All protests are not equal in the eyes of the police

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

I’ve never been a great fan of public demonstrations. When I was at university, one of the great causes du jour involved a bus company owned by a man accused of not much liking the gays. My generation were short on causes, so intermittently there would be a call for direct action against the bigoted buses. I slipped along once, not sure whether I really wanted to join in. Apart from the sight of a few dozen callow students preventing one of the guilty buses from progressing up the High Street, my main memory is the almost animalistic rage of a number of the bus’s passengers. Unable to be heard above the chants, they looked like flies in a bottle, getting ever more furious about being made to be late for their next appointments. I sloped away, reflecting that if I had been on that bus I would not have felt much more supportive of the cause after the protest than I had before.

It is a little noted consequence of public protest: the inconvenience you put other people to. Naturally, everybody in principle defends the right to peaceful protest. But whenever I have found myself on the side of the inconvenienced, it turns me subtly or otherwise against the cause at hand. The recent behaviour of Extinction Rebellion protestors offers one powerful example. Outside of a small group of misanthropes, most of us would like to save the planet. But few people were happy for their morning commute to be made even more miserable than it already was by people claiming to feel more strongly about the issue than they did. Likewise, some years back I learned that the thing that had caused me to spend an afternoon sitting in traffic was a ‘Pride’ protest. I don’t mind admitting that, stuck in a sweltering car, I thought things that would have shamed the Revd Ian Paisley.

In the era of Covid, you would have thought that protests would need an even greater reason than usual to justify going ahead. After all, the inconvenience factor is now accompanied, we are told, by a risk to the public health. Until the BLM protests in early June, we were told that even tiny gatherings of people would put lives in danger. For that reason we all spent months isolated. Then BLM started their protests and the country watched as well as waited. If the warnings had been right then BLM would have caused a spike in the virus. But so far as I know, no such spike occurred. Or if it did, it was too politically dangerous to discuss.

What did spike was public contempt for the police — who all too readily ‘took the knee’ on the orders of the crowds only then to be pursued by mobs shouting things like ‘Run piggy, run’. At these protests the police appeared to be imploring the crowd to believe that they were on their side. That was understandable, given the -circumstances, but antithetical to good policing and confusing, given the claims about the virus that had been impressed upon us for months.

Then the XR protestors came back. And though the police did not this time skateboard or dance with them, they did once again take a remarkably benign attitude to their public congregating. Not to mention the group’s defacing of public and private property, their attempt to halt the distribution of national newspapers, and their blocking of various bridges in a capital that had already ground to a near halt.

In due course — and that day has now arrived — it started to look deeply selective, this enforcing of the law dependent on the lawbreaker’s motivations. For it is now clear that the police in Britain and other countries do not take the same benevolent attitude towards all protestors.

In Melbourne earlier this week, local police did a full mounted, armoured raid against people in the fruit and veg section of an outdoor marketplace. The stand-off occurred because the fruit stalls harboured protestors who were anti-lockdown. Although police in Britain have not yet gone into full mounted–cavalry charge against anti-lockdown protestors, their stance towards such protestors in London last weekend was visibly more heavy-handed than anything they ever tried against XR or BLM. With the anti-lockdown protestors, all the devices of the law have come into use.

I am no great admirer of Piers Corbyn (though I prefer him to his brother), but the fact that he was the other week slapped with a £10,000 fine for organising an anti–lockdown protest did not seem just. Or at least it could only be just if the heads of XR and BLM (and perhaps all the celebrities who egged them on) had been slapped with similar fines. Yet so far as I am aware, no such fines have been levelled, and so the police — and the law — begin to look as though they wield their powers against people with certain motivations but not against others.

At present, the authorities say that anybody organising mass public gatherings is putting everybody at risk and that their activities must be curtailed. You may agree with that line, though a growing number of people — including scientists — do not. But what you cannot suggest is that mass opposition to the lockdown encourages the virus while mass gatherings in support of XR and BLM do not. Well, I suppose you can. After all, we live in a country where last week we were meant to go to the office and this week we are meant to stay at home; where last month we were encouraged to go out and this month we are encouraged to stay in; where a principally nocturnal virus stalks the land, doing its worst in public houses after the hour of 10 p.m. So you could suggest it. It looks as if in 2020 you could suggest anything, frankly.

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