(A guest post by Nigel Jacklin.)
Saturday 28 November was the last weekend in which the UK was under the second national lockdown restrictions. We were in London on business, staying in Kings Cross. When I went to move our car, at around 10.30 on Saturday morning, I noticed that, while the streets were deserted, Kings Cross station was completely surrounded by police in bright yellow jackets. The area was eerily quiet. Police vans of all types were parked all along both sides of Pancras Road and other streets around the station.
At around 11.30 one of us went to the shops and saw the woman in the photograph being arrested. A man was filming her arrest; a second policeman approached and arrested him, having warned him to leave the area. Our ‘photographer’ returned home empty handed, shocked but safe, and exclaimed: “What kind of dystopian state are we living in?” This article addresses that very question based on first-hand accounts from a series of protests since July.
Legislation at the time
Under legislation in force at the time, protests were only allowed under limited conditions. In direct contravention of this, people from across the UK had arranged to meet up in Kings Cross at 12.00 am. From there, they would walk peacefully through the streets of London. Their purpose was to protest against the various lockdown measures being imposed on the population at large. News spread that the police were waiting at Kings Cross. People diverted to Speakers Corner and continued onwards from there. Large numbers were also travelling to London by coach; some of these were stopped and turned back by police.
From Speakers Corner the protestors took various routes across London, heading towards Trafalgar Square. Some made it there, others did not, blocked by a heavy police presence. Police vehicles rushed across town, sirens blaring, chasing the protestors. It was like a modern-day cross between Benny Hill and the Keystone Cops.
The BBC, finally reporting on the protests, cited 150 arrests. The Metropolitan Police said it had been a “challenging day” for its officers. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, acknowledged the protestors, saying: “The people that are protesting today have been protesting for many months, and we’ve seen this over successive weekends.”
Many of the arrests were ‘snatch’ arrests, with people suddenly grabbed from the crowd. Women and older protestors were often targeted. Some were arrested and then de-arrested, having been processed in a purpose-built street detention centre. Father Christmas was amongst those detained and later released.
How did we get to this state of affairs?
In July I was invited to give a talk at the first gathering of Keep Britain Free, a campaign group founded by Simon Dolan to legally challenge ‘lockdown.’ Around 300 people had gathered at Speakers Corner. It was a sunny afternoon, the perfect setting for my after-lunch topic, ‘covid mortality statistics,’ a subject I had been researching since January. A friendly policeman had provided a small step-ladder, so people could see our speakers. Due to the size of the crowd I started using a mega-phone. The friendly policeman approached through the crowd, his hand held in the air telling me that “the use of amplification is prohibited at Speakers Corner.” I hurriedly finished my 10 minute talk in 45 seconds, explaining that excess deaths could also be due to underlying health problems.
The policeman told us that we could use amplification outside the park on the pavement once the Black Lives Matter group had left. I was able to give my talk in full. Sky News covered the event, interviewing fellow speaker Leah Butler-Smith. The Daily Mail ran a favourable article and to my surprise they included a picture of the policeman approaching me. No arrests were made. Afterwards we went down to the pub round the corner and had a socially distanced ‘pint’ with some new friends we made on the day.
Why have things changed so much since July?
Whilst this was not the first protest or gathering in relation to the restrictions, it provides a helpful marker in time. As with subsequent protests, the July gathering was timed for the weekend before new regulations were brought in. The next major protest was in late August in Trafalgar Square. This time the crowd was estimated at around 35,000. Once again, proceedings were relatively peaceful.
By late September new legislation had been introduced meaning that protests needed a ‘risk assessment.’ In addition to this, the organisers needed to take ‘all reasonable steps to limit the risk of transmission of coronavirus’. Organising a protest in breach of these conditions risked a fine of £10,000. At an individual level it was not lawful to attend a protest with more than two people. Whilst the idea of ‘state-sanctioned’ protest is anathema to many, the organisers got the necessary permission for the September 26 protests. A string of high-profile speakers once again addressed a packed Trafalgar Square.
On the 26th the crowd started to build around midday. The atmosphere was peaceful. Many of those attending were anxious given that the police had moved in on a similar rally the previous weekend. Some had been briefed to sit down if the police moved in and to avoid reacting to any police aggression.
As the event was livestreamed, people who had seen it online travelled in by tube to try and join the protest. However, many were unable to do so, as the police blocked the exits from the nearest tube stations.
