“We gather here today,” says David Icke, pacing across the plinth that supports Nelson’s Column, “because a dangerous disease – a deadly disease – is sweeping across this land and across this world.”
Icke, white mullet flapping in the gentle breeze, is the conspiracy theorist poster boy. Now 68 years old, he’s had his views ridiculed for decades – but today’s post-truth society has rewarded the former Hereford United goalkeeper, turned “free thinker”, a relevance he’s never known before.
Today, he is the signature speaker at London’s “Freedom Rally”, which has drawn thousands of people to Trafalgar Square (the space holds 35,000 when full, and is nearly that). Ostensibly, they’re there to protest against what they feel is an overzealous response by the UK government to the coronavirus pandemic – which, to date, has claimed over 40,000 lives in the UK alone.
Most of the crowd see Icke’s punchline about the “dangerous disease” coming, but don’t seem to care.
“It’s not COVID-19…” he says, pausing briefly for effect. “IT’S FASCISM!”
The noise that follows is deafening. With football matches still held behind closed doors and pop concerts still logistically impossible, it’s hard to imagine there’s been a louder roar of collective approval in six months.
Behind Icke, Piers Corbyn – the climate change denier and older brother of Jeremy – punches the air. Later, Corbyn will once again be arrested (for organising the demo), as he was at an anti-lockdown protest in May. Behind him, former X-Factor quarter-finalist Chico cheers in support, as do the two young people in front of us wearing T-shirts sporting Icke’s face.
“He’s amazing,” says one of them, who asks not to be named. “He gets it.”
What Icke hasn’t mentioned is that he believes an inter-dimensional race of reptilians called the Archons covertly rule the Earth, and that a genetically modified Archon-human hybrid race – known to us as “the Illuminati” – manipulate global events to incite fear and keep us subjugated.
Many believe that, when Icke says “reptilians”, he actually means “Jews” – and have pointed out that he has a long history of promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He hasn’t mentioned that yet either.
But the pair in front of us don’t seem to care, lost in the words of the man on the plinth. Icke is now joining the dots between Percy Shelley, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and himself as soothsayers of great repute, before telling of an age-old plot to enslave humanity.
“Current events are not just random,” he spits. “It is destined – if we do not stand up now – to end with the total, global subjugation of the human race.”
A pause. “And they are focusing primarily on our children.”
More euphoric applause.
In truth, today isn’t all about coronavirus, face masks or lockdown. As evidenced by the thousands of placards held aloft by the crowd, there is a wealth of dissatisfaction on display.
Among those protesting today are the anti-vaxxers and those proclaiming that 5G will enslave humanity. If Bill Gates – the bogeyman of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists – were to set foot in Trafalgar Square today, he would likely be torn from limb to limb. Then there are the signs warning of the existence of chemtrails and chemically-altered weather, and calls for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Many of the signs warn of the existence of a global cabal of paedophiles.
In fact, many, many people here seem obsessed with paedophiles. “A dead nonce doesn’t reoffend,” reads one giant sign – a jarring juxtaposition next to the children playing happily to the left of the stage, using coloured chalk to sketch flowers and smiling faces on paving slabs.
There are signs here in support of QAnon, the baseless far-right conspiracy theory that a global, Satan-worshiping child sex ring is plotting against Donald Trump. The hashtag #WWG1WGA – signifying the motto “Where We Go One, We Go All” – is emblazoned upon many T-shirts. There is also support here for proponents of Pizzagate, the widely debunked belief that – using pizza orders to covertly request children for them to abuse – the US Democratic party and a host of Hollywood actors and directors are complicit in a world-wide child sex trafficking ring.
On the fringes of the protest, a flag bearing the logo of the British Union of Fascists is draped upon a concrete wall.
“I’ve come here today to stand against the tyrannical UK government,” says Simon, who won’t give his surname. “They want to make us slaves. They think we’re sheep, that we’ll go quietly without a fight. Well, they’re wrong.”
“There’s more of us than them,” says Simon’s friend, who’s wearing a badge reading “Mask Free”, being given out by the handful elsewhere at the protest.
“Are you not concerned about being aligned with people here who have more unsettling agendas?” I ask, of the flag sporting the fascist lightning symbol, or the many racially insensitive references to COVID as “Kung-flu”.
“Oh shut up,” says Simon’s friend. “You’re MSM – you’re part of the reason we’re protesting today. Go home and write your lies.”
Icke isn’t the only speaker here today. There’s Professor Dolores Cahill, chair of the right-wing, hard Eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party, who has claimed that COVID can be prevented by taking vitamins. There’s Dr Sherri Tenpenny, an American osteopath and anti-vaccine campaigner, who promotes the widely debunked belief that vaccines cause asthma, autism and auto-immune disorders. She has no advanced clinical or research specialisation in either immunology or vaccinology.
There’s Dr Eric Nepute, a chiropractor who recommends both eating zinc and drinking tonic water to prevent and treat COVID. A video outlining his views, entitled, “Seriously. How much longer are we going to put up with all the BS..???”, has been viewed over 21 million times.
The people speaking onstage are, without exception, discredited figures, drunk on the acceptance thousands of people cheering on their otherwise rejected beliefs affords them. But the same can’t be said for the majority of the crowd. Where believers in conspiracy were once characterised as outsiders, loners and social misfits, there’s no difference between this crowd and what you might see any other Saturday in a shopping centre or in the park. People of all ages are here. All ethnicities.
What seems to unite the people I speak to is anger and fear. I meet people scared of losing their jobs, people who’ve been furloughed and then laid off. We speak to people frightened that their children won’t get an education. Who have found themselves living in an increasingly technologically-minded world that they don’t understand. It’s the weaponisation of this fear that fuels the warped polemic emanating from the stage.
Similar gatherings have taken place in the preceding days across Europe and in the United States. One, in Berlin, was shut down after the crowd were deemed not to be adhering to social distancing legislation. Earlier in the day, the event was in part hijacked by the Reichsbürger (Reich Citizens) far-right group, who broke through cordons and into the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building.
A similarly disparate collection of beliefs have been represented on the placards at these protests: those of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, but also thousands with other axes to grind, taking to the streets under the banner of the wider anti-lockdown movement to rail against those who they believe are tyrannising them, “controlling them”, telling them what to do.
Back in London, one of the speakers requests over the PA that everyone turn to the person on their left and give them a hug. The majority of the crowd comply. He asks them to do it again, and they do.