From the second I used to be directed to Tommy Robinson’s livestream of an ongoing trial in Leeds, I puzzled how lengthy he would final. He had already acquired one suspended sentence for contempt of court docket for a earlier livestream outdoors one other ongoing trial, and it appeared he was at risk of falling foul of the regulation once more.
Nonetheless, I proceeded to observe: I really feel no disgrace in admitting that the sagas of Tommy Robinson are, if nothing else, compelling viewing. Furthermore, I’m a barrister by coaching and I wished to see how this livestream would finish. And finish it did. Virtually an hour and fifteen minutes in, Robinson was arrested by police for inflicting a breach of the peace.
The livestream was, for probably the most half, uneventful, though it did embody one weird phase wherein Robinson branched right into a little bit of improvisational comedy in regards to the wet climate, and the way he ought to have introduced his flip-flops. However by the top of the stream, nobody was laughing, least of all Robinson.
In its aftermath, the person who maybe likes to see himself because the enfant horrible of recent Britain was sentenced to a complete of 13 months in jail (10 months for the newest contempt of court docket, plus the three which had been beforehand been suspended for the sooner offence).
It must be famous that he pleaded responsible. Nonetheless, nearly as quickly because the news of his imprisonment grew to become public, the protests started.
The incident I’ve described could be pretty unremarkable if it weren’t for the person at its centre. Individuals are very often jailed for contempt of court docket; suspended sentence orders are pretty recurrently breached, and other people go to jail for such breaches.
Unusually, this case was initially topic to a reporting restriction, which might successfully have stored information of Robinson’s trial and imprisonment out of the media. Holding legal trials in digicam may be worrying signal for justice and free speech, though this determination was finally overturned after an attraction by The Impartial and Leeds Stay.
The explanation for the imposition initially of a reporting ban was based mostly on a form of logic (albeit flawed): a worry that protection of Robinson’s case would draw consideration to his contempt, and doubtlessly enhance the chance of prejudice to the trial he had been livestreaming which was additionally topic to a reporting restriction.
In that case, nevertheless, the existence of an order stopping data being revealed or mentioned past the courtroom was hardly exceptional. Restrictions on media protection of ongoing trials, particularly involving a number of defendants and a number of units of proceedings trials, is common follow. The concept promoted by Robinson and his followers, that the reporting restriction (which is able to likely be lifted as soon as all related trials are concluded) is an try to hold the general public at midnight, is plainly mistaken.
Nonetheless, the person born as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has championed himself as a defender of freedom and a voice for the unvoiced. As his web site proclaims, he’s “preventing for the forgotten folks of the UK”. The web site opens with the road, “The reality needs to be instructed. I can’t do it with out you”.
Because the loud public protests throughout the UK have proven, Stephen/Tommy has morphed from a staunch critic of Islam to changing into the torchbearer for a big, largely white, portion of the UK inhabitants which feels marginalised by what it regards as an out of contact, liberal elite. For his supporters, Robinson’s jailing is proof that the institution is out to cease him.
The big rallies which have taken place following his imprisonment have typically been violent: held underneath a sea of Union Jacks and accompanied by chants of Tommy Robinson’s title. A vacuum has been left by British society’s obvious incapability to talk about sure points, and it’s this hole which Tommy Robinson has rushed to fill, all weapons blazing: the recalcitrant lad from Luton, seamlessly shifting from Newsnight’s BBC studios to jail cells; from the Oxford Union and again to pound the pavement of his dwelling city, the place he started as a soccer hooligan.
Prefer it or not, Robinson seems to have tapped right into a sure sentiment that’s prevalent amongst a proportion of our society.
It was to attempt to perceive the explanations for this attraction that I attended a “free speech” occasion that Robinson “headlined” in Audio system Nook three months in the past. This was earlier than the livestream. Earlier than the newest rounds of protest. Earlier than his newest imprisonment. However trying again, it feels unsurprising that issues ought to have turned out like they’ve.
So, let me inform you a couple of speech I didn’t get an opportunity to listen to. The date was 18 March 2018 and the venue was Audio system’ Nook. I had final trodden right here in 2004, as an earnest `Eight-year-old, and in a diary entry famous how “there was a surprisingly vibrant and dynamic… ambiance”. Quick ahead 14 years and it was neither vibrant nor dynamic. It was claustrophobic and ugly.
The explanation for the throngs of journalists – though surprisingly little protection within the information – together with a number of dozen police and lots of of onlookers, was the presence of Tommy Robinson, there to read a speech by Martin Sellner, chief of Austria’s “Era Identification” motion.
There had been little discover of the occasion within the mainstream press, however Tommy Robinson’s supporters, his opponents, freelance journalists like myself and the inquisitive had been made conscious of it on social media. And we attended.
The sheer variety of folks there from all sides of the controversy illustrated the facility of Twitter, of Fb, and of those that may very well be termed the “unlikely celebrities” of the WhatsApp age to tug a crowd. Tommy Robinson is one such celeb. As are Mohammad Hijab and Ali Dawah (each YouTubers who have been additionally in attendance, and whose views are slightly totally different to these of Robinson).
Sadly, I didn’t get to listen to what any of those three folks mentioned. However then once more, little was mentioned – little was debated. The irony will not be misplaced that in Audio system’ Nook, there was little or no speech on that bitterly chilly Sunday.
