Defending the Metropolitan police’s handling of Saturday night’s Sarah Everard vigil, assistant commissioner Helen Ball argued the force had to act “because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety” from the threat of coronavirus. Yet last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in some 300 US cities did not cause a spike in cases there, a July report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found. The outdoor air played a part in dispelling the virus and, in cities with big rallies, infections even fell because those who did not take part stayed home instead of shopping or eating out – activities that carry a greater risk.
While not an exact parallel with the Clapham Common event, it suggests even huge and noisy protests, where thousands of people are shouting and chanting, are not necessarily cauldrons for infection. And they can be done safely, according to the human rights organisation Liberty. For example a socially distanced rally was held in Tel Aviv in April last year against the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with thousands of people shouting and waving banners each in their own space, two metres apart.
“Protest is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, and it’s critical that we can all stand up to those in power, and make our voices heard,” said Lana Adamou, a lawyer at Liberty. “Safe, socially distanced demonstrations are perfectly possible, and it is the duty of the police to facilitate them, not block them. The current restrictions should be interpreted compatibly with our rights enshrined in the Human Rights Act.”
But protest in the pandemic has become fraught, with fundamental democratic rights eroded in the name of protecting population health, according to a report published by Carnegie Europe in January. Monitoring carried out by civil society organisations, they say, has shown a tendency of many governments to use health concerns as a means of cracking down on dissent.
“While governments have claimed that they were imposing measures to tackle the pandemic, these measures often have been contradictory and have excessively restricted the right to peaceful assembly,” the report says, pointing to countries where restrictions were lifted last summer to allow people to mingle at religious gatherings, shopping malls and restaurants – but not to protest. In Sweden large groups were allowed to congregate in restaurants and at sporting events, but public gatherings and protests involving more than eight people were banned. France enforced a ban on protests, even though large gatherings were allowed in cultural settings.
The report also notes that police in some countries used measures such as kettling and detention against protesters, even though they can spread infection. It calls out Poland for repressive tactics in the protests against the government’s abortion legislation which began last October and the UK for “draconian tactics”, such as removing protesters’ masks, in the BLM demonstrations of last May.
Campaigners in some countries have become creative in the face of restrictions on protest marches and demonstrations. In the Netherlands, climate activists filled a square in front of the Dutch parliament in the Hague with 1,000 shoes from all over the country. In Croatia, a civil society movement staged balcony protests against the governance of the mayor of Zagreb.
The question that campaigners in some countries will be asking is whether the coronavirus has brought about long-term erosion of the right to dissent and to what extent, once the public health threat is largely over, will mass public protest be permitted to return.