This afternoon I was seeing a friend in Shepherds Bush when we noticed the sound of a helicopter overhead. In all the years I lived in west London such a thing was not too unusual, and there were always sirens going off somewhere in the near distance. Police helicopters are always visble above big demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and adjacent areas.
I was soon out on my way to get a bus back to Marble Arch so I could change for another to south London. As I crossed Askew Road near Ravenscourt Park I saw 3 Met Territorial Support Group vans go past, headed northward. Then I saw other vans deployed in the area already, and I finally notice the wavefront of a demonstration advancing east-to-west along Goldhawk Road. At first I wasn’t sure if it was another march related to Israel/Palestine, as I’d seen the crowds around Hyde Park 7 days earlier. But as they got nearer I realised this was the anti-vaccine anti-lockdown Freedom March, and it brought the traffic to a standstill. Buses were quickly festooned in the various stickers of the movements, which are already prominent around bus stops and lamp posts across the city.
I have seen several anti-lockdown (and, later, anti-vaccine as well) protests over the past year. The crowds who take part are diverse in 2 senses. Firstly, they attract a broader range of people than the audiences that turned out for Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage, even if many of those may also be part of the new movement. There has been a strand of middle class Guardian concern about vaccines and “Big Pharma” for many years now as well, not wholly dispersed by the discrediting of Andrew Wakefield. Anti-lockdown attracts plenty of ethnic minority supporters and young people. Few of these people seem to have been involved in any protest or activist movements previously. Secondly, the movement contains a range of viewpoints: there are “it’s a hoax”, “false statistics” messages, but there are also non-denialist lines that accept the virus exists but rejects the official reponse as excessive; this shades over in to other supporters for whom civil liberties issues are simply paramount.
I made it to the end of Goldhawk Road and could see some of the crowds were settling on Shepherds Bush Green. I had taken my mask off as I don’t wear it outside anyway. I wondered if it would be appropriate to do so but didn’t want to provoke anyone who might want to pick a fight; this was also why I didn’t get to take any close-up pictures of placards in case I got interrogated about who I am and why I wanted a picture (as far as I’m concerned, someone on a march or at a demo is making a public display of themselves and their message and has already consented to be photographed; it’s not at all like just taking a picture of a random stranger in public without consent. But I wouldn’t insist on that against an angry and tedious conspiracist). Many of these people had megaphones and the messaging included a lot about waking up, standing up, rise up for freedom (“get off your knees” has been David Icke’s line for many years, and he seems to have repurposed it as an anti-lockdown slogan about a year ago, when I saw some stickers with it on around Shepherds Bush as well).
Many of these people seemed unsure of where they were or where they were going, and I overheard a few wondering if they were “going to the BBC”, although if that were the aim then they’d already missed the turning up Wood Lane and in any case Television Centre has been a luxury flats development for a few years now. Going in to Shepherds Bush Station I did put my mask on again, and I heard someone without one wondering “such a big station must have a toilet”, so another outsider. The underground trains are already back to pre-lockdown levels of crowding, although mask use is normal. There were quite a few unmasked protesters moving east. At Marble Arch there seemed to be new waves of them headed down the escalator and on the way out west. I noticed today that there now seems to be ranges of established merchandise for the anti-lockdowners, with “THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS” just one of the many slogans to have now graduated from stickers to having its own t-shirt. Above ground at Marble Arch there were also a few people with Palestinian flags, looking like stragglers from a week ago.
I got on a bus headed south, where I couldn’t see anyone with one of those t-shirts.