Gaza protests: another challenging weekend successfully policed
Chris Hobbs attends one of the biggest London protests since the Gaza war began last October
The first national pro-Palestine march of 2024 was clearly going to be another huge affair with the attack by the USA and the UK upon the Houthi rebels providing a fresh incentive for the tens of thousands who materialised.
The head of the march was adjacent to Mansion Houe station but could be seen, via Cannon Street to be stretching back well into the City of London, much of which was closed to traffic for the duration. The march, began 40 minutes after the scheduled start time of 12 noon in a somewhat chaotic ’stop-start’ fashion. There was no formal head of the procession but once underway, it soon made good progress.
After its journey through the City, the march went down to the Embankment where the Thames was its companion until Northumberland Avenue where it headed inland to Trafalgar Square which was also a hive of activity.
The ultimate destination was Parliament Square where a stage and screen had been set up with large additional speakers at intervals back along Whitehall so that the vast crowds expected could hear, if not see, proceedings.
This meant passing Downing Street which saw a serial of officers standing behind the steel barriers in front of the gates. Officers, like most of their colleagues were in their normal ‘day,’ uniforms.
Crowds and speeches
Just after 2pm, the first phalanx of marchers chanted ‘shame on you,’ at the Downing Street gates, but after that, the iconic street and its occupant were ignored. There was no congregation at the gates as is so frequently seen at other protests and marchers progressed without incident, to Parliament Square where speeches commenced as the crowds continued streaming down Whitehall.
Thanks to the loudspeakers, marchers could hear those speeches from Trafalgar Square onwards, which may explain both the lack of chanting and the lack of a congregation at Downing Street. Marchers continued to stream down Whitehall but were now quite spread out. Some elected to remain in and around Trafalgar Square where there was an overflow gathering.
Just after 3pm, I was told that marchers were still passing the Temple Station and so decided to walk back to Trafalgar Square and then to the area between Charing Cross and the Embankment Station. What did become obvious was that a significant number of marchers decided that they would, after completing the prescribed route, head for home. However, crowds were still marching along the Embankment and then up Northumberland Avenue.
I observed that the above-mentioned overflow meeting in Trafalgar Square was well attended and then a walk back down to Parliament Square saw, at around 4.30pm, the rally coming to the end. It concluded with an appeal to the remaining audience to leave peacefully, engage in local events until the next national protest in February. I expected Parliament Square to be packed but in fact there were only around 1,500 present in the vicinity of the stage as proceedings ended.
Most seasoned observers present I spoke to, agreed that whilst the march was still huge, numbers were down on previous national events. At the top of Whitehall, stewards were using loudspeakers asking participants to disperse and go home.
The inevitable walkabout
There were, however, two groups of mainly youths who were dancing to music. A march of some sort was inevitable and so it proved with around 100, led by a man with a megaphone moving across the road into Trafalgar Square before setting off for the Strand after ignoring polite requests from stewards and police to disperse. As they paraded in the roadway towards the City, a serial of Met officers rushed to catch up with their police liaison colleagues who had stayed with the marchers.
Minutes later a Police Support Unit (PSU) serial that were ‘kitted’ but minus helmets ran from Charing Cross and relieved the Met serial. They were joined by another PSU and on reaching the pedestrianised area by the Aldwych, neatly contained the marchers. To use the phrase not favoured by those public order commanders, it looked to myself and others that the group had been ‘kettled,’ but apparently it was purely a containment. The marchers, after being instructed by the man with the megaphone, to stay on the footway set off again, back down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square.
On reaching the Square, word was that they were heading towards Piccadilly; carriers on blues and twos were seen heading in that direction and it may have been to deal with a second small marching group that had also decided to extend their day.
Suddenly, the Trafalgar Square group, whose numbers had decreased, were being instructed by the ‘leaders’ to change course, then it was back to the Strand and a retracing of steps except that the protesters remained on the footway. The PSU officers were replaced by those from the Met’s TSG and the point came where it was decided enough was enough.
As the approached the same pedestrianised area where they had been stopped earlier, the TSG moved amongst them instructing them to disperse. Even the man with the megaphone realised their unauthorised walkabout was over. He thanked everyone for their efforts and suggested everyone went home. The day was over.
The Met later issued a statement as follows:
“There were a total of nine arrests: Three arrests for inciting racial hatred – one in relation to a placard and two for chanting. Two arrests for a racially aggravated public order offence – one in relation to a placard and one for wording on a piece of clothing. One arrest for being in possession of items to cause criminal damage – specifically stickers. Three arrests on suspicion of supporting a proscribed organisation (an offence under the Terrorism Act) in relation to the distribution of leaflets.”
