Leicester: far-right racists exploit community tensions

Forgotten estates: far right extremists move into community politics

By Dave Porter and Owen Jones

HOPE not hate, November-December 2012

FAR-RIGHT EXTREMISTS looking to spread their message of hate are infiltrating community protest groups and hijacking them for their own political ends.

Leicester has become the latest battleground for extremists spreading messages of hate under the banner of community activism.

Self-declared racists from the EDL and BNP are hijacking sensitive community issues to their own ends – using them as a fertile recruiting ground while pretending to be non-political.

Through these means, large sections of the community who would normally shun such hate groups are being hoodwinked by racists looking to capitalise on and stir up local feelings.

In Leicester, a group calling itself the Committee for the Forgotten Estates of Thurnby Lodge and Netherall has been central in organising protests against a former scout hut in Thurnby Lodge being converted into a community centre by a Muslim organisation called As-Salaam Trust.

HOPE not hate has conducted an investigation into the activities of Forgotten Estates and uncovered direct links from organisers to groups such as the EDL and the East Midlands Infidels.

Self-professed EDL supporter Chris Hopewell was pictured handing over a 1,500-name petition to the city council over the issue of Thurnby Lodge scout hut, while local EDL Craig Elliott has also been spotted on marches organised by the group. EDL thug James Elliott – convicted of head butting a member of Leicester Unite Against Fascism at a Love Music Hate Racism Festival – has also appeared at Thurnby Lodge protest marches.

BNP leader Nick Griffin has also tried to jump on the bandwagon by appearing at the marches in Leicester. In one of his tweets about his visit to the estate, he talked about going on the “anti-Mosque march” and how “great it is to see English people stand up!”. In another he boasts about “many buses and cars hooting support” adding “My speech very well received”. Those on the ground, however, report a different story, with Griffin all but ignored by local residents.

Griffin also claimed on Twitter that following one march, Thurnby Lodge estate was “invaded by 50 Muslim youths plus carloads” and that “ladies from neighbouring estate warn that since it has got a prayer room they get sexist and racist abuse”. The usual uncorroborated rumour-mongering.

Forgotten Estates has been openly provocative in its tactics. Marches to the Thurncoat Community Centre – where As-Salaam currently meets – have been routed to go past the house of its imam, Mohammed Lockhat. And it was even claimed that a cross on neighbouring Anglican Christ Church had to be covered up to protect the sensibilities of local Muslims, something Canon David Monteith, the acting Archdeacon of Leicester, called a “malicious rumour” and “totally unfounded”.

Also witnessed taking part in protests against Thurnby Lodge have been members of Casuals United and Islamophobic group, 212 Poison.

Alistair Markland, head of Leicester HOPE not hate, says: “What is most shocking about the Thurnby Lodge case is the sheer length the EDL and other far-right groups will go to fabricate lies and myths about minority groups in the community. I think this issue should be seen as a warning against complacency for anti-racist activists, particularly considering the extent this issue has spiralled out of control, even in the context of a wider perception of far-right decline.”

Members of far-right groups regularly use Facebook to boast of their activities and encourage other members of hate groups to join in the Leicester protest. The East Midlands Infidels are known for their flash demos against Muslim groups in the city centre, while other far-right groups active on the estate include the BNP and English Community Group (led  by former BNP activist Clive Potter).

There is genuine anger among local residents on Thurnby Lodge estate over the issue, although when the council invited more than 100 groups to bid for the lease on the former scout hut, the only bid to meet the lease criteria was from As-Salaam. Residents have told the council they want the hut retaining for community use, possibly as the base for a boxing club.

The momentum created by Forgotten Estates has been helped by both Leicester City Council and ward councilors being caught off-guard by the strength of feeling about Thurnby Lodge scout hut.

