It was just before three o’clock on Sunday morning in Tunisia when the 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won a gold medal in the 400 metre freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. But it seemed as if the whole of Tunisia had stayed up to watch. Videos of his coach’s celebration dance and his cheering family went viral. Hafnaoui wasn’t expected to win. He had barely qualified for the race and was competing in an outside lane, which may put swimmers at a slight physical disadvantage (from the waves splashing off the wall) as well as a psychological one. He also comes from a country of empty swimming pools.
There was an illegal demonstration for Palestine in northern Paris on Sunday, 15 May. It was quelled by 4200 police officers under the command of the city’s police chief, Didier Lallement. Protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza had been banned on the direct order of President Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. They might be composed of ‘risky elements’, Darmanin warned. He asked the police to be ‘particularly vigilant and firm’.
The first demonstration against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill took place in Bristol on 21 March. It has been followed by demos in cities from Brighton to Manchester, and further protests in Bristol. Over the Easter weekend there was a carnival atmosphere, with dancing on College Green, festive drums, and flowers around an impromptu memorial for Sarah Everard.
In the run up to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I was, as a doctor, concerned about whether mass protests were the right thing to do. We know that mass gatherings with lots of shouting invariably lead to localised outbreaks, especially for a virus as contagious as Sars-CoV-2. Did I really want my patients and colleagues putting themselves at even more risk? Is this really in the interests of people of colour, especially when they are between two and four times more likely to die from the coronavirus? My most immediate worry is my parents; they are precisely the right (or wrong) demographic to suffer badly from this virus. As my social life and travel shrank over the first weeks of lockdown, I urged them to take it seriously and stay at home. They reminded me that this is how they’ve always lived; the pandemic has not changed much for them. They have always been in lockdown.
Two photographs have come to define Saturday’s demonstrations in London: one of a Black man, Patrick Hutchinson, rescuing a white far-right protester, apparently from death; the other of a far-right protester, Andrew Banks, caught with his pants down, urinating next to the memorial for PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed to death in the Westminster terror attack of 2017. Both photographs, and the ways they have been framed by politicians and the media, invite a moral (and nominally apolitical) judgment, asking us to draw conclusions about the two men’s contrasting characters. Hutchinson’s actions – and his impressive strength and stature – are an expression of a heroic, cool and noble masculinity. Banks, on the other hand, is at once an anti-patriot and an ugly embodiment of Little England: boorish, vulgar and, in the words of Keir Starmer, ‘beneath contempt’.
I talked with a small group of long-term anti-racist activists and we all agreed it was more important than ever to go out on the 13th. Why should we let the far right dictate to us when we could march? Isn’t the whole point of anti-racism to confront racists? How could we let fascists swagger around unchallenged in the streets of London?
At a protest in Louisville, Kentucky, last month – the city where Breonna Taylor was murdered by police on 13 March – Chanelle Helm, a leading organiser in the local Black Lives Matter group, turned to the white protesters with a loudhailer. ‘If you are going to be here,’ she said, ‘you should defend this space.’
The white protesters – most of them women – linked arms and formed a line between the black protestors and the police. Tim Druck, a local photographer, took a picture. It went viral after the Kentucky National Organisation for Women and other groups shared it on social media.
Another tweet that went viral at the end of May was by Virgil Cent:
I think the craziest thing I witnessed today on the frontlines was Black People yelling ‘White Shield’ when the police were blocking and pushing us back
The white people moved to the front and protected us + the cops became less violent like wow wtf
However much the media and public officials love to describe contemporary events – whatever they may be – as ‘unprecedented’, when it comes to protest in America there is exactly one precedent: the civil rights movement. That has proven true yet again this week.
In eight years of going on protests in London, I’ve never seen the Met Police caught so off-guard by a march of predominantly black and brown youth. Clearly they misjudged how much we care.
When my son, who’s 19, called from Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was watching the livestream of protesters defying curfew there for the second night in a row, and listening to young people dry heave, like my students in Colombia, from the tear gas. Because he has first-aid training for mountaineering, my son was volunteering in a medical tent clearly identified with a red cross, but the state police fired on them with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and he and his friends hoofed it home. The real medics told him to stay in for the night. It was going to get rough.
Since last September, Monday to Friday, City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country. XR court supporters are on hand with vegan snacks, hugs and advice, within limits. We’re not legally trained but we’re learning, recording arguments and outcomes, watching for patterns. It’s gumming up the system: the trials, single or in batches, may occupy all three courtrooms all day. At the end, the district judge typically commends the defendants for their high-minded unselfishness (a pleasant change, one said, from the usual lot), expresses personal sympathy with their concerns – and finds them guilty as charged.
Protesting against Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK is, first, an act of elementary political hygiene: a refusal to endorse the British government’s eager servility to the United States, and a rejection of the politics of the president and his various global allies. Trump provokes a curious mixture of fascination and repulsion, however, and the reasons for protest go beyond a rejection of the current US government, to a sense that Trump presages a new and dangerous way of doing politics.
