Public order: a largely uneventful but still controversial protest
Chris Hobbs follows last weekend's Gaza war protests in London where the challenges posed to policing by prejudice and intolerance remain
The protest was the subject of controversy before the event with the Met apparently telling the organisers that they did not wish the march to enter Whitehall but terminate at Trafalgar Square. Further discussion saw the matter resolved with the Met agreeing to the march ending at a stage in Whitehall which would be situated beyond the Cenotaph. As with previous protests, speeches would then commence.
Portland Place was the starting point and the atmosphere was animated to say the least as the large crowds gathered. The head of the march was well stewarded and set off just before 1pm. A Zara store in Regent Street was an early, potential flashpoint: Zara stores with alleged links to Israel, have been targeted in the past and, on this occasion, was duly guarded by a serial of ‘kitted’ officers; however, the marchers passed by with most paying no attention to it whatsoever.
There was a report of a small group in Piccadilly Circus brandishing Union Jack flags but by the time the head of the march reached the iconic landmark, they had gone. The march progressed to Whitehall without any notable incident and, as previously, a serial of officers at Downing Street braced themselves for protesters to halt and voice their displeasure in relation to government support for Israel.
Once again, other than some chants of ‘shame on you,’ most protesters carried on to the stage. Protesters were still arriving as the speeches began, but interestingly, many showed little interest in what was being said.
Criticism and compromise
Interestingly the opening announcement from the main stage involved criticism of the Met for initially attempting to conclude the march at Trafalgar Square. The fact that the Met was prepared to listen and change the arrangements could have been portrayed as a positive but, perhaps predictably, it wasn’t.
It soon became clear that the march was probably the smallest of the series thus far. In fact, there was plenty of room from the Cenotaph back along Whitehall all the way to Trafalgar Square. Having said that, the march was still, by any standards a large one and still, by any standards, an orderly one.
Once again, it was interesting to see that many marchers, once having completed the route, headed straight for home. As at previous protests, yet again present was a gathering of distinctive orthodox Jews from the Naturei Karta sect who oppose the state of Israel and Zionism. There was also a significant group of British Jews who gathered behind a large banner which stated, ‘Not in our name.’ Another group could be found under a ‘Climate Change,’ banner and were led by a familiar individual who normally leads and orchestrates ‘Just Stop Oil,’ protests having been arrested on at least two occasions.
Along Whitehall, other groups gathered to chant and sing to drumbeats sometimes in an unfamiliar language which made it difficult to ascertain whether they might be ‘actionable.’ Another small group courting controversy displayed a large ‘pro-Palestine’ banner clearly indicating they were Celtic supporters. A section of Celtic supporters who have shown their support for the Palestinian cause at matches have been banned by the club.
The meeting on the main stage finished after two hours and the crowds mostly dispersed. Several small groups remained and the issue was then whether there would be a ‘walkabout,’ as has been the case at every other protest. Not however on this occasion; the stage was being quickly dismantled and traffic officers were busy getting vehicles moving around Trafalgar Square.
Just four individuals were arrested during the afternoon and no injuries were reported to have been inflicted upon any Met, City or BTP officers. Controversy however was about to erupt across social media.
The sticker that went viral
A photo appeared of a Met officer with a pro-Palestinian sticker on his right sleeve. To those of us who have frequently observed protesters attempting to clandestinely affixing stickers to the uniforms of unaware officers, this came as no surprise after the anti-Lockdown and environmental demonstrations.
Social media however exploded in triumph. Here was clear evidence of Met ‘wokeness,’ and bias. Most of the venom came from sections of the far-right but included a Tory MP and the Campaign for Anti-Semitism. The Met quickly issued a statement which stated that the sticker had been affixed without the officer’s knowledge and this was accepted by most albeit not all. The fact that the officer’s image appeared across social media in such circumstances, did, according to the Met, cause the officer significant distress.
Free speech or breaking the law?
However, the appearance of several placards drew further criticism in terms of the lack of police action; that of course assumes that amidst between 20 and 50 thousand protesters, they were actually spotted.
There would then, of course, be the question of taking the reasons for the arrest over the hurdles of the custody officer, the CPS followed by a judge and jury. Similar factors would apply to chants such as the contentious and frequently chanted, ‘from the river to the sea,’ mantra: Legal arguments as to that which is illegal and that which exemplifies ‘freedom of speech,’ would indeed be absorbing to listen to.
In the meantime, social media is filled with anti-police rhetoric together with comments that illustrate sheer hatred directed by various factions, some railing against Muslims and others against Jews.
Speaking as a pupil who attended a school in Hackney that drew 49% of its pupils from the Jewish community and who, with Jewish friends attended protests against the National Front, it is sad to see such divisions exposed again.
The current furore and anti-police bile brings back memories of the two occasions when we very forcibly stepped in when individual police officers who had become isolated from their colleagues, were attacked by those anti-fascists we were protesting with. Public order policing has come a long way since then; alas the challenges posed by prejudice and intolerance remain.
Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer who follows public order events as an observer for Police Oracle
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