On Saturday 7th September, thousands of people gathered in London, the capital city of Great Britain.
Most were tourists and sightseers, or shop workers and customers. A few were drivers, or security guards, or servers and diners, or police and hospital workers.
A tiny percentage were protestors.
There may have been as many as two thousand protestors in total. Maybe more, maybe less.
Of these protestors, a good 90% were protesting against the current government.
Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to prorogue, i.e. suspend, the British Parliament for over a month during a critical phase in Britain’s history was unprecedented. It was widely condemned as anti-democratic, particularly by members of Johnson’s own cabinet barely three months earlier, when Johnson’s now-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab suggested prorogue as a means to force through a No-Deal Brexit.
What followed the prorogue announcement was a lot of behind-closed-doors maneouvring and scheming by politicians on both sides of the debate, as well as mass protests across the country. Pretty much every major city in the United Kingdom (and some outside of it) played host to anti-Prorogue, pro-democracy, #StopTheCoup demonstrations.
The protestors who attended were not universally anti-Brexit. Many were in favour of Britain leaving the EU, but they, as did so many of Johnson’s own party, found this manner of politics, of shutting down a representative democracy, completely unacceptable. And so they took to the streets.
Many protests were immediate, taking place on the evening of the announcement on the 28th of August. They continued over the following days, culminating in the largest protest on Saturday 31st August, in London, outside Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister.
The protest on the 31st August saw thousands and thousands of pro-democracy protestors fill the roadway of Whitehall outside of Downing Street, carrying placards and chanting and singing and declaring, in one voice, their opposition to Prime Minister Johnson’s plans. A stage and sound system was erected at short notice, and speakers took turns to tell their stories and make themselves heard.
The heart of London, one of the world’s major financial hubs, birthplace of Parliamentary democracy, common law and Kiefer Sutherland, echoed with the unified chants of “Stop the coup!” and “You shut down our Parliament, we shut down your streets!” and “Boris! You liar! Get back on your zipwire!”
The atmosphere was simultaneously electric, joyous, familial, and fierce.
It was also safe.
Police presence was minimal. Police arrived in numbers from around 4pm onwards, as protestors peacefully yet defiantly occupied Trafalgar Square roundabout and shut down traffic. However, interactions with officers remained cordial. Three arrests were made, to chants of “Boo!” from the crowd.
I spoke to the first person to be arrested, a woman I’ll call Rebecca for the sake of her privacy. She was an education professional. She had joined the protest despite her moderate views on Brexit – having been willing to accept leaving the EU with a deal. What brought her onto the streets that day was her outrage and disgust at the use of a lengthy suspension of Parliament to shut down the democratic process.
On the Trafalgar Square roundabout, Rebecca stood in the roadway, blocking the passage of traffic along with hundreds of other protestors.
“If you shut down our Parliament, we shut down your streets.”
The police moved in and asked the protestors to clear the roadway. Rebecca refused, but instead sat down.
A female police officer approached Rebecca and told her that if she did not move, she would be arrested. Rebecca informed the police officer that she understood, but that her place was on that roundabout, in an act of civil disobedience, fighting for her democracy.
The police officer told Rebecca that Prime Minister Johnson was not going to change his mind if Rebecca was arrested. That an arrest record would have lasting repercussions on Rebecca’s life and on her career. The police officer told Rebecca that she could either choose to remain and be arrested, or to leave freely without consequence.
Rebecca asked if she could think about it.
The police officer gave Rebecca a few minutes to consider her situation. When the police officer returned, Rebecca informed her “I’m sorry, but I need to stay here.”
She was then arrested, and released a few hours later without charge.
There was no violence. No threats. No blood fell on the pavements of Whitehall.
On Saturday 7th September, thousands of people gathered in in London, the capital city of Great Britain.
A tiny percentage were protestors.
There may have been as many as two thousand protestors in total. Maybe more, maybe less.
Of these protestors, a good 90% were protesting against the current government.
A bad 10% were protesting against the other 90%.
The pro-democracy, anti-prorogue protests were scheduled for 2.30pm on Saturday. By 11.30am, Whitehall was dominated by a heavy police presence. Over a dozen police vans and probably more than 200 police officers were present well before noon. This was in stark contrast to the previous week, where police presence was barely visible except around the gate to Downing Street, and eventually towards the end of the day.
