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Eyewitness: slogans and minor disorder but no plaudits for policing?

Chris Hobbs follows one of the biggest protests to take part in London in recent years and finds that the police strategy was effective and displayed common sense.

Eyewitness: slogans and minor disorder but no plaudits for policing?

Date - 1st November 2023
By - Chris Hobbs
2 Comments 2 Comments}

The Met have had to police several protests and vigils where emotions have been raw with two of those protests being amongst the biggest ever seen in the capital.

The fact that, despite the palpable tensions, there has only been relatively sporadic minor disorder, few arrests (though more are anticipated) and, with one exception, minor injuries, might have future historians puzzling over the almost total lack of praise for Met officers and their colleagues from the City of London Police and BTP.

Armchair critics, keyboard warriors and the media have had a field day with the added bonus of the remarkable ‘Just Giving,’ donations for the two sacked TSG officers provoking indignation amongst the far-right and the hard-left including the Daily Mail and the Guardian.

The pro-Palestine march began along the Embankment and it became obvious, again to police officers, that a significant number of children would be accompanying their parents on the march which was delayed whilst youngsters in Palestinian dress and colours posed for press photographers.

Tens of thousands made their way into South London via Westminster Bridge and then took a circular route which saw them return north of Thames via Waterloo Bridge before parading down the Strand and into Whitehall.

The only incident of significance occurred at Waterloo station where a number of marchers staged a ‘sit-in,’ but there was no undue disruption to travellers; however, on Tuesday evening a pro-Palestine rush hour sit in at Liverpool Street station seriously affected rush hour services.  During the march police also could be seen guarding an entrance to a ‘Marks and Sparks,’ food store. At that time there had been no issues with Marks and Spencer’s stores but that changed when their Glasgow store received unwelcome attention from protesters. Footage had also since appeared which shows bucket of rats being emptied by Palestinian protesters onto the floor of two McDonalds premises in Birmingham.

As I joined the crowds streaming down Whitehall, I was puzzled to see glimpses of the Union Jack and Cross of St. George by the Cenotaph followed by an Israeli flag. This was, unsurprisingly, attracting the attention of some of the marchers.

It soon became apparent that a small number of Turning Point activists had made their way down Whitehall and, on reaching the Cenotaph, displayed their ‘colours,’ describing their ‘mission,’ as to protect the historic monument. In fact, the Cenotaph was, as is usual at these events, barriered off and protected by officers. Turning Point describe themselves as a ‘right-wing conservative,’ organisation; their critics on the left describe them as far-right Fascists.

This gathering provoked the wrath of sections of the passing crowd and there was some ‘pushing and shoving,’ involving officers that had formed a cordon around this group. Eventually the hostile gathering moved off but within minutes were replaced by another. This was to be the pattern for the next hour, but there was no mass gathering; most protesters complied with the requests of stewards and carried on walking.

I confess I, together with numerous photo-journos, were expecting the thin looking police cordon to be overwhelmed but it quite simply wasn’t. That was in part due to two energetic stewards; a young female with remarkable communication skills whose mantra was; ‘Don’t give them the attention they want.’ Assisting her was a male in a green jacket who also played a significant role and who I was able to speak to later in the afternoon to say ‘well done.’

Interestingly there were two other protests taking place in the vicinity; the ‘save our bully dogs,’ protest and the ‘deaths in police custody,’ processions were both subsumed amongst the tens of thousands entering Whitehall. The latter simply joined with the main event with which they unsurprisingly had sympathy.

Officer assaulted

In fairness to the huge procession, most marchers simply walked on past the Cenotaph merely offering curious glances. However, almost three hours after the advertised start another incident saw police officers running back up Whitehall. On reaching the scene, it became clear that a youthful marcher had been detained, but despite the curious crowd all seemed in order until there was a dramatic escalation of events. Police ran after and grabbed a protester pulling him to the floor. Other officers quickly formed a protective ‘bubble,’ as the incident resulted in the mood of the crowd changing from the curious to hostile. 

It later transpired that a protester had assaulted an officer, striking him to the ground with a megaphone. The officer was hospitalised and was later pictured ‘bandaged’ on social media having been visited by Deputy Commissioner Lynne Owens.

After the above- mentioned arrest, the next issue was to move the arresting officers with their prisoner through the crowd to prisoner transport. In a familiar scene, other officers formed a moving protective bubble and, followed by the baying crowd, reached King Charles Street and their transport. More officers arrived to assist and a cordon was formed across the street itself, thus enabling the officers and prisoner to proceed unhindered to their awaiting police carrier.

The suspect has since appeared in court and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

A return to the Cenotaph saw that its ‘protectors’ had left leaving a police guard and linked barriers which would have been very difficult for any individuals or group to penetrate. I was also puzzled as to why the huge crowd was not ‘backing up’ along Whitehall. It soon became clear why; the actual main stage was in Parliament Square which was full and then, sensibly, there were supplementary speakers along Whitehall and, at the top end by Trafalgar Square, there was a screen with further speakers.

