A tempestuous Saturday afternoon saw police claiming victory in the face of aggression from individuals in both the English Defence League (EDL) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF). Operation Birdcall, a large scale police action involving vehicles and personnel from nine constabularies, largely succeeded in keeping apart protesters and counter-protesters, preventing a major outbreak of violence.
The protest, the latest in a string of such events this year, always promised to excite significant controversy. A similar protest in Birmingham during August had resulted in a running battle between EDL members and counter-protesters, with police being pelted with bricks and over twenty arrests taking place. The police had attempted to ban a protest in Luton earlier this year, claiming that they could not guarantee public safety. Nottingham City Centre was also playing host to the return of the 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment, while Nottingham Forest’s City Ground was host to a local derby as Forest played Leicester City.
Over 10,000 turned out to see the parade by 2 Mercian, who had recently completed their third tour in Afghanistan. At around 11am, the troops received rapturous applause from the public as a crowd of UAF protestors grew, defying a request by the police to stay away from Market Square. The group – which included students from Nottingham University – made clear their intention to remain in the background for the duration of the proceedings, however. The EDL, who have been accused of links to the British National Party and were described as “a group of racist football hooligans” in UAF literature, had earlier accused them of planning to disrupt the parade.
The following few hours, however, saw a steady increase in police presence and UAF protest vehemence, with sporadic counter-chants emerging from individuals in the area outside ‘The Bank’, a pub on the edge of the square. Occasional scuffles broke out, but were swiftly quelled, as the police deployed dogs and mounted police to restore order. With Christmas shoppers hastily moving out of their way, the UAF marched towards Nottingham Castle, where approximately 300 EDL members had planned to meet at 2:30pm. While occasional sightings of the EDL prompted loud chanting, the crowd’s movement was impeded by the presence of police at each end of Friar Lane.
The situation changed, however, when the crowd was permitted to return to its previous position in Market Square. A gap in police lines was exploited by a group of youths, who had been protesting with the UAF during the day. It was unclear as to whether they were affiliated with the pressure group. Before the cordon could be fully reformed, the youths had bolted towards a large group of EDL members outside The Bank. Officers attempted to step in between the two factions, with verbal abuse flying between them. Numerous missiles were thrown at the EDL, including the protesters’ ‘Stop the Fascist EDL’ signs, and full cans and bottles. On the other side of the line, the EDL were arguing belligerently with police, chanting “English till I die” and “We want our country back” at the gathering crowd.
As more and more police arrived to encircle the two groups, more projectiles were thrown and the abuse became more vociferous, with one missile from the UAF side hitting a policeman. Batons were drawn and the police began to steadily force the two warring groups away from each other. Gradually the EDL protesters were pushed towards the station, where there was further conflict between the group and police officers. Eleven arrests have been made for minor public order offences, with one of those arrested going to QMC after reportedly being bitten by a police dog which he had kicked.
Ian Ackerley, the Nottinghamshire Assistant Chief Constable, thanked Nottingham for its cooperation, saying that “the contribution from the community cannot be overstated in the achievement of a successful outcome to a very challenging day.” Referring to the EDL march on Castle Boulevard earlier in the day, Superintendent Mick Luke had earlier stated that “We are disappointed with the behaviour of some protesters”, particularly commenting on those wearing clothing which covered their faces.
Despite some flashpoints, Nottingham City Centre did not see the same level of violence as that seen in the Birmingham protests earlier this year. The involvement of constabularies such as West Midlands and West Yorkshire – forces which had already policed EDL protests this year – doubtless assisted in the maintenance of a lawful right to protest whilst also ensuring public safety.