The recent spate of milkshake protests against the far right began in Warrington on 2 May. A young Asian man was being harassed by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’, formerly of the BNP and EDL, now Ukip). As henchmen bristled around him, he defended himself with what came to hand. Yaxley-Lennon got another dousing in Wigan the next day, and Nigel Farage caught a banana and salted caramel coating in Newcastle earlier this week. Various professional hyperventilators have decried the apparent coarsening of British politics and predicted a rapid skate down a slippery slope. But this form of grassroots censure has a long history. George Eliot wrote of Mr Brooke being ‘disagreeably anointed’ under a ‘hail of eggs’ while campaigning in Middlemarch.
1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest.
In a world where the 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 per cent, you might have expected to see massive protests outside the Kongresszentrum in Davos this week. Over the past ten years, however, the once thriving mobilisation against the World Economic Forum has lost steam. ‘We’ve witnessed a slump,’ Mélinda Tschanz told me. She belongs to the Swiss chapter of ATTAC, an ‘alter-globalisation’ organisation founded in 1998. ‘“What happened?” is a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately.’
The Stansted 15 – non-violent protesters who stopped an aircraft taking off with deportees to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone in March 2017 – have joined the ranks of highly motivated people willing to risk jail to stop a perceived injustice. The passengers on the flight included deportees who were subject to the Home Office’s then policy of ‘deport first, appeal later’, which the Supreme Court later ruled to be unlawful. The 15 got through the airport fence and blocked the path of the plane, causing the flight to be cancelled. Some of the deportees subsequently won the right to remain the UK. The 15 were found guilty under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 of ‘disrup[ting] the services of … an aerodrome, in such a way as to endanger or be likely to endanger the safe operation of the aerodrome or the safety of persons at the aerodrome’. They are awaiting sentence. The maximum is life imprisonment, but the question for the court is likely to be whether to give them a prison sentence at all.
A small crowd gathered on Saturday outside the Ministry of Defence in Westminster, just across from Downing Street, for the second iteration of the March for Science. Last year’s event, which nucleated around the specific threat posed to American scientists by the incoming Trump administration, drew tens of thousands of people to Washington DC, and more than a million more across 200 cities worldwide. The number in London was reported to be 10,000. This year there were fewer than a hundred.
Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.
The unrest in Iran is in several ways unprecedented. Until last week, all the nationwide protests since the revolution either began in Tehran before spreading to other cities, or erupted simultaneously in Tehran and elsewhere. Events in the capital were the driving force in political upheavals. This time, however, people in small towns took to the streets before Tehranis. The front lines are far from the capital, university hubs and other sites of political or economic power. The protests were started by the most marginalised Iranians.
It was snowing heavily, in New York’s first real snowstorm of the winter, and the women leading the demonstration at Columbus Circle had to cover their microphones with plastic bags to keep them from getting wet, muffling their chants. There were roughly 150 protesters standing with hunched shoulders while fat snowflakes dampened their caps. Their signs had pictures of growling pussycats and the ♀ symbol with a clenched fist in the centre. A woman with facial piercings had draped a large sheet over her shoulders: on the back, it was embroidered with the words ‘CUNT QUILT’, along with a diagram of a uterus made from pink and red underwear.
Colourful banners hang from the balconies of Bowater House: 'Under London, heaven's light, grow life, not loot,' one of the 21 slogans says. Another: 'One day will this shadow fall.' The building is part of the Golden Lane Estate, a Grade II-listed social housing complex designed in the 1950s and built on a bomb site in the City of London. Bernard Morgan House opposite is shrouded in white sheets bearing the logo 'Taylor Wimpey'. The developer is about to demolish the building, which housed key workers between 1960 and 2015, and replace it with a 10-storey luxury block called The Denizen.
On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.
'I'll interview you in a minute,' a man with a dictaphone said to me at the entrance to the Science Museum on Saturday. A sociologist from Brunel University, he was there to conduct field research, asking people why they were on the March for Science. The crowd – archaeologists and neuroscientists, physicists and psychologists, academics and the 'sci-curious' – was quieter than the average London protest, chanting occasionally: 'What do we want? Evidence-based research. When do we want it? After peer review.'
Last year, an organisation called Protest Planned Parenthood, or #ProtestPP, put out a call to people opposed to abortion to demonstrate outside Planned Parenthood clinics across the US. The message went out through pro-life networks, conservative social media, churches and local Republican Party organisations; by 11 February, the scheduled day of the protests, more than 120 anti-abortion demonstrations had been organised in 45 states – no clinic left behind. Pro-choice Americans vowed to turn out too. On Saturday, many thousands of people went out to do in person what they typically only do online: argue with strangers about politics.
The queue to get onto the train at Howard University subway station stretched all the way up the stairs and onto the street. As I approached, women began to turn around, looking at us and shaking their heads: ‘Don’t bother.’ I decided to walk the two miles to the National Mall. Washington DC is hard to navigate; it is laid out in a series of pinwheels designed to be difficult to invade, and many areas are geoblocked, turning the map on my phone into a blank. But there was only one direction that anyone was walking. Protesters held signs and wore ‘pussy hats’; pink, mostly handmade, with points on the top like cat ears. A lot of us were carrying clear plastic backpacks with granola bars and bottles of water; fabric bags weren’t allowed because they are too easy to hide a bomb in.