Thus, considering that tens of thousands of men, women and children participated, the arrest total was, to say the least, modest. Officers from forces across the country who assisted their Met and City colleagues could return home knowing that another challenging public order operation had been successfully completed. However, another challenge was scheduled for the following day.
Stand with Israel
The ‘Stand with Israel,’ rally was timed to coincide with the fact that 100 days had elapsed since the horrific events of October the 7th. Those entering Trafalgar Square were subject to search by security personnel and the area was awash with Israeli flags punctuated by several that were Iranian although these signalled opposition to the current regime which, of course, actively supports Hamas.
Posters of those still held captive were very much on display. Met officers and the security organisation CST (Community Security Trust; a charity set up to protect members of the Jewish Community that is part funded by the Home Office) were clearly visible.
As the event was underway, a male was detained by officers in handcuffs just in front of the National gallery. Whether this was relevant to the event isn’t known. The next incident concerned half a dozen sheepish looking individuals, one of whom issued a half-hearted, muffled shout of ‘Free Palestine,’ before they all scuttled off.
A stroll around to Whitehall saw another incident where the driver of a vehicle had been handcuffed by local officers who were then assisted by several colleagues from an ‘aid’ serial. An evidence bag was filled and the vehicle was being thoroughly searched but this incident appeared unconnected with the nearby support Israel event.
Meanwhile, back towards Trafalgar Square events had taken an unexpected turn.
Those, including myself, who had attended pro-Palestine events during this and previous crises, had become aware that that they had been attended by men, women and indeed children who appeared to be part of the orthodox Jewish Community. When I first observed them amidst hundreds of pro-Palestinian marchers at a protest near the Israeli Embassy, my concern was for their safety yet there seemed no animosity directed towards them, indeed they were being welcomed and feted.
However, an examination of their placards and posters provided an explanation; whilst clearly Jewish, they were against the Israeli State and Zionism and for a ‘free Palestine.’ These orthodox, Hasidic Jews are part of the Natura Carta sect and led by a Rabbi. Needless to say, they are unpopular with other Jews, whether orthodox or otherwise.
They had been clearly visible the previous day to the pro-Palestinian marchers as they approached Trafalgar Square and their numbers included children. They had not, however, been seen at pro-Israeli rallies and, frankly, it was a surprise to see a relatively small number standing on a pedestrian traffic island opposite Trafalgar Square itself. There were no children present on this occasion.
A couple of non-Jewish pro-Palestinian protesters were also present and a large poster based on thin wood, was all too clearly visible. Their presence was already attracting attention and must have been initially confusing to those officers not familiar with the group.
This meant that the Hasidic group were receiving face to face abuse and threats from pro-Israeli supporters. One Hasidic male received a ‘sucker punch,’ to the face administered by an individual who duly fled. Another jumped up and punched the wooden banner causing it to partially crack. Those holding it managed to push it back together.
The hostile crowd grew in numbers and more police formed a cordon between the now two distinctive groups. Fortunately, most within the Square remained unaware of the confrontation that was occurring a few yards away. Suddenly, one of the pro-Israel group ran around the back of the Hasidic group and with a basketball type leap, brought his fist down on the wooden banner which duly crumbled into a number of pieces. The individual grabbed one of the larger pieces and holding it above his head, like an FA Cup winning captain, ran across the road and vanished into the still crowded Trafalgar Square.
The arrival of more officers ensured that most of the pro-Israeli group were now on the other side of the road. CST were aware of the situation and commendably decided to ensure that most of those in Trafalgar Square were, on departing, diverted to an exit route which would mean they wouldn’t witness the ongoing confrontation.
Suddenly, officers formed a ‘bubble’ around the Hasidic contingent and the group moved off down Northumberland Avenue. The pro-Israel group followed, still hurling insults. The confrontation ended when a black people carrier arrived together with a white saloon. The Hasidic Jews loaded their placards and banners and then themselves before the vehicles drove off.
The Met later issues a statement which dealt briefly with this confrontation and arrests and, given the current tensions, must have been delighted that such large, contentious public order events had passed off with no major disorder. Praise, however, from both the mainstream and social media was, unsurprisingly, conspicuously lacking.
Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer who follows large public order events for Police Oracle as an observer
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