LONDON — The sleekly dressed man brandishing the Koran and standing on an upturned crate is getting very worked up. He points at a man in the crowd and shouts a retort, furious.
“I am not anti-Israeli,” he screams. “They can live under our flag like we have lived under theirs.”
There is a smattering of applause from a section of the crowd, met by a menacing rumble of discontent punctuated by a shrill “You’re a dinosaur” from another.
“I’m not anti-Semitic,” the man on the box hits back, “but Zionism is a threat to the world.”
If Karl Marx were here today, he would recognize — and no doubt applaud — all that is going on around me on this cold afternoon in London’s Hyde Park.
Speakers’ Corner is as much a British institution as black taxis or afternoon tea, but there are concerns that what was a forum for free speech even before its formal establishment by an Act of Parliament in 1872 has become too aggressive, too offensive, too extremist.
London’s Metropolitan Police Force has announced that plain-clothes officers are patrolling the area with concealed cameras and tape recorders in an attempt to curb growing friction between rival religious and political groups.
Chief Inspector Alistair McLean, deputy chief of the unit that patrols the capital’s royal parks, told The Times newspaper that the decision to use hidden cameras at Britain’s most famous platform for free speech had been taken reluctantly, but that it was necessary given the rising number of public complaints and demands for action against certain speakers and groups.
“There has been developing at Speakers’ Corner, not suddenly but over a long period, religious fanaticism and political fundamentalism,” McLean said. “Muslims, and in some respects Christians, . . . have become more vociferous in the way they are putting their dogma.
“At times, their activities cause more friction between factions and also cause some offense to the public,” he said, adding that the police have received letters from both Christians and Muslims complaining of the language being used by some speakers, some of which has “caused distress” to members of the public.
The decision, not surprisingly, has drawn howls of protest from advocates of free speech, Members of Parliament and the hundreds of people who gather here each Sunday for what is arguably the best free entertainment in London.
Speakers’ Corner started off its checkered history very differently, however. The first — of many — public executions was carried out in the far northeast corner of Hyde Park as far back as 1196. The hanging tree quickly became notorious as Tyburn, taken from Tye Bourne, the stream that that ran near the junction of Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street) and Tyburn Lane (Park Lane).
By 1571, as many as 24 people at one time could be found hanging from a three-sided gallows standing 6 meters high on the spot and there were up to eight designated “hanging days” a year.
Invariably, the people convicted and hanged were members of London’s poor underclass and petty criminals; stealing 10 pounds was a hanging offense in 18th-century Britain and the corpses of those who met their end on the scaffold were often purchased from the families for study by anatomists, artists and physicians.
Hanging day was one of great excitement in London, partly because it was declared a public holiday for the working classes. The condemned prisoners would be loaded onto carts at Newgate Prison and handed over to the sheriff. Outside the prison, the crowds would be gathering to follow the procession to the tolling bells of St. Sepulchre, rung only on hanging days.
The hangman rode on the cart with the condemned men and women, who were also accompanied by soldiers and constables. Their route passed through Holborn and St. Giles, with the entire cavalcade stopping frequently at inns so the prisoners could be given wine; inevitably they arrived at the scaffold drunk.
At this point, the prisoners were allowed to address the crowd. Unsurprisingly, most seized the opportunity to criticize the system that had condemned them, while Catholics hanged for their beliefs were able to make a last religious statement before becoming, to many, martyrs.
Even though executions were subsequently halted at Speakers’ Corner, to instead be carried out away from the baying crowds in prison courtyards, the precedent had been set and the ordinary men and women on the street had a forum from which to put their case in a little corner of London.
The authorities tolerated these spoken acts of defiance as a necessary evil that allowed the underclasses to let off steam, as opposed to actually revolting, until July 1, 1855.
That Sunday afternoon, a crowd of an estimated 150,000 men, women and children had gathered in Hyde Park to demonstrate against the Sunday Trading Bill, which was about to be debated in Parliament, in defiance of the police. One speaker began to address the crowd, followed by another and another, according to eyewitnesses, but they were brought to a halt by the sudden cry of “The police!”
An estimated 40 police officers appeared and were hissed and verbally abused by the demonstrators when they tried to arrest a man. The crowd knocked some of the officers’ hats off and the police began to flail at their attackers with truncheons. By the end of the day, 104 rioters had been arrested.
The bill, however, was withdrawn from discussions the following day, to the delight of those who would have borne the brunt of having to work on Sundays had it been approved by Parliament.
But the crowd had the bit between their teeth: A further meeting was held in the park the next Sunday, followed by demonstrations against the high cost of food on Oct. 14 and Oct. 21. Protesters became more vociferous on Oct. 28 and the crowd ended up smashing shop windows in nearby streets.
More meetings went on throughout November, most involving clashes with the police and arrests. One man was later sentenced to a month in prison for obstructing the police, another got a two-month term for assaulting two officers, while a boy was given 14 days for disorderly conduct.
On Nov. 18, the crowd turned its attentions to the French, demonstrating outside the residence of the French ambassador, while in May 1859, a meeting was held to propose an address to Emperor Napoleon to express sympathy with Gen. Guiseppe Garibaldi and protest the French occupation of Rome. The day ended in another riot.
