Jasper Hamill The Herald, 15 November 2009
Standing precariously on a bin as thousands of people swarmed into George Square banging drums and chanting, anti-racist campaigner Aamer Anwar yesterday proclaimed a victory for the people of Glasgow over “racism, fascism and the Scottish Defence League (SDL)”.
His celebration followed a day in which the far-right group’s threat to march on Glasgow Central Mosque came to nothing, as police penned its members into a pub before bussing them to various spots on the periphery of the city, extinguishing the chances of a conflict before it had the chance to ignite. There were a few minor skirmishes in and around the city centre between the tiny SDL contingent and rival demonstrators, who were out in their thousands. Five people were arrested.
Although both sides claimed to have achieved their aims, the sheer numbers that mustered under the banner of Scotland United, a broad-spectrum alliance of political parties, trade unions and civil society groups, demonstrated that most of Glasgow has little truck with the “anti-Islamic” policies of the SDL and its English counterpart.
Mr Anwar, speaking at the head of a thousand protesters as they marched into George Square, said: “Just over 100 members of the Scottish and English Defence Leagues came to Glasgow today, skulked in a pub and were then bussed off away from the city centre. We proved that the only group that the people of Glasgow would tolerate on their streets were Scotland United. I would call this a victory.”
The SDL, announced plans to march in Glasgow several months ago after the English Defence League (EDL) attracted hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of supporters to rallies in cities including Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham.
The groups formed to protest exclusively against what they view as Islamic extremism, and claim to be a new political movement which has dispensed with the racist policies of far-right parties like the British National Party (BNP).
But critics, such as Mr Anwar, claim they are nothing but “a violent wing of the British National Party”.
Yesterday, the first protest in a day of political action in Glasgow took place at St Enoch Square at 10am.
Organised independently of Scotland United, the demonstration was made up of socialists, left-wing students and anti-fascists, who gathered outside the underground station before marching up Buchanan Street, chanting “Nazi scum off our streets” and “we’re black, white, Asian and we’re Jews”.
Daniel O’Donnell, a 61-year-old member of the Scottish National Party and veteran of anti-fascist protests, said: “Far-right and fascist movements have got more publicity now than I remember them ever having before, particularly after the BNP were allowed to speak on Question Time.
“The Scottish Defence League claims to be different from the BNP, but on paper, say critics, they look the same.
“This is not about showing the SDL who’s boss,” said O’Donnell, “but showing them that they are not welcome in Glasgow. We have enough problems in this city without them stirring up hatred. They have no place here.”
This splinter protest was organised by people who backed the aims of Scotland United but felt a bulwark against the Defence League was needed early in the day. Scotland United’s Glasgow Green rally was not until noon, which gave the SDL all morning to march the streets.
Sam Beaton, a 21-year-old student, said he and his fellow protesters had gathered to make sure the SDL demonstrators knew there would be someone to stand up against them if they took to the streets of Glasgow.
He said: “We’re mobilising here against the SDL, to make sure there is an anti-fascist presence in the town centre all morning. We have to be prepared for them, even if they decide to use violence. We’re not scared because we are a bigger, broader movement than them. They will not cause the same trouble they did in Leeds and Manchester.”
An hour after the protest started in St Enoch Square, the SDL gave out information about its meeting point on a phone number it had advertised on internet bulletin boards. Its members had organised the demonstration in secrecy on Facebook, other social networking sites and online discussion forums, withholding their exact plans from police and the city council.
The Sunday Herald was at the meeting point, a small pub in the city centre called The Cambridge where around 150 activists gathered, although police claimed there were only 70. Some covered their faces with scarves as they chanted and waved banners in the street.
Several key members of the SDL and EDL had been stopped on their way to the pub and some claimed to have been visited by officers from Strathclyde Police and banned from the city centre for the day.
Hundreds of police had formed a cordon around the pub, refusing to let anyone in or out. Inside,the leader of the SDL, who would only give his name as Don, attacked the anti-fascist protesters, claiming they were “spouting tired old rubbish” by labelling the SDL Nazis or racists.
Don said: “As soon as you say anything you’re labelled a racist, a Nazi, a fascist or a knuckle-dragging skinhead. We’re none of those things. We just want to highlight the Islamification of the country and show people that some, not all, young Muslims are having hate and militancy preached to them.
“People say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Scotland, but it is. I bet they didn’t think someone would try to blow up Glasgow Airport. We don’t want young Muslim schoolboys to be radicalised, go away to train and then come back to blow up the city.”
