It about time I got back to blogging. This post links the recent English Defence League 'gathering' in Stoke-on-Trent to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (a more obvious connection than might first appear). It will appear in the "Yours faithfully" column of the Sentinel on February 3rd 2010.
- You might also want to see my photos from the day
- Or watch the video from behind the lines
- Or even listen to my Audio Boo from the day here
I've put a YouTube player and an AudioBoo at the end of this post.
On the afternoon of 23rd January I crossed the Potteries Way from our Church in Jasper Street and walked the short distance to the City Centre (or Hanley, as we used to call it).
Saturday afternoon is always busy, a hubbub of people, rushing here and there to shop, stopping from time to time to chat, in and out of shops and cafés and pubs. But this Saturday was different. From about midday bus after bus had brought protesters together for a ‘gathering’.
By the time I got there the situation was already ugly, as the group pushed against police, trying to advance towards a counter-demonstration outside the Town Hall. There was a lot of noise, chanting as if from a hostile football crowd. I saw one young man climb on top of a police van, missiles thrown into the air, someone with a head-wound which poured with blood. I saw groups of police don riot gear and march in formation towards the crowd. And here and there small groups of angry men (they were mostly men, and mostly angry) muttered darkly and conferred with one another on their mobile phones.
But it was also a surreal scene. Many shoppers clearly had no idea what was going on and were taken completely by surprise. Some were anxious, finding, as if in some bad dream, that they had emerged from a familiar afternoon shopping and socialising into the bad dream of a 1970s football crowd intent on violence. Yet others, oddly, were inquisitive and amused, edging towards the chanting and the police vans and dogs to get a better look at this unexpected performance.
And what was it all for? The banners railed against the religion of Islam, and its legal system. All muslims were characterised as terrorists, in much the same way as earlier generations had described communists, or jews, or papists. The chants and songs were more obviously filled with hatred for racial minorities. But the words and the messages were confused and vague, bitter and angry. At one point, one of their own speakers was jeered. There was no attempt at persuasion: it was all about venting spleen. Some banners proclaimed a distaste for the oppression of women in Islam, though the members of the crowd were unlike any feminist activists I have ever seen before.
Whatever genuine concerns could be aired, points stated, or arguments advanced, they were not being expressed here. The blaze of anger, of fury, of hatred for what is different burnt away all reason and left only darkness and violence.
By striking contrast this week the Christian Churches celebrate a festival which places the darkness of hatred and despair back into the shadows where they belong. February 2nd, the 40th day after Christmas, is the day when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, according to their religious law. St Luke tells us that the old man Simeon told Mary and Joseph that their Child will be a “Light for All Nations”. In Catholic Christianity we remember this day with the blessing and procession of candles. Indeed, the day is known as “Candlemass”.
On this day, it is Light which is the symbol of human diversity and difference.
It is a sad fact that differences between peoples can be a source of anxiety or fear. There may be conflict, and a sense of injustice. But the only realistic response to these great challenges is not anxiety, but dialogue, not division, but celebration, not the darkness of fear, but the light of hope.