On a recent autumn afternoon in London’s Hyde Park, two angry men accuse each other of being pedophiles. “Your religion says that the Prophet Muhammad married a woman when she was seven and consummated that marriage at nine! That’s why all these Muslims think they can be in grooming gangs, it says so in the Quran,” a tall man with strawberry blonde hair shouts, as a circle of onlookers shake their heads and boo.
“The MAJORITY of pedophiles in this country are white! Politicians, police, all white people! Why do you support them?” a smaller South Asian man with a wispy beard shouts back.
It goes on like this for more than an hour.
Such conversations take place frequently in Speakers’ Corner, the park’s “site for public speeches and debate.” Known as the Tyburn Gallows in the 17th and 18th centuries, Speakers’ Corner originated as a site where public executions of petty criminals and traitors to Queen Victoria used to take place. The tradition of open-air speech started when those due for execution would be allowed to make one final statement before they were hung, during which many of those would chastise, ridicule and mock the British monarchy.
When the site of the executions moved, Speakers’ Corner hosted a number of English and international movements — for example, the Reform League, which in 1865 campaigned for universal male suffrage. It was also frequented by Karl Marx, who, while living in London, wrote that it “contained the energy needed to spark the English revolution,” and even by George Orwell, who described it as “one of the minor wonders of the world,” where he’d listen “to Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, communists … freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army … and a large variety of plain lunatics.”
In 1872, the British Parliament officially made Speakers’ Corner a protected area for public speaking. Since then, it’s welcomed speakers from all over the world, including civil rights leader Marcus Garvey and the Trinidadian social theorist C.L.R. James, alongside your neighborhood conspiracy theorists espousing warnings of a George Soros-led global takeover, and the “elitist hoax” of climate change. As one tourist who had come to London just to visit Hyde Park tells me, “It’s the most exciting place on earth. Probably the only place where people can say what they want, when they want and they won’t have to fear of being shut down by the police, or by the social media companies who want to censor ideas they don’t like.”
Still, social media has fundamentally changed Speakers’ Corner, too. Namely, some of the more frequent speakers at the corner — e.g., “Kalam,” “Shamsi” and “Jedi” — are now so notorious that they’ve developed their own followings both in London and online. They’re particularly big on YouTube, where channels such as “Content Over Everything,” “SC Dawah” and “Titans TV” offer professionally shot and edited Speakers’ Corner videos with titles like “Islam and the Devil” and “There’s No Such Thing As Racism” to tens of thousands of viewers across the world.
All of this, of course, has inspired charges that Speakers’ Corner is becoming nothing more than a bastion of bullying, abuse and animosity, particularly toward Muslims. This week, in fact, Speakers Corner UK, a Twitter account that live streams debates there, circulated a petition called “Stop the Bullying and Make Speakers’ Corner Great Again.” In it, “Steve,” who claims to be a long-time visitor of Speakers’ Corner, argues:
“In recent years the range of speakers has reduced significantly and religion, increasingly just Islam, has become the main subject. This has more recently been accompanied by an increase in violence and intimidation and attempts to control who comes to the Corner and what they are permitted to say. Anyone who dares to challenge, dispute or ridicule the beliefs of those seeking to dominate have been faced with a barrage of aggression, both verbal and frequently physical. At best this includes accusations of racism and hate preaching and at worst physical threats and intimidation and actual physical violence including being spat at, pushed off ladders, punched, kicked, chased out the park and in the worst cases death threats resulting in the issuing of warnings by the police.”
Similar warnings arose in March when Tommy Robinson, the founder of the right-wing street movement the English Defence League, came to Speakers’ Corner to warn that the growing number of Muslim groups there were “threatening” free speech. (His speech attracted thousands of people and even made #speakerscorner trend on Twitter.) On the flip side, Islamists linked to Anjem Choudary, a radical self-styled cleric, have used the park to advocate for the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, despite the unwritten rules of the park stating that violence is prohibited, reports of physical altercations and death threats have become more and more prevalent. Fifty-four-year-old Heiko Khoo, a Marxist speaker who has spoken at Speakers’ Corner regularly since 1986, was reportedly manhandled by far-right activists during Robinson’s speech, while other altercations have required police involvement.
As such, some long-time visitors of Speakers’ Corner tell me they no longer go there. “I always used to go with my dad,” says 45-year-old Rob Marshall from South London. “Back then, you’d hear all sorts of things. You could be listening to a conversation about politics, or a conversation about economics — things like peak oil or returning to the gold standard. It was genuinely radical ideas. Now, it’s just people either talking about Islam all the time or people who want to spend a few hours attacking Muslims. It’s just not enjoyable for me — and probably many others who’d grown up going to Hyde Park on Sundays.”
