When the British branch of the far right German political organisation Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) announced that Newcastle-upon-Tyne would host the first of several anti-Islam demonstrations to be staged around the country, Geordies around the city were shaking their heads, asking why their city had been chosen for such an event.
According to a spokesperson for Pegida UK on Newsnight on Friday night, the decision to host their first march in Newcastle was apparently based on their desire to distance themselves from the right-wing anti-immigrant ideologies of UKIP and the BNP which currently hold much sway in Southern England. As Newcastle has always been a bastion of left wing politics, Pegida UK concluded that it was appropriate to stage their inaugural rally in the city’s Bigg Market, presumably in order to entice those aligned with the left, and therefore unaffected by the rise of UKIP, into the hatred of muslims and the support of Pegida. If the logic of such a move on paper sounds confused, then it is no wonder that this demonstration of Islamophobia was a failure not only for Pegida UK but for right-wing politics in the city of Newcastle-upon Tyne. However, it appears that this is merely one interpretation among many.
Elsewhere it has been argued that Newcastle was chosen as ideal host city for the demonstration as Pegida UK already had a substantial following in the North East. Other commentators have suggested that Pegida UK were trying to emulate the success of the English Defence League (EDL) marches of 2010 and 2013 – where many supporters were bused in from various regions of the country, greatly exaggerating the extent of North Eastern support – or to capitalise on the city’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, which historically work as catalysts for the spread of fascist and anti-immigrant ideologies.
As Newcastle has historically had very low levels of non-white communities in comparison with larger cities such as Birmingham and London – but whose populations of such communities are rapidly expanding – Pegida UK were arguably attempting to pounce upon a perceived fear of the other, presumably brought about not only through ignorance of such communities but an anxiety that Newcastle’s demographics are changing inexorably.
Discussion of race-relations in Newcastle and the surrounding area always returns to the case of South Shields and its integrated Arab community. Writing in the early 1960s for The Guardian, David Bean informed the nation that ‘Shields is a study in integration; a place colour prejudice died years ago’, a judgement duplicated by many who visited the community in following years. According to Barry Carr, ‘this universal accord had given South Shields a unique standing in the history of race relations in this country’. Despite its subsequent success as town of racial harmony, ‘The Town Where Colour Doesn’t Count’ has a history of disturbing violence aimed at its Yemeni community who originally settled in the 1890s. Disputes over jobs and marriages to local women brought conflict to the community of Yemenis. However, it was their brave and fearless character, coupled with the fact that they were working men, that earned them respect in the region.
Individual Arabs met the physical attacks with courage. Renowned in the Middle East for their proud and combative natures, the Yemenis confronted violence head-on. Regarding fist-fights as vulgar, they traditionally settled disputes with knives, one peculiar trait which eventually earned them a degree of wary respect. (Barry Carr, ‘Black Geordies’)
While the Arab community did not become loved overnight, Carr shows how physical assaults ‘gradually diminished until they quietly vanished during the war’ and how reciprocated tolerance, nurtured through repeated encounters in the workplace and street, became the norm for the inhabitants of South Shields. As the Arabs became the underdogs in their communities, they were bestowed with a position most Geordies, who themselves were oppressed by domineering classes, could identify with. Quickly, the white inhabitants of Shields realised that the ‘whole ethos of Tyneside working-class culture was anathema to the bullying on which racism is built’. Despite the limited scope of such a case study, coupled with the difficulty of its application in areas of the North East with alternative local histories, it is tempting for the Geordie to extend this notion to the whole of Tyneside.
At the counter-demonstration on Newgate Street on Saturday, notions of working-class solidarity echoed this history of race-relations, ideas about unity, integration and harmony were the basis of various mantras and chants, and indeed one could argue that the whole movement, organised by ‘Newcastle Unites’, was structured to hark back to the city’s turbulent and extraordinary past.
The March and Demonstration
Originally hoping to attract 500-700 people, it was estimated that just 400 supporters turned up in defence of the German import. Across the road, the counter march and demonstration – which brought numerous political and religious figures from the city and beyond – organised by Newcastle Unites and led by Dipu Ahad, is estimated to have attracted approximately 2500 supporters.
Emblazoned with signs and t-shirts preaching unity and anti-racisim, the protestors marched from the Gallowgate to Newgate Street, just 10 metres from where the Pegida rally was taking place. Throughout the demonstration, the cries and moans of those at the Bigg Market were drowned out by the roars of the thousands present applauding the MPs, trade-unionists and religious representatives who spoke on behalf or their communities and supporters.
If there was an underlying theme which illustrated the event, it was football. Newcastle United – who were coincidentally playing that afternoon against Aston Villa and whose muslim centre-forward scored the winning goal in that match – were consistently, both implicitly and explicitly, referred to throughout the demonstration. While the mantras ‘We are black and white, we are united’ and ‘Newcastle, United, we will never be defeated’ suggested both football, racial unity and perseverance, the leader of the NUFC Fans United supporter’s group called on the image of Cheick Tiote’s equalising goal and celebration in the famous comeback against Arsenal, demanding whether anyone would draw attention to his religious faith after that miraculous moment. That race and religious affiliation are forgotten on the football pitch is an argument which was urged to be transferred to daily life.
George Galloway MP suggested that Pegida came to Newcastle because the Muslims ‘were smaller in number’ than in other cities. On Saturday, the people of Newcastle demonstrated that they were willing to offer their support to a minority – the underdog – attacking any attempt to brew racial intolerance and Islamophobia in the city. I think that the final chant ‘Say it loud, say it clear, Pegida are not welcome here!’ sung by thousands on Newgate Street, illustrated this rather well.
Credit to Ian Forsyth for the photo www.ianforsythphotographer.com/blog