In The Cambridge, there was a febrile atmosphere. The curtains were closed but the bar stayed open, serving pints to the SDL contingent, who mostly resembled old-school skinheads, replete with tattoos. They were loath to give their names, and insisted we took no photos.
One member from the Airdrie branch said: “We’re just here to protest against extremist Islam and Republican terrorists, who have tried to take over our country for 40 years and failed. We’re not racist, we’re not Nazis and we’re not the BNP. I’ve got black friends and Muslim friends – race doesn’t bother me.”
He added: “Our great-grandfathers fought and fell against the Nazis in two world wars. It’s a slur on our grand-fathers to call us Nazis.”
There was a brief stand-off as the anti-racist protesters from St Enoch Square marched near the pub, after using the SDL’s phone line to find out its location. They rallied for a few minutes before heading down to Glasgow Green to the mainstream Scotland United event to listen to the speakers.
After being penned into the bar from 11am until about 12.30pm, police briefly allowed the SDL members out to protest, giving them the opportunity to chant slogans like “no surrender to the IRA” or sing Rule Britannia.
Police tolerated their protest for barely 20 minutes before packing them off in a bus. They were dumped at the Red Lion, a pub on Paisley Road West, and warned that anyone who tried to go back into town would be arrested.
The SDL’s original plans to march on Glasgow Central Mosque were thwarted at the point of application. Glasgow’s policy on marches is “somewhere between Northern Ireland and England” said a city council source, with special legislation designed to manage Orange marches. This means that while a static demonstration requires no permission from the council or police, any moving procession needs to be given the go-ahead by the authorities.
However, the SDL’s application for a moving procession was made using only the first name, Donald. The council’s request for more information was rejected. When the SDL was warned that its members would not be allowed to use the streets to protest, it replied that they would be happy to use the pavement – something a council source said would still be illegal.
At the same time as the SDL’s brief protest, the Scotland United rally at Glasgow Green heard speakers including Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie, Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar and the Rev Ian Galloway from the Church of Scotland.
They praised Scotland’s multiculturalism and slammed the SDL, with Mr Sarwar labelling its members “nuts”.
He said: “The message from here is loud and clear: BNP, Scottish Defence League, English Defence League are not allowed to march on the streets of Glasgow. Scotland is united against these thugs and fascists.
“I want to congratulate Glasgow City Council for rejecting the application from these nuts to march on the streets. I am proud to be a Glaswegian and a Scot, because we are different. There were confrontations in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, but we are having a peaceful rally. People in England and Europe can learn a lot from us.”
In a rousing speech, Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m proud to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Scotland’s Muslim communities, with all of Scotland’s communities. We are a diverse country, a multicultural country and that is what makes us strong. We are proud to defend that multiculturalism every single day or whenever it is put under attack.”
Ahead of the Scotland United event Osama Saeed, chairman of the Scottish Islamic Foundation, said that the only people missing from the coalition were Muslim elders themselves. There had been frantic wrangling behind the scenes as Mr Saeed and Mr Anwar tried to persuade mosque elders to take part.
Mr Saeed said: “The people running mosque don’t get involved in anything and tend to be very reclusive – this is another manifestation of it. A lot of them are immigrants and don’t see themselves as part of society, not the prominent actors they could and should be. It requires a huge change of mindset.”
After the Scotland United rally had finished, some 3500 people marched through the city towards George Square, where a minute’s silence was observed for the victims of racist killings in Scotland, including Indian naval officer Kunal Mohanty and Pollokshields teenager Kriss Donald.
Afterwards, Aamar Anwar claimed his coalition had inflicted a “humiliating defeat on the Nazi defence league”, but Don, the organiser of the SDL protest yesterday, gave one final warning: “He may say it’s a victory, but it’s hollow, because we’re not going nowhere. The next victory will be ours. We will stage demonstration after demonstration after demonstration. Today has gone well. We’ve had a peaceful protest, we’ve not hurt anybody. We’ve had the real victory today and won many more supporters. It’s been a big day for us.”
But not all SDL members agreed with Don. On the group’s Facebook site, even supporters were questioning the success of the Glasgow demonstration. In a post called Demo Today, one SDL member wrote: “I’m embarressed (sic).”
Another wrote: “People were literally laughing at us like we were clowns.” He added: “What demo in Glasgow? People were too scared to leave the pub. What a f******* shambles wae people laughing at us?”, while another claimed: “It was an absolute shambles. ‘SDL’ is utter pish.”