- Friday, June 18, 2010
A CONTROVERSIAL right-wing group linked with violent protests across the UK is setting up an Essex division.
Members of the English Defence League, who often wear masks or balaclavas, publicly protest against militant Islam, with many of their protest marches ending in violent clashes.
The group, which stirs up anger through racist chanting and inflammatory placards, has already been banned from several towns across the UK.
Organisers recently met in Chelmsford to discuss plans to expand the group by setting up a new division in Essex – and an online forum has been launched, which is already recruiting members.
The EDL was formed on June 27, 2009, amid claims that the British Government was weak and ineffectual against extremist Muslim preachers. It has become the most significant far-right street movement in the UK since the National Front in the 1970s.
The group’s online armed forces division has 842 members and the EDL says many serving soldiers have attended its rallies.
The big divisions are in Luton, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.
In a protest in Birmingham last September, 35 EDL members were arrested after violence broke out when they met an opposing group. Gangs rioted, throwing bricks and bottles at police.
About 700 members from the EDL attended protests in Manchester city centre in October when 48 people were arrested.
In Stoke-on-Trent on January 23 this year, a protest was attended by about 1,500 EDL members. They broke through police lines which resulted in 17 people being arrested. During this confrontation, which cost thousands of pounds to police, four officers were injured and two of them needed hospital treatment.
However, despite repeated attempts to contact the EDL leader, no one from the group, who often keep their identities secret, was willing to talk to the Chronicle to put forward their point of view.
The group claims it is not anti-immigration and has no issues with moderate Muslims, but it has been blamed for damaging community relations in areas where it is active.
Chelmsford police chief inspector Joe Wrigley told the Chronicle he had heard whisperings of the EDL setting up locally and had informed Special Branch, the police unit responsible for national security and the threats of terrorism and extremism.
He said: "A group with such racist views is not welcome in Chelmsford and we will work hard to protect the public, and particularly minority groups, from such extremism."
The EDL started life in Luton as a reaction to radical Muslim groups chanting anti-war slogans during a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment.
At a demonstration in Birmingham last August, EDL fanatics clashed with left-wing members of Unite Against Facism, with 35 people being arrested.
The EDL was later banned from marching through Luton by police, who feared their presence would be damaging to race relations.
Chelmsford MP Simon Burns said: "Fortunately, Chelmsford is a reasonable place where there is no significant polarisation and the community lives in harmony together.
"I do not think it is necessary or helpful for the establishment of an organisation of this nature, which has the potential to upset that harmony."
Faheem Akhtar, a Muslim who has lived in Chelmsford since he moved from Pakistan in 1959, and worked as a senior engineer at Marconi for 48 years, said: "These people have the wrong idea about Islam.
"Extremism is not a part of Islam and our religion tells us that when we live in a foreign country we must obey the laws of that country."
The group is shunned by fellow right-wingers in the British National Party, which claims the EDL's confrontational tactics are not compatible with the BNP's attempts to position itself as a legitimate political party.
The EDL did not respond to the Chronicle's requests to speak about their plans.
Paul Armstrong, 22, unemployed, of Chelmsford, said: “I don’t want them here. It’s also stretching the police to deal with them when they have rallies. I don’t understand why people would want to sign up.” Michael Sonnex, 62, a window cleaner from Great Baddow, said: “It’s more of a concern for the police than us. They should find out exactly what their aims are and stop them forming if they have racial links.” Paul Robinson, 35, a Moulsham Street trader, said: “I don’t agree with the EDL or any group with racial underpinning. There is no need for protests and there are other ways to get their message across.”
Ian Hempstead, 32, a postman from Springfield, said: “If you get caught up in a protest, it’s not something anyone would welcome. The media shouldn’t give them a platform to gain momentum.” Heather Turner, 25, a mobile hairdresser, of Wickford, said: “It’s shocking that they are forming in Chelmsford. “We don’t want to be caught up in any of their brainwashing.” Carole White, 50, a curtain-maker from Braintree, said: “I didn’t think people in Chelmsford were that naive as to sign up to such a group. The police have got better things they could be doing.”