This is one of a series of posts focusing on the issues of Islamophobia currently being worked out in Luton and the UK. For the full list of posts see Seeking Peace in Luton - and Multicultural UK
I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening in Luton Town centre, observing what was going on. I am not happy at what I am reading in press. I will comment on specific stories later. For now here is my first hand account of what went on. Please note my qualifications. It was my perspective, but I do have several witnesses and also records of text and photos.
March and Demonstrations on Sunday 24th May 2009 in Luton.
(The following reflects the experience and understanding of one person, with input from several other observers at the time. The events of the march and demonstration moved around the town centre and later Bury Park, and involved several main groups as well as break-away groups, and so it was impossible to get the full picture. However I was able to move fairly freely, and spoke at the time to a number of others who were around the town. It is interpreted from the perspective of the research I had done before the occasion involving following the blogs, chat rooms and Facebook pages of those who called and sought to organise the march. The first draft was mainly written on 24th May just before midnight and sent at 00.57 on 25th May (verifiable) before I saw any press reports. I believe it to be fuller and more accurate than what has been in the press. I have edited it somewhat for clarity, grammar and spelling, and to remove a few names, and add a few times (from photos) and numbers in the crowd, but am prepared to release the original on a limited basis.)
The status of the event according to a letter of Thursday 21st May from Luton Borough Council (and as I understood it a press release that does not appear to have been released) was that the march was not official but that the police would allow it to go ahead providing it was within the law. The organisers had applied properly and had been led to believe that subject to all the safety requirements being in place it could go ahead. They then withdrew cooperation with the council and insisted it would go ahead and was official. The council denied that. It was clear from following the chat rooms and facebook sites that there were several agendas for the afternoon. This was all in evidence amidst the chaos. ---
The march was originally due to start at Market Hill by Debenhams. It was moved a few days ago to Manor Park a few minute’s walk away at either 4.45 or 5.00pm. I was in Manor Park at 4.40pm but there was no one in the park except four police vans and four mounted police. A large number of march-goers were in pubs on Market Hill or along Park Street. As I walked back along Park Street to Market Hill, the mounted police who were at Manor Park left. A few minutes later a large group of marchers gathered (200+) and preceded by the four police horses made their way to the park.
I was told by a friend who followed the group to Manor Park that on arriving there, in the absence of police they scattered and most headed along St Mary’s Road. Standing at Park Square I saw them pass past St Mary’s Church heading to Guildford Street, and heard they were attempting to get to Bury Park. It is unclear to me what route they took and whether it was voluntary or at Police insistence. A group of +/- 200 arrived at the Town Hall ten minutes later (soon after 5pm).There was a lot of shouting and singing, then a minute of silence with salutes, then more singing. They then dived up side streets (Wellington Street, etc) to the dual carriage inner ring (Chapel Viaduct, Stuart Street, Dunstable Road). Thirty minutes or so later they were eventually brought back to Market Hill, after further attempts to get to Bury Park.
While this group were running amok, a second group of no more than 50 people with army, navy and air-force banners, some older people, and families with children in pushchairs made their way up George Street (around 5.17pm). This as far as I know was the group closest to the original intent of March for England, to stand up for the soldiers in Iraq. I saw no more of them; I assume they were able to have a short moment at the war memorial and then dispersed.
A third group (no more than 30 people) seemed to gather at Market Hill (around 5.20pm) and soon after the second group were clear were allowed to make their way to the Town Hall, arriving there at around 5.30pm, where they unfurled a flag and seemed to take up residence thereafter; a few were still there at 8.00pm.
Meanwhile the first group made their way / were pushed back to Market Hill, some via Chapel Street where they broke the windows of a fast food shop. They were contained in that area from around 5.45pm. I also heard reliably from a colleague that one Asian Bedfordshire University student had been assaulted, and saw that afterwards. There were a lot of blacks and Asians around shopping and enjoying a nice day, as there would be most Sunday summer afternoons, and a number of these were held within the police cordon. My wife and others were witness to one Asian woman being intimidated by a tattooed white man in his 30’s for taking a picture. There were various attempts to break out and head again towards Bury Park. The police successfully achieved a full cordon there and eventually dispersed the group. (around 6.20pm)
After the group dispersed, I went with a Muslim colleague, who I had met at Market Hill, to Bury Park. As we went we saw a group of around 20 young whites (teenagers) reassemble on the edge of St George’s Square and who then tried to run towards Bury Park. They were headed off by police.
Entering Bury Park we saw a large group of Muslim young men walking en masse towards the town. We caught up with them at the roundabout (Dunstable Raod / Telford Way) where they were first held by a few and then a larger number of police and mounted police. (around 6.50pm) A community member and an Iman, the teacher from the Islamic Centre, persuaded them to go back, told them that the group in the town centre were gone, and that they didn’t need to react. They headed back to the far end of Bury Park to the Nadeem Plaza where community leaders pacified them. They told us that they had heard that an Asian fast food shop was broken into, that several Asians were beaten up, and showed us one young man whose head injuries were said to be a result of assault.
After talking to one or two community leaders, we made our way back to the town centre. (around 7.45pm) There were a significant number of police in Bury Park, and reserves at the roundabout. By 8.45pm when I drove back along Bury Park the police were leaving and the crowd of Muslims dispersed.
There are various observations that can be made. They will follow I am sure, but for now that will do as an account of what happened.
(Update: some gaps are filled in by this post: Violent Mob Runs Amok in Luton Town Centre )