The streets of Birmingham are deserted when the Football Lads arrive. Worse, the pubs are closed.
“The police said they’d be open,” says John Meighan, the 33-year-old founder of the Football Lads’ Alliance. For the first (and only) time that day, he looks worried. A couple of plainclothes police officers – one with close-cropped hair and a green parka, one wearing a black puffa jacket – escort us to a nearby hotel. Reassurances are given: nobody is expecting violence.
It’s 11am, and there are about 30 Lads so far. John is expecting “hopefully 10,000” to turn up to what is only the third FLA march – and the first outside of London. The organisation isn’t even a year old, but support for the FLA has grown rapidly. Up to 10,000 people joined their first London protest on 24 June 2017, which ended at the site of June’s London Bridge terror attack.
Thousands of supporters – including families and children – walked in silence from Park Lane to Westminster Bridge on 7 October 2017, in memory of the victims of acts of terror in London and Manchester.
The FLA’s next march is planned for 19 May to coincide with the weekend anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing attacks. John launched the organisation on 4 June 2017 as a coalition of football supporters demonstrating their peaceful resistance to Islamist Extremism. We’re in Birmingham for its third protest, on 24 March.
Interviewed before the march, John says that he wants the FLA to be the peaceful face of resistance to Islamist extremism; that he wants to march across Europe; and that the FLA could potentially mobilise its supporters “into a political group or look at political options ourselves”. Just a few weeks later, however – and days before the publication of this story – John will resign from his position at the head of the Football Lads Alliance amid the fallout from a row over donations.
BBC Three can reveal that John’s resignation came after the Royal British Legion returned a £1,104 donation to the FLA on 11 April. The Royal British Legion told the BBC that the FLA “raised money for the donation through the inappropriate use of the poppy” – the logo of the Royal British Legion - and that “a small number of FLA supporters have expressed views and opinions that are not compatible with the values of The Royal British Legion.”
After establishing the FLA as a private company in August 2017, John opened an online store selling t-shirts, hoodies and caps. The FLA also sold a pin badge featuring the poppy. The sum this has raised is not known.
In recent weeks, the group has also faced accusations of racism. A closed FLA Facebook group recently came under fire for hosting comments that included calls for Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, to be “hanged”, and a graphic cartoon depicting Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.
“I don't think saying ‘hang Sadiq Khan’ is racist,” says John, defending the post.
John says the Facebook group is monitored by 10 admins who ban “racists” and “undesirables”. The Sadiq Khan post was not removed because – according to John – it did not meet the FLA’s criteria for removal.
“We’re not racist,” says John. “We’ve condemned the actions of National Action and actions of others.”
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) monitors the FLA’s social media posts as part of their ongoing research into extremist movements and tactics online. It says that the FLA has moved to the right over time.
“The narratives they push are now fairly similar to that seen being pushed by Britain First, [the minor political party] For Britain and Tommy Robinson: Muslims are dangerous; immigration is bad for Britain; and the British identity needs saving,” says Christopher Stewart, a Project Coordinator at ISD and specialist in extremist propaganda and counter-messaging techniques online.
Comparisons to the English Defence League – the discredited far-right street protest movement also founded by football fans – seem inevitable. Support for the EDL collapsed following a series of violent clashes with counter-demonstrators and police. But John says he wants to “break the stereotype” of violent provocation. John has said that the group’s motto is “no racism, no violence”. In its manifesto, the FLA denounces “all forms of terrorism” and says that it is “inclusive and acceptable [sic] to all colours, creeds, faiths and religions”.
“The EDL… there were probably some good characters amongst them," John says, "but it got hijacked by a bunch of idiots in the early days. Racists and undesirables.”
Tommy Robinson – the former EDL leader – was at the FLA’s last protest. John is quick to defend Tommy. “Tommy has got his EDL past, but at the same time he has done a lot of good work,” he says. Tommy’s recent past includes a conviction for contempt of court following his ‘exposure’ of grooming gang suspects as they walked into court to face justice. Many of those at the 5,000-strong gathering in Birmingham seem to agree.
As Tommy emerges on the edge of the crowd, a chant ripples through the square: “Ohhh Tommy, Tommy… Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy Robinson”. Men carry football flags and some have cans of beer, as if they’re warming up for a day on the terraces. The marchers are around three-quarters male, and almost all white. There are a few veterans in military regalia and the odd banner saying, 'No to sharia law' and 'Make Britain Great Again'.
John looks on as Tommy Robinson bowls through the crowd, receiving the kind of ecstatic reception normally reserved for a footballer. Behind him, Caolan Robertson, his personal cameraman, is streaming everything on YouTube from a selfie stick. “We’re live at a Football Lads Association event, which is lots of football fans uniting against Islam and terrorism,” says Caolan.
“It’s an anti-Islam event,” he adds.
Tommy is not a scheduled speaker today, but he is far from unwelcome – mostly.
“Tommy get the f*** out of my city,” shouts one passer-by.
