Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.
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By Peter Dreier | Jul 17, 2018
On July 13, an NPR interview with London Mayor Sadiq Khan turned into a debate over the right to peaceful protest. While the topic of the interview was purportedly Trump’s U.K. visit and his harsh criticisms of Khan, reporter Mary Louise Kelly instead used the opportunity to pick a fight with the mayor over whether a giant “Trump Baby” balloon that hovered over the anti-Trump protests in London went beyond the bounds of acceptable dissent.
Trump’s comments about Khan were part of the same explosive interview with The Sun in which he attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of their meeting in London. In the Sun story, Trump launched several broadsides at Khan, a Labour Party member who has been London’s mayor since 2016—among them, “You have a mayor who has done a terrible job in London,” “I think he’s done a terrible job on terrorism,” and “I think he has done a bad job on crime, if you look, all of the horrible things going on there, with all of the crime that is being brought in.”
Kelly began the interview by asking Khan: “I’m holding a copy of The Sun, which as you know has a scathing interview with President Trump today in which he tears into you for doing a terrible job as mayor and doing a terrible job keeping this city safe. What’s your response?”
Khan tried to be diplomatic. The New York Times’ fact-checking analysis noted that Trump’s remarks about Khan and London were misleading, but Khan didn’t seek to specifically rebut Trump’s remarks. Instead, Khan—who has often jousted with Trump and with The Sun, a right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch—simply said, “Well, one of the great things about our city and our country is we have a free press. And we also have the right to protest, the right to free speech.” Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, didn’t directly counter Trump’s provocative comment, that Europe was “losing its culture,” and facing rising crime, because of immigration. Nor did he address Trump’s inflammatory attack on May.
“Well, he’s entitled to have his views,” Khan told Kelly. “I’m not going to rise to the individual things President Trump said. I’m hoping during the course of his visit he sees a city and a country very comfortable with ourselves, very comfortable with our diversity. That’s something we should celebrate and not be scared of.”
When it became clear that Khan was not going to respond in kind to Trump, Kelly picked a fight with Khan, asking him whether he should have prohibited the giant balloon depicting Trump as a screaming orange baby in a diaper—holding a cellphone with Twitter on the screen—that floated above Parliament Square, where about 250,000 people rallied against the American president.
Kelly asked: “Speaking of protests, down near Parliament today—a giant Trump baby blimp. You signed off on this. You have history of bad blood with President Trump. Is this your way of taking a pot shot at him?”
Khan defended people’s right to protest, but Kelly wouldn’t relinquish her line of questioning: “But the blimp is such a striking visual. It will be the image beamed around the world of London, the city you run, all day today. It will be seen as London raising a middle finger to President Trump.”
Khan refused to take the bait, again defending the right to protest. At that point, Kelly went ballistic, asking Khan: “If somebody wanted to float a blimp of a naked Theresa May over Parliament, that would be OK?”
Khan kept his cool, despite Kelly’s outrageous question.
“Look, the limitations are quite clear,” he said. “They’re there in the rules. They’ve got to be peaceful. They’ve got to be safe. It’s really important that police—”
Kelly interrupted: “A naked Theresa May would be peaceful and safe. Would that be all right?”
Many politicians would have ended the interview at that point, but Khan calmly responded: “It’s really important that police sign off on them as well. So a blimp has got to be signed off by—not just by City Hall staff, certainly by the police and the National Air Traffic Services as well. But people are finding—”
Kelly—the co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered who should have learned something about civil liberties while majoring in government at Harvard and earning a master’s in European Studies at England’s Cambridge University—interrupted him again. “But you run this town,” she said. “You allowed this.”
Khan didn’t let Kelly rattle him. He explained: “Well, can you imagine what your listeners would think if the politicians curtailing free speech, curtailing the right to protest simply because somebody’s offended—what’s next? The key thing is it should be done in a peaceful manner and should be good-spirited.”
By that time, Kelly realized that Khan wasn’t going to be lured by her provocation, so she abruptly ended the interview.
“Mayor Khan, thank you for taking the time,” she said.
“My pleasure,” Khan responded with obvious irony.
Kelly ended the four-minute segment with: “That’s Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.”