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Sensemaker: Populism and protest

Monday 15 March 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Thirty-four bodies were taken to a single hospital in Yangon after martial law was imposed on more of the city and security forces opened fire on protesters.
  • Tens of thousands of women joined protests in Australia prompted by historic rape allegations against Attorney General Christian Porter.
  • H.E.R. won Song of the Year at the Grammy’s for I Can’t Breathe, in memory of George Floyd.  

Populism and protest

When a police officer killed Floyd last year, Black Lives Matter protesters were blamed for property damage while armed vigilantes were allowed to roam the streets of America’s cities.

When a police officer was charged with the murder of Sarah Everard last week, protesters found themselves arrested and accused of spreading Covid, unlike crowds of football fans who’d been allowed to fill the streets of Glasgow to celebrate a win. 

The analogies aren’t perfect but they’re still disturbing. Is the right to protest under attack even in advanced democracies where it should be taken for granted? In the UK, there are reasons to worry:

  • Clapham Common. It’s true the police have a job to do preventing superspreader events that might sabotage the plan to get out of lockdown. But Saturday night’s arrests at the Sarah Everard vigil were a miserable coming-together of double standards and institutional tunnel vision. At least the Times’ Jack Hill was there to photograph Patsy Stevenson as police forced her to the ground. 
  • The courts. On Friday a High Court judge refused to take sides in an argument between activists and police over whether the vigil could go ahead. Mr Justice Holgate said he hoped an emergency hearing had clarified things. It did the opposite. Both sides claimed his endorsement.
  • The law. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which gets its second reading in the Commons today, will make it easier for police to shut down protests for being too noisy, and give the home secretary new powers to define “serious disruption” – which will also be grounds for banning protests. 

The bill may be amended before it’s passed: a few Tory libertarians could join Labour in opposing it in its current form. Equally it could be bulldozed through because of this government’s irritation over Extinction Rebellion’s highly effective disruptions in 2019 (the original impetus for the bill) and its general aversion to being pushed around. That would be a mistake. Public safety, women’s safety and free speech are all at stake here. Parliament needs to be heard and heeded. 

Should the Met commissioner resign in the meantime? Cressida Dick, the country’s top police officer, has said she isn’t going anywhere and feels for her officers. The PM, home secretary and Labour leader have all backed her for now, pending at least two reviews into what happened on Saturday. This much is already clear: what happened shouldn’t have, and it was on her watch.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Boys done good
Six years ago Patrick and John Collison, Irish brothers then 25 and 23, shared a two-bed flat (£) in San Francisco. Their online payments start-up, Stripe, was worth $1.75 billion, which made them quite the story. Six years on they’ve just completed a $600 million fundraising round that values their company at $95 billion and each of them at about $11 billion. Stripe is the most valuable privately-held company in Silicon Valley. It doesn’t make anything. It just makes it easier and safer to buy and sell online, and it takes a cut of each transaction it facilitates. Related data point: US e-commerce grew by 44 per cent last year.

New things technology, science, engineering

Electric bikes outsold electric cars five-fold in Europe in 2019, and kept selling like crazy (£) during the pandemic. Meanwhile Paris is pressing on with a €42 billion Metro upgrade, whether or not people will still want to use the Metro after Covid, even though for that money it could have bought every Parisian an e-bike three times over. All this from an invigorating look into the future of the city by the FT’s Simon Kuper. He doesn’t look at London’s £18 billion Crossrail, but the same questions arise. Have Europe’s big cities been spending infrastructure money on all the wrong things? If the age of the troglodyte commuter is over, what comes next? 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Longer summers
Chinese researchers predict six-month summers for the northern hemisphere by the end of the century if concerted action isn’t taken to halt climate change. This is a distinctly un-apocalyptic way of describing the likely effects of inaction, which would include catastrophic drought and crop failure. But it’s worth noting because it forces us to think of the corollary – spring, autumn and winter all squeezed into the other six months, leaving very little time for the planet to cool down. Also, the process is already under way: average summers have grown from 78 to 95 days since 1952. The research is in Geophysical Research Letters

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Don’t ditch masks yet
Texas has joined Florida in ditching its facemask mandate. Its attorney general tried to force liberal Austin to go along with the statewide policy, and failed – a court ruled Austin could keep its mandate for at least a couple more weeks – but the broad trend towards opening up and uncovering has Anthony Fauci worried. Biden’s chief medical advisor said ending mask mandates was risky, and pointed to Europe’s current infection surge as a reason why. Even without that sort of surge the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that sticking with masks in public spaces and buildings would save 14,000 lives in the US between now and July.  

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

German Greens, Merkel’s blues
Regional German elections at the weekend were gloomy for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, auspicious for Greens and Social Democrats, and reassuring for everyone who feared a resurgent far right. The CDU that Merkel led for an extraordinary 18 years lost vote share in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, where the Greens and the SPD respectively remained strongest. The hard-right AfD lost votes in both states. Olaf Scholz of the SPD, who will run for Chancellor in September, said the message from voters was that it’s now possible to create a government in Germany without the CDU. We’ll see. 

The week ahead

15/3 – second Commons reading of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; prime minister Boris Johnson chairs meeting of Crime and Justice taskforce in wake of murder of Sarah Everard; High Court hands down judgment in judicial review application brought by End Violence Against Women Coalition against the CPS, 16/3 – court hearing for Wayne Couzens, charged with kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard; High Court hearing for libel claim brought by Rebekah Vardy against Coleen Rooney; government to publish review of Britain’s defense and foreign policy; Greggs issues full year results, 17/3 – MPs take evidence on reform of Gender Recognition Act; Dominic Cummings appears before select committee on new UK research funding agency, 18/3 – Northern Ireland coronavirus restrictions due to be reviewed, 19/3 – Liberal Democrats spring conference, 21/3 – ruling expected in latest Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe trial 

15/3 – European Parliament debates effectiveness of Covid vaccines against variants; Netherlands general election polls open, 16/3 – Michelle Obama children’s cooking show, Waffles + Mochi, launches on Netflix, 17/3 – Abel Prize for outstanding scientific work in mathematics announced; German chancellor Angela Merkel holds conference call with regional leaders on vaccination; World Health Organization director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at LSE on health in the Covid era, 18/3 – Italian prime minister Mario Draghi takes part in memorial ceremony for victims of Covid, 19/3 – ONS publishes analysis of European mortality data in 2020; FIFA Council meets, 20/3 – Iranian and Kurdish New Year, 21/3 – Republic of Congo presidential election; Saudi Aramco issues full year results

And finally… A masked Yo-Yo Ma played Ave Maria and the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, to thank healthcare workers after receiving his second Covid vaccination in a sports hall in western Massachusetts. It is, of course, sublime. Have a listen

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs James Veysey/Shutterstock, Getty Images

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