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A traditional British protest in the finest traditions but then…..

Chris Hobbs follows a series of protests in London last weekend including the Just Stop Oil demonstrators who have been clogging motorways since the beginning of the week

For those concerned that recent legislation could adversely affect the British tradition of protest would have been largely reassured by events in central London, on a dismal, drizzly Saturday.

The main event was the People’s Assembly anti-austerity, anti-government protest which was held in conjunction with various trade union, Labour party and leftist organisations.

The route took the march along the Embankment, past Scotland Yard and across Westminster Bridge. Then there was a short sojourn in South London before a return across Lambeth Bridge and a walk along Millbank to Parliament Square. In fact, it was only minutes after the last of the marchers had crossed Westminster Bridge before the head of the march appeared approaching Parliament.

Those following events in the world of UK policing, would have noticed that the procession passed New Scotland Yard without incident or abuse being hurled at the building or the officers standing behind barriers outside. It was noticeable however that the relatively small ‘Just Stop Oil’ (JS0) contingent was specifically being escorted by police.

A far- right presence.

The first sign of problems occurred in Parliament Square; a small contingent of far right/anti-vaxx protesters began hurling foul-mouthed abuse at the surprised marchers. Police officers moved to keep the far-right on the pavement and a serial of officers was quickly deployed forming a cordon. Other than verbal responses, the marchers simply kept marching; the Young Communists, dressed in black and carrying red flags, utilised football chants as they marched past their rivals and simply ignored them.

Another potential flashpoint at Downing Street passed without incident and the marchers filed into Trafalgar Square where a stage had been erected at the base of Nelson’s Column. On the opposite side of the square, in front of National Gallery, there were three separate protests relating to the current situation in Iran. One group carried red flags, the other two, the appropriate Iranian flags. Police, looking a tad uncertain, as was I, stood between the two groups, but there were no incidents, just impassioned speeches.

Just Stop Oil sit down

Some of the marchers ensued the rally and set off for a short ‘patrol’ of the West End. They included the Young Communists, JSO and some of the Extinction Rebellion contingent. When they returned, the Young Communists melted away while JSO, with an air of inevitability, decided to sit down and block the traffic. This was on the small, barely noticeable roundabout which is just behind the plinth of Nelson’s Column at the top of Whitehall.

There then followed what became a monotonous pattern. Police would, after a few minutes and as per the public order ‘manual’ move amongst the protesters asking them nicely to move. As it looked as if police were about to make arrests, the group would stand up and move a few yards to a position which would block the progress of vehicles coming into the roundabout. Their positioning was carefully controlled by one of their number who remained standing throughout.

It would be fair to say that were it not for the presence of police, irate motorists would have moved the JSO activists themselves. After a while, police would move in to ‘ask nicely’ and JSO would stand up and move a few yards to block another part of the roundabout. There weren’t enough protesters to block the roundabout completely and indeed that may not have been their intention.

The activities of JSO had drawn about forty supporters from the main rally, but there appeared to be little interest or support for JSO, from most. Eventually several arrests were made which saw the supporters chanting ‘shame on you,’ and getting in the faces of officers with mobile phones.

All in all, despite the activities of those from the far right and JSO, both police and organisers must have been pleased that the march and rally passed off with no significant incidents. The stage was now set for the second ‘protest’ of the day concerning the mystical organisation Anonymous and the ‘Million Mask march,’ which was due to gather in Trafalgar Square at 6pm.

The Million Mask March that wasn’t.

It was a dismal evening and the Guy Fawkes mask seller must have been hoping for better. There was a portable sound system and, in a desperate attempt to liven up proceedings, a number of youths jumped up onto the plinth of Nelson’s column and began to shout four letter words at no-one in particular. Numbers eventually grew to around 200 and those on the plinth decided a march was in order. So, jumping down from the plinth, they were joined by others and the sound system and marched down Whitehall. Upon reaching Parliament Square, they marched back again.

Another gathering in Trafalgar Square was the conclusion of that foray, but the nature of the crowd was changing. Last year, on November 5th, hundreds of anti-vaxxers took over the event and there was serious disorder in Parliament Square. Anti- vaxxers again became prevalent here but in no-where near the numbers of twelve months previously.

Inevitably, there was another march, this time through the West End with their sound system broadcasting the dreadful rap dirge of; ‘don’t take the vaccine.’ ‘Kitted’ officers were deputed to escort them and eventually the procession reached Selfridges where security staff and police blocked the main entrance. Quite what the significance of Selfridges was however, remains a mystery.

After a ‘stand-off’ of about 15 minutes, the march retraced its steps back up Oxford Street. They took a slight deviation at Piccadilly and continued to Leicester Square. It was in Leicester Square that an incident occurred, which, although minor in nature, irritated those reporting who accompanied the march.

A Busker and the anti-vaxxers

In Leicester Square, a licensed busker had attracted a large crowd of mainly tourists. The anti-vaxxers simply marched into the crowd and shut down the protesting busker, replacing him with their own sound system and the ‘don’t take the vaccine’ dirge.

Eventually the crowd realised what was happening and voiced their feelings in no uncertain terms. One young American made his views clear that he was delighted that Joe Biden had enabled him to be vaccinated. As the anti-vaxxers tend to be pro-Trump, police had to step in and then, to the cheers of the crowd, more officers moved in and shut down the errant sound system. To the cheers of the crowd, the anti-vaxxers moved on.

The enthusiasm of the anti-vaxxers was however waning and by the time they reached Trafalgar Square, their numbers had reduced to around sixty.

All in all, The Met’s hierarchy must have been delighted that a long and potentially difficult day had passed off without any serious incidents, thanks in no small part, to the professionalism and good humour of its much- maligned workforce ably assisted by City police and BTP colleagues; The aforementioned professionalism and good humour won’t, of course be acknowledged by any section of the media.

Just Stop Oil and questions.

However, any satisfaction felt by the Met’s senior management soon dissipated; pre-emptive arrests of Just Stop Oil activists were clearly designed to disrupt further JSO activity but come Monday morning, the news together with traffic bulletins. informed the British public of chaos at various locations around the M25.

Arrests were duly made and the British public must have thought those arrests would ensure that Tuesday would be relatively trouble free. At the time of writing, it is Tuesday morning and the headlines consist of JSO protesters again blocking sections of the M25.

Perhaps, by the time this piece is published, the public will be informed whether JSO are opening new boxes of supporters on a daily basis or, as is suggested, those arrested are simply being released under investigation or on bail and are thus free, despite any bail conditions, to return and cause further chaos the following day.

Certainly, a recent statement saying that over 600 arrests had been made but just over 100 of those arrested had thus far been charged did pose questions which Met Commander Karen Finlay responded to on twitter. . She stated that different protesters were appearing each day thus obviating concerns that those arrested on one day were back protesting the following morning having been subjected to a ‘revolving door’ system.

Commander Finlay went on to state that, “Anyone, as has been the case for the activity between 1st and 31st October, who was a repeat offender, is now charged and remanded in custody. Those involved now carrying out this action, are being arrested for public nuisance, charged and remanded.”

Chris Hobbs is a fomer Met Special Branch officer who has been following the poliicing of protests for Police Oracle since lockdown 

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