For their part, most of the well-known speakers at the Corner wouldn’t talk to me on the basis that I’m a journalist and they “don’t trust the mainstream media.” Thirty-eight-year-old Steve, a small, slightly plump man with messy white hair, is one such person. He frequently comes to the park and live streams debates directly onto his personal Facebook page. We speak briefly after watching a debate between a small group of Donald Trump supporters and a group of Muslims who were accusing each other of being fascists and traitors to Britain.
“Part of the reason I come is for entertainment,” says Steve, a pseudonym. “I watch all the news channels and papers, and they’re just boring. On top of all the lying, they’re just boring. When I started coming to Speakers’ Corner, I found myself more interested in the debates around Brexit, Trump, about all the things happening in Europe with Muslim immigrants and the reasons why that’s happening. I think that’s why people like to watch videos that come out of here. They know what they’re going to get — completely unedited, completely authentic conversations between normal people about the issues that matter to us. The fact that we get so many views — sometimes more views than the mainstream media — shows that people are looking for the truth, and they’re sick of hearing the same lies coming out of the BBC or whatever place you work for.”
The same goes for Soco Films, a Christian YouTube channel with more than 17,000 subscribers run by “Bob the Builder,” a well-known debater in the park who has taken on subjects ranging from the textual accuracy of the Quran to the incoherence of ethno-nationalism in Christianity. For him, the appeal of Speakers’ Corner is in part due to “censorship” in other areas of public life. As Bob explains, “Liberal progressives have been gradually shutting down debate and closing down discussion. Speakers’ Corner remains a place where where freedom of speech is still classically understood. People like the idea that there are conversations [happening there that] they can’t have in their workplace, conversations they can’t have on the street or conversations they can’t express through social media.”
That’s certainly the case for David, a 30-year-old in Washington and a self-professed “obsessive” fan who subscribes to more than 10 Speakers’ Corner YouTube channels. A Trump voter, David started watching them when he heard that Robinson was heading to the park. “I’m a big fan of Tommy — he’s fighting to save England, and he’s exposing things that the British establishment won’t.”
When I ask whether he thought this was true — and showed him how the British press has been covering events like “grooming gangs” and terrorism long before Robinson became a mainstream figure — he dismisses me. “The press there lie,” he responds. “You guys don’t even have freedom of speech, so how can you [expose] it? Tommy has put his life on the line to let the world know about Muslim gangs in London. When you see these videos, you see how much places like London have been taken over by Muslims and how it’s all been lost.”
“There’s definitely evidence that some groups are weaponizing and exploiting Speakers’ Corner,” says Bryn Harris of the Speakers’ Corner Trust, a group that’s loosely affiliated with Speakers’ Corner and works to set up such spaces elsewhere in the U.K. “And there have been, in recent years, cases where groups have come to Speakers’ Corner not to support the ideals of free speech, but to spread their message to their online networks — basically, to use Speakers’ Corner to legitimize their private campaigns.” And while he doesn’t “consider them to be inherently extremist,” he does admit that the proliferation of these groups has shifted the debates in the park, focusing “less on politics or [current events] that affect everyone’s lives, and more toward pushing religion and identity, that end up playing to their own audiences.”
He also argues, “The answer to these unpleasant — and often extremist — views is more speech. It’s the way to challenge these ideas in open conversation and Speakers’ Corner is the unique platform to do so. Obviously, social media has changed things at the corner. Yes, it can be a problem, and it has been a problem. But the solution to that is in developing social media platforms to encourage healthier and more leveled debate — not clamping down on free expression that makes social media such a great platform to [have conversations] on.”
Whether Harris is correct or is a matter of opinion. At the moment, what’s clear is that this small section of London’s most famous park is still a launchpad for right-wing firebrands. Case in point: As I leave Speakers’ Corner last week, I notice that the Israeli-Australian YouTube personality Avi Yemini, a fan of Tommy Robinson with a history of inflammatory comments about Australian Muslims, is in a heated argument over whether Palestinian children should be classified as enemy combatants. It’s an argument he’s live streaming to an audience of more than 10,000 people online and a group of people in real life, who, in turn, are live streaming it themselves.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” one of the debate’s observers tells me. “He knows that this is going to go viral tomorrow.”