A Christmas ‘shut it down’ protest ‘for Palestine’
Written by Chris Hobbs
If it’s a Saturday, there must be another pro-Palestinian protest and so it proved just two days before Christmas on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
The theme of the protest was ‘shut it down,’ which could be interpreted as shutting Christmas down, shutting Christmas shopping down or shutting down certain stores deemed to have Israeli links. In fact, in London and other cities it has meant the latter – there have been incursions into stores both in the UK and abroad.
The protest was due to commence from Soho Square at 12 noon and initially, at the appointed time, the event looked as if it might be a damp squib with barely 200 present. However, perhaps due to transport issues, the numbers gradually increased and at 12.45pm the march, now numbering around a thousand, set off along Soho Street.
There were only a handful of police officers present, mainly police liaison officers in their distinctive blues tabards. The first potential target was a Zara store just a short distance away on the corner of Soho Street at the junction with Oxford Street. It appears that the hostility shown towards Zara is linked to an advertising campaign which featured images which pro-Palestinians claim was linked to Gaza. Zara halted the campaign. There are also claims that the Zara franchise holder in Israel is linked to the Israeli far-right.
The somewhat bewildered looked Zara security personnel duly locked their front doors and were supported by three security personnel from Westminster City Council whose role throughout the march was to assist store security staff in the event of an incursion.
Oxford Street, traffic and intrigued onlookers
Protesters spilled out into Oxford Street blocking the world- famous street to traffic in both directions. Scotland Yard were later to deny there had been any such total blockage but, in any event, this lasted a short period of time. After a few minutes the march moved off and gradually occupied just one side of the road which is standard for most protests.
Several more officers joined the march which was nevertheless lightly policed. Keeping a careful eye on events as they occurred on the streets was a Met ‘bronze’ Chief Superintendent, flanked by two officers, who would doubtless have been aware of additional resources at his disposal should events take a more sinister turn.
In fact, the march itself seemed to be an additional welcome distraction for Christmas shoppers and tourists who paused to observe that which was occurring and in doing so produced the inevitable forest of mobile phones to film events.
Marks and Spencer stores have previously been the subjects of attention by pro-Palestine protesters but on this occasion the Oxford Street store was ignored and, in fact, kept its doors open. The next stop for the protesters was a second Zara store which, like its cousin further back up the road, temporarily shut it doors.
Led by an individual in a bizarre Palestinian mask, there was a few minutes of chanting and sticker affixing before the march set off again. Interestingly, any sinister vibes, which critics claim is always present at these protests, was somewhat mitigated by the fact that many of the marchers were sporting Santa hats.
At Oxford Circus itself there was the slightly incongruous sight of a group of carol singers performing on one corner while the protesters turned left at the corner opposite into Regent Street. The one common factor was those Santa hats and there was no hostility whatsoever from the marchers towards the carol singers; in fact, quite the reverse.
Police, protesters and the press outside the second Zara store.
Carnaby Street and the targeting of Puma
Events took a surprising turn in Regent Street when the protesters suddenly diverted down a narrow alleyway which seemed totally unsuited to the numbers. The reason soon became clear; their objective was Carnaby Street with the specific target being the Puma store; It would appear that Puma has a close relationship with Israel and supply kit to the Israeli national football team.
The store, predictably, closed its doors with a security guard remaining at its entrance. Because of the narrow nature of the iconic street, the marchers were ‘backed up,’ for some distance and this meant separate ‘group activities’ namely speeches and music for the various sections.
Outside Puma, speeches were being made and eventually a sound system complete with a speaker was produced. There was also chanting and some dancing. I did hear the word, ‘intifada,’ included in one chant.
After an hour and half, an announcement was made that the protest was ending and that participants should make their way home. This was a surprise as both police and protesters assumed that the protest would continue to Downing Street. It was then that the only issue between protesters and police occurred.
Suddenly there were familiar chants of, ‘Let them go,’ and a small number of police officers were surrounded by protesters. The situation was soon resolved when it became obvious that officers were merely chatting to some protesters and their compatriots assumed the worst.
The reaction to the protest was interesting in that views from both those on the left and right appeared to converge. Those linked to the protest organisers, Sisters Uncut, appeared jubilant that shopping had been ‘disrupted’ while those on the right portrayed the protesters as resembling the rampaging hordes of Attila the Hun.
Reality and reaction
In fact, the most accurate conclusion would have been that of the police officer who drafted the threat assessment which clearly concluded that ‘light touch,’ policing involving a handful of officers would suffice.
Despite the views of those of the left and right, disruption was minimal and no worse than that seen at any other protest. In Oxford Street only two Zara stores were inconvenienced by having to shut for very short periods of time. Traffic, as with every protest that takes place in and around Oxford Street, was brought to a halt but again only for relatively short periods of time.
Shoppers could still make their way along the pavements but most preferred to stop and look at what taking place. There was no intimidation of innocents clutching their children cowering in shop doorways.
It was, of course, a relatively low-key protest; small groups of masked youths could be seen and the one feature was worthy of comment concerned an individual who appeared to be wearing some sort of khaki protective tactical vest as if imitating a Hamas terrorist. He was ushered through the crowd by several individuals and could be seen dancing and singing with others. However, he was also in possession of a black hooded puffa jacket which he donned presumably to hide his prized possession from curious police officers.
This, of course, was a relatively small protest and another national protest is scheduled for London on January 13. This will doubtless require a substantial policing operation in order to deal with the relatively small number of youths who would welcome the chance of fomenting serious disorder together with those few carrying illicit posters and placards.
Those criticising the police in respect of Saturday’s events would do well to remember the ‘storming,’ of Westfield in Shepherds Bush by anti-Lockdown protesters that involved clashes with police and frightened shoppers leaving in their hundreds.
As far as Christmas spirit was concerned there was little of that in evidence during another anti-Lockdown protest which occurred in Parliament Square a week before Christmas in 2021; officers were attacked for merely attempted to facilitate the progress of an officer and his motor-cycle through a crowd.
More recently, earlier this year, anti-Globalisation protesters targeted St Thomas’s Hospital, laying siege to the main entrance and placing numerous stickers on hospital windows for reasons that even baffled some of the protesters.
Thus, in terms of this particular protest, it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, violent or particularly disruptive. That doesn’t excuse poor behaviour at other protests and indeed on Boxing Day protesters targeted Westfields in Stratford before being ushered out by police.
Clearly the Palestinian issue has polarised opinion and the potential for violent disorder surrounding protests linked to this contentious issue remains. That doesn’t, however, excuse inaccurate reporting designed to inflame, still further, passions on both sides of this inexorable, bloody conflict.
Category: Public Order
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