The glorious weather we saw on Sunday in Manchester was the perfect backdrop for a good old-fashioned British protest. The Football Lads Alliance held a rally at the Castlefield Bowl, met by a counter-protest against their presence in the city. The FLA claim to be gathering to make a stand against Islamic extremism, while the counter-protesters saw this as thinly-veiled racism and an opportunity to exploit the fears and grief of a city touched by the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
The FLA claim to be an anti-extremist group, united through the love of football. While the origins of the group are in sport, there is no mention of this on their website – and there were no football shirts on display at today’s rally. Ironically, today was FA Cup final day, and yet none of these avid football supporters were watching the match. The FLA’s website seems rather innocuous, speaking about safer communities and inclusivity of “all colours, creeds, faiths and religions”. Yet this belies their actions and connections, with anti-Muslim speeches and links to far-right organisations & individuals including For Britain, the EDL, and Tommy Robinson, who will be in Manchester on June 2nd with the Democratic Football Lads Alliance.
Part of their appeal is the respectable veneer they place over the hateful and divisive views held by their membership. They are careful to publicly state that they are opposed to racism and that they promote equality, while under their banner they spout hateful and discriminatory rhetoric including a smear campaign against Diane Abbott and anti-Islam sentiment. Maintaining a respectable public face is clearly part of their strategy. We know what their real agenda is, but try to challenge it and you’ll be met with plausible deniability and pleas to consider the “real” issues of immigration and terrorism.
One year ago, Manchester was devastated by a terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena. This dreadful event was marked by Mancunians with gestures of solidarity ranging from vigils to tattooing our bodies with the worker bee symbol. The FLA have seized upon this tragedy and politicised it to suit their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant agenda, and Manchester is not happy about it. We’re not buying their “anti-extremism” stance, when we know it’s an excuse to hurt innocent people simply because of the colour of their skin or the faith they practice. On top of that, it’s an insult to the memory of those who died and were injured on that night – we must not allow their legacy to be stained with hatred and racism.
The FLA met at the Castlefield Arena at 12pm, a poor turnout for the heavy police presence. One officer estimated the FLA turnout as 150 people, maximum, and this was reflected in the sentiment of their supporters. There were complaints that previous rallies were better, and had more support. This event was stale and uninspired, according to those overheard in the vicinity. There are rumours that another far-right group hacked the secret Facebook group set up to organise the rally, and “cancelled” it, which might be reflected in the fact that they already have a splinter group in the form of the D-FLA.
This appeared to be a dry run for the real event on 2nd June, when their hero Tommy Robinson turns up. Of course, they are still keen to emphasise their non-racist credentials. Under the surface, their organisational tactics are clandestine and insidious. They operate a network of secret Facebook groups to recruit and plan for their events. There are justified concerns that this method of promoting their message is geared towards disaffected young men looking for purpose, radicalising them against the fictitious enemy of “The Other”. It is also known that they are branching out to other demographics including women’s and veteran’s groups.
The counter-protest, however, was estimated as around 400 people, and was managed by a proportionately larger number of police officers. It seems they were expecting trouble, given the sheer numbers of police – on foot, in vehicles, on horseback and in the skies with the GMP helicopter. The proceedings began at St. Peter’s Square, with talks by the organisers and community leaders. The message was consistent, one of unity and diversity. There was particular attention paid to the links between the Jewish & Muslim populations in Manchester, something that the city’s residents will already know about, but is important to state in these times of simultaneous anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The FLA were contained within the Castlefield Arena, and the counter-demonstration headed along Lower Mosley Street, Whitworth Street and Liverpool Street to greet them. The two groups were separated by a police cordon, which appeared to be larger in numbers than the FLA members they were separating from the anti-fascist protesters. In spite of any fears of violence or trouble, things went off peacefully. Of course there were heated verbal exchanges between the two groups, but things stayed very much under control.
The counter-protesters were passionate and angry, yet united against hate and the kind of violent tactics the far-right might use. The FLA were vocal but lukewarm – they turned up underprepared and unready to face the message Mancunians sent to them: you are not welcome here.
The day ended with a return march to St. Peter’s Square, for closing speeches, warm goodbyes and plans to meet again in two weeks’ time. Today Manchester sent a message loud and clear to the FLA and other hate groups that they are not wanted. In a fortnight’s time, we’ll be back to do it all again.