Fixed helmets: firework night triggers weaponised protest

Met public order serials out in force in November 5 had to contend with fireworks along with the usual abuse from a mixture of protest groups

The Met’s statement on the morning of November 5th in respect of protests to be held that day, was clear; the organisation knew that elements amongst those intending to congregate in Parliament Square were focussed on causing harm to police officers.

A cursory examination of social media only served to confirm those fears. One individual used his You Tube ‘channel’ to launch a rant against police which, according to several well- informed sources, amounted to incitement type offences under the Serious Crime Act. Little wonder that all police serials were ‘kitted’ with NATO helmets ‘clipped.’

As the meet time of 4pm approached, all seemed peaceful but over the next hour familiar faces linked to the far right were seen entering the Square. Some groups already present were consuming alcohol and the first signs of potential disorder when police stopped an individual carrying rockets.

A short time later, a protester setting off fireworks was apprehended on Parliament Square’s grassed area which attracted a hostile crowd; it was a foretaste of what was to come. As the officers left the square, they were pursued by what had become a mob. I erroneously tweeted that this was a withdrawal and I was later sharply corrected and told this was an arrest. Officers will form a protective ring or ‘bubble’ around the arresting officers and prisoner when relocating to prisoner transport.

Nevertheless, as far as the mob were concerned this was a victory which clearly emboldened them.

Trafalgar Square

A further meeting point was shown on social media as Trafalgar Square at 6pm. Several hundred of the crowd in Parliament Square decided to walk up Whitehall with some predictably hurling abuse at the officers outside the gates of Downing Street and at a police serial attempting to get ahead of the marchers. After Trafalgar Square, some continued in a group of around 60 to Piccadilly before opting to return to Parliament Square escorted by police.

In Trafalgar Square, the Anonymous (anarchist) section of the protest under the gaze of Nelson, set fire to an effigy of Boris Johnson which burned furiously until police arrived with an extinguisher.

Firework ‘displays.’

Back in Parliament Square, numbers had risen to around 2,000. Fireworks were being set off from the grassed area and some rockets clearly posed a danger in that glowing molten balls of flame fell back down to the floor of the square causing both alarm and amusement to members of the public and protesters present.

By this time protesters had spilled into the roads and the area around Parliament Square became closed to traffic.

Despite the earlier police intervention and arrest, a much more organised firework display was taking place on Parliament Square which at times was quite spectacular, albeit haphazard. Fireworks were not simply heading safely upwards but were also flying off at angles.

Police serials assembled and amidst dramatic scenes, moved into the crowd in order to close down the display. Predictably the crowd became hostile and officers were surrounded, abused and jostled. I was not aware of any arrests and anticipated further serials joining their beleaguered colleagues in order to retain control of that portion of the square.

Suddenly, however, the officers moved as one body and literally barged their way through the crowd and down to the road that runs alongside Parliament. They were pelted with missiles and, more worryingly, exploding fireworks. I saw one lit ‘banger’ firework bounce off an officer’s NATO helmet.

It may have been around this time, that the much-circulated footage of a female officer being struck in the face by a full plastic bottle, occurred.

Minutes later, despite the police intervention, fireworks resumed on the grassed area of Parliament Square albeit in a rather more sporadic form.

The situation around Parliament Square bordered on the bizarre. In some parts, officers in pairs or small groups stood chatting, unmolested by protesters. In others, officers found themselves surrounded by threatening, abusive groups of thugs.

City of London police assist

The next incident on a chaotic night, concerned the highly regarded City of London public order serial who, facing a mob, were, in an orderly fashion moving back up Parliament Street towards Whitehall. They stopped and the crowd melted away.

By this time another firework display was in full swing in the middle of the junction with Parliament Street using a wooden pallet as a launching site. At one stage, what appeared to be a box of fireworks caught fire and the contents exploded in all directions sending everyone ducking for cover. Amazingly no-one was hurt.

Within minutes, the display resumed but the City officers had clearly seen enough and quietly moved in to end the free show. Shortly after, officers detained an individual which predicably attracted a small crowd which again, chanted the monotonous mantra of ‘we pay your salaries.’

Mob at the gates.

Just after 9pm, everyone’s attention was grabbed by a commotion at the main gates of Parliament. Steel barriers had been erected at the pavements edge in front of the Parliamentary railings and a violent group of protesters attempted to dismantle the barriers in order to get to and force open, the gates, which, of course, would have been a fruitless task.

Police resisted and this was the first occasion that I saw batons drawn. Other serials immediately rushed to the aid of their colleagues and ugly scenes resulted as police took control and pushed the mob back onto the opposite footway.

That was the last major event of the protest that I witnessed however, close to Churchill’s statue, what appeared to be a half serial, were confronted by a small but hostile ‘in your face’ crowd and had to withdraw.

This was the prelude to the welcome sight of first, a BTP serial making an arrest followed, in quick succession, by two separate arrests by Met officers.

The crowd were, by now, being informed by officers circulating amongst them, that a section 35 order was in force and protesters should leave. The worst was over although a male and female protester, both drunk, walked up Whitehall, deliberately stepping out in front of moving police carriers.

Of course, it is not practicable to be everywhere at once on these nights: Search You Tube, under the heading; “Police Chased Out of Parliament Square by Protesters on Bonfire Night” and it will be possible to view well filmed footage of officers in front of Parliament, including the City serial, faced with a hostile crowd. The officers eventually had to withdraw, albeit in orderly fashion, leaving aggressive protesters believing, again, rightly or wrongly, that they had won some sort of victory.

Commanders and tactics

Of course, as in every confrontation that took place, there may well have been tactical reasons known to the commanders why action was or was not taken. In the above-mentioned scenario, officers facing the crowd may have wondered why the numerous officers held in reserve were not deployed. Equally, a counter argument could be that by not deploying additional officers, casualties of officers, protesters and perhaps innocent by-standers were kept to a minimum.

All the above will doubtless be considered in the debrief and perhaps, in these enlightened times, the conclusions in respect of that debrief will be communicated to officers performing duty during that evening.   

Predictably, there is much talk on social media that this was some sort of victory for protesters who effectively defeated police, but equally others feel that little was achieved and that divisions resulting in various factions are hampering ‘the cause.’

The Metropolitan Police have said that the situation was ‘challenging’ and, if criticised, may well state that they facilitated peaceful protest, intervening or ‘engaging’ only when necessary. Critics may say that the protesters scored a points victory but what surely can’t be disputed is that the officers in the front line once again were both restrained, professional and courageous when dealing with ‘in your face’ abuse, intimidation, threats and violence. This included facing dangerous, probably illegal, exploding fireworks. No continental police force would have been as tolerant.

Indeed, a very public ‘well done’ from the upper echelons of New Scotland Yard, would not have gone amiss perhaps accompanied by police footage of the above-mentioned ‘in your face’ abuse, threats and violence suffered by those officers.

Chris Hobbs is a former Met officer who worked in Special Branch who has been following the pandemic-related protests for Police Oracle as an observer.

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