Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 17:05 UK

Policing the English Defence League

English Defence League protest in Birmingham
Ninety people were arrested during a recent demonstration in Birmingham

By Peter Wilson
BBC Midlands Today home affairs correspondent

Three months ago no-one had heard of the English Defence League (EDL) but now their controversial protests against Islamic extremism have sparked civil disorder and led to city councils pleading with the Home Secretary to take action against them.

A number of police forces have gathered in Birmingham to discuss the actions of the EDL and how best to deal with the politics of division which is being played out on our streets.

English Defence League member Tommy said the group was not racist

Chris Sims is the chief constable of West Midlands Police, which is hosting the police summit for senior officers from Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the Metropolitan Police and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit.

He said we are witnessing a new national phenomenon.

He said: "It's important that we share our experiences with others, we help build up a really clear view of what we're dealing with and make sure that the tactics we use are as appropriate as we can make them."

The EDL has been involved in running battles with young Asian youths on Birmingham's streets.

It is accused of links with far right groups and one government minister has compared their tactics to the fascist street marches of the 1930s.

Hooligan tribes

But who are the EDL? They appear to have been born out of the frustrations and anger generated in Luton, where mainly young white men confronted militant Islamic extremists.

The English Defence League is linked to the Casuals United - a Welsh football firm with connections to Cardiff City.

Chief Constable Chris Sims said the group had created fear in Birmingham

They talk of football hooligan tribes uniting against Islamic fundamentalism.

There also appears to be some loose affiliations with far right groups.

I met "Tommy" - not his real name - who is said to be a carpenter from Luton.

He agreed to meet me in a field near Nottingham. He had been on the most recent demonstration in Birmingham which ended with some 50 EDL members being arrested.

Tommy would not show his face on camera. He is articulate, says he is not political and feels the EDL is a "community" but not a fascist party.

'No BNP link'

He said: "We hate Nazis as much as Muslim extremists. The leader of the EDL Youth is black, we're not a racist organisation."

He criticised the Birmingham Respect Party councillor Salma Yaqoob for labelling them a far right fascist group.

The atmosphere that they bring into our city centres is an ugly one
Salma Yaqoob, Birmingham Respect Councillor

He said: "After our first protest in Birmingham city centre she came out and told everyone we was the British National Party [and] we were an organisation run by the British National Party.

"That is complete fabricated lies. She incited religious and racial hatred against innocent non-Muslim members of Birmingham's community."

Ms Yaqoob rejected his allegations and said she had received death threats since the last EDL demonstration in Birmingham.

She said: "The atmosphere that they bring into our city centres is an ugly one and it really brings out the worst in people and I've received some very nasty threats.

"I'm glad the police are following them up. Freedom of speech is absolutely important but freedom to promote hatred and violence is not something that should be supported."

She added she was as much against Islamic Fundamentalism as the EDL and called on all citizens in Birmingham to respond to any provocation with the spirit of peace and unity.

West Midlands Police said the EDL's use of internet chat rooms and forums was making their task harder.

Thirty years ago big marches staged in volatile areas would grab headlines but could be policed and eventually banned.

But meetings and discussions do not come under the Public Order Act and a video on Youtube can spread a message like wildfire around the country.

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