I don’t regret joining the EDL.
It’s a bad group: it’s divisive, bitter, selfish, sometimes even boring. But it’s made me who I am: someone who spends every day challenging all types of extremism. It’s made me someone who can make a difference.
My hometown is Lowestoft, in Suffolk. When I was growing up, nearly everyone in my area was white. That’s probably still true today. I lived on a council estate and left school at 16 to work long hours in a chicken factory. A bit after my two kids were born I had a nervous breakdown and ended up in hospital.
When I got out, I had two kids to look after and no job. My ‘friends’ disappeared – they called me a “nutjob”. I quickly became depressed.
Every day I’d sit at home and watch TV by myself or spend hours on social media. That’s where my life was and that’s where I found the EDL.
The EDL found me because I’d commented on a video of Anjem Choudary abusing British troops. The video made me so angry because I was fundraising for the Army at the time, and within minutes of posting my comment I had received a direct message from someone from the EDL.
We chatted for hours about my work, my beliefs, and why I posted the comment. Then he asked if I wanted to help, and offered me a role as an admin on the EDL’s Facebook page. He gave me somewhere I thought I could belong, and I said yes.
I know now that it was all fake. I was depressed and generally just angry, and the EDL used that for their own selfish reasons. I wanted to belong, so they pretended that I did.
Once you’re sucked in, it’s easy to get wrapped up in that world. Before long I was posting anti-Muslim stories and organising demos, trapped in an echo chamber. I met so many people online who seemed to think the same stuff I did, and when I met them in person it seemed like we’d known each other for years. It didn’t take long for me to rise the ranks and pretty quickly I was made the Eastern regional organiser by Tommy Robinson.
For some reason, and like many people I know who also ended up leaving the EDL, I always had a bit of doubt. There were a few things that happened during my time in the group that made me question what I was doing, but there was always a nagging sense I couldn’t escape - that I didn’t really belong: I just thought I did. And then I met Manwar Ali.
Manwar is a former jihadist. I first came across Manwar when I heard a rumour that he wanted to convert an old church in Ipswich into a super-mosque. I quickly challenged him, and realised I was wrong: he was building a community centre for everyone to use.
We started talking, and over a few months became good friends. Every day, he made me think more about my views. He got where I was coming from because he’d been in the same position, but an Islamist extremist. When my dad died of cancer in 2013, I didn’t turn to the EDL: I turned to Manwar.
I miss some of the lads, but I don’t miss the EDL. As Manwar showed me, the hate and division that forms the basis of such extremist groups is wrong. I’ve realised that it’s not British.
I’m proud of the work I do today, going around the country and teaching people about extremism. I’m proud of being able to make a difference. And I’m proud to have the words of the late Jo Cox tattooed on my left forearm: “We have far more in common than which divides us.” That’s why I’m going to keep fighting.
Support for the far-right seems to be falling. Britain First’s leaders are in jail, National Action has been proscribed, and EDL rallies get five per cent of the turnout that they used to. All these extremist groups are trying to turn people against each other, but they’re failing.
When I do talks and workshops around the country, I can see how today’s young people are positive about the future. I really think it’s these kids who we need to work with to tackle all kinds of extremism, and we can easily do that by building on that positivity.
All of us can help by standing together. There are loads more of us who care about our country – loads more of us who don’t want our communities to be divided. It fills me with hope for the future, and that’s why I want to make a difference today.