In August, 400 residents took to the streets during Friday prayers to protest against As-Salaam taking over the hut (although they have later claimed it was against the Council). BBC footage showed many walking around in EDL tops. Lies were later spread that 50 Muslims attacked the demo and that the next-door pub would have to be closed on Fridays when the ‘mosque’ opens (sic Nick Griffin’s tweets).

A meeting planned on the issue in July by ward councillors was inexplicably cancelled although elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, has pledged to sit down with both sides to try and reach a compromise.

Councillor Luis Fonseca admits that the council and ward councillors have been taken aback by the level of feeling on the estate, although he stresses that the council did everything correctly in terms of procedures. He also recognises that the residents’ protest is in danger of being taken over by the far-right.

“It is worrying. These people should not be there, it is a matter between the residents and the councillors and council. That should not have happened – they are trying to use the protests as a tool for power,” he said.

Much of the organising for the Thurnby Lodge scout hut marches takes place at the Stirrup Cup pub on the estate. Anger stems from people saying they were not consulted over the scout hut use, adding to an already existing feeling that the council does not care about residents on the estate. Landlady Maxine Williams has been quoted as saying that protests are not directed against Muslims but against the council.

In its petition to the council presented by Chris Hopewell, objections to use of the scout hut by As-Salaam were centred round the issue of car parking, a familiar and all-embracing tactic. Most members of As-Salaam live within walking distance of the scout hut and would not drive to use the building.

As-Salaam has been meeting in a nearby community centre for some time. Imam Mohammed Lockhat is on record as saying that he is willing to sit down and meet with any community representatives to allay their fears.

Because of the protests and marches As-Salaam have taken a defensive stance and are no longer making any public statements on the issue.

On its website, Leicestershire Community Voices – avowed supporters of the BNP – boasts of BNP activists turning up at ward surgeries to protest to “traitorous councillors” over the issue of the scout hut. They also boast about BNP activists turning up with placards and jeering members of As-Salaam as they leave the community centre.

One post which gives a clear indication of their intentions of hijacking the residents’ cause states: “Local BNP members offered their support and advice to the organisers but agreed to keep the group non-political.”

HOPE not hate has also uncovered evidence that similar protests in nearby Hinckley against a former police station being transformed into a community centre are being fomented by those with links to the BNP and EDL.

Protests over the conversion of the police station into a community hub have been gathering momentum, with the involvement of far-right elements who have taken their inspiration – as well as guidance – from Forgotten Estates.

Bosworth House Community Hub is set to take over the building next month. One of its uses will be as a meeting place for the Suyuti Institute which intends to hold weekend theology seminars on different faiths including Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Interestingly, the leader of Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, Councillor Stuart Bray, has complained to the local police authority about the sale of the station, claiming that neither the council nor the public were consulted and – similar to the Thurnby Lodge saga – citing issues of parking as an objection to its proposed future use.

While still in its early stages, protests against the mosque have included the police station being daubed with far-right posters protesting about sharia law being implemented, and a Facebook page set up called “Hinckley People Against the Mosque” with racist comments, clear references to the BNP and ‘jokey’ comments about the building being burnt down.

Well-known BNP/EDL supporter and Hinckley resident Mike Shore, who has in the past stood as a candidate for the BNP in local elections, also looks to be involved in the Bosworth House protests in the town, with Shore leaving a post on a Facebook page called “Keep Hinckley Sharia Free, Say No to an Islamic ‘community hub'”. The Hinckley plans are a hot topic of discussion on the EDL Leicester division’s Facebook page.

The implication is clear from what is happening in Leicester and Hinckley: far-right elements are using the grassroots protests to further their own profiles, both as individuals and as groups.

Thurnby Lodge petition

EDL supporter Chris Hopewell presents petition to Mayor Peter Soulsby

Although they get no credit for it in the above article, it was Unite Against Fascism who exposed the links between Forgotten Estates and the EDL. See “Fascists make political capital from Thurnby Lodge scout hut”, Leicester UAF news report, 10 October 2012