The inevitable walkabout

By 5PM. A crowd had formed outside Downing Street and another large crowd had congregated at the top of Trafalgar Square. Many thousands of others, having walked the route and listened to the speeches, were heading for home.

At 6pm, the group at the top of Whitehall had moved down and joined those who remained at Downing Street. Together they carried on to Parliament Square where police were trying to open the roads to traffic and therefore moved the protesters onto the wet grassed area which probably won’t have delighted those responsible for its maintenance.

After a few minutes, the inevitable happened; after the authorised march agreed with the police, we had the unauthorised ‘walkabout,’ by around 500 mainly young people. As they walked along Victoria Street stopping traffic, they seemed to grow in confidence and become more raucous. They were being escorted and shortly after Victoria Station, disorder occurred as officers made an arrest and scuffled with protesters.

The march was held by police but allowed to move off again heading for Hyde Park Corner. This led to concerns that they were ultimately heading  to the Israeli Embassy where other officers prepared to receive them. To everyone’s surprise, those at the head of the march directed their fellow protesters down Piccadilly. At Piccadilly Circus, they initially clambered over Eros but were removed by Police before marching along Regent Street to Oxford Street. At the top of Oxford Street, a further skirmish saw another arrest to familiar chants of; ‘Let him go.’

Marble Arch and the cunning plan

Officers, some doubtless as weary as I was, clearly wanted this to be brought to a conclusion as the protesters continued along Oxford Street towards Marble Arch. I did tweet about a ‘cunning plan,’ and so it proved. As the protesters gathered at Marble Arch, blues lights and sirens could be heard coming from every direction in an impressive show of force. Clearly a decision had been made that enough was enough.

An overheard police conversation suggested that no arrests were to be made ‘yet,’ while apparent leaders of the march through megaphones, advised those congregated at Marble Arch to go home. Those present streamed away and a long day was over.

Thus, a huge march concluded with no mass disorder or serious incidents yet there was little praise for the Met and its City Police and BTP partners. The Home Secretary made it clear that she expected the police to do more but failed to say exactly what, given the legislation which currently exists.

Other than the controversial ‘from the river to the sea’ chant I personally didn’t hear any specific chants which could be deemed antisemitic, however, to state the obvious, I could not be ‘everywhere at once.’. Arrests for the above ‘offence,’ would, as previously stated, provide a gravy train for leftist human rights lawyers. There is also no guarantee that any case would get past the CPS and then a jury: Of course, there is no room in our prisons anyway; a fact doubtless noted by the those taking part in the current spate of ‘Just Stop Oil,’ protests.

And, if for whatever reason, it was deemed that thousands indulging in the ‘from the river,’ chant were arrestable, how would that be achieved? Mass arrests would be likely to lead to disorder; possibly mass disorder and quite possibly panic. Rightly or wrongly, hundreds of children were present on Saturday’s march including toddlers in pushchairs and babies in prams. Those advocating mass arrests would soon become critics if mass arrests resulted in injury or worse.

Relying on footage to identify miscreants in respect of chanting would result in a huge operation on the scale of that seen after the 2011 riots resulting in other aspects of policing being even more neglected than at present. As stated above it would be a gravy train plus for lawyers and resultant trials could fail. Once again, the issue of prison places would be a factor.

It should be stressed that, whatever interpretations are given to the ‘from the river,’ chant, the overwhelming majority of protesters presented no problems to those policing the event. There were, inevitably, pockets of troublemakers who again grouped together as the rally came to an end. Their numbers are likely to grow unless, somehow, the catastrophic situation in the Middle East is resolved.

November the 11th.

Towards the end of the rally on Saturday, I heard an announcement that the next march would take place, not on November the 4th but on Saturday, November the 11th. I thought that it might be an error but apparently not. Of course, police won’t permit a march that will go along Whitehall as Remembrance events will still be taking place on that day before  the main commemoration and parade on Remembrance Sunday.

It could be that the organisers will have anticipated this and will look to stage their rally in Hyde Park as has happened previously with any march being kept well away from Whitehall. Hyde Park is however within easy walking distance of the Israeli Embassy.

Nevertheless, the proposal is beginning to cause outrage and not just from those on the far-right. The far-right has been but a shadow of its former self over recent years as the recent ‘protect the statues’ response of just a handful of individuals shows.

However, this could just galvanise their lapsed support and indeed attract others who feel that to protest on this day of all days, demands a visible response. Assurances from the those organising the pro-Palestine march may help lower the temperature but certainly the Met will be keeping a ‘finger on the public order pulse,’ over the next few days.

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Ordered by:
paul webb - Tue, 07 November 2023

Maybe forward a copy of this to every MP especially The Home Secretary