Back inside the bar, a group of eight Swansea supporters huddle round a small table talking about the suicide bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on 22 May 2017, in which a man murdered 22 people – many of them children.
“That was the cruellest act in all of the world. What happened in Manchester was the worst type of terrorism in the world: to target children,” says Paul*. “What are the aims of these people? If they're prepared to do this then how low can we actually sink?”
John Meighan had earlier warned us of the possibility of a “civil war” – a sentiment that is shared by the Swansea supporters.
"I know people who are moderate Muslims. They can be very decent people and we got no problem with them," says Paul. "We got a massive problem with the radical element who refuse to integrate and who want Sharia."
The men around the table reel off a list of their concerns that drift from Islamic extremism to the impact of immigration: the claim that there are as many as 3,000 jihadis on the streets of Britain who pose a terror threat, the supposed proliferation of Sharia councils, and the fear of displacement of working class communities by immigrants.
Conversation turns to statistics collected by former equality commission chairman Trevor Phillips for the documentary What British Muslims Really Think. They showed that only 4% of Muslims sympathised with suicide bombers – but 34% of those surveyed would inform the police if they thought somebody they knew was getting involved with people who support acts of terror in Syria.
“Now that is the thing,” says Paul, nursing a beer in the hotel bar. “Once you start putting a religion before your national place of birth, or where you live, then it's a slippery slope.”
The men agree that they would report suspected far right extremists to the authorities – even if they were friends or family.
“Everybody knows what’s wrong,” says Paul.
But he and his friends still don’t think that far right extremism is as bad as Islamist extremism.
“It's still wrong,” he says. “It doesn't matter what colour you are or where you come from. But maybe Islamic extremism is up there," he gestures with his arm, "and maybe what you call National Action extremism or white extremism dials down."
The view is not shared by the government, which added far-right extremism to its anti-terrorism strategy in 2013.
“In the United Kingdom we take the far right very seriously,” Prime Minister Theresa May said last year. “And that’s why we ensure we deal with these threats and this extremism wherever it comes and whatever its source.”
Far right terrorism is a “growing threat” according to the Metropolitan Police’s outgoing Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley. Four foiled terror plots in 2017 (28%) were categorised as far right, compared to ten foiled Islamist plots.
Analysis of all FLA Twitter followers provided to the BBC by ISD Global found that those engaging with the FLA are 74% male with 81% aged 35 and above. They are predominantly based in Greater London (27%), and 11.5% of them engage in conversations about Tommy Robinson and the British National Party. Facebook data supplied by John to the BBC shows that members of the FLA’s four Facebook groups are 93.6% male and skew towards the over 35s, with around a third of subscribers based in London.
As the FLA has grown, it also appears to have relaxed its attitude towards figures like Tommy Robinson.
“Publicly visible association with controversial right-wing figures marks a significant change in the 'branding' of the FLA,” says Christopher from ISD. The main speaker at the Birmingham demonstration is Anne Marie Waters. The former UKIP leadership contender is the current leader of the For Britain political party. John introduces her as a “specialist on Islam". Anne is on record describing the religion as “evil”. Her first mention of Islam draws a chorus of boos and hisses from the crowd.
“Millions of decent British people are offended by this religion and the poison it’s causing within our culture,” says Anne.
“Islam is, it does have elements of evil to it,” John says when asked about Anne’s views later. “There’s people who, because of a religion, are killing individuals in the UK, across Europe.”
Speeches over, John rallies the crowd for the march. Banners and scarves from Sheffield United, Leeds, Swindon and Norwich are waved and chants of “we want our country back” and “I’m England till I die” ring out as thousands of marchers course through Birmingham’s streets.
The response from passers-by is mixed. Tony, a 51-year-old with a flower stall, says that he sympathises with those marching. “Birmingham is a really beautiful city, but it has become divided,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before something will happen and on a big scale.”
That 'something' is alluded to by several protestors. In an earlier interview, John warned BBC Three that, “We could have a civil war in this country if something isn’t done soon. People will just take things into their own hands."
Ria, a 16-year-old out shopping, is hoping they don't. She says, “I’m an Asian female, so I’m staying quite far away.”
The march rounds into the shadow of Birmingham‘s vast, pockmarked Bullring, and reels to a halt. A new, highly Islamophobic chant begins.
During the march, nobody appears to call out those chanting. The language is divisive enough, however, that after the march has finished, some of the attendees express their disgust on social media. “Both I & daughter put off attending another FLA march,” writes Doug, a Grimsby Town FC fan.
“I’m not condoning people talking like that,” says John, later. “I don’t have control over every single person. There’s a level of patriotism [among FLA supporters] that can spill over into people taking things a bit too far.”
In a surprise move, and with the FLA’s next protest in Manchester on 19 May on the horizon, John stood down from the FLA on 16 April.
He said in a statement that he made the decision with “deep regret” in order to “re-focus my energies into my personal and professional life”.
John told the BBC that, “Everything’s been handed over to other people,” and the company will be dissolved.
This article was originally published on 27 April 2018.