Demonstrators massed in the city centre during a two-hour stand-off between anti-EDL demonstrators and EDL members trying to lay flowers at the Barker’s Pool war memorial today.
Between 80 and 110 members of the EDL were halted outside Yates’s bar on Division Street between 1pm and 3pm by a large police presence of more than 70 officers, including four mounted on horseback, as a significantly larger contingent of anti-EDL demonstrators surrounded the war memorial, refusing to move.
Police dogs were also ready to be deployed from at least 2pm onwards on a day in which two people were arrested for breach of the peace and a section four public order offence was given out.
Police cordoned off members on both sides for two hours. Both contingents were between five and 15 metres apart at all times, before 3pm when the EDL members returned to Walkabout pub on Carver Street, their initial meeting place.
The EDL were initially silent compared to regular chanting from the anti-EDL demonstrators. However, as tensions rose throughout the afternoon, both sides began hurling more and more abuse at one another, with violence threatening to spill over.
Just before 2pm, there was a scuffle between anti-EDL demonstrators and mounted police officers in what appears to have been an attempt by mounted officers to move demonstrators out of the way in order to create an opening to the war memorial. After a few minutes, the mounted officers retreated back to their posts.
At around 2:30pm, insults were hurled from both sides after an anti-EDL demonstrator was taken away by police. A plastic bottle was thrown towards the EDL contingent from the anti-EDL side, provoking a charge by EDL members who were rapidly blocked by a police cordon.
A punch-up between two men also broke out at the same time on the anti-EDL side, although it is unclear which contingent each of the men were with.
After the majority of EDL members returned to Walkabout pub at 3pm, one member tried to walk through the anti-EDL demonstrators on his own to lay flowers at the memorial. He was blocked by demonstrators, who hurled insults at him and refused to let him passed, before police officers eventually led him away.
In a separate incident earlier, a police officer in Barker’s Pool before the stand-off said that at some point within the hour beforehand, a group of people who told police they were Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday football supporters unaffiliated with the EDL tried to lay flowers wrapped in a British flag at the war memorial. Anti-EDL demonstrators surrounded them and stopped them from putting flowers down, while shouting insults such as “fascists” before police dispersed the group.
The officer said he later recognised members of the small group in amongst the EDL members.
Richard Taylor, who was one of the EDL members trying to lay flowers, said: “One person laid flowers down as a sign of respect. We were surrounded and told by police that we had to leave while the anti fascists called us “racists” and “facists”. We got the impression we were seen as causing trouble.”
Anti-EDL demonstrators were made up of many different organisations, including UNISON, Unite Against Facism, One Sheffield Many Cultures, Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the University and College Union.
They chanted phrases such as ”nazi scum off our streets”, “smash the EDL”, and “Saint George was a Palestinian”, as well as waving many Palestinian flags. After initially being silent, EDL members later responded with chants such as “E-E-EDL” and “England till I die”, while holding the flowers they were intending to lay in the air.
Unite Against Facism in Sheffield leader Paul Scarrott described the EDL as “parasites on this terrible death”.
He said: “Across the country there has been a dramatic rise in Islamophobia and attacks, and we don’t want that to happen in Sheffield. We will not let the EDL divide us.”
One EDL member, who wished to remain anonymous, told Forge Press before the march: “We came to pay our respects for Lee Rigby. It’s not about fascism, it’s about showing respect for a guy who’s died for a cause, for protecting our country so they [anti-EDL demonstrators] can live a a better life. It’s not about us. It’s about Lee Rigby”.
The EDL member who led the march told gathered protesters in the Walkabout bar beforehand that they intended to walk in silence, lay some flowers then return to the bar. However, he said that if the anti-EDL demonstrators returned to the Walkabout Bar afterwards, “then it’s another story.”
Some EDL members who Forge Press spoke to said they did not usually attend EDL events, and were only here because of the murder of Lee Rigby.
Many members returned to the Walkabout bar soon after 3pm, some throwing their flowers at the anti-EDL demonstrators before they left.
The anti-EDL demonstrators stayed in Barker’s Pool, where speakers addressed the crowd from the steps of Sheffield city hall, including a speech read out on behalf of Students’ Union women’s officer Amy Masson, who wasn’t present at the time.
After returning to Walkabout, EDL member Ben, who did not wish to reveal his surname, said: “It was absolutely shocking, the police were terrible. All we wanted was to lay flowers but we weren’t allowed. Shame on the police.”
After the EDL had left Barker’s Pool, Students’ Union president Abdi Suleiman said: “The EDL claimed they just wanted to lay flowers. They are simply trying to win political points off a murder. It is disgusting”.
In a statement released to Forge Press earlier this week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: “I am completely unequivocal in my condemnation of groups like the EDL who spread hate and seek to divide us and raise community fears and tensions by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities.
“The government will always be prepared to stand up and condemn those who attack the values that we hold dear, and communities can be confident that we will play our part to deal with all those who seek to divide us.”
During the demonstration, Sheffield Cabinet member for communities and inclusion Mazher Iqbal said the EDL should be allowed to lay a wreath.
He said: “We laid a wreath yesterday in honour of Lee Rigby, they should be allowed to lay one as we did.
“It’s important that this event [murder of Lee Rigby] wasn’t in the name of Islam as muslims are not like that at all.
“We told the muslim community not to turn up today, we don’t want to dishonour his memory. I’m hoping they [EDL and anti-fascists] come to a mutual agreement”.
Yesterday, Rigby’s family pleaded for his death not to be used as an excuse to incite hatred and violence.