Marching together

The young people who turn out to oppose racists

10th July 2018

In a Leeds Civic Hall meeting room on a muggy June afternoon, two little Asian girls sit patiently at an ornate, oversized table. They are joined by their dad, and some two-dozen other men and women from Leeds Stand Up To Racism (LSUTR).

The girls play with their dad’s phone and work pass, swapping at intervals, while the adults debate the name for an upcoming counter-protest.

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The anti-fascist protesters carried placards and banners

Some believe it should be a celebration, others think that any implied merriment would be best left for another time. Somebody suggests the words “defend”, and in the end “Celebrate and Defend Multicultural Leeds” is picked.

The committee members are formulating their response to events that occurred on Friday 1 June 2018 in their city. While specific numbers are still unclear, it is thought that between 350 and 400 people marched through the centre, disrupting shoppers and closing roads. They were the remaining stalwart Free Tommy Robinson (FTR) supporters, marching in response to the arrest of their leader on 25 May 2018.

Robinson — real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — was jailed for 13 months after admitting to breaking contempt of court laws outside a Leeds Crown Court case.

On 1 June, the FTR members were joined by other splinter groups and, while they did not have permission from the council to march, these groups were not stopped by police. Chants included “Muslims off our streets”.

Three days later, a mosque and a Sikh temple in the city suffered arson attacks in apparent hate crimes.

The Celebrate and Defend Multicultural Leeds counter-protest is timed to oppose a second FTR march, which is planned for 7 July. It is clearly no coincidence that they have picked the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, in which two of the four bombers came from Leeds.

The run-up

Media reports on Thursday 5 July state the right-wing FTR march has been cancelled, but LSUTR campaigners find that the section 21 order, stating a temporary closing of city centre roads between 1pm and 3pm, is still in place.

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About three-times more anti-racism campaigners turned out than their racist counterparts

Robert Smith, committee member of LSUTR, issues a press release stating: “Two groups planned to assemble on Saturday, Free Tommy Robinson (outside Leeds Crown Court) and Yorkshire Patriots (in City Square, opposite the train station). Free Tommy Robinson didn’t give any legal notification to the police for their demo but Yorkshire Patriots did. They applied to assemble at City Square and march from there.

“We therefore suspect that FTR have simply merged their demo with Yorkshire Patriots and have told the press that they are cancelling. This is a diversionary tactic to reduce the number of counter-protesters.”

Both LSUTR and Leeds Unite Against Fascism (LUAF) encourage mailing list members and social media followers to not be tricked.

Robert writes: “Let’s make this the biggest anti-racist and anti-fascist mobilisation Leeds has seen for years in order that Tommy Robinson and his supporters decide never to show their faces here again.”

The day

You can hear the chants of “We are black, white, Muslim and we’re Jews” from streets away.

Just past noon on 7 July, those two little girls are nowhere to be seen among the crowds. However, there is a different girl; blonde hair tucked under a pink cap and a t-shirt that reads “HAPPY!”. She stands with her mum towards the back of a crowd already 200-strong, gathered below the steps of Leeds Town Hall.

We’ve talked about the fact that if things do get difficult we will have to leave, and we’re going to stick together

“We don’t believe in racism — I don’t like it,” Eight-year-old Ellie Brock, from Bradford, tells me. “All people should be treated the same- we’re all different but all equal.”

Mum Lindsey Brock looks relaxed. “The police look like they are out in force but we’re hanging around at the back to stay safe. We’ve talked about the fact that if things do get difficult we will have to leave, and we’re going to stick together.”

There is a very polluted perception of my nationality, and it’s partly due to the media

In the crowd of predominantly white protesters, I notice a Middle-Eastern woman in her mid-twenties sitting alone on the steps. Her name is Simin Zarei, and she’s come alone. Born in Iran, she moved to England when she was eight. At 27, then, she has now lived here for nearly two decades.

“Since 9/11, where we are in terms of tolerating people who are Muslim or from the Middle-East is terrible. There is a very polluted perception of my nationality, and it’s partly due to the media. My ambition is to build my own political party — I don’t think we should be segregated in any shape or form.”