The bank windows had been smashed. On a surviving pane, held with a star of white masking tape, there was an image of a girl in a white T-shirt and jeans shouting ‘Rêve Générale’ into a loudhailer, a new interpretation of the old call for a ‘Grève Générale’. Instead of a general strike, or as well as one, a communal dream. Every evening since 31 March, when there was a protest against proposed labour law reforms, there have been gatherings at place de la République in Paris to discuss new ways of doing politics, or at least of resisting the old ways.
‘Some people are going to have a problem with that flag,’ a man said to me as we marched down Piccadilly on Saturday. He was talking about the flag of the Syrian National Coalition: green, white and black, with three red stars. A Syrian refugee recently arrived in Britain, he said the flag didn't represent Christians or Kurds, and that he hoped the protesters 'support all civilians'.
‘Does it look big?’ an elderly woman asked me, craning her neck to see down the street. ‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied, thinking she might be worried about getting to the Tube. ‘Good,’ she said. Like thousands of others, she was in London on Saturday for the national anti-austerity demonstration organised by the People’s Assembly. As we marched from the Bank of England to Parliament Square, the crowd kept growing.
It looked like the last day of term outside Hong Kong's Admiralty station this morning as dozens of youngsters carried their rucksacks, boxes and blankets to the entrance. Across the road it looked like the last day of Glastonbury, people packing up their tents or sitting around. The main site of Occupy Central, a movement demanding ‘genuine universal suffrage’ for the 2017 Hong Kong election, was being cleared after 74 days of civil disobedience.
‘We live in a post-racial society,’ Obama enthused, referring to his own victory, soon after entering the White House. It sounded hollow at the time, though many wanted to believe it. Nobody does today. Not even Toni Morrison. But the response of tens of thousands of young US citizens to the recent outrages in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York is much more important and interesting than the vapours being emitted in DC.
University fees are a dead issue from the point of view of the major political parties. But the last year has seen the development of a new student protest movement that attempts to move beyond the question of fees to the broader logic of the Browne Report. Local campaigns to pay a living wage to support staff have merged with calls for flatter top-to-bottom wage ratios and a reshaped, democratic university administration involving students and academics as well as managers. It's nothing to match the size and anger of 2010, but the movement possesses something like its reanimated spirit – together with the usual attachment of the British left to heroic defeat.
On Wednesday 29 January, 150 students from around the country met at Birmingham University to discuss the next steps in their campaigns against the privatisation of education, outsourcing of university services and selling off of student debt. After the meeting, the students picked up red and black flags, put on masks and marched around the campus. Some unfurled a banner from the top of Old Joe, the university's clock tower named after Joseph Chamberlain. Others spray painted and chalked slogans onto the red brick walls: 'Occupy, Strike, Resist'; 'No more 1984.' When protesters tried to enter university buildings, security tried to stop them. There was some pushing and shoving. Soon the police arrived. A university spokesperson later said that 'the university had no choice but to ask the police for assistance in restoring order and protecting students, staff and university property.'
Last Wednesday a peaceful occupation of Senate House in protest against outsourcing and privatisation at the University of London was broken up by force by university security and police. Security pulled and pushed students to the ground and dragged them out of the building, where around 100 police were waiting, holding off a crowd that had gathered in support of those inside. An officer punched a student in the face. Some were violently bundled to the ground and arrested. Protesters blocked the street as the police tried to drive those they’d arrested away. A woman was thrown to the ground screaming and her friends told they’d be arrested if they tried to help her.
Outrage over Ukraine. Demonstrators blockade the government headquarters in protest against the government. The prime minster causes further offence by referring to the demonstrators as 'Nazis and criminals'. The government then tries to close down protest using force. John Kerry expresses 'disgust'. Less outrage over Spain, where the conservative government is to introduce legislation to forbid, among other things, unauthorised demonstrations outside government headquarters.
When Trenton Oldfield disrupted the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race last year, he knew his protest against ‘unjust inequalities in British society’ was illegal, but couldn't have foreseen the full extent of its fallout. He was initially charged with disorderly behaviour, but the Crown Prosecution Service – eager to deter protesters in the run-up to the Olympics – upgraded the charge to public nuisance. Sentencing Oldfield to six months in prison, the judge called his actions 'disproportionate', a word that could be applied to the decision itself.
On 4 December, the University of London was granted an injunction from the High Court that prohibits ‘persons unknown (including students of the University of London) from ‘entering or remaining upon the campus and buildings of University of London for the purpose of occupational protest action’ for the next six months. Many such injunctions have been granted to universities across the country over the past four years, with increasing frequency and ever wider restrictions on student protest. In this case, the University of London argued that the occupation of Senate House threatened the liberty and freedom of senior university personnel, and presented a risk of damage to property, despite assurances from the occupiers that staff were free to come and go from the building and no such damage would occur. The eventual eviction of the occupiers was rough and violent. On 5 December, 35 students were arrested and several of them detained overnight. Some were assaulted by the police.