A personal message to friends in Totnes. 

Last week I was one of many people who asked the Town Council not to allow the New World Alliance to host an event in our Civic Hall. Around 200 people signed a petition I made. In response, someone, on behalf of the New World Alliance, launched a petition against me personally, with information that could lead to where I live and work.

My petition didn’t identify anyone locally, and didn’t criticise anyone for supporting the speakers’ views. Personally, I understand why people don’t trust the government. I think their handling of the pandemic has been incompetent and corrupt. I know people have concerns about the vaccine, and I don’t believe anyone should be punished or sacked for having those concerns. But I do think promoting anti-vax and other conspiracy theories is damaging. It drives people even further apart – ‘pure’ against vaxed, awakened against woke, red-pilled against the stupid ‘sheeple’. People are angry and distressed, but health workers, school teachers, local councillors and individuals with different views are not the right targets, and targeting us only lets the people with real power off the hook.

Anti-vax meme with a typically aggressive theme.

Like many people I’ve been plugged into the Totnes community since the pandemic. I’ve delivered food parcels, masks, and medicines. I helped organise a project to sew scrubs for care workers, supported two community growing projects and worked with the local school. Others do more – our town is full of voluntary groups and services that have been inundated with new volunteers. I think this is how we get through a crisis, by looking after each other, with all our different views.

 

In a democracy, anyone can express a point of view, but they can’t demand any platform to express it from. Asking the Town Council not to let the Civic Hall be used for a controversial event is something that free-speaking citizens can do. The Council no doubt had representations on both sides, and they are elected to make difficult decisions of this kind. Free speech can be used to point out what public figures have said, and that their speech has consequences. If speakers denounce vaccination and other health measures, it causes actual harm to vulnerable people and NHS workers. If speakers have used anti-semitic, anti-disabled and hateful language in the past, it is reasonable to expect they may use it here.

Free speech can be undermined by an oppressive state. I’ve been an activist most of my life and I understand that very well. But free speech can also be undermined by publicly humiliating opponents and exposing them to abuse.

I won’t deal with the content of the petition against me except for one significant accusation: that I intimidated someone I ‘disagreed with’. This refers to a protest I helped to organise against NHS cuts in December 2017, when this placard was left outside the Conservative club. (I still have no idea who did this).

 

Totnesians have long since decided whether this represented a threat against our Conservative MP – who was not in the constituency at the time – or whether it was a lament about deaths that had, tragically, already happened. What is certain is that a claim about intimidation was made and circulated widely in the national press, linked to the death of Jo Cox, alongside my name and an interview with me about the event.

The effects on my life were devastating, personally and professionally. As I logged the online abuse, and learned that my name was being share

The placard leading to the “CoffinGate” response.

d on social media accounts used by the far right, at least I knew local people had made up their own minds – and I felt safe in my own town. 

Today I understand my name is in circulation again, but this time some local people are cheering on whatever happens to me. The meme that I am dangerous and have intimidated someone who ‘disagreed with me’ is not just wildly inaccurate, like the rest of the petition: it’s an invitation to abuse.

The NWA speakers have chosen public drama and notoriety. Their business model depends on it. They will go home after they have spoken and get on with promoting their views. All I’ve done is to channel the views of local residents. I live and work here. I have nowhere else to go.

I understand now why friends are reluctant to speak out against the New World Alliance. I know why people signed the petition anonymously or messaged me to say they had contacted the Town Council themselves, but didn’t want their anti-vax neighbours to know. Towns that are divided and fearful are weaker in the face of threats like the pandemic.

 

We need our public spaces for respectful debate about issues that concern us all. The speakers at the proposed event did not offer that, and their supporters’ treatment of me should make everyone think twice about what they are bringing to our town.

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