Smile in the face of evil and dance!

A few weeks ago, on the 22nd May, I was supervising a rounders match on a panoramic playing field at a very multicultural junior school in Sheffield, when something terrible happened in London. An off-duty soldier was brutally murdered in an attack by two terrorists, in the name of Islam. The backlash against ordinary Muslims started almost immediately, although there was widespread condemnation of the attack from the Islamic community. There is no justification for terrorism, or killing an innocent man who was just walking home from work. (Wikipedia link for more information.)

Last week, I found out that the EDL (The English Defence League), were planning to march on Sheffield city centre, and that a counter demonstration was being planned to celebrate and defend multicultural Sheffield. I haven’t been involved in demonstrations for years. As a teenager, I was involved in the Socialist Worker’s party, but I left when I was at university and had much more interesting things to do than sit in meetings in rooms above pubs. I realised that the prospect of a revolution was rather remote! Anyway, that’s another story. The reason I’d got involved in the first place was to do my bit to stop the rise of far-right groups. In the early 1990s, the BNP (British National Party) were gathering support and votes. For a while, it seemed that far-right extremists were losing their appeal. Then 9-11 happened, and the bombings in London on the 7th July 2005, and groups like the EDL appeared, stirring up anti-Muslim hatred. I’ve worked with lots of Muslims. The Muslims I know just want to get on with their lives: go to work, have their tea, bring up their families in peace and go on holiday, just like everyone else. They have no interest in extremism, and why should they?

I decided to join the march on Saturday in Sheffield because of the kids that I’ve been working with recently as a teaching assistant. In the multicultural schools of Sheffield, children work and play together. They’ve grown up used to classmates from many different cultures, and the richness that this gives to their lives. I wanted to make a stand, to defend the right to live in harmony with my neighbours. I love living in a multicultural society. Think of the food, music, language, art, dance, clothes and many other things we’ve been influenced by, due to other cultures coming into the UK. Britain is an amazing country, with its own rich culture. It’s not under threat. In fact, in recent year, there has been a renaissance in the popularity of British culture such as folk music, British food and beer (such as the wonderful microbreweries in Sheffield like the Bradfield Brewery!) Throughout the land, village greens still resound to the thwack of leather on willow (a cricket match!) and polite applause, as no one has a clue what’s going on, before reaching for the cucumber sandwiches. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.

The EDL, on the other hand, and other far-right groups, claim that British culture is under attack and that we are somehow being “overrun” by muslims. These people want to create divisions, and want working class white British people to believe that they are being  marginalised in their own country. Their politics are about defeatism, negativity and hate. The EDL’s stated aim in coming to Sheffield was to place a wreath on the Barker’s Pool war memorial. But they’d demonstrated the week before, and apparently, there had been Nazi salutes on the streets of Sheffield.

I was delighted when I got a Facebook message from my friend Angelina Abel, who runs the Mulembas D’Africa dance classes, last Friday. She said that a festival had been organised at the Peace Gardens in Sheffield’s city centre at the last minute, to celebrate “One Sheffield, Many Cultures”. She’d been invited to perform and was going to do a workshop to a new routine. I was definitely up for that. My placard-waving days may be over, but dancing for peace was going to be the perfect way to prove that many cultures and creativity are the things that make life really worth living. The festival was due to start straight after the demonstration.

So yesterday, on a warm, sunny morning, I set off for the city centre, heading for the City Hall steps. Unfortunately, I found my way blocked by rows of police officers and metal barricades so I couldn’t get down any side streets. I started to feel quite uneasy. Eventually, I managed to get round to Barker’s Pool, the large square in front of Sheffield’s City Hall, a magnificent 1930s concert hall. There were ranks of police, lots of temporary Heras fencing and a few people, obviously from the anti-fascist side, standing or sitting on the City Hall steps in the sunshine. There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, and I could see a crowd gathering under Trade Union banners on the other side of barricades next to Holland and Barratt, so I thought I’d join them. The quickest way to get through, avoiding more metal barriers, was through the John Lewis Department store and out the other side. I was briefly side-tracked by looking at kitchen-ware, but within a couple of minutes, I was standing in the middle of the crowd of protesters.

I got talking to some students. They weren’t left-wing fanatics. One of them had made a banner out of a Stella Artois box, that read “This memorial supports anti-fascism and so does Sheffield – one culture”. As one of them explained, he had grown up at a multi-cultural school. His friends were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and that made life richer, but at the end of the day, they were just his mates. The crowd was full of Sheffield people, who’d given up their normal Saturday lunchtime to make a stand against hatred. There were banners from left-wing groups, but also trade unions, and home-made banners, including the “fluffiest” banner in the world, which read “Welcome to Sheffield, try some Henderson’s Relish, OPEN YOUR MIND, and have a safe trip home”. There was some shouting and chanting when the EDL arrived, but it was difficult to see exactly what was going on because the EDL members were right at the other side of Barker’s Pool. Standing on tip-toes, it did look like the EDL member were giving Nazi salutes. However, they EDL claim they were making “Churchill-style V-signs”. Hmm. The Sheffield Star followed the EDL and you can make your own mind up by watching this video. Eventually, they let the anti-fascist protesters through, to gather on the City Hall steps. There were a lot of us – about 2,000 at a guess and it was great to recognise lots of friends amongst them, who had just turned up, like me.

It was time to head to the Peace Gardens, around the corner, to meet Angelina. I had time for a pasty first, another example of British culture at its finest! The set-up in the Peace Gardens looked very professional, and as we changed into our Mulembas D’Africa vest, we started to feel like we were part of something big. Two members of the dance class had turned up to dance, and another lady had just been passing through, but she also got roped in! Angelina took to the stage, and we encouraged members of the audience to join in. At first, we thought we’d have a couple of small children, but it was brilliant when the middle of the peace gardens was full of people. There was only one problem – we didn’t know the routine that Angelina had been cooking up, and now we we had to convince a hundred other people to join in. It was great fun, and I managed to keep up and try to look stylish, but we were very hot and sweaty when we’d finished our Kuduro routine!

One of the people joining in our dance routine was Sista Chaz from the Allstar Revolution, and they’d also been invited perform; to headline the festival! So we headed off to the off-licence to relax, dance and enjoy the music. Over the afternoon, we enjoyed various DJs, a folk band, young street-dance groups and a parkour group bouncing off the fountains and doing incredible back-flips. There was also a Bhangra group and an excellent garage punk / indie band called the Sonik Seeds. Finally, The Allstar Revolution started their set, starting with a more laid-back, Afrobeat vibe, spreading their message of love, fun and friendship. It was a fitting end to a wonderful afternoon.

After the EDL left Barker’s Pool, there had been some trouble as the march headed up West Street and out of the city centre. But right in the heart of Sheffield, we showed what cultural diversity and unity really means.




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