When the circus came to town…

Greater Manchester Police
CIRCUS: Greater Manchester Police working to disperse the protest from Oldham town centre

IT WAS a glorious day in Oldham town centre last Saturday.

The sun was shining and the high street was packed with shoppers and families enjoying an all-too-rare glimpse of some great British summer weather.

Sadly, however, there were also dark clouds in the offing.

During last week we’d become aware of several protests being organised in a number of towns in response to the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

With emotions running high we learned that several groups across our region – including the EDL, the National Front and the North West Infidels – appeared to be looking to use the incident as an opportunity to provoke unrest.

It’s my firm belief that most people in all communities are fair-minded and were appalled by that prospect.

When I say “fair-minded”, I don’t mean that in a political sense at all.

By “fair-minded”, I mean people from across all communities, backgrounds and, indeed, opposite ends of the political spectrum.

By “fair-minded” I mean someone who would never seek to defend acts of terrorism, and who has respect for others and a sense of community.

I mean people who oppose extremists in all shapes or forms.

I think any fair-minded person reacted to the killing of Lee Rigby with utter shock and horror. They would have also been outraged by so-called ‘hate preachers’ on television declaring the lost soldier would ‘burn in hell’.

And equally, any fair-minded person who sees a group using the death of an innocent man as a platform to attack a whole community, would also see that as an insult.

Our sunny Saturday was going well until a small group of people – many from the National Front, some from other groups – turned up to ‘protest’.

They then decided to march, although that is not to suggest it was either organised or uniform, up our high street and into main shopping areas.

If you’re a decent law-abiding member of society who also happens to be Muslim you may well have taken offence to seeing banners demanding ‘No More Mosques’ on Oldham’s streets.

You have every right to feel that way in my view, but I don’t suppose those doing it really cared – it was probably what they actually wanted.

But I’m also pretty certain that most other people in Oldham just want to be left to live in peace – and that they judge people by their individual actions, and not simply the colour of their skin or religion.

I would’ve hoped those protestors might have also paid attention to the grieving family of Lee Rigby who – ahead of last weekend – had issued a statement calling for calm.

They said Lee “had many friends from different walks of life – some with different religious beliefs and cultures. But this made no difference to Lee – he always treated others with the greatest of respect.”

They added: “We would like to emphasise that Lee would not want people to use his name as an excuse to carry out attacks against others.”

“We would not wish any other families to go through this harrowing experience and appeal to everyone to keep calm and show their respect in a peaceful manner.”

Almost everybody in Oldham heeded this advice and stayed calm: refusing to rise to any bait, and continued about their business as normal. Long may that continue.

But some that marched in our high street ignored that plea. That wasn’t just disrespectful, it showed me that some weren’t protesting in grief at all: it was just a convenient new hook to hang their hate on.

There’s also conflict between what some groups say they are fighting for, and their actions.

They claim to be patriotic, for example, yet seem happy to deface the Union Jack with offensive comments and to mount them on the railings of cenotaphs across the country.

It’s painfully ironic that cenotaphs – erected to remember those who died fighting against extremism – should be used as a symbol of division by others, but I also find it offensive.

I also don’t like to see large groups gathering and sometimes even clambering onto cenotaphs as if they’re getting over-excited on a football terrace.

The truth is that community cohesion and race relations, or however you like to define it, isn’t a neat and perfect thing.

In a world where some 214 million people are international migrants who live in a different country from the one in which they were born, there are problems in every society.

Oldham has never claimed to be a shining example or model that others should follow. It wouldn’t be realistic for us to say that: there are issues, and we know it.

We have come some distance since 2001, however, and we don’t need a travelling circus of any guise swooping into town to try and divide us.

The Government says it now sees extremism as something that needs a new approach and I agree with that. I just hope that there is a fair and balanced approach that deals with everyone who trades in hatred, regardless of their race or religion.

Here in Oldham we are showing what real respect is for our war dead.

We’re now into the second year of a renovation programme whereby every war memorial in the Borough will be fit for heroes by 2014 as we reflect on the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

As part of that programme we’re currently renovating the town centre cenotaph at a cost of £130,000, in addition to £100,000 spent across the Borough last year.

Creating cenotaphs of quiet reflection and unity is respectful – and I think that’s a lesson others could learn from.

When pondering Saturday’s events in our town centre I recalled a very simple but poignant inscription on my local cenotaph in Failsworth.

It reads: “They died in many lands so we may live here in peace”.

To our recent unwelcome visitors, I say now – please – leave us alone to live here in peace too.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

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