I WAS told this morning by a community activist in east London to be kind in this article to the Bengali Muslim youths who threatened violence last night…and who told me to “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”Â So let me state her well-meaning view that they’re “good boys” and that they’ve been raising much money for the victims of the terrible violence in Gaza.
Until a few days ago, the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, were adorned with posters calling for an end to the siege in Gaza, while flying a top was a flag ofÂ Palestine.
Then someone–and it’s important to find out whom–had the bright idea of replacing that flag with what many in the area took to be something more sinister.
I received a tip-off about it last night.
I was told the black “ISIS” flag was flying there.
I was sent a dark grainy photograph but it was difficult to make it out.Â So I stopped by the estate on my way home.Â With no wind, only a few Arabic letters were visible on the flag.
I took out my phone and started taking pictures from different angles.
A few shouts were thrown my way.
A group of five or six youths approached me.
They asked what I was doing.
Just taking pictures, I said.
I asked them to explain the black flag. They said it represented their Muslim faith.Â Then they asked for Â£5. “It’s our flag, we charge people for taking pictures,” they said.Â I tried to keep it light-hearted: I joked I was a good photographer; they should be paying me Â£5. Â A few more youths, all of them mid-late teens, a couple a little older, joined the group.
Then one stared at me.
“Are you a Jew?” he asked.
I’m not. I have a large nose; I fitted his stereotype.
I glared back at him. “What if I were? Would that be a problem for you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”
I looked at one or two of his mates. “Your friend wants to be a bit careful using language like that,” I said.Â Another one, apparently more sensible, told him off. This older one then asked whether I was “the police”.I asked him whether I looked like police. He said I did. Â I told him if I were, I’d probably be arresting his mate for what he just said.
“You wouldn’t have the balls, man,” he said. “The police don’t have the balls to arrest us.”
I didn’t count, but I think there were some 15 youths around me by this stage.Â Then an older man appeared.Â He told me to leave for my own safety. He said I was inflaming tensions. “Mate, there’s going to be an incident if you stay,” he warned.
I told him they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anti-Semitic abuse, that they needed to learn intimidation wouldn’t work.Â So I told him I was staying.
Then another (white) man appeared. He had a professional camera and took a few photos of the flag.Â The youths surrounded him; they demanded his camera.Â They wanted to delete his photos.
The photographer was from The Guardian. Their reporter, Rajeev Syal, appeared next to me. We know each other.
Then one voice, then several: “F*** off Jews. We don’t want Jews here, f***k off Jews.”
The three of us then headed for the photographer’s car, parked just down the road. They followed us.More abuse, more demands for the camera, then warnings of violence unless we left.
The Guardian reported an abridged version of the story this morning. I’m the “passer-by” mentioned in that article.There’s been some debate whether the black flag was that of ISIS, or merely a symbol of the ‘shahada’, an affirmation of Muslim faith. It was probably the latter.
About five minutes’ walk away from the Will Crooks estate is the Tower Hamlets town hall.Â There last week, the borough’s directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ordered the flag of Palestine be raised as a “humanitarian gesture of solidarity” with Gaza.
But to the mayor’s credit, when he heard about the incident in Poplar last night, he asked council officials to have the black flag taken down.Â In actual fact, the flag was removed before they arrived this morning… by the community activist I mentioned earlier.
But when council officers went to the site, in Poplar High Street, they were told the flag had been removed by Sister Christine Frost, a Roman Catholic nun who runs a charity supporting vulnerable residents in the area.
A spokesman said: “The council can confirm that following reports this morning of a flag erected on the Will Crooks Estate, council officials took steps to remove it but found it had already been taken down by Sister Christine Frost, a well-known local activist and promoter of community cohesion.Â The flag was removed following concerns that it could cause community tension.”
Sister Christine is believed to have gone on a day-trip to Clacton-on-Sea today after taking the flag down overnight. A source said she may have travelled to the seaside with the youths who had erected the flag.