Rise Up! How Protest Movements Define the Limits of Covid Lockdowns, and the Perils of Covid Denial

Kill the Bill: protestors in Parliament Square on March 15, 2021 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

With the anniversary of the UK’s first Covid lockdown approaching, I look at how how the protest movements that have arisen over the last 12 months — about racist oppression, the safety of women and an attempted ban on protest itself — have spontaneously arisen when the logical limits of strict lockdowns have been reached. I also note how these movements stand in stark opposition to the protests of those engaged in Covid denial, who wilfully flout genuine public safety concerns through a toxic mix of dangerous conspiracy theories.

The devastatingly incompetent and corrupt government of Boris Johnson

Ever since the first Covid lockdown was declared in the UK, on March 23 last year, the British people have, for the most part, complied with the rules laid down by a government that was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with a global pandemic, that has handled it with shattering incompetence, and that has also engaged in cronyism to an unprecedented extent.

Elected in December 2019 to ‘Get Brexit Done’ by just 29% of the registered electorate, Boris Johnson stacked his cabinet with inadequate, second-rate politicians whose only requirement for being chosen was that they were fanatically committed to Britain leaving the EU, an astonishingly misguided policy of national suicide that came out of David Cameron’s shameful capitulation to Euro-sceptics in his own party, and the threat posed by UKIP under Nigel Farage.

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The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent

Shame on Priti Patel: a placard at the protest outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021 following the heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common the evening before (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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So the war is on, then — of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy.

For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to dissent seems to have fuelled yesterday’s heavy-handed response by the police to a peaceful vigil by women on Clapham Common mourning the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer.

The sight of policemen using force to break up the vigil was an act of truly astonishing insensitivity, and while there are clearly questions to be asked of the officers involved — concerning their blatant ‘manhandling’ of grieving women, and claims that some officers deliberately trampled on flowers left by woman at the vigil, as well as the risibility of the Metropolitan Police’s own claims about them having to break up the vigil because of concerns about public safety in light of the ongoing Covid regulations — it seems most pertinent to look up the chain of command for an explanation of how and why such a heavy-handed and insensitive display of force took place — and that chain of command leads inexorably, via the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to Priti Patel.

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It’s 35 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield; Where Do We Go Now?

Police swarming around the last bus to be violently “decommissioned” at the Battle of Beanfield, on June 1, 1985.

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Today is the 35th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; actually, a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality in a field in Wiltshire, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently “decommissioned” a convoy of 400 travellers trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, a huge autonomous settlement, numbering tens of thousands of people, that occupied the fields by Stonehenge for the whole of the month of June, and that had become a target for violent suppression by Margaret Thatcher.

My book The Battle of the Beanfield, published to mark the 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, is still in print, so please feel free to order a copy. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, my counter-cultural history of Stonehenge.

Thatcher had spent 1984 crushing one group of citizens described as the “enemy within” — the miners — while also paving the way for the next “enemy within” to be crushed — the travellers, anarchists and environmental and anti-nuclear activists who made up the convoy attempting to get to Stonehenge when they were ambushed, and then crushed after they sought refuge in a bean field off the A303.

Elements of the convoy had been violently set upon by police in the summer of 1984, at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and in February 1985, activists and travellers who had established a settlement at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the second proposed site for cruise missiles after Greenham Common in Berkshire, the site of the famous women’s peace camp) were evicted by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, symbolically led by Thatcher’s right-hand man and defence secretary, Michael Heseltine.

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The Four Fathers Release New Eco-Anthem, ‘This Time We Win’, Recorded with Charlie Hart

The cover for ‘This Time We Win‘, the new single by The Four Fathers. Designed by Brendan Horstead.

On Earth Day (April 22), The Four Fathers released ‘This Time We Win’, a new online single on Bandcamp, produced by Charlie Hart, who also plays Wurlitzer piano on it.

This Time We Win’ is an eco-anthem that I wrote last year in response to the unfolding, man-made, global environmental catastrophe that we all face, and the powerful efforts to highlight it that have been made by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her Fridays For Future movement of striking schoolchildren, and the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, who occupied central London a year ago.

We were planning to release it this spring, to coincide with what we anticipated would be renewed environmental activism, but what we couldn’t have foreseen was the arrival of the highly infectious novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and the complete shutdown of all significant gatherings of people, including political protests, to try and stop its spread.

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In the Midst of the Coronavirus Lockdown, Environmental Lessons from Extinction Rebellion, One Year On

Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Tell the Truth’ boat in Oxford Circus on April 18, 2019, during a week-long occupation of sites in central London to raise awareness of the environmental catastrophe that is already underway, and the need for urgent change to combat it (Photo: Andy Worthington)..

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As we all continue to try to make sense of — and live with — the extraordinarily changed world in which we find ourselves, I’m reminded of what a different place we were in a year ago, and also how some of our insights from that time so desperately need to be remembered today.

One year ago, we were five days into Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four sites in central London (Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch), which largely brought the traffic to a halt for a week, and enabled anyone paying attention to directly appreciate what a city not dominated by the choking fumes and noise of relentless traffic felt like, and what that, in turn, said about so many of capitalism’s priorities in a major capital city.

It was, to be blunt, something of revelation, as I explained in an article at the time, Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements, in which I also related XR’s efforts to those of earlier protest movements, and noted how we had, it seemed, all become so accustomed to how loud and dirty London was, with its relentless traffic, the incessant din of its numerous building sites, and the lorries servicing those sites, which were the most unpleasant of all the vehicles incessantly filing our streets — other huge lorries, buses, taxis, white vans, and an inexplicable number of cars — that the sudden silence and clean air was astonishing.

