By Stefan M. Kløvning
The imprisonment of immigration critic Tommy Robinson has created yet another protest on Saturday, this time in Belfast City Hall in Northern Ireland. The march is called the UK Freedom March, and claims to be ‘for a Pro-Brexit & Free-Speech Rally.’
Robinson was sentenced to 3 months in prison for contempt of court after having live-streamed outside an ongoing trial in Canterbury Court in 2017 concerning a gang rape case of a 17-year-old, where he filmed the defendants walking in and out of court and spoke about the case. This sentence, however, was suspended for 18 months as long as he committed no further offenses. In 2018, however, Robinson stood outside a court in Leeds, doing virtually the same thing he had done the last time, but this time got an immediate 13 months jail sentence.
His supporters claim this is a case about freedom of speech and that he is being censored from talking about the cases, whereas the other perspective is that his live-streaming about the case and the defendants goes against their right to a fair and nonpartisan trial, as whether the information about them is true or false, it still influences people’s perception of whether the defendants were guilty or not. According to Mirror, the live-stream had comments which ‘could have caused the immediate collapse of a long-running trial,’ costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. The potential threat of this happening had caused the court to prohibit media outlets from filming or talking about the details of the case. Robertson didn’t represent anyone other than himself, but his large following was just as much a concern to the trial, and he was therefore immediately jailed for breaking his second chance.
The size of his audience is reflected in the size of the protests and marches demanding his release. In this video released on June 10, for instance, there are thousands of protesters supporting Tommy Robinson, many of which appear to be harassing the police. The huge amount of people sympathetic to Robinson gathering for these protests and marches appear to attract political activists even further to the right. At the Free Tommy Robinson rally at City Hall a few days ago, for instance, at least one person was seen giving a Nazi salute. Though it should be self-evident that one person doesn’t represent the whole, the fact these marches and protests are being used by some people to infuse even more radical ideas into the crowds can appear rather concerning.
Self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Fascists’ in Belfast organized a counter-protest to confront the Robinson supporters, which led to a conflict with smoke bombs being thrown, where the police had to step in in riot gear to split up the groups. The counter-protest was termed ‘United Against Racism’, but as several Communist flags and signs were waved in the crowd, there seemed to be many with other intentions than solely speaking out against extremism.
The size of Robinson’s audience and protesters reflect a concern many British citizens have with UK’s immigration policies and for a feeling of neglect from being unable to question them in what is perceived to be a ‘politically correct’ environment where you can only adhere to certain opinions generally accepted and open debates appearing to be discouraged. As such, they group up for their common cause, and many of them become, as a result, even more radicalized than they originally were. When opposing ideas can’t be worked out in open debates, people will try to work them out through conflict. As political polarization grows bigger, the possibility of a civil war breaking out also does. The polarization in the UK isn’t anywhere near what it is in the US, but the lesson ought to be learned by both, is that you don’t necessarily need to respect the other person’s idea, but that for you to get along you must find some way to work out the disagreement. Aristotle once said, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ If they actually tried talking to one another with an open mind, they’d find that each other’s opinions are usually far less radical and more rational than what they would expect, as many of them are only used to debunking strawman arguments.