Simin tells me that she dreams of further education, but believes the Trump Muslim ban will impede her in doing so; she has several friends with both Iranian and British passports, like herself, who’ve recently been rejected from even a normal tourist VISA in the US.

“Being Iranian is currently a massive black-stamp. For us to be in these circumstances in 2018 is shameful. It’s tough being an Iranian person; I feel like my name is tainted.”

Moving past the chain of police officers and to the street corner, I notice a younger guy waiting to cross the road, holding a homemade cardboard sign which reads: “Did our grandparents not fight the same war?”

This white man tapped my friend on the shoulder and then head-butted him

Conor Johnson is 24, and is wearing a white vest with Corbyn emblazoned across the chest. The two friends he came with went back home within minutes of arriving into Leeds after one of them was headbutted in an apparently unprovoked attack.

“This white man, a skinhead in a red top, tapped my friend on the shoulder and then head-butted him,” Conor tells me, clearly still upset.

“I went to a police officer, told them what had happened and even pointed out the man that had done it, but they said there was nothing they could do, and just told us to call 111.”

A girl he had walked from the station with, who only wanted to give her name as Robin, added that she had seen another boy attacked in the same area.

He roundhouse punched him in the back of the head

“The man — he was wearing a blue top — kept barging into him. When the boy tried to gently push him away, he roundhouse punched him in the back of the head.”

On that occasion, the police did pursue the attacker, but Robin and Conor say they don’t know if he was caught and if any charges were brought. Afterwards, a West Yorkshire Police spokesman says officers made three arrests, for theft, obstructing a police officer and a public order offence. One officer was taken to hospital after being hit by a bottle.

If I don’t stand in solidarity with other people, who will stand for me?

Without his friends — and one of them injured — I ask Conor why he didn’t leave too. His answer is defiant.

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The anti-racism protesters were made up of all faiths

“As a gay man, if I don’t stand in solidarity with other people, who will stand for me?”

Nearby, Ian Blackburn, 32, from Leeds wears a smart shirt and yellow pin that reads “We shall overcome”. After the Tommy Robinson Supporters march on 1 June, Ian says he heard about the subsequent attacks at the mosque and temple on the news.

“I can’t help that feel like that is a consequence of the hatred that these groups are spurting,” Ian says. “Everyone should come out and show that that is not acceptable in this country, or any country.”

Not everyone in the crowd is a local. Bryony Bates, 26, and her friend Anna Gettings, 25, have travelled from Manchester especially.

I think it’s so important to turn up and outnumber those people

“Tommy Robinson came to speak at a Football Lads Alliance march in Manchester last year,” says Bates. “It was pandemonium because there weren’t enough people to oppose them. Ever since, I think it’s so important to turn up and outnumber those people.”

Gettings adds: “Friends of mine received a tirade of racial abuse the last time these people marched through Leeds. They went storming through the city centre on people’s lunch breaks entirely unopposed. Once again, there was no planned and cohesive operation against it, because often they do marches in an underhand way, when they’re not expected. So we need to have a presence too.”

A few minutes before the pre-march speeches end, I meet Matt Smith, 27, and Joe Hughes, 28, Bradford lads who now live in Leeds.

“People are entitled to have their opinions but it’s important to have a counter-voice to that. These people single out Muslim cases and grooming case but it’s just a façade for their racism. They have an agenda and are looking for any excuse to push their racist views,” says Smith.

If we stand by and let them continue to grow, by the time we do act it will be too late

Hughes agrees, adding: “Racists are more powerful than they’ve been for a very long time. If we stand by and let them continue to grow, by the time we do act it will be too late. I grew up in Bradford and witness racism first hand at its absolute worst. That shapes you as a person; you either turn to it, or reject it.

“If we’re louder, bigger and stronger, people will respond to us over them.”

Slowly, the congregation merge behind the police line and begin to march. The next day, police report around 250 people marched for Robinson. However, their opposition had grown. From two dozen adults and two little girls came 750.

10th July 2018