Some 90,000 people gathered on Oct. 5, faced by a mere 400 police officers and a number of soldiers, and the usual riot ensued between the supporters of Garibaldi and those of the pope for possession of the mound — known as the Redan — from which speakers would address the crowds.
During the following week, the police leveled the Redan and posted notices stating that no meetings or assemblies could be held, and on the Sunday, more than 800 police officers squelched any attempts to demonstrate. But the authorities were gravely mistaken if they believed they had finally put the demonstrators in their place.
After a decade or so of only minor scuffles, the Reform League advertised a meeting for July 23, 1866, in Hyde Park, which the police promptly banned. The ban was not sufficient to stop a huge crowd gathering, opposed by as many as 18,000 foot and mounted police.
Leaders of the Reform League approached the gates to the park from nearby Marble Arch in a line of taxis, linking up with protesters marching from other parts of the capital. The crowd tried to rush the gates but were repelled by the baton-wielding police. Though the leaders of the protest called for the crowd to move to Trafalgar Square to hold their meeting, the demonstrators were in no mood to back down.
They soon forced several breaches in the iron railings surrounding the park and again clashed with police. Numerous protesters were hospitalized with injuries, and about 50 were arrested. About 8 p.m., a company of soldiers was called in to try to restore order, but it was too late.
Speeches were made at several places around what is today known as Speakers’ Corner, including an impassioned address by Harriet Laws on the political and social rights of the people.
By the following weekend, the Reform League had been given assurances by Prime Minister Robert Walpole that the right of the public to hold meetings in the park would not be interfered with.
In subsequent months, the Working Men’s Rights Association convened to denounce the government, stating: “The parks are the people’s and we hereby claim the right to use them for the purpose of discussing our political wrongs.”
The public had taken on the government and won the right to speak out. But there are some who might say that the legacy of what was achieved nearly 150 years ago has been betrayed.
For every woman standing on a soapbox to demand equal rights and recognition in the workplace for the female half of the population there is a woman-hater 10 meters away preaching that women should serve their master, ask no questions and accept their lot in life.
There are the publicity-seekers and the camera-hungry, those looking to provoke and others trying to placate, the cranks and the cool, the good, the bad and the plain ugly.
There are those who call on their listeners to adhere to God’s commandments — whoever their god might be — and live a pure and good life; next to them are charlatans espousing the beliefs of some fringe religion and predicting the third coming (because we ignored the second coming) of their religious leader.
Peter is clearly no fool, but his platform is a little confusing. Standing on a folding chair and wrapped up in a warm parka and gloves against the cold, he has a sign around his neck that reads: “Christian atheism.” Another one at his feet says: “To follow Jesus reject God.”
“Christian reformers are trying to give up the arrogant view of religion,” he says. “I want to make Christianity a humanism to fulfill the dream of peace on Earth.”
A crowd of exactly zero people is listening to Peter.
Perhaps he has just not made his performance sufficiently contentious. The white-robed priest of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, however, does not have that problem.
“Nigeria is the new Jerusalem, whether you like it or not,” he says, straight-faced. “God has appeared in Nigeria and his name is Olumba Olumba Obu.”
He flings his arms about and jabs his finger as he argues with a elderly man who has just made the mistake of calling him “stupid.” He is speaking so fast that his words have turned into a kind of unintelligible patois; fortunately his dogma is attached to the railing beside him.
“Dear Brethren,” it begins. “Let me make it crystal clear to you that AIDS or the so-called HIV does not come from Africa, as these scientists with limited knowledge claim.
“On 2nd June 1982, at 1:35 p.m. (local time Calabar, Nigeria) the Lord of the New Age, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Sole Spiritual Head of the Universe, Leader Olumba Olumba Obu pronounced that ‘Brethren, there is going to be a disease in the world that no man will be able to cure.’ “
The manifesto of the priest — who does not want to be named — continues in the same vein for several hundred words, warning that by having sex with fornicators “you’ve had it,” before offering salvation.
All anyone has to do to be saved from the specter of AIDS or HIV is join the Brotherhood (free of charge, naturally). “The ball is on your court,” it ends helpfully.
The man gripping the Koran is still holding court before the largest crowd. The tension is growing; members of the audience are ignoring him and shouting at each other. The exchanges are angry, abusive, dismissive.
I make the mistake of pointing my camera at two men as they argue, nose to nose. Suddenly, I have become the target of a portion of the crowd.
“You’re press,” is the immediate accusation.
One of the men I was about to photograph points and accuses in a strong Eastern European accent: “You’ll lie. You’ll distort what is going on here.” He takes a step toward me, his hand outstretched to seize my camera. Surprisingly, the person that comes to my aid is the man with the Koran.
“We are not afraid of what people say,” he calls to me, jutting out his chin. “They can silence me, but this is the will of a people. I have no fear of the press. Photograph me. Go on.”
I do as I’m told. The rest of the crowd go back to their discussions, taking up where they had left off moments earlier without missing a beat.
Perhaps that is the beauty of Speakers’ Corner; anyone can say anything he or she wants to say, with the only fear that of being booed down.