth, the capacity of structures and relationships in the town to quickly bridge comunities was key. Luton Council of Faiths has fifteen years of history (in its present form and its precursor) and was able to facilitate early conversations. Those conversations need to be resilient enough to allow honest talking. The very quick response of the Muslim community in Luton to talk about it and then meet with the Sikhs once again cut off the opportunity for the EDL to exploit this.
Fifthly, we need to remember that the EDL are regularly raising issues that do have some substance. We cannot ignore those, but we must not either be steered by their agenda. When these issues arise we need to act to take the sting out of their tail as quickly as possible.
The full report can be read on the Reconciliation Talk blog.
Edit 06/06/2012 -
It should also be noted that on 31/05/2012 the Sikh Council UK circulated a press release on this issue stating: “We request that the Sikh community remain vigil of far right organisations which may take advantage of this type of situation to heighten tensions between communities.”