A BBC television documentary in 2021 described Totnes (population 8400) as “fiercely independent.”
Totnes Times newspaper. 11 November 2021.
Front page headline said: “COUNCIL REJECTS ANTI-VAX FORUM.
Sub-heading. Conspiracy group ‘causing distress and division’ in town, told freedom of speech is not freedom to lie.
I cannot say I heard much in the way of distress in Totnes, based in south Devon, England, but the town holds a diverse range of views on the global pandemic.
For example, a year ago I put a view on government response to Covid on Totnesians, a Facebook page for locals and others. I did not regard what I wrote as particularly contentious. Within an hour or two, there were more than 100 comments – for, against, both and neither.
The Administrator blocked further comments.
A prime example of conflict of views in the town occurred last month (November 2021) between Totnes Town Council and a proposed Covid “Truth Conference” with some of the UK prominent anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists giving talks and taking questions.
The Council banned the meeting in the Civic Hall claiming anti-vaxxers “spread lies dangerous to people’s health.”
The decision triggered a protest among range of Totnesians. A petition in the town called upon the Council to revoke its decision as the Civic Hall is a public facility. Leading anti-vaxxers accused the Council of suppressing free speech and “giving in to bullies, censorship and outright totalitarianism.”
Posters for the conference said “THE AWAKENING CONFERENCE. BREAKING THE SPELL. SATURDAY 20 November. 3 pm to 10 pm.
This is Totnes. It would have been a vibrant lively debate for seven hours. We would have had the opportunity to listen to a wide range of views and equally express a broad range of counterviews.
Totnes Times said conspiracy theorists due to speak at the conference included Gareth Icke (son of prominent conspiracy theorist, David Icke), Dr. Stephen Hopwood, founder of New World Alliance, Patrick Henningen, a writer for UK Column News, Qanon speaker Sheldon Tasker and Anne de Buisseret, a former lawyer and fierce critic of vaccinations.
I felt it unfortunate that the Council banned the conference. It seemed patronising. This is Totnes. Devon. We live in farming country but we are not sheep nor polite, deferential listeners.
Why issue a ban? Are we afraid of views and opinions passing through the air?
Totnes Times 25 November 2021
Front page headline said: ANTI-VAX PROTESTORS STOP TRAFFIC
The Awakening Conference organisers decided to hold a protest demonstration on the Saturday of the following week. The Mayor of Totnes described the planned demonstration as an act of “provocation” and “distressing” for many in the town.
The Mayor said, “I’m really sorry that so many gentle souls and seekers after truth and insight have been conned by these people.”
The street protestors called on the government and NHS to abolish Covid passes and stop the vaccinations on children. The demonstrators filled Totnes high street down to Fore Street at the foot of the town.
The Mayor said local citizens acted with a “mature, tolerant attitude and allowed the five coach loads of activists with a handful of locals to drift down the high street.”
The Mayor’s view that only a ‘handful of locals’ participated seems far-fetched. This is Totnes. Rainbow Country. Inspiration for the Transition Town movement employed around the world. Communities, Sharpham House, Dartington Estate, Steiner School, Gaia House, organic farms, home schooling within a few miles of the town.
Three years ago, independent voices in the town declared Totnes an ‘Independent City State” and issued passports to protest against Brexiteers who spread lies in its meetings in the town and the rest of the country, yet the town did not ban Brexit meetings.
While sitting drinking oat latte in the coffee shop, I witnessed the start of the demonstration with perhaps up to 2000 people walking with various banners on freedom, trust, media, science and more.
I had no interest to join the demonstration. I have no interest whatsoever to support conspiracy theorists. I have no interest to ban them from public debate on issues of our time. I have no interest to adopt a view that vaccinations every few months, masks, social isolation and lockdown will stop the pandemic. I regard the vaccinations ( still primarily for available for rich countries), covid passports for public venues and lockdown as a narrow-minded response to a global crisis.
We need Awakening Conferences to address the pandemic embracing an overview and exploring ways to work with this highly contagious virus and a mental/physical health crisis. Vaccinations, masks and plenty of ventilation have a part to offer.
It was divisive to ban the opportunity for a public debate in Totnes on a major global issue. The conspiracy theorists would not have had an easy time in Totnes. Totnes Council missed a beat. A pity. If being lectured to, I would expect plenty of us would speak with our feet and walk out.
This is Totnes. Fiercely independent.