In the run-up to the anti-prorogue demonstration, at around 2pm, opposing pro-Brexit, anti-EU protestors were gathered at the exits to tube stations, shouting and screaming at those they identified as being on their way to the anti-prorogue rally. The targets of their aggression included individuals, groups, and families with children. They typically had half-empty glasses of beer in their hands, though according to one police officer, the beer was mostly for show. These were not drunk hooligans.
Turnout for the anti-prorogue demonstration outside Downing Street was low. As the clock neared 2.30pm, pro-Brexit agitators had already infiltrated the pro-democracy crowd. Some had attempted to disrupt proceedings already, others lingered until later.
At 2.35pm, it was announced that the start of the protest was being pushed back to 3.00pm, due to blockages at both end of the road preventing protestors from reaching the gathering point. These blockages were caused by pro-Brexit agitators disturbing the peace, continuing their harassment of pro-democracy protestors and causing the police to intervene, slowing down entry onto Whitehall. Many pro-democracy protestors were turned away and went home in the face of pro-Brexit aggression and intimidation.
At around 2.45pm, pro-Brexit antagonists began hurrying down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. They chanted “Tommy Robinson” as they went – referencing the far-right founder of the racist organisation the English Defence League. Robinson is also a former member of the fascist British National Party.
These antagonists headed straight down Whitehall towards the pro-Democracy protest, but were intercepted and blocked by a line of police, as can be seen in the video above. They clashed with police for a few moments as, outside Downing Street, pro-Democracy protestors relaxed to the sound of ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’.
After a short span of time, the Tommy Robinson supporters Brexited from their clash with the Metropolitan Police as more officers reinforced the police line. Not long after, speakers at the pro-Democracy rally began their speeches. As can be seen in the video above, pro-Brexit antagonists already in place near the rally began their attempts to agitate the crowd. Police intervened, but not before one Tommy Robinson fan got a literal bloody nose.
Police set up a loose line around the pro-Democracy rally as they opened up Whitehall to traffic, to serve as a barrier between pro-Brexit agitators on the sidelines and the rally in the middle of the road. One antagonist was already inside the crowd and attempted to disrupt proceedings, and was pulled out by police before matters escalated (and before anyone else was hurt).
Speeches continued. Pro-Brexit thugs lingered around the rally talking on their phones, presumably relaying information to other thugs at either end of Whitehall.
The pro-Democracy rally continued undisrupted. Speakers including Diane Abbott, Owen Jones and other prominent pro-Remain voices addressed the crowd passionately. And yes, my language is biased, because I believed in what they were saying. Topics ranged from immigrant rights, anti-racism and anti-hatred, to condemnation of the Tory party and mockery of Boris Johnson, whose short term as Prime Minister had just been marked by successive failures in the Parliament he was about to suspend.
One of the speakers was to be Anna Soubry MP, a Tory rebel who had left her party earlier in 2019 in protest at the Tories’ dedication to Brexit. She did not speak, in the end, or appear at all, and it later emerged that she had cancelled her appearance at the last minute due to threats and intimidation from the same pro-Brexit aggressors who were attempting to shut down the pro-Democracy rally.
It was also made clear that these aggressors were part of the “Democratic Football Lads Alliance” or DFLA – a hard-right, Islamophobic, racist, intolerant splinter gang from the equally appalling Football Lads Alliance (FLA), themselves an offshoot of Tommy Robinson’s English Defence League (EDL), with connections to the militant fascist group Combat 18 and the British National Party.
It’s worth taking that in for a moment. A Member of Parliament and critic of the government was silenced, intentionally, by far-right supporters of that same government.
The same supporters who harassed families on their way to a peaceful rally and who hurled railings at police and who made death threats at pro-Democracy protestors. The same supporters who surrounded and outnumbered small groups of peaceful demonstrators and screamed in the faces of men and women alike.
Even if there is no provable connection between the Tory Party, Boris Johnson, or Dominic Cummings to the DFLA, these thugs were clearly acting to suppress criticism of Johnson and his cabal. And if there is one characteristic of a dictatorship, it is of far-right street gangs intimidating, harassing and silencing opposing political movements.
