Edward Elliott finds that jaw-jaw is not always better than war-war . . . depending on the weapons.
By Edward Elliott
Two hundred or so English Defence League supporters form rings around the small stage erected in front of Oxford Crown Court. A man in a black hoodie bawls imprecations about what the ‘liberal, politically-correct left’ have done to ‘our land’. Journalists and worried on-lookers cluster to either side.
Founded in 2009, the EDL characterises itself as ‘leading the counter-jihad fight’. Claiming to be non-violent and concerned only about ‘sections of the Muslim community in Britain’, the group has drawn opposition led by Unite Against Fascism, with allegations that EDL events are frequently accompanied by racist incidents. On this April day, both the EDL and the UAF were protesting in Oxford. There was genuine anxiety beforehand that the city centre might not be a safe place to be.
At 2.15 I joined the anti-EDL protesters congregating around the Westgate entrance. A thin line of policemen, fronted by three on horseback, slipped between the group and the Bonn Square junction, with a few stationed in pairs down Queen Street. But the protest was good-natured, with younger members joking, smiling and dancing happily around the older banner-waving chanters.
Two hours later I stood on a raised pavement peering above the heads of the EDL rally. It had progressed from the railway station to St Aldate’s, where marquees and a speaker system had been erected in front of the Crown Court and the police station. From the stage, orators vented their outrage at radical Islamic beliefs and the idea of groups terrorising ‘white underage children’. Other themes included the supposed infiltration of England, government cover-ups, and a general mistrust of liberalism and mainstream tolerance. Speeches closed to cries of ‘E-E-EDL’.
Many in the EDL rally were clearly irritated by the onlookers. A few were fixated throughout on the officers, and two women repeatedly stuck fingers up at them – and at me, a focus of interest because of my camera. Some younger protesters jabbed their fingers at police and vollied strong remarks at them until deterred by figures in fluorescent vests marked ‘EDL Media’.
Officers — drafted from the wider Thames Valley region, and from Sussex and Surrey — were remarkably patient throughout, ignoring abuse and defusing potential incidents. ‘Preparation for potentially provocative protests is included in standard training,’ one officer told me. Leaning against his large camera tripod, he said the march had been ‘fine’ from a policing perspective: ‘There were a few scuffles but that was to be expected.’ Mainly such events were boring, he said: ‘standing and listening to this stuff for hours’. I had been there only for a fraction of the day, but I could see his point.
The same day — Saturday 4 April — marked an event for those with no political axe to grind but the urge to land a few public blows nonetheless: International Pillow Fight Day. It is promoted by the global Underground Playground Movement, which aims to ‘organise free fun [for] all ages’: volleyball games, subway parties and, most enduringly, the pillow fight, which sees cushion-based combat in cities from Malanga, Indonesia to Seattle, USA. . . . And now Oxford.
Small groups coalesced into a circle some four hundred strong from the Bridge of Sighs to the steps of the Sheldonian courtyard. The wide bend into New College Lane was untouched tarmac — the battleground to come. Awaiting the signal for anarchy, the line between order and chaos seemed thin indeed. Bodleian attendants squinted through the railings at the strange tribe leaning on the other side. Dance music thumped away. Fresh pillows began to be pulled from plastic sheaths. One couple took a few practice swings out on the edge, as others looked on enviously. Still the organiser, a twenty-something with microphone in hand, appeared unwilling to let it all loose.
Ten minutes past schedule, chaos smacked order on the nose. A group of twenty started a fight of their own. No one held back. The man with the mic had no choice but to give his blessing. For the next thirty minutes all was indefinable noise — shouting right at the upper vocal limits. Faces vanished in a flurry of fabric and limbs. The bold were ganged up upon – a man standing 6ft 3in in a Pikachu costume was surrounded and pulverised. And then the whistle sounds and the madness ceases. The combatants gather together for the obligatory selfie.
Founded by New Yorker Kevin Bracker while at Toronto University, the Urban Playground Movement operates on no private financing, its website stating the hope that free events such as pillow fights ‘become a significant part of popular culture’, making cities ‘urban living rooms’. Its How To Guide extols ‘Never Ask Permission’, deprecating 21st-century ‘permit culture’. But it also places emphasis on trust — not bringing feather pillows; clearing up after yourself.
All this may look frivolous beside the fraught and confrontational politics of the EDL and UAF, but with the Movement’s little bit of anarchy comes a little bit of sanity. ‘Imagine that in any large city, anywhere on the face of the Earth, there may someday be free, fun, massive public events like pillow fights, creative interventions, games and interactive art installations on every day of the year,’ its website reads. Imagine.
All photographs by Edward Elliott.