Saturday 23rd May 2020 Time: 13:46 onwards
Open public space, The Embankment,
River Thames outside New Scotland Yard, London England.
The police have been instructed to engage with any public protest for education and not to immediately arrest. This window of opportunity provides a chance to capture valuable experiential data to help understand the nature and effect of the Lockdown in context of the underlying beliefs of those participants during each episode of engagement. In this episode I discovered that the London Metropolitan Police think that political protest is now “illegal” as decreed by Parliament. Police said told me that “protest” is not a "necessity" like queuing for "food". This hinges on the fact that the police can use the definition of a ‘gathering’ within the Lockdown rules to stifle dissent and stop people talking to strangers in a public space [‘rules’ define ‘gathering’ as: ‘no more than 2 people unless from your household +1 member of another household’]. During this particular engagement described below the police were forceful, meaning polite, and directive, leaving no ambiguity, which, in turn, left no room for negotiating and maneuvering. The police told me at the start of the engagement not to video record in a public space. They said I could video record on my way home. This engagement implies that because of a ‘virus’ the police are saying our rights have now disappeared except outside Sainsbury’s.
PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION 2
Theme: Participant Witness
Sub-theme "My Own Oppression"
Date: Saturday 23rd May 2020
Time: 13:46 onwards
Open public space, The Embankment, River Thames outside New Scotland Yard, London England.
‘Location’: Anti-Lockdown; ‘science critical’
Saw My Interaction with Two Officers. Did Not Hear Interaction. Employed, male colleague mid-40’s professional; no relation; only ‘conflict of interest’: same political location.
Female mid-50s elegant; saw interaction; reckoned police <2metres from me; no relation; only ‘conflict of interest’: same political location.
My notes below written within two hours of incident; validated; some video footage of male witness having similar interaction; sound poor.
Instructed by police not to video record in an open public space. My notes below were written within two hours of incident on 23/05/2020; given to the above witnesses for validation and revised on 24/05/2020. Minor revisions were made to the account on 24/05/2020. Coding: [inserted when writing the account];(thoughts/idea etc recollected at that time – ‘in the moment’).
Protesters milling around New Scotland Yard on The Embankment. Last night's street sleepers all sit askew, look dazed. It was sunny. I felt cold. I'm videoing and taking pictures [one only, still a ruse] via my Lumix camera. I counted about twenty-five (n=25) mixed sex uniformed London Metropolitan Police Officers sweeping towards us from the direction of Embankment Underground Station towards Westminster Bridge. Six (n=6) white police vans left and right blocking the road. Looks like they knew we were coming, how? Made to feel we have to move to keep ahead of the approaching police. (It feels threatening to me I don't know why, it just makes me feel I'm doing something wrong, am I? Wished I hadn’t come here. I feel sick not a bad person (?) I recall in my mind's eye the Miners’ Strike, why does that image come to me, I was never involved also recall fleetingly Alfred Hitchcock horror film director's key fear was of the Police, again why?) No time to think. Their police sense has observed we are "assembling". How? Not walking quickly enough for them?
As the wave of Officers reaches us I'm hopelessly fumbling trying to point my Lumix towards The Wheel badly feigning tourism. Too late. Didn't work. Female co-protester stopped. Has her cellphone blocked by female police just as they reach us.
Two male Officers get straight to me. I realize my back now against the wall. Thames behind me. I'm looking straight up at them. Gleaming New Scotland Yard as backdrop. Quickly put another intrusive thought out my mind: didn't the suffragettes chain themselves around here then plant bombs why female heroine not Terminator (all bad thoughts quickly suppressed).
I'm thinking what have I done? I need the toilet now. They're taller than me. Bigger. I'm looking up at them. Oh dear, here we go. Okay, I try to find the start button. My rehearsal (where is it?)
One [less tall] Officer speaks. Other [taller] is silent, viewing me as 'suspect' (I'm thinking fast) both bearded:
"We've noticed this looks like an assembly, where are you going? You can't film here, turn that off'
[untrue; totally legal to film]
I foolishly comply worried he'd try to grab it. He’s seen me with others with placard so no tourist; no sign of protest on me; suspect by association.
"I'm here to protest the Lockdown as it's unjust and the science behind it too is not properly peer reviewed and it was all accepted too quickly by the government. You've been given a lot of propaganda. But I understand your position as you're agents of the state, my state, and have been given a difficult job of enforcing the unenforceable".
Officers both smile. Thinking I'm a ‘nutter’. Or worse (another intrusive thought: is it worse than madness to be someone against the Lockdown? Oh yes must be look at them looking at me. Stopped that thought.)
No response to the ‘science’ issues [oh what a surprise went down like a proverbial]. But
Officer 1 says:
"You can't protest it's illegal. You need to go home now. I'm warning you."
