Five hundred counter-protesters turned out to show solidarity with the local Muslim community this morning as around 40 members of a group known as “Patriots of Canada Against the Islamization of The West” (PEGIDA) staged a rally in front of London City Hall.
Chanting and hoisting signs quickly turned to yelling matches between the two groups until police formed a human barrier between them.
One man, dressed in a tactical vest with Canadian and Israeli flag patches, was arrested by police after an altercation with a counter-protester.
Another individual was arrested shortly after. London Police Services is currently investigating both incidents.
Initially formed in Germany, PEGIDA is a far-right group with members across the western world. According to PEGIDA, the group addresses the “Islamization of the west.”
London MPs Peter Fragiskatos and Kate Young, MPP Peggy Sattler, Councillors Josh Morgan and Bill Armstrong, Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert and Mayor Matt Brown were among the counter-protesters at the rally.
Mayor Matt Brown spoke with AM980. He said it was appropriate for politicians to take part in the counter-protests.
“We have to consider this situation in the context of what’s happening across North America, and t’s really important for Londoners to stand together with the members they’ve elected, to come together to defeat hate and racism in a peaceful way,” Brown said.
London City Hall is coming under fire for what some are calling an “attack on free speech” after unanimously passing an emergency motion Tuesday night to stand against hatred and racism.
When asked at the rally about the motion, Brown defended it, saying, “Anything we do takes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Criminal Code into account, and what we’re saying is that racism and hate is not accepted in our community.”
Though counter-protesters focused on what they said was the rally participants’ racism and bigotry, some bystanders felt PEGIDA members should be able to express their views.
Adam Benni and Ayman Hashisho, both originally from Lebanon, observed from afar, and said the lack of discourse from both sides was troublesome.
Benni and Hashisho also said they were concerned about the precedent City Hall’s motion condemning hate could set over Londoners’ right to free speech.
Poet and writer Najwa Zebian has emerged as a leader among counter-protesters in favour of “peace and equality.”
“As a women who walks around wearing an hijab, for me, I don’t have a choice to be silent, so I do have to stand up in the face of hatred,” Zebian said.
“If you don’t look like someone who is different and you choose to be silent on issues, like the ones of racism on display today, you are actually contributing to spreading their message.”
She adds that apart from protests, she believes that stories by writers like herself can help defeat a racist culture that can still persists among communities.
“I believe that the best way to help people connect is through stories,” she pointed out, “because even though we may have gone through different events in our lives, we can have empathy for one another by opening ourselves up to each other, and taking the time to learn about the unique qualities in people.”
Zebian says that she will continue to attend rallies she feels are unjust, and that she was proud of the large turnout from counter-protesters and politicians today in London.
AM980 attempted to speak with members of PEGIDA at the rally but were told they had “no comment.”