'Free Tommy!' UK provocateur's arrest creates latest 'free speech' martyr
Well-known British 'Identitarian' in prison for violating court-ordered blackout, igniting protests, conspiracy theories, and 'alt lite' censorship complaints.
Move over, Milo. The alt-right and its Muslim-bashing “Identitarian” cohort have found a new “free speech” martyr.
Tommy Robinson – the nom de plume of 35-year-old Stephen Yaxley-Lennon of Luton, Bedfordshire, and the founder of the far-right English Defence League – was arrested outside a British courthouse in Leeds late last week for breaking a court order barring coverage outside a hearing, after he had livestreamed activity outside the court for over an hour.
Robinson had been agitating for a legal confrontation for some time over his attempts to whip up public anger at Muslims over the criminal trials of members of child sex-abuse rings called “grooming gangs” allegedly engaged in exploiting young girls. A year before, he had been convicted of violating the UK’s tough contempt-of-court laws for filming outside another trial involving such gangs, but the judge in that case suspended his sentence so that he served no jail time.
When he appeared last week outside the courthouse in Leeds to livestream his attempts to cover the proceedings, Robinson mainly could be seen harassing people entering the court from the street. After about an hour, he was confronted by police there and told he was being arrested for “a breach of the peace,” and was later charged with contempt of court for ignoring court orders prohibiting news coverage outside the courthouse.
The laws under which Robinson was arrested, as the BBC explained, have been in place since the early 1980s, and permit judges to prevent news coverage of criminal trials that might taint the deliberations and force a retrial in the case.
Moreover, as Leeds Live explained, these laws are in place as much to protect prosecutors from having their case harmed, or convictions overturned on appeal, through the contamination of the jury because of media activity, as to protect defendants. That is, the court blackout which Robinson attempted to ignore was in place to ensure that if the suspects are indeed convicted, that conviction will be less likely to be upended.
“The arrest and imprisonment of Stephen Lennon was correct and his actions made justice for the victims of violent sexual assault less likely,” Dr. Joe Mulhall of the anti-hate organization Hope Not Hate explained to Hatewatch. “Leading figures within the UK far right have sought to exploit his arrest and the issue of grooming more generally. The result has been a genuine anger among normal activists. The reality of his actions have been ignored and replaced by a decontextualised and simplified version of events that has whipped up dangerous anger, manifest at the hostile demonstration outside Downing Street at the weekend.”
On Saturday, hundreds of Robinson’s supporters turned out on London’s Whitehall to protest the arrest, gathering in front of the prime minister’s residence at Downing Street, where they engaged in minor brawling with police. A smaller gathering in London at Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner also protested the arrest.
Hope Not Hate monitored the protests, and reported that Saturday’s Whitehall protest attracted a number of Identitarians and people favoring alt-right “Pepe” shirts and Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” ballcaps. The crowd, it reported, was “in an ugly mood,” and eventually began chanting “scum, scum, scum” at the police.
The protests continued with a mass gathering in Leeds on Thursday that attracted about 500 protesters, according to The Sun.
Robinson is a fixture on the British radical right. His English Defence League, created in 2009 as a nativist anti-Muslim organization, formed alliances with Islamophobic groups around the globe, including Pamela Geller’s hate group Stop Islamization of America. It also was eventually connected to Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who reportedly exchanged emails with one of its leaders.
In 2013, after being arrested for taking an illegal trip to the United States, Robinson left the EDL in a high-profile interview, saying it had become too extreme and that he was “sorry” for causing fear to Muslims. He also pleaded guilty later that year to mortgage fraud, and in 2017 was filmed brawling with a man with whom he had gotten into a verbal dispute, though no charges resulted. In 2018, he was banned from Twitter permanently for posting that “Islam promotes killing people.”
In recent years he has become one of the leading figures of the white-nationalist European “Identitarian” movement, which has been garnering increasing support from the American “alt lite,” particularly Breitbart News. A rally led by Robinson earlier this year resulted in several “alt lite” and Identitarian figures being denied entry into the UK when they attempted to attend.
Right-wing voices spin Robinson’s story
Robinson’s arrest also caught the attention of numerous right-wing activists and conspiracy theorists, including Alex Jones’ Infowars program. After his arrest, Robinson’s case became the leading cause célèbre of the far right, and a new source for a whole set of conspiracy theories.
Their rallying cry: “Free Tommy!”
“We’re talking about an iron curtain of censorship that’s taking place, at multiple levels, of a total power grab, the political correctness, where they arrest police chiefs that talk about Muslim rapes in Sweden, where the Stasi has been reactivated and works for Facebook, you can’t make this up, to arrest people that criticize Islam,” explained Jones in his daily Infowars broadcast.
Supporters of Robinson included Donald Trump Jr., who in a tweet called his arrest “Reason #1776 for the original #brexit. Don’t let America follow in those footsteps.”
American-based right-wing media promptly picked up the story, led by a Fox News report on Saturday that described Robinson as a “longtime activist against Islam and Islamic migration.” The right-wing One American News network also chimed in over the weekend with a report on the arrest, describing Robinson as an “English culture activist.”
The story spread across other American right-wing media and conspiracy sites, particularly at Infowars, where Jones hosted breathless reports from London, featuring correspondent Caolan Robertson, who told Jones: “Something very different has happened, and that’s that people are now absolutely furious about this. There’s an electricity, almost, in the air of people who have had enough completely of all of it.”
He continued: “This is completely unprecedented, and people can see straight through it, and you can feel the tension in the air in this country right now. You can cut it with a knife. It’s so intense, it’s quite scary, actually, seeing where this could go, and if any harm comes to him, I can predict mass violence across the UK, I can predict towns brought to a standstill.”
Infowars contributor Ben Garrison created a cartoon showing Robinson being hauled off to prison by a “globalist PC police” officer on one arm and “Muslim pedophiles, rapists, and murderers” on the other. At David Horowitz’s Front Page magazine, Robinson was portrayed as a “political prisoner” and “one of Britain’s most prominent human rights activists.”
There was some coverage from mainstream conservative writers, most notably Douglas Murray at National Review, who dismissed Robinson’s record of violence, fraud and race-baiting and portrayed him instead as a brave (if problematic) voice speaking out against the despicable behavior of the “grooming gangs.”
American “alt lite” figures on social media also loudly promoted the story. Provocateur Gavin McInnes, the “Proud Boys” founder whose brand of politics has proven to be a major alt-right recruitment path, underscored his increasing affinity for Identitarian ideology by hosting a special “Free Tommy Robinson” episode of his “Get Off My Lawn” podcast.
Like Robertson, he waxed paranoid about Robinson’s well-being behind bars. “This is the media class and the elites not trying to silence Tommy – that’s the best case scenario for us,” he told his audience. “They want him dead. They want to murder him. So we’re not up against someone who wants to edit some of Tommy’s journalism.”
“That’s not what our adversaries are up to – our adversaries want to not silence speech, [but] kill the person talking. And that will be a huge victory for them. So the reaction has been very good on our side of things. We’ve said, ‘No, you’re not going to kill Tommy – we’re going to kill you! We’re going to fight back!’… If something happens to Tommy, it is going to go off.”
On Friday, McInnes announced he would attend a “Free Tommy” rally in downtown New York City.
“Not only are you showing support for Tommy, you are showing support for freedom!” responded one of his commenters. “And they want to take away firearms... Who will be the next Tommy?”