If there’s one thing you can rely on in Preston, it is the rain.Advertisement
Lancashire Police would have been breathing a sigh of relief as ‘PC Rain’, as they refer to it, swept into the city and ensured a demonstration by the English Defence League was a damp squib. As well as putting a dampener on any fuses their opponents may try to light.
The far-right group had talked up around 500 members visiting the city to demonstrate against what they claim is the Islamification of Preston, but at most 150 turned up.
We must first look at how the police handled what could be a tense situation. They have clearly learned from previous political rallies and their was no compromise here.
2010, when the EDL last came to Preston, saw a much longer procession route including going up part of Friargate and onto the Flag Market.
This time the police were penning in the EDL to a small space in Birley Street with a huge wall between them and anyone else. They also working hard to keep the hard-left groups away from their political opponents – they were as worried about splinter groups of the UAF and EDL as they were the EDL themselves. I saw a few young lads being given warning letters from the police as soon as they stepped foot on the Markets area. ‘We know who you are, we know you might be looking for trouble, and you’re one step away from getting nicked’ was the message.
Police were there on mass. There was no expense spared on the manpower on the ground here. Police vehicles lined the market, police vans blocked off the view of the EDL and lined the streets around the market. Police horses trotted around. This was a show of strength from the Constabulary. We outnumber you was their message to both sides.
The EDL themselves felt a shadow of their former selves. The 2010 demonstration in Preston had been a far more troublesome affair, then more than 1,000 people had marched and there was far more of a local element to it – now that seems to have faded.
Banners of Cheshire, Liverpool, Newcastle and Wales divisions to name a few were hoisted on the streets of Preston accompanied by shouts of ‘whose streets, our streets’. It raised confusion from those Prestonians who had stopped their daily business to see what was going on.
This was the general reaction from Saturday shoppers, a bemused look and a question of ‘are Preston playing a big football team or something?’.
The EDL’s coaches were late, the police didn’t given an inch on their agreement that the whole event must be wrapped up by 2pm – and this was also the case to the counter demo on the other side. There were clear terms laid out for both sides and they had to stick to them.
As for the political message, well it was a confused one. The EDL speeches were rambling, blaming a host of people for a lot of different things. Their finger-pointing at Preston Council for flying the Palestinian flag felt outdated and the city has moved on from that debate – it happened about 18 months ago, and if the city wanted to punish the Labour administration for it they would have done so in the local elections last May.
There was anger from those EDL supporters I spoke to, blaming the police and the media for standing by and letting the population of the country expand. There is something to address here, those I spoke to felt the mainstream political parties did not speak for them – and they had no outlet for their anger. They did agree though the far-right had splintered into different groups – particularly the saga of Tommy Robinson, the former EDL leader. The EDL claimed they were a different organisation with many of the ‘racists’ now having left their ranks. We’re not racist they said, before chanting ‘stick your Allah up your arse’. Most of the chanting was schoolboy like, not sinister.
Preston’s community event on the other side of the barrier saw roses given out, mosque leaders cooking up free food and cake. It certainly does feel if you want to capture the hearts and attention of Prestonians then giving them some free curry and a rose, and a hug (in some cases) is one way to go about it. Preston’s Muslim community does need to do more to open itself up to the wider city – they do make up around eight to 10 per cent of Preston’s total population now – but this will happen over time. Organisations working with the council, mosques, the trades council, and others are creating and running events like Preston Mela that help show and explain what goes in in these different cultures.
The city has not seen the kind of racial tensions that others in the North West and elsewhere have seen, this is in part I believe because there are events, there are discussions and an openness from many people of Preston to at least discuss issues.
What Preston doesn’t need is a bunch of slightly tipsy flag-wavers taking unfounded national media headlines and presenting them as facts. There are no ‘no-go’ areas of the city for police, they were walking the streets of Deepdale on Saturday to ensure people felt safe and to prove a point.
If there were ‘no-go’ areas of Preston then yesterday’s protests would have been a disaster, but because the police have strong links and an understanding of Preston’s communities they are able to ensure the demonstrations pass off peacefully.
Proud Preston is often a slogan trotted out and Saturday’s events were a part of that proud tradition, you can express your opinion in this city, people will listen and then make up their mind – and above all there is no place for violence. Preston can be proud of its police, its value of free speech in public places but also of ensuring people can safely go about their everyday business. A value we should always ensure remains in Britain.