THE last weekend in November is traditionally a time when hordes of shoppers converge on Preston to begin buying their Christmas presents.
But this Saturday, part of the city centre will be taken over by around 1,200 members of the English Defence League (EDL), as well as a counter protest by Unite Against Fascism (UAF).
The protest will coincide with the visit of Millwall FC to play Preston North End, whose supporters were arrested for violence more than any other last season.
Recent protests, including one in neighbouring Bolton in March, led to violent confrontations and dozens of arrests.
Lancashire Constabulary is braced for one of the county’s biggest ever operations, and a senior source has confirmed the Central Lancashire Primary Care Trust has been put on a red alert standby, in case of injuries.
Several shops have announced they will be shutting while the protest takes place, and many taxi drivers will also be taking the afternoon off.
The group’s formation can be traced to March 2009, when Muslim anti-war protesters heckled members of the Royal Anglican Regiment parading through Luton, after returning from Iraq.
The EDL came together with the stated aims of peacefully opposing Islamist extremism, and the imposition in Britain of Sharia.
In less than a year, however, the group has gained a reputation for violent confrontations and accusations of Far Right extremism.
While EDL protesters from across the north of England will descend on Preston, a simultaneous protest will also be taking place in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
Members of the EDL campaign group are keen to use the forthcoming events to dispel perceived misrepresentations.
Pensioner Peter Wright, 68, a great grandad-of-three, who is a member of the EDL, felt compelled to contact the Evening Post to defend his beliefs following previous articles.
He says: “I have been a member since last October.
“I just happened to see something on them in a national newspaper and I looked it up on the internet.
“What incenses me is that we are classed as right wing.
“They refer to us as being the same as the BNP, Casuals United, or Combat 18.
“We are not associated with any group, we are a group on our own and we have counterparts in Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
“We are called yobs, thugs and whatever else.
“I am 68 years old, and would you call me a thug?
“I went to Bolton (to protest) and there were older people like me, disabled people, and families with kids.
“They were all speaking with the same voice, we are protesting against Islamic extremism, we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious group.
“No matter what colour, religion or race, everybody is welcome in the EDL.
“There are moderate Muslims in the EDL.”
While Mr Wright, who lives in Wigan, claims Muslim extremism is the group’s primary concern, a perceived spread of Islam as a whole, is also a prevalent issue among some members.
He says: “The Muslim religion has an agenda going back 1,000 years.
“My own opinion is Muslims want one religion in this world – and that is Islam.
“What we protest against is what they envisage having in Preston, a super mosque.
“We are against mosques, Sharia law, burkas in public places.
“If I went into a bank with a crash helmet, I would be told to take it off – otherwise I would be arrested.”
Professor Roger Penn, a sociology lecturer in ethnicity and immigration at Lancaster University, has followed the group’s activities closely and believes it is indeed a Far Right organisation.
He says: “It is a Far Right quasi-fascist organisation.
“The closest parallel would be the National Front in the 1970s.
“It has been hostile to immigration, and particularly hostile to Muslim immigration.
“It comes out of what you would call ‘Islamaphobia’ stuff in certain national papers on the dangers of Muslims in Britain.
“It feeds from the fact that the London bombers in 2005 were born in Britain and grew up in Britain.”
Prof Penn believes the large number of EDL members in the city, combined with Millwall supporters could create a challenging situation for the police.
He says: “What concerns me more is there are two things going to happen.
“First is the protest march, but Preston are also at home to Milwall.
“Last time I watched Preston against Millwall, there were 400 police for 78 Millwall fans.
“Home Office statistics show they had the highest number of arrests for violent disorder at football matches on the 2008-2009 season, so police have to be prepared for incidents at Deepdale on Saturday.”
Meanwhile, members of the city’s Muslim community believe the EDL has chosen to protest in Preston because one of its aims is to spoil cultural harmony.
Faisal Mansoor, trustee of the Preston Muslim Society, says: “The march is a deliberate attempt to provoke Muslims and to cause violent confrontation, as the EDL is committed to disrupting the peace and harmony of our city.
“Their intention is only to incite racial and religious hatred by setting communities against each other.
“As Muslims, we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into their web of extremism.
“The city’s mosques are united in a determination to keep such elements out of our neighbourhoods.
“The only effect this march will have is to increase suspicion and hatred towards the Muslim community, especially at a time when Muslims are positively contributing to the beautiful diversity of this city through community service, professional and business development, and academic achievements.”
The group’s motivations and politics will continue to be the source of heated debate.
But one thing is certain, the protest on Saturday will disrupt a busy shopping day and stretch police resources.