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Viewpoint: a day out with the COVID-19 deniers

Former Met officer Chris Hobbs casts a professional eye over the policing of the weekend's anti-lockdown demonstrations which he joined as an observer.

Viewpoint: a day out with the COVID-19 deniers

Date - 1st December 2020
By - Chris Hobbs
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Yet another day of anti-Lockdown protest began well for the Met’s public order tacticians. The protest was to start on the expansive frontage of Kings Cross Station as opposed to the original choice of Battersea Park. The organisers apparently believed it would be easy for them to be ‘locked-in’ or ‘kettled' in Battersea Park with its apparent dearth of entrances and exits.

Accordingly, the Met deployed lots of officers at the front of the station who swiftly ‘engaged’ with arriving protesters and politely advised them to be on their way. There were some animated discussions and an individual who presumably became too animated was arrested.

Word spread amongst forlorn looking protesters on the footways surrounding the station that a new revised starting point was the Angel in Islington. A convoy of police transits on ‘blues and twos’ heading away from Kings Cross suggested that the Met had picked up the new instructions too. The Angel saw a couple of arrests, more forlorn protesters and a new, familiar rendezvous point of Speaker’s Corner.

The gathering at Speaker’s Corner

Whilst there was a Met presence at the new venue, they clearly did not have the numbers to disperse protesters before they gathered into larger groups and ultimately one large group, which could only be dispersed using the level of brute force seen on the continent.

Eventually, the group, by now several thousand strong left the park and crossed the road to the arch itself watched by a handful of police. After chanting, ‘choose your side’ at those officers present they swarmed into Oxford Street. The now familiar pattern of taking over the entire road began and the chants of ‘freedom’ bounced off the empty stores.

Police were now playing catch-up and, as the crowd reached Oxford Circus, a group of officers managed to reach the head of the procession and make an arrest. Predictably, the crowd turned on police who retreated, with their prisoner, to the side of the road and found themselves backed up against a Pandora shopfront. Batons were drawn, smoke bombs thrown and an ugly confrontation ensued which was ended by the arrival of Territorial Support Group.

Shouts of “move on” saw the marchers immediately turn right into Regent Street where matters degenerated into chaos as some of the crowd took a left turn into a much narrower Great Marlborough Street. Those at the head of the march were confronted by police further along the road while others became concerned as to the possibility of being ‘kettled’ and decided to leave the confrontation by walking along the world famous Carnaby Street.

Four police officers standing at the junction of Great Marlborough Street and Carnaby, looked at each other nervously and began unbuckling their riot helmets hanging from their belts.

I decided that I most certainly did not want the embarrassment of being ‘kettled’ and possibly arrested and followed the crowd along Carnaby Street before taking a right back into Regent Street. Crowds of protesters remained in Regent Street as if uncertain of what to do next. ‘Leaders’ held a conference and acknowledged they had lost control of proceedings.

Then there were three

There were now three groups of protesters, thus while each lacked the power of the one formidable group, each was a problem to police who strangely didn’t have their usual helicopter support.

Protesters were now being politely told to move on or risk arrest. Further incidents were to follow. In St James Park, a group of police officers found themselves surrounded by a hostile crowd who chanted paedophiles. Police reinforcements ran across the park to their assistance.

In Oxford Street, footage clearly shows protesters dismantling plastic road works barriers and throwing them into the roadway thus obstructing buses. The same footage also shows barriers being thrown at police officers and a protesting mother clutching the hands of her two small children walking amongst those strewn barriers.

Move or face arrest

Inevitably, some protesters ended up in Parliament Street and Whitehall. It was clear now that police were telling those involved to go or risk arrest and, indeed, I heard such an instruction broadcast to all units over the radio. One protester was arrested and as he was led to a police van, protesters followed shouting abuse and ‘shame on you’ at police.

As far as I could see, those arrested were those who, quite simply, refused to do as they were told. Other arrests were those that could be expected at any public order event where there was antagonism towards either the government, the police or both.

The protesters could hardly claim they were unaware of what could happen. The protest exemption had been withdrawn from the Lockdown 2 regulations; Priti Patel had made it clear that she expected more robust action from police and the Met had issued an advance statement clearly warning of the potential consequences for those attending.

Uniquely complex

Yet, of course, the situation in respect of anti-Lockdown protests is uniquely complex; not just in the UK but throughout Europe.

The one chant that unites them is ‘freedom’ and the belief that the government is engaged in some bizarre international plot to deprive individuals of that freedom. Within the group however are several beliefs: That Covid is a myth and doesn’t exist; that Covid exists but is no worse than flu; that something is making people unwell and that something is 5G; that there is a plot to compulsorily vaccinate everyone and something sinister will be placed in the vaccine; that, according to a group QAnon, there is a current ongoing international paedophile ring involving child trafficking and sexual abuse.

One common denominator amongst all the anti-Lockdown movements across Europe is that they seem to consist of many with far-right allegiances. On London marches, familiar faces can be found from Tommy Robinson and Yellow Vest protests. The protesters are predominately but not exclusively white yet one complaint from ‘patriots’ is that police treat the anti-Lockdown protesters with ‘brutality’ because those protesters are white. Black Lives Matter protesters receive preferential treatment due to ‘political correctness.’

The allegation of ‘dual’ or ‘two tier’ policing can be found in hundreds of posts across social media and is one that I’ll be considering in a separate article.

Not a mass movement

However, it worth pointing out, that despite the widespread dissatisfaction with many aspects of this government’s handling of this crisis and several newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, having noticeably moved into the anti-Lockdown lobby, the protests in London have failed in their objective of becoming mass movements.

Given that Trafalgar Square reportedly holds 19,000, the anti-Lockdown rallies held there have only half filled the square although photographs taken of the concentrated centre areas create the impression of a ‘packed house.’

According to Sky News, Saturday’s protest attracted some 3,000 individuals; my own estimate would be closer to 4,000 which, even allowing for those on coaches turned away by police and those dissuaded from attending by the prospect of arrest, is a relatively moderate turnout.

In other cities, protests have numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands and it surely must be argued in order to be an effective mass movement, such protests need to generate gatherings on a scale akin to protests in relation to the Poll Tax, the Iraq War, the visit of Trump and even the People's Vote.

At present, whatever reservations the public may have as to Boris and his government’s handling of this pandemic, it doesn’t look as this will translate into protests with those attending in numbers of six or even seven figures.

Well, not yet anyway.

Meanwhile the conspiracy theorists are having a field day with serious suggestions that Saturday’s protest was policed by a): Special forces b): G4S.

Chris Hobbs is a retired Metropolitan Police officer who served in Special Branch

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