NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE – The German movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) held its first demonstration in the UK today, countered by a coalition of religious leaders, politicians, trade unions, and locals that outnumbered Pegida's supporters by at least five to one.
Paul Weston, chair of Liberty GB and a speaker at the Pegida rally, which was held in Newcastle's Bigg Market, claimed that 300 people were in attendance to oppose what they perceived as the encroaching Islamisation of the United Kingdom. Organisers of the Newcastle Unites counter-protest claimed that 1,500 people or more attended their rally. Northumbria police subsequently estimated the figures at 375 and 2,000 respectively.
Pegida holds weekly rallies in Dresden, and a UK-based movement that has links to the original group (profiled by BuzzFeed News recently) chose Newcastle for its first official event in the UK.
At the Pegida event, speeches by Winston Churchill and songs such as "Land of Hope and Glory" played over the PA.
One Pegida supporter brandishing a National Front flag – he did not wish to be named – said he was present at the protest because "I want to let the government and the politicians know that what's happening is wrong. They need to tackle immigration. We're getting killed and getting bombed. Immigration is destroying our country. This is a Christian country."
Marion Rogers, a spokesperson for Pegida who travelled up to Newcastle from her home in Cornwall, said before the event that the group was expecting "well in excess of a thousand" people to attend.
"We are not a hatred campaign," she asserted. "I know Newcastle Unites have said we are a hatred campaign but that's exactly the opposite. We're against extremism, and against extreme Islamic terrorism and its effects on the UK."
Arne Lietz, a German MEP, flew over to Newcastle to oppose Pegida. He told BuzzFeed News that "singling out hate speech against a group is not acceptable. We have to stand together."
The protest and counter-protest were carried off without violence, except for a brief skirmish when a pair of protesters unfurled a flag with the insignia of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi party.
The organisers of the Pegida protest had refused to deny access to anyone, regardless of their political affiliation. At that point pro-Pegida protesters broke ranks into the 150-yard buffer zone that police had established between the two groups.
"Somebody pulled out the Nazi flag," explained Rogers. "That is not what we're about. Our people wanted to get the flag off them. And that is good. It showed we are not Nazis. It's not what Pegida is about, and that's why we stopped it."
Northumbria police confirmed that five people were arrested, two from within the region, two from outside the region, and one of unknown origin.
Chief superintendent Laura Young said: "Both demonstrations passed without any problems and I'd like to thank people in Newcastle for their cooperation and support throughout. The vast majority of those that took part in today's events were peaceful and both groups stuck to their agreed times, routes and plans.
"Disruption was kept to a minimum in the city centre and we are very grateful for the assistance and patience shown by the public and those in Newcastle this morning."
Planning for the Pegida event had been hectic and confused. Lack of local knowledge meant the organisers had failed to realise it was a Newcastle United match day on February 28, and that this compact northeastern city would become a one-way path to the Gallowgate end of St James' Park. What was envisaged as a vibrant, moving, afternoon protest became a static morning standing in the Bigg Market, best known for television images of skimpily dressed women vomiting into gutters late at night. For some Pegida sympathisers from around the country, an 11am start was also too early for them to catch a train up to Newcastle.
The organisers also appeared confused about the make-up of the region and its social stance.
Matthew Pope, a 29-year-old from Cambridge who was in charge of the rally until he stepped down days before the event, told The Telegraph that Newcastle was chosen because it lacked a far-right rump that could turn the protest violent.
Rogers, who took over from Pope as Pegida's media liaison on Thursday, told BuzzFeed News that "it was people from Newcastle who contacted Pegida with an interest in having something in the UK". She insisted that those who had contacted the German arm of Pegida were largely made up of Newcastle United supporters.
That's something NUFC Fans United, an umbrella body of the club's supporters groups, disagreed with.
It released a statement ahead of the protest saying that "this rally is unacceptable, uncalled for and not welcome on the streets of Newcastle".
Those football supporters – and a good deal more people, including trade union members, anti-fascist groups, members of various religious bodies, and the general public – took to the streets in the counter-demonstration, branded under the slogan Newcastle Unites. As they marched towards their meeting point near the Bigg Market, the crowd waved signs including one reading "Auf Wiedersehen, Pegida" and chanted, "We are black, we are white, we are united."
Gavin Wort, vicar at the Holy Cross Church in Fenham and chair of the Newcastle Diocese for Interfaith Relations, told BuzzFeed News that he was in attendance "in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters who are suffering from Islamophobia". He added that "Newcastle Unites is sending a loud message: Our city is diverse, and we want to celebrate that".
Also in attendance were a group from the Islamic Diversity Centre (IDC), a local Islamic organisation. They had brought forward by a month the planned launch of a nationwide campaign titled "Against Racism, Against Hatred", which aims to survey people in eight cities, including Newcastle, about their perceptions of racism and Islamophobia.
"I was intending to launch the campaign on 21 March, which is Stand Up Against Racism day," Abu Tayeb, chairman of IDC North East, told BuzzFeed News, "but since Pegida are in my home city, I've brought it forward a month. We want to send out a very strong message into society saying that all forms of extremism are not tolerated in our beautiful, diverse city, whether that's in the Muslim community or the extreme far right.
"We know the Muslim community does a lot of positive work in society, and we're trying to highlight that by showing some of the good work we do, like blood donation campaigns, neighbourhood clean-up campaigns, and visiting sick children. We're trying to give a truer picture of what Islam really stands for rather than the majority of the negativity that is pushed out there by the extreme minority."
Tayeb added: "We consider Pegida and their supporters as extremists, and there's no place for that extremism and hatred in our city."
Katja Leyendecker, a Newcastle resident of 20 years who originally came from Germany, told BuzzFeed News that "hate doesn't have a place anywhere. It's important to make a stand, to look back at history, and learn from it. Hate is not an answer to anything. It just destroys."
Pope told the media after Pegida's supporters dispersed that "we're always going to get labelled as racist and bigoted by people who don't actually understand what we're about".
He blamed the media for attracting a right-wing element to what he said was a "political awareness campaign".
Both he and Rogers insisted that a subsequent Pegida demonstration, in London, would likely be held at the end of March. Rogers told BuzzFeed News that Pegida was in negotiations with the Metropolitan police, and would confirm details of its first protest in the capital shortly.
Predictions of violence, whipped up by the national media, did not come to anything. Northumbria police and the Tyne & Wear Metro, the local light railway network, said that although they had extra staff on duty, there were few more police and staff on patrol than on a normal Saturday match day.
Rogers said the Newcastle event went "extremely well. Had it been later, we would have had in excess of two or three thousand people. It went very well, and London's going to be massive."
George Galloway, the Respect Party MP for Bradford West, told the press that Pegida was a "German fascist import".
Speaking at the protest, he claimed that Pegida "are just people who want to cause chaos in their country, and they hope out of that crucible of chaos, some kind of political purchase for them might occur. That's why they chose Newcastle: because the northeast of England is a depressed area, and they hope to feed on the economic and social fears of people here." Asked about the rally's success, Galloway said "it looks like it failed."
Fifty yards away from the site of both protests, in the historic Grainger Town district, beyond the police cars and the mounted officers, families ate their Happy Meals as normal in McDonald's. A few hours later, the Muslim Newcastle United striker Papiss Cisse scored the only goal in a 1–0 win against Aston Villa. The roar of appreciation rippled across the city, just as it had on many weekends before.