Needless to say, the act of taking to the streets joined in close proximity by hundreds of others shouting support for a cause has been affected by the recent measures to minimize the spread of Covid. With government guidelines limiting public gatherings to no more than six people, protesting in public is now currently illegal in the UK. But aside from having to wear masks and keep 2 metre distances, how have protests changed under lockdown measures?
Despite precautions being implemented across the globe, there are still causes that protesters continue to break restrictions; namely, the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the UK and US. Of course, with strict guidelines in this country disallowing people basic freedoms such as visiting loved ones and getting close to those not of the same household, whether these demonstrations should take place have become a contentious debate for some. Like the notion that your cause will gain more respect if you protest peacefully, a cause will now also gain respect if its supporters protest in a safe way, and run the risk of being discredited if its supporters do not.
Looking at the recent Black Lives Matter protest on the 7th June outside the Forum in Norwich, where cones were clearly laid out to mark 2 metre gaps between mask-wearing protesters, it is difficult to distract or discredit the movement on the basis of how the demonstration was practiced. Conversely, demonstrations supporting the same cause in London have come under fire for neglecting social distancing measures. Whatever your opinion on the lack of social distancing, it has distracted many viewers from the message of the cause itself or given them an excuse to discredit it.
The demonstrations joined by Piers Corbyn that protested against vaccinations and 5G installations resulted in 10 on-the-spot fines and 19 arrests. However, those who support these causes have remained unaffected by the breaches of social distancing. The difference is that those protesting against lockdown measures will, inversely, gain respect within their own groups when they rebel, putting their catchphrase “freedom over fear” into practice. In the same vein, when white protesters armed to the teeth rallied against lockdown measures in Michigan, they earned more respect by those who agreed with them, like the current POTUS. While assault rifles could potentially serve as PPE against another person with an assault rifle, they hold no protection whatsoever against contagious viruses, and their succumbing to their frustrations made them the subject of global mockery.
As for how the practice of protests will change in the future, one can only speculate. Thankfully, we live in an age of advanced communication technology that has enabled us to do petitions and online protests, but they do not have the same impact as physical demonstrations. UK police chief constables have said that they will facilitate the current demonstrations and only use force when trouble arises, but what is terrifying is that it is up to them to evaluate what counts as trouble, and what counts as heated protesting.
They may do this with the current demonstrations because they are so widespread, but what will happen to other, less prevalent protests? The European Convention of Human Rights states that public bodies must respect the right to protest, and I imagine that many will share the sentiment of Jennifer Nuzzo, a John Hopkins epidemiologist, who says that “public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” Whether it is protesting against racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, anti-austerity, or any other social or economic issues, people will fight to make their voices publicly heard regardless of laws keeping them from doing so.