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Coronation duty: boots on the ground tell a different story

Chris Hobbs was on the ground observing the day before and during the Coronation and says he witnessed a much-criticised service doing a fine job.

Coronation duty: boots on the ground tell a different story

Date - 10th May 2023
By - Chris Hobbs
7 Comments 7 Comments}

It was midday; the day after the momentous event that enthralled the world yet there was almost an inevitability about the lead story on BBC’s Radio 5 Live news. The Coronation featured but it was the policing of it which took precedence over everything else which had occurred.

Since then, the issue has dominated the headlines with the Met very much on the back-foot. However, at the time of writing Sir Mark Rowley has published an article in the Evening Standard which will, hopefully, significantly change the public perception of events.

The exact circumstances of those arrests will certainly be explored and investigated still further over the next days, weeks and months. Suffice it to say that media implications which suggested that all the arrests were of innocent protesters have now been corrected. Doubtless there was intelligence; doubtless the hierarchy of the Met tad taken legal advice from their own department in respect of the new legislation and doubtless, where there was a ‘prem search,’ a magistrate had to be satisfied there was sufficient grounds for a warrant.

It may well be that the Independent Office for Police Conduct or Her Majesty’s Inspectorate or another police force will be asked to hold an investigation. Interestingly, the Sara Everard Vigil has, yet again, featured in criticisms of the Coronation arrests. Such criticism conveniently omits the fact that the Inspectorate largely exonerated police action on the night and, more tellingly, a video timeline shot during the vigil by a well- known anti-racist activist reviled by the far-right, showed where blame should be apportioned and it wasn’t to the Met.

Those senior officers involved in the policing operation would have been concerned by the incident at Buckingham Palace the previous Tuesday where shotgun shells were thrown onto the Palace grounds and officers found it necessary to carry out a controlled explosion. It was clear that if any protest interfered with the Coronation especially on the procession route, the incident would be headlines around the world and tarnish the event.

The Mayor’s comment in the immediate aftermath of the Coronation, was all too predictable: “Some of the arrests made by police as part of the Coronation event raise questions and whilst investigations are ongoing, I've sought urgent clarity from Met leaders on the action taken.”

While this response from a retired officer will have resonated with many officers of all ranks involved in the operation; “And if there had been disruption you would have been the first to criticise the Met for not doing enough.”

Indeed, it wouldn’t just have been the Mayor who would have heaped criticism on the Met and its officers if significant disruption had occurred. The media from the Guardian to the Mail would all have had a field day while the Commissioner, if still in post, would be spending much of his time answering to various committees, inquiries and investigations.

Those who loathe police, including the Mail (not tough enough on protesters) to the Guardian (too tough on protesters) have had that field day in any event.

The day before

The Friday saw a huge increase in activity in central London. Around Trafalgar Square, rather depressing, soulless dark green walls were being constructed which included the plinth that surrounds Nelson’s column. I made the comment that it had begun to resemble the Alamo. I didn’t realise how prophetic that tweet was going to be. As would be expected, metal barriers could be seen everywhere while revellers complete with tents and folding chairs were making themselves comfortable along The Mall.

Increased numbers of police could be seen with many sporting visible differences in uniform which indicated the arrival of officers from across the country. One group of officers who stood out from the rest were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) resplendent in their smart green uniforms.

I duly asked a male and female officer who were working together, whether they’d mind posing for a photo. They were happy to do so and it was duly posted on twitter. The result was quite astonishing in that it went rather viral with, thus far, almost 142,000 views.

It was clear that all the officers from outside London were delighted to be part of the Met’s biggest ever operation. The bright weather mirrored the atmosphere and relations between officers from all forces and the public were excellent.

The one major challenge was allowing pedestrians to cross roads, especially around St James’s Park, that were also being used for VIP and police movements. This required quite complex interactions involving police and stewards which worked surprisingly well. The stewards were clearly well trained and briefed which was to prove a marked contrast to events witnessed the following day.

So, on Coronation day, it was a walk down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square where the anti-monarchists planned to stage their main protest. There was no problem entering the Square and about 300 mainly yellow clad protesters could be seen gathered at  the bottom left hand corner close to Northumberland Avenue. This gave them a view of the route. Clearly an incident had occurred as they were chanting ‘free Graham Smith;’ one of their leaders.

Trafalgar Square was busy but not over-crowded while the anti-monarchists were clearly in the minority. 

I had no view of the route but it seemed that any appearance of ‘officialdom,’ which included members of the armed forces resulted in boos and jeers from the anti-monarchists.

A temporary tower overlooked this section of the square and perched at the top were police officers with cameras. At one stage a scuffle broke out and officers quickly moved to deal with the situation.

‘You can stick your Coronation up your arse,’ was another favourite of the anti-monarchists but there were no other incidents which required police intervention. The actual procession, which I heard rather than saw thanks to the boos and jeers heralded a ‘natural break,’ before the return journey accompanied by the massed ranks of marching armed forces personnel.

The Square began to empty; some, having seen the first procession were content with that while others simply needed a comfort break and/or some refreshment.

Stewards and the green wall of Trafalgar Square

This resulted in the first glitch of the day. At the Strand, the green wall had just one small door as its exit and a large crowd was trying to leave through it. It was an unedifying and ludicrous spectacle. As I watched the commendably patient crowd, a Chief Superintendent appeared together with a Superintendent plus three officers and the inevitable clipboard. She surveyed the situation and was clearly not impressed. I approached and was greeted with a smile and an explanation that the Met was not involved in the planning of this side of the operation.

I tried to find another exit, but that was easier said than done. The next door, close to the Charing Cross Road was also shut and stewards were not letting anyone out into the Charing Cross Road other than several police officers carrying boxes of ‘snacks.’