"What if I won't go home?"
Officer 1 takes some seconds to reply; does without recourse to Officer 2 (stationary smiling looking at sky):
"We hope you will or we will fine you or maybe have to arrest you. Now, we think you should go home Sir"
"Arrest me? But can I not go to a park with him not in my household (I'm pointing to a male colleague watching on)?"
"Well you've had your exercise now haven't you, as we've seen you walking along here, so we can ask you to go home now. That's the rules. Where do you live?"
"Well that's the other direction now to where we saw you headed. So you need to go back that way to home."
(Felt like I was wasting the ‘opportunity’ – the engagement. No wiggle room. Time felt ticking by. Rehearsal useless. Auto-pilot on. My "last best" effort, a question to the officer):
"Okay I fully understand and will go, but can I ask you something first, as I know you are engaging with me as Cressida Dick (their boss) says, and I really appreciate that"
Officer 1 smiles and relents, “yes fine”. Phew. Stand down. I disclose health care background. Not interested. Impervious.
“What do you want?”
"Can you answer me this. I can queue outside Sainsbury's socially distant and talk to strangers there can't I?"
The officer replied:
"That's not the same. The government allows you to do that because it's a necessity to get food."
"But why can't I protest like just talk about the Lockdown here on the Embankment and to strangers socially distant as now, just like at Sainsbury's? Food is not the only necessity"
Officer 1 replied:
"Not the same. Parliament has decreed that political protest is not a necessity like queuing for food. You need to eat. You don't need to protest."
"So what you're saying is, I can talk only when queuing for food, but I can't talk here outside New Scotland Yard about what I think is wrong with the Lockdown right?"
Officer 1 (getting visibly bit pissed off):
"Yes that's what parliament has said protesting isn't needed as people are dying. So you need to go home now. We are able to instruct you to do that."
“So I cannot talk here even though socially distant to others about what I feel about the Lockdown even though socially distant but I can talk critically to others socially distant in the queue at Sainsbury’s [Officer 1 starts talking], is that what you are saying?”
Officer 1 visibly irritated talking louder over the last part of my last sentence:
“What I’m saying is that you cannot protest here. You have been warned to move on and go home. You could have it and give it to anyone here. You could kill someone”
“But I have no symptoms, I’m well, and the tests aren’t always accurate anyway...(Officer 1 cuts in loudly)
Officer 1 gives me no quarter:
“But you don’t if you have it or not do you? No one knows so you could harm these people here. Do you understand, you’re a health person so you should know? Now, you’ve been told to go home!”
Me (impossible to argue, fearing a fine or worse as above):
“Okay I’m going, okay no worries.”
My witness has a separate interaction with the police visibly witnessed by me and partially recorded.
I switch on my Lumix video recorder which records me asking can I record.
Officer 1 says to me
‘You’re going home. You can record on the way home” (I say ‘Okay’ feeling like I’m being instructed)
The containment ‘rules’ say one thing – that people may visit open public space for recreation to support their physical, mental or emotional wellbeing. There is no explicit mention about forbidding talking to strangers whilst so doing or about critically engaging with them about the Lockdown (see ‘Health Protection Amendments’ attached).
Particular views are emerging from the Metropolitan Police when dialogue is possible with them as they enact these rules; see this interview, especially from 34:30 onwards https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SNxvtV7C7g&feature=youtu.be&t=1637.
The police appear to be evidencing ‘over reach’ - interpreting the rules as meaning that ‘political protest’ is banned. ‘Protest’ meaning: talking to strangers critically about the Lockdown, or ‘just talking to strangers’, even when all are undertaken within the social distancing ‘rules’. The latter are not explicitly outlawed by those ‘rules’. https://www.college.police.uk/What-we-do/COVID-19/understanding-the-law/Documents/Health-Protection-Regulations-Amendments-England-changes-130520.pdf
A ‘gathering’ within the Lockdown rules (see above PDF) is defined as “no more than two people unless from the same household" + "one member of another household” - this maybe a key issue because of its ambiguity, even when groups from different households are ‘socially distant’ (as above) they can be defined by police as a ‘gathering’ and banned.
Police behaviour in this limited and anecdotal instance of exercise in an open public space does appear to be based on the government’s ubiquitous contagion message that ‘Anyone Can Have It. Anyone Can Spread It’.
There is also the added issue of being asked to desist from video recording in public.
It could be argued that this over-reach is an unintended consequence of how these rules are enacted and interpreted unless the intention is to outlaw protest.
A further test of this hypothesis would be for family groups to go to any park and to initiate spontaneous dialogue with strangers within the ‘rules’ of social distancing irrespective of political standpoint on the Lockdown and to observe the reaction.
Dr Kevin P. Corbett MSc PhD