A few speeches later, further down Whitehall, police officers were hurriedly armouring up. They were pulling on full body armour, legs, arms and torso, and doing so as quickly as they could manage. They then began running down towards Parliament Square, where another group of pro-Brexit, Tommy Robinson-supporting DFLA gang members had broken through the police cordon around their own protest and were now trying to reach the pro-Democracy rally.
They ran as fast as their pasty white legs would carry them, but were again blocked by police a few yards past the Cenotaph – a poignant monument to the cost of hatred and antagonism between European states.
The police formed two lines, one facing down towards Parliament Square, and the other facing the opposite direction, and between these lines the racist assailants were trapped. A handful of DFLA racists attempted to sideline the police and darted down the pavement behind the stone barriers that line the footpath, but were foiled by the heavily-barriered and policed entrance to Downing Street which stood in their way. They sheepishly returned to between the police lines.
Police allowed passage back towards Parliament Square – many tourists and bystanders were also caught between the two lines – but refused access towards Downing Street and the pro-Democracy rally, which, to the best of my knowledge, continued. The pro-Brexit aggressors quickly lost interest as the police further reinforced their lines with more heavily-armoured officers, and they realised that voicing their intolerance mattered less to them than did a few baton-shaped dents in their skulls.
This is where I met Rebecca – sandwiched between the police and surrounded by confused tourists and impotent racists. After her experience last Saturday, Rebecca’s husband had made her promise not to get arrested today, and in a bid to avoid both another another arrest and harassment by bigots, we exited together through the police line towards Parliament Square.
We turned off towards St. James’ Park and then looped back around to Trafalgar Square and the top of Whitehall. Here, the police had formed another line blocking access back down towards Downing Street, and were holding at bay more DFLA gang members.
As Rebecca and I looked on, and debated parting ways and heading home, Max and Nicola, two friends I had met at the previous Saturday’s protest, emerged from the police line, with their friend James in tow. We embraced and reminisced for a moment. I admired Max’s red London Bus body placard and Nicola’s “Dicktator” sign, both decrying Johnson’s anti democratic actions.
The five of us talked quietly with one another, with the police line 40 or 50 yards away, and no other unoccupied police in sight.
With hindsight, this turned out to be an act of negligence on our part.
As we chatted, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded and outnumbered by 8 or 9 DFLA bullies. The circled us and began chanting “Nazi Scum”, along with homophobic and sexist slurs. They screamed in Nicola’s face, berated James continuously and drew attention from other gang members as they did so.
We remained calm. James and Nicola particularly bore the brunt of the harassment, and remained composed despite it all.
One thug came up close behind me and muttered in my ear “I’d move along if I were you, or you’ll end up cut with a stanley knife.”
Another nodded towards my phone as I recorded the incident and said “You know, that won’t protect you.”
Eventually, two police officers intervened and broke the group up. The DFLA attempted to paint us as the instigators, but were broadly ignored.
Nicola and Max headed back towards the police line, followed and harassed and threatened further by the DFLA, and were permitted down Whitehall back towards the pro-Democracy rally. James remained where he was as he spoke with the police. Rebecca made her way back to the tube station as quickly as she could.
Before I left, one DFLA gang member took a photo of me, and said “I’ll bet my network is faster than your network at finding out who you are.”
I left a few moments later.
What struck me later was that at no point did I feel scared during the incident. Uncertain, absolutely, but fear and anxiety didn’t set in until a few minutes later. Immediately, I was more concerned that my phone would run out of battery. As I sat in a Pret to get a drink and recharge my phone, adrenaline faded and fear took a stronger hold.
Max told me that he and Nicola remained with the pro-Democracy rally as they marched up towards Leicester Square. The march was harassed by pro-Brexiters along the way, attempting to circumvent the police escort and start more fights, and spread more terror. The march eventually disbanded, and police advised the protestors to return home in groups to stay safe.
I was shaken after the incident. I was hit with anxiety and depression. It wasn’t even the threats that were made which upset me. I broke into tears a few times on Sunday as I processed what had happened, and what affected me most was the sheer unfiltered aggression that the DFLA had displayed towards us.