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Health Not Wealth: The World-Changing Lessons of the Coronavirus

A composite image of a doctor and the City of London, photographed by Andy Worthington during the coronavirus lockdown, on April 2, 2020.

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Yesterday marked 100 days since the coronavirus (COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2) was first reported by the Chinese authorities, and, as now seems to be becoming clear, this highly infectious disease, which, in just three months, has reached almost every country on earth, and has so far killed nearly 100,000 people, is changing our lives — and our world — forever.

To put it simply, we have discovered that health is more important than wealth, and in a world dominated by the profit motive of capitalism, this is a profound lesson to learn, and one with consequences that will affect every aspect of our lives from now on.

Just a few weeks ago, we still raised up, and were obsessed by, the pin-ups of the celebrity world, one of capitalism’s many fronts for its almost complete domination of our lives, with its vacuous models, pop stars, footballers and film stars — all obscenely overpaid, and all dutifully obeying the requirement that, for fame and money, they had to allow themselves to be put on pedestals, to dazzle us into subservience.

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Imagining a Post-Coronavirus World: Ending Ravenous Capitalism and Our Consumer-Driven Promiscuity

A tug leading Royal Caribbean’s insanely-misnamed ‘Harmony of the Seas’ into Southampton Harbour. Cruise ships are environmentally ruinous, helped spread the coronavirus, and needs to be high on the list of enterprises that mustn’t be bailed out after the coronavirus crisis ends, if we are to secure a better world (Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/AP).

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It’s too early to begin creating a post-coronavirus world when we’re still in the throes of the crisis, but we can beginning thinking about it, and planning for it; otherwise, the dark forces that led us to this point — helped by many of our least helpful habits — will only return with a vengeance once the worst of the crisis is over.

When we think about the post-coronavirus world, there are, I presume, two camps: those who want everything to go back to how it was before, and those who don’t. The latter camp, for now, contains many more people than it has within living memory — those who recognize that running the world solely for the unfettered profits of the few has been a disaster.

This group includes many environmentalists — those who, in the last year and a half, helped to amplify the messages of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion to try to alert everyone else to an uncomfortable but vitally necessary truth: that we are facing an unprecedented man-made environmental crisis, which threatens humanity’s very existence.

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The Significance of the High Court Ruling That the Police’s London-Wide Ban on Extinction Rebellion Was “Unlawful”

Metropolitan Police officers and the Extinction Rebellion camp at Trafalgar Square, October 11, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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The news cycle seems so frenetic right now that stories barely get noticed before the media spotlight promiscuously turns to some other topic. A case in point, to my mind, is an important High Court ruling last week — that a decision taken by the Metropolitan Police last month, to impose a blanket ban across the whole of London prohibiting any assembly of more than two people linked to Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Autumn Uprising’, under section 14 of the Public Order Act of 1986, was “unlawful.”

The two High Court judges who issued the ruling — Mr. Justice Dingemans and Mr. Justice Chamberlain — said, as the Guardian described it, that “the Met had been wrong to define Extinction Rebellion’s two-week long ‘autumn uprising’ as a single public assembly on which it could impose the order.”

As Mr. Justice Dingemans stated in the ruling, “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act.” He added, “The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it.”

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Extinction Rebellion Challenges and Defies Outrageous London-Wide Ban on Public Assemblies

Extinction Rebellion supporters defy the Metropolitan Police’s outrageous London-wide ban on XR protests, congregating in significant numbers in Trafalgar Square, October 16, 2019 (Photo: Ben Gillespie).

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On Monday evening, in response to the start of the second week of actions in London by the environmental campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, as part of their International Rebellion in at least 60 cities worldwide, the Metropolitan Police issued an unprecedented order, under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which allows them to impose restrictions on any “public assembly” (an assembly of two or more people in a public place), if they claim that it poses “serious disruption to the life of the community.”

The order on Monday night stated that “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’ … must now cease their protests within London (MPS and City of London Police Areas)” by 9pm, and even before it was issued police began clearing protestors out of their camp in Trafalgar Square.

Lawyers, civil liberties groups and some MPs immediately responded with understandable outrage. Jolyon Maugham QC tweeted, “We believe the section 14 Order is invalid — that it amounts to a huge overreach of the statutory power — and likely reflects the enormous political pressure the Met is under”, adding, “It exposes the Met to all sorts of risks — of legal challenges to validity, of civil claims for wrongful arrest with aggravated damages and so on — merely because this Government cannot tolerate peaceful protest.”

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Extinction Rebellion and the Undeniable Power of Non-Violent Revolutionary Change

Extinction Rebellion campaigners outside Downing Street on October 8, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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As the environmental campaigning group Extinction Rebellion begins the second week of its International Rebellion, it is worth reflecting on how much they — and the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who initiated a rolling global climate strike by schoolchildren that, last month, saw millions of schoolchildren and supportive adults take to the streets in 185 countries around the world — have shifted the terms of the debate on climate change over the last twelve months.

As the Guardian explained in an editorial last week, “Ipsos Mori reports that its latest poll found that 78% of Britons believe the planet is ‘heading for disaster’, up from 59% in 2013.” The actions of Thunberg and XR amplifyied the messages of doom put forward by scientists — in particular, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report, last October, in which, as the Guardian described it, “The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years [now just eleven] for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”, adding added that “urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target”, which they called “affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the [2015] Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.” Since then, the doomsday message has been reinforced by the likes of Sir David Attenborough, via his hard-hitting BBC documentary, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, and the combined weight of all these actions has led politicians to acknowledge the scale of the unprecedented man-made crisis faced by the whole of humanity.

Under Theresa May, the UK government declared a climate emergency and committed to a 2050 target for zero carbon emissions, and last month the Labour party conference took an important additional step, adopting 2030 as the intended zero carbon date.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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