A change in atmosphere
At around 3.00 pm we were observing proceedings from the north concourse of Trafalgar Square. From there we were able to chat with our friend John, who had watched the previous week’s protests online. Suddenly his manner changed, “they’ve closed the road…be careful…they’re about to do something.” As a German medic Dr Schoning took the stand, the police moved in.
From our position we saw a long line of police moving towards us from the west. We quickly walked away from them, only to be met by a similar line coming towards us from the east. The main crowd was to the south, the National Gallery blocked our way to the north. We were being kettled (a tactic police use on crowds at football matches). People were scared and started screaming and running in a panic. A frightened elderly woman, on her own, asked us for help. We got out around the edge of the police line, climbing over a small wall. Others, trapped in the main square, had to scale larger walls. None of us heard any warning from the police. Dr Schoning did not get to give his talk in Trafalgar Square. The police sprayed the PA system with disinfectant, waited for it to take effect, and carried it away.
Protestors, stirred by the police action, marched up Regent Street, along Oxford Street to Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner. Some onlookers joined them. The procession stretched as far as the eye could see. When they reached Speakers Corner there was, once again, a serious Territorial Support Group police presence (identifiable by their blue vans, helmets and batons). When Dr Schoning started to give his talk he was again surrounded, arrested, handcuffed and loaded into a police van. A complete contrast to the ‘friendly’ police presence in July. The atmosphere had clearly turned.
Dr Schoning was taken away to Wandsworth Police Station and held overnight, accused of organising the event, even though he was just a speaker. He was discharged 22 hours later and taken to the airport by his supporters. His phone and laptop were kept by the police.
A serious threat?
Why did the police choose to move in when Dr Schoning started to speak? Why did they arrest him, rather than the other speakers? As a medical professional, did he represent a more serious threat?
We contacted the mainstream media to report his arrest. They chose not to report what was, in my view, one of the more significant events of the week. It was widely covered in independent and social media.
For many who attended on September 26th the experience was a shock, one protestor from Sussex stating: “I’d not been to demo’s before. It was really scary; more like something you’d see on the telly from Hong Kong.” For most it strengthened their resolve to attend the next protest; for many it undermined their respect for the police.
A change in approach
The September experience meant those organising protests needed to change tactics. Even if permission was granted, it was clear that the authorities could not be trusted. The late October protest was organised as a march through London, starting from Hyde Park along Oxford Street, down Tottenham Court Road and ending up in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. With large groups of protestors walking the streets shouting ‘freedom,’ it turned into a game of cat and mouse as the police followed them attempting to split them up. The protest ended after about four hours.
A separate Million Mask March was organised for 5th November, the day the second national ‘lockdown’ started. On this occasion the police were able to split the protesters up, finally kettling a small group in Oxford Street. One of those kettled, a retired lady from South London, explained:
“We were trapped for around four hours. We kept ourselves happy by singing. One of the other people there explained that she had not brought her medication with her and was starting to feel unwell. I asked the police for some paracetamol, but they wouldn’t help. My new friend collapsed and we were both taken to Charing Cross Hospital by a friendly ambulance crew. It was a lucky escape.”
Much of this was livestreamed by Subject Access, Rutly and others. We watched the livestream in disbelief and later learnt that Scotland Yard had to apologise after journalists and photographers covering the protest were told to leave and threatened with arrest.
The right to protest is a fundamental freedom enshrined in the Human Rights Act. When people feel their voices are not being heard, either because their MPs ignore them, or their MPs are not being listened to by the government, meeting and protesting is an important means of trying to get your voice heard. This is particularly important given the fact that there is more than one way to read the medical evidence; 60,000 deaths with covid may not mean 60,000 excess deaths caused by covid. A significant proportion of excess deaths may have been caused by the secondary impacts of the measures taken to ‘fight’ covid.
In the last few days there have been two significant developments:
– Steve Baker and other MPs have raised the issue of protesting in the House of Commons, flagging the “disproportionate response to protests,” asking the Home Secretary to make clear protests are allowed and to consider an amnesty.
– Appearing in Westminster Magistrates Court responding to charges in relation to May protests, Piers Corbyn was given an absolute discharge. The judge felt his arrest and detention was punishment enough.
My reading is that under the current circumstances many people will still want to take part in protests. There will still be the risk of a disproportionate police response, fines or arrest. These risks may also apply to private meetings held by an increasingly large number of people who feel there is no longer a Public Health Emergency. If you are questioning the need for or effectiveness of ‘lockdown’ and decide to join a protest, be prepared.