These were not drunkards trying to compensate for their insecurities, and neither were they cornered victims lashing out. They saw that we were vulnerable, saw an opportunity to hurt us, and they took it, for no reason other than the fact that they know nothing but violence. And in the naivety of an extremely sheltered life, I had never really come face-to-face with that kind of bankruptcy of compassion. TV and movies had taught me that villains had complexity and depth – Saturday taught me that there are people, many, many people, who are terrifyingly incapable of anything but hatred, and that disturbed me more than any of the violence I saw that day.
And our experience was not even the most extreme encounter of that day. Many people were hurt, others were terrified into retreat and hiding.
At the end of it all, the headlines all seemed to paint it as though there was violence from both sides. There seemed almost deliberate vagueness on behalf of the media over who was the source of the violence.
But we knew. We were there. We watched as the pro-Brexit cowards inflicted their hatred and their intolerance wherever they could. At parents and children, at police and civilians, at politicians and protestors.
What really hit home was the fact that this collection of white, middle-aged men – and they were all white, middle-aged men – were acting in the interests of other, much wealthier white middle-aged men in government.
The disruption caused by the racists in London that day served only the interests of the Prime Minister, who was in the middle of his attempts to shut down Parliament and circumvent Democracy.
In so many ways, this mirrored aspects of the rise of fascism in Western history, with Brownshirts silencing critics of Hitler’s Nazis, the Squadristi suppressing Mussolini’s socialist opponents, and Moseley’s Blackshirts violently turning on anti-Fascists at the 1934 Olympia rally.
But that is not the picture the media paints.
Neither Prime Minister Johnson nor any of his cabinet have, to the best of my knowledge, condemned the far-right fearmongers on Saturday. If they do, it seems likely it will be a Trumpian “very fine people on both sides.” Although that may just be my cynicism creeping in.
It’s difficult to be sure exactly why Saturday 7th September was so much more violent and disruptive than Saturday 31st August, there are some events which are linked:
- Prime Minister Johnson’s government refused to rule out breaking the law themselves to force a no-deal Brexit.
- Prime Minister Johnson defied police impartiality conventions and gave a widely-broadcast political speech in front of a wall of police officers. (The speech was supposed to be about police recruitment.)
Symbolism is everything. Johnson, in effect, made two dramatic statements:
- “I am willing to break the law, and the police are on my side.”
- “The police are on my side, and by extension, on the side of everyone who is politically aligned with me.”
It is unquestionable that these implied statements serve to embolden violent, far-right antagonists who are aligned with Johnson’s public record of racism, misogyny and his determination to force through a no-deal Brexit.
And even if there is no tenable connection between the far-right DFLA and the Conservative Party, they were nonetheless acting in Johnson’s interests by silencing his opposition, deterring opposing protestors and even opposition Members of Parliament.
As I write, the government is broadly announcing its increased funding to the police.
As I write, the Conservative Party twitter feed is full of posts characterising all opposition parties and MPs as “enemies of the people”.
As I write, footage is being shared of Dominic Raab declaring the government’s intent to “test the limits”, i.e. ignore, a law enacted by this Parliament to prevent a No-Deal Brexit.
When Ministers and Prime Ministers proudly announce their intent to break the law, use the police as a political tool, paint their opposition as traitors and allow fascists to bully their opponents into silence…
Well, there’s a word for that.
The word is “Authoritarianism.”
And Authorianism means dictatorship. A system of governance where a posh blonde toff speaks, and the rest of us must obey out of fear.
This may all sound dramatic after just one bad Saturday afternoon in London. But we have an election looming, an election in which turnout will be pivotal, and where the winners will be decided likely by just a handful of contested Parliamentary seats.
And those contested seats could be swung by the kind of localised intimidation and harassment around polling stations that we saw outside Downing Street.
If the DFLA and other far-right groups are willing to suppress critics of the government on behalf of the government, would they not also be willing to suppress the vote in favour of the same government?
I am genuinely concerned that, no matter how many defeats Johnson suffers on the green benches of the Commons, no matter how many legal battles his government loses in the British courts, he will nonetheless do as well as he needs to and retain power past the next election.
And if he does, then he suddenly has a mandate for all of the proroguing, the manipulation of the democratic process, and the silencing of his opposition.
Worse would be a Tory coalition with the Brexit party, and the barefaced racism of Nigel Farage and his benighted followers.
Sadly, I can think of nothing more cynically British than an Etonian dictator, propped up by a lager-swilling Eurosceptic, their will enforced by violent football hooligans.