From the beginning of the occasion, the ambiance was obnoxious and febrile. I had managed to push as near the entrance as I may, till I got here up in opposition to the primary line of the police cordon. Then there was a “sterile zone” after which one other cordon. Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes flutter to my proper, chants of “Takbir, Allah hu Akbar!” are heard to my left.
I flip and see punches being thrown. We, the group, surge again; others surge ahead. Tommy Robinson may be seen within the (close to) distance, held nearly in a bearhug by his personal safety. “He has his personal safety,” I blurt out. “He wants it,” says another person.
Extra spiritual chants. Extra boos. Extra punches thrown – we surge ahead, then again. By this time, Tommy Robinson has begun talking, however can’t not be heard.
The police don’t let the group advance additional. Two males subsequent to me sq. up – two others start shouting in one another’s faces. One insults the opposite’s mum; there’s swearing, cursing, spitting. Extra shoving, pushing – we surge ahead, then again: a sample that’s acquainted by now. The police bundle a person away.
By now, the group is getting more and more stressed. Some begin chanting, “Free Speech!”; others, “Tommy Tommy Tommy Robinson Oohh Tommy Tommy!”; others boo. I’m nonetheless standing, making an attempt to report on a speech I can’t hear. Tommy Robinson concludes this barely audible speech by saying he will likely be again in Audio system’ Nook subsequent Sunday.
“Police conspiracy! They don’t need us to listen to him!” somebody shouts. “The precise cause we’re right here is to let him communicate,” replies a policewoman.
Tommy Robinson disappears nearly as quickly as he appeared, as does Mohammad Hijab, one of many key figures within the opposing group. Their supporters and adversaries, foes and acolytes, linger like a pissed off sea of deserted youngsters whereas the remainder of us – the writers, the spectators, the inquisitive, the excuse-makers, the bewildered – merely stare forward, hemmed in by the crowds.
Extra insults fly, and a few protestors placed on balaclavas. The police shut off some extra exits as extra harsh phrases are exchanged. The standard audio system of Audio system’ Nook – the pious, the proselytisers, the agitators – all appear to have been overshadowed by the enormity of the occasion. Some arrange their stools and ladders, some take out their Bibles and Qur’ans, however the eyes of tourists reminiscent of myself as nonetheless distracted.
I see a discarded, forlorn placard close by: “THE WORDS I CHOOSE ARE THE WORDS I’LL USE”. A middle-aged lady stands earlier than me with a small poster with the image of a clenched fist: “Free Speech is a Civil Proper”. There may be one other discarded signal on the bottom, partially hid by a person’s foot, which reads: “I WILL HATE WHAT I WANT”.
Hate. No banners proclaiming Warfare is Over (it isn’t). No placards asking us to offer peace an opportunity (fats probability). It appears we’ve been there, executed that. Now there may be simply time for hate.
The snow begins to fall, and it’s much more bitterly chilly. I’m uninterested in standing, uninterested in the cordons, uninterested in the futility of all of it. Just a few discussions begin to happen, however once more, these quickly come right down to insults. In 2004, I famous in my diary how “spontaneous debates abound in Audio system’ Nook, one thing so elementary to a working democracy”. However I don’t really feel like that this time.
Somebody palms me a duplicate of the speech Tommy Robinson was meant to have (and presumably did) learn out, although I couldn’t hear it.
Then once more, at the present time was by no means nearly one man, about one speech. I believed that by attending I may see how the land lies – the state we’re in. As I start to consider leaving, I can hear the standard subjects and tropes: immigration, integration, grooming gangs, the warfare in Iraq, Christianity, Islam, Jesus, Muhammad, Brexit.
I don’t actually get an opportunity to catch any of the arguments, however then once more, not many arguments are being made. Simply shouts. And chants. Right here, within the divided, United Kingdom.
Once I look again on the occasions of three months in the past, I’m struck by how symbolic the entire day was of the polarised state of play in modern Nice Britain. Certainly, inspecting the reactions to the day of the varied events, all sides thought that they’d gained.
Tommy Robinson, in his livestream from Leeds, proudly declared: “Now we have given delivery once more to the free speech centre of Audio system’ Nook.” Counter-protestors, too, spoke proudly of how they’d disrupted the occasion, chanting above the speeches they didn’t need aired.
Either side, then, gained in their very own minds. However in actuality, all of us misplaced. Now we have now created a vacuum wherein the polemicists, the extremists, the contrarians can all declare victory by shouting, or booing, the loudest. Defiance, insurrection and resistance are the prized traits which point out success on this mired, confused subject.
A century in the past, it was the outlaw who some celebrated for his defiance. Just a few a long time in the past, it was the gangster rapper celebrated for his rebellious spirit. Now, it’s the nationalists and the jihadists who lay declare to showcasing the very best of resistance – however who in reality present the worst of humanity.
I’m taken again to my last moments in Audio system’ Nook the place two males (and it was predominantly males) began jabbing their fingers at one another, violently punctuating the air. Folks began operating, and extra fists flew – I knew it was time to go away.
And I bear in mind the placard that learn: “I’ll hate what I would like.”
Hate abounds. There isn’t a hope left. Solely anger.