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Self-styled “mass gatherings” have been advertised across the UK this weekend to protest against the coronavirus lockdown, “mandatory vaccines”, and the so-called “new normal”.
Flyers for an event in Bristol’s Victoria Park, widely circulated online, appear to be distributed by a protest group called the UK Freedom Movement and invite attendees to “be a part of the largest mass gathering since lockdown”.
The words “mass gathering” are likely a reference to the category of large-scale public event that governments across the globe had been under pressure to limit as the virus spread in its early days.
“We say no to the Coronavirus Bill, no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown,” the flyer continues.
“Bring a picnic, some music, and let’s have some fun and say yes to life!”
Some believe Jayda Fransen, the former deputy leader of the far-right Britain First group, may be behind the UK Freedom Movement organisation – something she has flatly denied. Britain First is a nationalist anti-Islam group that has said it “hate[s] white left-wing politicians who are wrecking our country”.
Speculation appears to have arisen because on April 30, 2020, Fransen was registered on the government’s Companies House website as the director of a new organisation called Freedom Movement Ltd.
The correspondence address listed for Fransen under Freedom Movement Ltd also matches a registered office address listed by Britain First Merchandise Ltd, which cites Britain First leader Paul Golding as a director and Fransen as a resigned director.
Fransen has been a vocal opponent of the lockdown on her social media channels, although both she and another far-right figurehead called Richard Inman – who claims to be the actual founder of the UK Freedom Movement – have denied they are running this weekend’s events. Both, however, have supported the fight of the anti-lockdown protestors in online videos.
Inman founded campaign group Veterans Against Terrorism, which has been accused of Islamophobia and has clashed with anti-fascist protesters. Veterans Against Terrorism says it opposes “Islamist extremists”.
In his video, the commentator commends the work of “whoever’s behind this” – the lockdown protests – and urges that “the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental human right”.
Fransen, meanwhile, said she was “very concerned about the loss of my civil liberties and those of my fellow Britons” in a YouTube video message to her followers.
In the clip, she added: “Take a look around us: across the country, people are being fined, threatened, arrested for crimes which do not exist.”
Analysis by HuffPost US revealed that many of the anti-lockdown protests taking place in the US have also had support by far-right groups, including white nationalists.
Far-right figureheads in the US including Larry Lockman, who once called proposed US immigrant welcome centres a “war on whites”, was behind one rally in Augusta. And neo-fascist street gang The Proud Boys was behind similar protests in Florida.
Both protest groups called the lockdown unconstitutional and a breach of their civil rights, with Lockman calling it an attack on business and religion.
It isn’t clear what specifically the protest against “mandatory vaccines” refers to, although it may be aimed at any possible future vaccine for Covid-19. Health secretary Matt Hancock has refused to rule out making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory if one is discovered, but has also stressed that he hoped there’d be no need to enforce legislation.
The messaging against vaccinations plays into a long history of “anti-vax” protestors. The latest iteration of the movement believes a coronavirus vaccine would be potentially more dangerous than the disease itself.
“Mass gatherings” have been trailed throughout the country, from Bristol to Glasgow and London to Manchester, after a trickle of anti-lockdown protests took place last weekend – including on the South Bank in central London, where anti-vaccination protestors were photographed alongside those breaking the lockdown.
So what connects the politics of the far right with the views of anti-lockdown protesters – or anti-vaccine protesters?
The three groups are ultimately linked by their distrust for traditional media outlets, and the government, according to Rob Blackie, a digital political strategist who has worked on campaigns for UN Climate Change, Best for Britain and the Wellcome Trust.
“Firstly they share a suspicion of mainstream media and government information,” says Blackie. “Like conspiracists on the far left, they feel that they can make up their own minds, and rely on information spread by social media. This is everything from cut and pasted WhatsApps and emails to discussion forums and Facebook groups.
“In America, where the anti-vaccination movement is strongly linked to the right of politics.”
“Secondly they feed off discussions in America, where the anti-vaccination movement is strongly linked to the right of politics. Credible-looking media sources in the US often promote conspiracy theories, which are then picked up across the world.”
Messages may travel to large cross-sectional audiences online, but in a digital world, the real challenge is forming a mass gathering in real life, says Blackie, especially given the forewarning police forces have had about the events and the increased police presence on the streets anyway due to the lockdown restrictions.
Current restrictions state the public can only go outside with members of their own household, or to meet one friend for a socially distanced walk or meet up in a park.
“These days most of these groups are mainly online – that’s how they get virtually all their reach, influence and money,” says Blackie. “This also means that they struggle to be effective offline – because they don’t know how to organise there.”
It isn’t clear how connections were made between the groups of lockdown protestors, anti-vaccination protestors and the far-right, nor how the events were organised or how flyers were mass printed and delivered to individuals this week – but streams of angry residents have been sharing their fear and frustration about the events on social media.
“Bristol and the south west’s Covid-19 rate has been relatively low, and now those that think [they know] best are going to put us all at risk just to try and prove a point,” one Bristol resident, who does not wish to be named, tells HuffPost UK.
“"They act with anger when, let’s face it, if everyone did as they were told this would be over a lot sooner.”
“All that we have strived to do over the last few weeks will be undone. All these people are being asked to do is stay home on mostly full pay. They act with anger when, let’s face it, if everyone did as they were told this would be over a lot sooner. Shame on them.”
Police forces country-wide have confirmed they will break up the groups if they begin to form at midday tomorrow, as advertised on the flyers.
There could be up to 60 protests taking place across the country this weekend if the advertised events actually materialise, with others being promoted in cities including Leicester and Southampton, although an exact number is difficult to gauge.
So far in the UK, anti-lockdown protests have been minimal when compared to the rallies that have dominated headlines in the US.