This time, the EDL did not pass in East End

By John Nathan, September 8, 2011
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EDL’s Stephen Lennon as a “rabbi”

EDL’s Stephen Lennon as a “rabbi”

It was not the Battle of Cable Street. Yet because the English Defence League's intended march through Tower Hamlets last Saturday took place just a month before the 75th anniversary of the day Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marched through London's Jewish East End, comparisons had been made between what happened on October 2 1936 and what might happen on September 3, 2011.

As it turned out, there were obvious differences. True, as in 1936 the group that bore down on to the East End had a reputation for violence and intimidation. But this time, the community targeted by the far right were not Jews, but Muslims - although there were Jews present.

In Whitechapel a small group of greying but committed activists congregated under a fading Jewish Socialists' banner to join the various groups opposing the EDL. It felt like a big gathering of the disparate left. There were unions, public sector workers, anti-fascists and a smattering of anarchists, among others. One Muslim stallholder from Whitechapel Market made a point of shaking the hand of a Jewish Socialist.

Half a mile away outside Aldgate Station, just outside Tower Hamlets, riot police closed ranks around several hundred EDL supporters.

Banned by the Home Secretary from marching - the first such ban in London for 30 years - the EDL opted for a "static" protest. Many were wrapped in England flags. Their chants had the belligerence and rhythm more often heard on football terraces than at political rallies.

Overhead more flags fluttered in the warm breeze. Most were flags of St George. One was an Israeli flag, possibly brought by EDL Jewish Division founder Roberta Moore who, it was recently reported, had left the EDL, accusing the group of containing Nazis among its members - although this did not stop her turning up to Aldgate.

Then, a truly bizarre moment. A man introduced as "Rabbi Benjamin Kidderman" stepped on to a platform, took hold of a microphone and theatrically removed a black coat, hat and false beard revealing that this was no rabbi at all but EDL leader Stephen Lennon, better known to his followers as Tommy Robinson.

The disguise was apparently intended to thwart bail conditions for a previous offence. It may have been for this reason that a phalanx of riot police moved quickly through the crowd in an apparent attempt to arrest him.

Or it may have been because the authorities deemed the EDL leader's speech had broken incitement laws. The police made their move just after the EDL leader warned British Muslims that they would "feel the full force of the English Defence League" if there were a repeat of the 7/7 bombings. But whatever the reason, it was at this point that the mood reached boiling point.

A large section of the EDL crowd surged towards police lines. Scuffles broke out, fireworks that sounded more like explosives were let off in front of the police, who drew batons.

Yet unlike October 2, 1936, the day did not erupt into pitched battle. This was one difference between that day and this. Another was that the far right leader made a point of "bigging up" Israel who, he said "had their backs to the wall".

And although in Whitechapel, the Cable Street battle cry of "They shall not pass" could be heard, this time the far right did not set one foot in Tower Hamlets.

    Last updated: 11:19am, September 8 2011