Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book Angry White People, exposes the racist, far right politics of the English Defence League (EDL) by talking to many of their members and former supporters. She spoke to Ken Olende about why she wrote it
Many writers who deal with the English Defence League(EDL) are white men, who can think they are objective because they don’t stand out. Such a tactic was not available to Hsiao-Hung Pai, an investigative journalist originally from Taiwan.
Inevitably part of her new book is about how people on the right react to her.
“The interaction between me and them is an interesting starting point,” she said. “Also I wanted to talk about how people who are affected by racism and the far right see it.
“If you are from a minority background it can be hard to get into that world. But I’ve always been curious. I still feel very much a foreigner. From that point of view and my own experience of racism. I have witnessed a lot of racism and that’s why I’m interested.”
The book mixes sympathy with the alienation that many people who turn to the EDL feel with an absolute rejection of the racism they express.
“I could feel empathy with the circumstances people were in,” Hsiao-Hung said. “As a migrant I’ve experienced some of that myself. But I drew a line when people start to express racist views.”
A lot of journalists would have been less empathic, but also less likely to argue with their views them. She explained how she got to talk to people on the right.
“I was a little surprised by how easy it was to talk to them. The people who wanted to talk would take time, and perhaps even chat over a drink in a pub. .
“Some of it is to do with image management. They like to portray themselves as able to talk to people from another culture.”
But she also felt that many were people who felt that no one had bothered to listen to them before.
“That was their genuine feeling,” Hsiao-Hung said. “For example Derek who I met on the estate wanted to talk to somebody. I think no one had ever listened to him about his life. A lot of people feel abandoned.”
The most interesting person she met was Darren, who broke from the EDL because he couldn’t bear the racism. Initially he had accepted leader Tommy Robinson’s claim that the organisation was not racist and was only opposed to Muslim extremists.
In the book she discusses the best way to challenge groups like the EDL. She goes through the success of the campaign run by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), and talked at length to UAF’s Paul Sillett.
She said, “UAF’s strategy of building in the community and working with other groups and trade unions has been very important.”
She shows how challenging the EDL managed to divide the hard racists from the rest. In one passage she describes the demonstration in Birmingham when UAF had organised a counter-demo and Darren first had doubts:
“To this day, Darren can’t shake off the shame he felt when two white middle aged women walked past him and spat in his face, shouting at him, ‘Nazi scum, get out of Brum!’ He guessed that they were probably from the contingent of people from Unite Against Fascism, an organisation he came across for the first time that day. ‘That was really difficult for me,’ he said. ‘I could cry. I felt instant shame. At that moment I just wanted to fall between the cracks on the pavement’.”
The experience she had talking to people in pubs or their homes was very different to this.
“It’s easier to argue against racism when you can address the issues people raise,” she said. “So it’s hard to argue against prejudice if you can’t address people’s immediate concerns. When people say, ‘My kids can’t get work’. These are real concerns.”
She found that when she challenged their racism most stopped engaging. “They wouldn’t listen to my views, and would ‘correct’ what I said, “she explained. “When they talked about their lives they were quite open, but they got defensive when it came to talking about the EDL.”
Hsiao-Hung went to the Farley Hill area of Luton where the EDL first emerged and later attended several of their protests. Some of the people she met boasted of their violent backgrounds.
“I did get scared a couple of times. The most intimidating was when I went to the Unite the Right march. There were lots of splinter groups and people wearing Combat 18 gear. I didn’t feel able to talk to many people or approach them. I tried the women who looked slightly less intimidating.
“I spoke to some people whose ideas really disgusted me. But that didn’t scare me. It just made me feel depressed.”
But as well as meeting various foot soldiers she had several interviews with former EDL leader Tommy Robinson. She felt he was different from most of the others.
“He was very manipulative,” she said, “and not just with the media but even on a personal level. You can never be sure that what he’s telling you is what happened. I don’t think he ever trusted anyone.”
The EDL’s funder Alan Lake wasn’t prepared to be interviewed. But what did Robinson think he would get out of it?
“A forum for his views. Political space for him”, Hsiao-Hung said. “I think he wanted to manipulate me into writing something good about him.”
It’s partly because fascist leaders are so manipulative and dishonest that Unite Against Fascism has a “No platform for fascists” policy. They use the legitimacy that being treated like an ordinary politician offers to spread their hate and violence.
“I didn’t feel I was giving him a platform to spread his views at all,” she said. “Quite the opposite. I think this was a necessary method.”
She was surprised by a lot of things she discovered about ordinary EDL supporters once she met them.
“I met several people from the Traveller community in the EDL. I found that strange. They are not welcomed, but they were there,” she said. “Then there was the fact that some of the EDL’s leadership is from an Irish Catholic background. Some people in the EDL think they are not Christian, so they had to denounce their religion. There are a lot of contradictions.”
The book shows a dynamic of how the EDL developed from a violent street movement largely made up of football gangs, or “firms”, towards fascism. Tommy Robinson claimed to oppose links with fascist groups. Two years ago he left the organisation, saying it was becoming extremist. He appeared at a press conference organised by the “anti-extremist” Quillam foundation. But now he is attempting to set up a Pegida group in Britain, based on the Islamophobic street movement in Germany.
“I wasn’t surprised by this,” Hsiao-Hung said. “He has been reshaping his image. Just after he left the EDL he said he was sorry for making generalisations about the Muslim community, but that went quickly. It all depends on where his opportunities lie.”
Previously she has written about the experience of migrant workers arriving in Britain, and this has some parallels to the racism being stirred up by politicians around the refugee crisis.
“I wrote about Chinese workers,” she said. “Generally people regard them as just economic migrants. But these are still people who are desperate enough to risk their lives to travel.
“Other people flee war but at the same time they want to better their lives. It’s not one or the other.”
Hsiao-Hung lives in Whitechapel in East London, which is sometimes portrayed in the media as either dominated by conservative Muslims or racist.s She said, “The only time I’ve seen any racism is when the EDL comes. I feel safe here. But when the EDL last came the community got together—the Muslim community was active, and local pubs took part. It was very positive.”
Angry White People: Coming face to face with the British far right by Hsiao-Hung Pai.
Foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah. Published by Zed Books. £12.99