I walked along the front of the National Gallery but was separated from freedom by the exit-less green wall. I wasn’t alone as hundreds of others were doing likewise. I gave up a returned to the tiny Strand exit but there was still a large crowd trying to get out.

I trudged along to the next road; Northumberland Avenue but here, to my surprise, the green wall had to sizeable exit doors open and it was easy to walk out. It was a shame stewards in the Strand couldn’t have passed on the information; I suspect they didn’t know.

After escaping I had to take a lengthy detour but at least I encountered a professional security team, smartly turned out, who explained what was going on. It was the only professional security/stewarding team I encountered on the day.

I ended up in Villiers Street by the steps that lead to Charing Cross station. There several Met and BTP officers were tending to a young lad, out with his now anxious parents, who had become unwell. After a few minutes, a bike paramedic arrived and that was the cue to move on.

After a ‘comfort break’ in the station I left but not before I had a chat with a BTP officer. All in all, I’d been out of the Square for about 30 minutes; now I looked to get back into it, but that was easier said than done,

The green wall to nowhere

In the Strand, in front of the aforementioned ‘small door,’ stood a line of stewards whose job was to move people along rather than admit them into the square. Emerging from Charing Cross station came a jovial chap clutching the only megaphone I was to see all day. He gave us the assurance of the promised land of Trafalgar Square if we kept moving and we did; hundreds of us. We passed several closed doors, some had stewards standing in front of them who suggested we move along but were unable to answer questions.

At this point I decided enough was enough and retraced my steps. On my way back, I spoke to someone who I felt might be a supervisor. He stated that Trafalgar Square had been made a ‘sterile area.’ He could offer no more information than that.

I then approached a Met uniform sergeant. She said that they had been told the doors would be open in half an hour. Then it was back to the hundred or so chanting, yellow clad, anti-monarchists. I approached a legal observer whose companion told me that the Square had been closed due to ‘over-crowding.’

It was painfully clear that most stewards had no idea of what was occurring and communication with the public was so poor as to be virtually non-existent.

Catching up with a triumph

On reaching home and switching on the TV it became apparent that the concluded event was a triumph in terms of pageantry and organisation (with the exception of the stewarding arrangements and planning around Trafalgar Square). Once again, the controlled release of the public into The Mall and the walk up to the balcony appearance at the palace drew much favourable comment.

The policing of the event would be very much its cornerstone and equally those who loathe police would have been hoping for a hook to hang their prejudice and animosity upon. It was duly provided.

Policing challenges

The challenges they faced whilst positively interacting with the public were considerable yet have barely been referred to by critics. A massive event, broadcast across the world and attended by Royalty, heads of state and celebrities would be a target that would confirm or bring about permanent notoriety to whichever group were able to manufacture an incident. So, all officers had to be aware of threats posed by IED’s, active shooters or terrorists armed with knives who could cause murderous panic within the blink of an eye.

Linked to the terror threat referred to above police officers also have to be concerned about the 3,000 persons who are ‘subjects of interest,’ to the Security Service by virtue of being potentially dangerous. In addition, there are 43,000 persons ‘of concern’ on what is effectively a secondary list. Those activists who are opposed to facial recognition would do well to take cognisance of those figures.

In addition to the above, officers also had to be vigilant in respect of threats designed, not to injure, but to disrupt the event in a manner which would attract world- wide attention to the cause in question and cause embarrassment to the nation, its government and its security services

The same officers would also have a responsibility to protect protesters from those who may profoundly disagree with them. One of the primary functions of officers at Just Stop Oil and similar protests is to protect them from irate members of the public. On this day, there was always the real possibility that anti-monarchists could become the targets for those who hold opposing views and are prepared to resort to violence to reinforce their point of view.

The appearance of certain groups of protesters, including anti-monarchists and Just Stop Oil, at many football grounds, for example, would almost certainly require police intervention.

Then of course, there is the question of basic policing, namely to look out for opportunist criminals which would include, thieves, sexual perverts and aggressive drunks to name but three.

As I witnessed on Saturday, officers will also look after the welfare of those attending such events and may well have to step in where sub-standard stewarding fails such as we saw at Wembley in the European final.

Despite the criticism that the Met are stifling protest, the barely mentioned fact is that several hundred protesters were able to make their republican views known in a protest overlooking the procession route, while there was another in front of the National Gallery. Had senior officers wished to prevent them protesting they clearly had the numbers to do so.

It’s also worth mentioning that officers also ensure that peaceful protest can take place despite aggressive, threatening opposition. This occurred last Sunday when one masked group marched purposefully across Hyde Park with the intent of breaking up a meeting being held by those with opposing views. Police intervened and the meeting went ahead with just one minor scuffle.

It was interesting to hear that officers walking along the Coronation processional route were spontaneously applauded by the crowds. Those applauding perhaps realised that, as with policing generally, negatives will grab the headlines but positives will frequently attract little attention. No-one can deny that some early arrests were negatives but surely the policing pluses over this period hugely outweighed the negatives.

Away from the Coronation, officers having to shoot dead two vicious dogs caused further outrage that massively outweighed that caused by the stabbings, shootings and deaths that occurred over this Coronation period which, to paraphrase a well-known poem, merely cast flickering shadows of concern across London.

Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer who reports as an observer for Police Oracle on large public order events in London 

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Ordered by:
Fatblurk - Sat, 20 May 2023

The arrests of lawful protesters was a classic symptom of operation commanders policing to prevent embarassment, which doesn't appear anywhere as a principle in Command training. The Royals are dealt with differently and I saw many occasions where commanders were trying to state that no protest would be tolerated at events where Royals were involved as part of a strategic plan, which obviously is not lawful.
The MPS will be paying out on this one to avoid having the 'viable intelligence of lock ons' inspected for validity.