Assembly for Me, but Not for Thee
"The truth – and it’s a disturbing one – seems to be that they thought these restrictions were not for people like them. Not really"
There were two disturbing things about the scuffles at the Sarah Everard vigil. The first was the behaviour of the cops. The second was the shock of some of the attendees and of the high-profile feminists, columnists and politicians who were cheering them on, who genuinely could not believe that their public assembly was being assaulted and dispersed.These people seem to think that lockdown measures don’t apply to them. That the authoritarianism of the past 12 months that many of them demanded and celebrated is for other people, little people, those people whose views and beliefs and right to assemble are not nearly as important as ours. Saturday’s depressing spectacle illustrated just how out of touch both the Met Police and the chattering classes are in 2021.
The actions of the police were despicable. This was a gathering mainly of women, who wanted to show their sorrow for Sarah Everard and their opposition to male violence. And what did the cops, many of them burly men, do? They manhandled the women. They dragged them away from where they were laying flowers and paying their respects. They threw some of them to the ground, arrested others, tried to break up this act of public mourning and of public defiance. It was some of the most boneheaded, tone-deaf policing we have seen in recent years. The images of Met officers attacking women who were expressing anger over the alleged murder of a woman by a Met officer have sent shockwaves around the world. No wonder people are calling for Cressida Dick to stand down.
But the response of the opinion-forming set to this bully-boy assault on a peaceful public assembly has been striking, too. There has been shock and disgust, rightly. And yet much of it has come from politicos and commentators who spent much of the past year demanding tighter authoritarian controls on people’s right to gather in public. Some of it has come from MPs who voted for these controls. Even the home secretary, Priti Patel, overseer of the stifling, liberty-crushing emergency laws we currently live under, who is now trying to push through permanent, post-Covid restrictions on the right to protest, has expressed angst about what happened on Saturday. I’m sorry, you cannot applaud the construction of an authoritarian state of the like we have never seen in the UK and then be surprised by its consequences. At least not if you want to be taken seriously.
From the right to the left, there has been condemnation of the cops’ assault on the Everard vigil. Yet from the same right to the same left there was widespread support over the past year for placing the population under something akin to house arrest and severely restricting our right to meet other people in public. Whether it was the Corbynista left crying for ever-tighter clampdowns on what we were allowed to do (their chief criticism of Boris Johnson is that he was never quite authoritarian enough), or the soft Tory set who have raged against ‘Covidiots’ and ‘Covid denialists’ (by which they mean anyone who suggests there might be better alternatives to lockdown), there was a depressing consensus among political influencers about the need to suspend fundamental civil liberties in the name of keeping people safe from disease.
Those of us who warned that this would damage democratic life, that we should think very seriously indeed before giving cops the leeway to break up peaceful protests and citizens’ assemblies, were written off as cranks who wanted the virus to ‘let rip’. Yet we were right. The events on Saturday are the dire result of elevating ‘Covid safety’ above everything else, even the age-old right to safely meet with others in public in order to register your dissatisfaction or anger with the government, the establishment or the police. There is a question that must be answered by many of the great and good expressing alarm over what happened on Saturday: did you think it was possible to create a police state without the police behaving in this manner? Are you serious?
The truth – and it’s a disturbing one – seems to be that they thought these restrictions were not for people like them. Not really. The horror of these mostly middle-class campaigners gives away their sense of entitlement. Covid clampdowns – those are for riff-raff like anti-lockdown protesters, right? And for Hasidic Jewish weddings? And for gangs of working-class football fans, like those Rangers fans who gathered in public a couple of weeks ago and who were roundly, furiously condemned by some of the same people currently in a state of shock that their public assembly was shut down on Saturday. Right?
Surely these unprecedented measures are for other people, for evil lockdown sceptics or lower-class sports-lovers, not for refined politicos like us. Not for feminists concerned about male violence, or middle-class graduates who support BLM and XR (their recent public gatherings were backed by the media elites, too).
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Britain has descended into authoritarianism over the past 12 months, it seems some influential people believe this authoritarianism should be enforced in a very partisan way. Assembly for me, but not for thee. Disease-control measures are for them, not us.
The thing is that some of ‘them’, some of the supposedly problematic people, warned you that this would happen. We warned you that sacrificing liberty at the altar of safety would harm public life and throttle the democratic right to register our concerns as a citizenry. That’s what happened on Saturday, just as we said it would.