A community meeting held to discuss the impact of last week’s Woolwich riot went ahead on a street corner after Greenwich Council boycotted it because of an organiser’s past involvement in the far-right English Defence League.
The council announced it would not be supporting the event in an e-mail and flyers distributed on Thursday afternoon – but did not tell those who had organised or promoted the event.
Instead, the authority organised a private meeting at the same time for Woolwich business owners, held at the council’s new civic centre.
While the man concerned, one of the instigators of the “Woolwich wall” on the burnt-out Great Harry pub, freely admits to past involvement in the group, he insists he is no longer involved in the organisation, and had asked its members to stay away from the gathering.
The council statement said it was “concerned some people and organisations are using the events of last week to further their own causes”.
“One of the main organisers of tonight’s meeting has admitted to involvement with the English Defence League and has made what the council considers to be ‘provocative’ comments,” it continued.
“We simply cannot offer any support to a gathering linked with an individual who has also stated he still publicly supports the actions of the EDL and has used language which the vast majority of residents would find utterly offensive.”
This website has seen a Twitter account of his, last updated in March, where he promotes the organisation and its views.
But speaking before the meeting, the individual denied he still supports the organisation. “It’s completely false,” he told this website.
He did, however, admit to stewarding on “a couple” of EDL events.
“When I joned it was purely patriotism, not about racism. I left when I saw all the drinking and drug taking that went on,” he said.
Asked if he shared the group’s anti-Muslim stance, he said: “I don’t have a problem with Muslim people. I don’t like certain moral values, but I don’t like singling people out.”
He is one of a number of people behind the wall and Thursday night’s meeting, which he went on to play little part in. He also helped bring media organisations to the area after a week of little coverage.
But following the council boycott, attempts to find a venue fell through, and an 25-strong impromptu meeting, led by other organisers, took place on the street outside the damaged Great Harry.
One man with an EDL badge was seen lurking around the meeting, but was not made welcome by organisers, and graffiti supporting the organisation was scribbled off the wall to applause.
Speakers criticised Greenwich Council for not hosting a public meeting of its own, in contrast to other authorities such as Lewisham and Ealing.
The deputy leader of Greenwich’s Conservative group, Nigel Fletcher, said he had to pull out of attending the meeting following the council’s statement.
But he added: “If Greenwich Council have concerns about tonight’s Woolwich meeting, and are boycotting it, they really should organise an official one.”
However, Woolwich Riverside’s Labour councillor – and cabinet member – John Fahy did attend the early stages of the gathering to observe what was happening.
Leaflets were also handed out advertising a peace rally by the Greenwich Multi-Faith Forum, to be held at the same spot at 3pm on Sunday.
Listen to part of the meeting:
Listen to Woolwich Grand Theatre founder Adrian Green address the gathering:
An explanation and a point of view: An earlier version of this story named the individual concerned. However, on reflection, I’ve decided to delete his name from the story.
His name’s no secret, the original story was widely seen, and I’m sure it’ll appear again elsewhere. But if he is sincere about repudiating his past, though, he deserves a chance to prove himself, and it’s best not to add to publicity that could damage his reputation and that of his family in years to come. Was he stupid to join the English Defence League? Of course.
But in bringing the media to Woolwich, he’s allowed all sections of the community to feel their anger and distress has finally been recognised by an outside world that had ignored them – something no elected politician in this area has managed. Indeed, when communities feel ignored, they are often driven into extremism. This can’t be allowed to happen in Woolwich.
If the council doesn’t like the background of one of the people behind last night’s meeting – why isn’t it organising its own? Who’s providing leadership in a still-bewildered district? If leaders hide behind private meetings, they can’t claim horror when people they don’t approve of speak to the public in their place.
In any case, the community campaign in Woolwich – which involves a number of other people without dubious pasts – plans to continue. It’d be unfair to allow a row over one individual to overshadow their achievements. I hope to continue to follow events in the weeks and months to come.