The Big Ride for Palestine 2020 in a North West lockdown

By Sally Hobbs

For the past five years, I have participated in an annual cycling event which aims to draw attention to the continued occupation of Palestine and support Palestinians and their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against companies who  profit from their hardship. The Big Ride for Palestine is timed to coincide internationally with similar events in Palestine and across Europe, the USA and Australia. It is an important act of solidarity that is recognised and welcomed by Palestinians.

In the time I’ve been involved, participation has grown annually. It is a fantastically diverse mix including passionate cyclists, students, young BAME women and men and refugees including Palestinian and Syrian families.  The solidarity built on a three-day ride creates long lasting contact with socialists and supporters nationally. Our rallies in town centres and targeted actions such as the successful blockade of Shenstone UAV factory which builds drones for Israel military use have built awareness and support from the wider public.

This year, despite Covid restrictions, it felt ever more important to continue, as Israel, backed by Trump and with little international outcry, goes ahead with its plan to annex a further 30% of Palestine’s lands. While this has been declared illegal by the UN, alongside the continued brutal occupation by the Israeli army, media and political opposition to this travesty of justice is muted. It continues to be essential, as socialists and Labour supporters, to raise the focus and advocate for BDS and to maintain an international policy of opposition to Israel’s actions in the Labour party.

Over 400 riders signed up to participate this year across the UK. Due to Covid restrictions the arrangements have been very different, with participants organising their own rides in groups of up to 6 and sharing our participation through social media and targeted media. My own ride in Greater Manchester, though, took place in the context of the new lockdown announced at 9.30pm on Thursday night on Twitter, by Matt Hancock.

Cycling 44 miles round Manchester on Saturday, we passed through Cheetham, Longsight, Rusholme and Old Trafford; all areas where normally Eid celebrations would ensure restaurants and streets would be packed with families. Cycling on the Big Ride is always a positive experience; and an overwhelming proportion of those we pass signal their support, hoot, shout and wave. Hostility is rare and in less affluent communities, particularly Asian and BAME communities, the Big Ride is also received as an act of solidarity and the response is often overwhelming, with people lining the streets, cheering and waving.

But this year, the streets were empty.  Drivers hooted support and those on the streets waved and some shouted thanks but very few people were out. The areas we passed through with more white middle class communities were quieter than usual, but pubs and cafes were still full of groups who did not look to be from one household only. The response of communities to the lockdown is starkly different; many people I have spoken to are continuing to see friends and family outside their own household, and to eat and drink together in homes, gardens, pubs and restaurants. This is clearly not so where Asian communities are living.

The lockdown in the North West, announced on Twitter at 9.30 pm, for implementation at midnight, allowed no opportunity for scrutiny or challenge, with local MPs told to get online, read the briefing and sign up to support it within a 15 minute window. I am pleased Labour MPs did not. This heralded a new all-time low in the democratic process – no ministerial public presentation, no scrutiny and introducing a law, which criminalised those who breach the new rules from midnight that night. Legally, a family hosting a visit from other relatives that night committed a criminal offence by not evicting them at midnight. There was a clear threat from Hancock that the police had been asked to monitor and arrest people in breach. I wonder where the police were being asked to look.

The impact was clearly targeted at Muslim communities. Comrades from public health backgrounds have told me they are certain the lockdown was planned at least a week before but deliberately introduced without the opportunity for scrutiny. And while there may have been public health advice indicating this was important, the evidence is far from entirely clear. The Director of Public Health in Trafford, for example, stated that the spike in her area was concentrated in the two most affluent areas where young people were acting as if Coronavirus no longer exists. The impact of Covid, meanwhile, continues to be greatest in BAME and poorer communities.

This is happening in a context where the needs of the wealthy and business are the government’s priorities, with 127 new laws brought in during the Covid period, 107 of them without parliamentary scrutiny. This last underhand act leaves Asian communities angry and targeted, while Tory MPs, including Craig Whittaker, Tory MP for Calder Valley, make racially charged statements and blame Muslims for the lockdown.