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Mutual aid helps the Met police more Middle East protests

Chris Hobbs observes how officers from a number of forces helped police protests over the weekend as a precursor to a planned mass event next Saturday

To the average member of the public familiar with protests and marches during a typical London weekend, the gathering on Portland Place by the BBC would appear to be a familiar sight; chanting protesters with banners, placards and drums. To the astute police observer, however, the variety of police baseball caps would tell a different story.

This would be confirmed by a cursory examination of nearby police carriers, the livery of which would show the presence of officers from different forces across England and Wales.

The decision to call on mutual aid,’ or yet another pro-Palestine/stop the war protest may have been influenced by other public order commitments faced by the Met on that Saturday, notably football. The decision in respect of mutual aid could have been influenced by comments on social media from the far right and indeed others; these suggested a formidable turnout in order to protect the statues and monuments, notably the Cenotaph, from pro-Palestine protesters.  

Perhaps, however, the biggest advantage of these deployments would be for public order trained officers from other forces to orientate themselves to London in view of the massive and controversial protest due to take place the following Saturday which is also November the 11th.

This particular protest last Saturday, was not envisaged by the organisers as a march, but as a static rally held in Trafalgar Square. The morning would see a number of local events across London with participants then converging on Central London for the speeches in Trafalgar Square. .

One of the morning events saw a gathering of pro-Palestinian supporters in Portland Place by the BBC, which was always going to involve a march hence the presence of both Met officers and those from outside London.

The march, when it set off, numbered about a thousand yet it was different from others in that this and other recent pro-Palestine protests were beginning to adopt tactics of disruption as had already been seen at rail stations and branches of McDonalds.

Sitting down

On this occasion, protesters decided to sit down at the Oxford Circus junction thus causing significant disruption to traffic. This lasted longer than would normally be anticipated and three times officers went amongst those seated warning them to move or risk arrest. After the third set of warnings, officers massed close to the edge of the group making it clear that arrests were about to commence. The organisers clearly spotted this and instructed the crowd to stand up and move off which they did.

Piccadilly was the next stop and as protesters arrived, they found Eros already occupied by officers. There was another sit down in the road and marchers were again duly warned. This time there was only one warning. Officers moved in an made several arrests. As those arrested were taken away, most marchers continued down Haymarket to Trafalgar Square. Some, however, followed the arresting officers who found themselves literally backed against a wall by angry protesters; other officers ran to assist.

Getting the prisoner into the van proved a problem as protesters crowded around pushing and shoving officers. More officers arrived but some protesters then sat in front of the van. A further aid serial from out of London materialised and those sitting were dragged out of the road. The van was able to progress, albeit slowly, pursued by protesters. Meanwhile two other youthful prisoners on the opposite side of the road awaited their own transport.

Meanwhile Trafalgar Square was filling up for the rally as more protesters arrived. One group, on the fringe of the square, caught the pro-Palestine protesters attention and a heated debate broke out. The all-black group apparently believe they are the original Israelites and there was a continuous reading from the bible. Some were dressed in impressive robes and they had their own security.

Counter-protest and the navy

The concern that the far-right and others, less than happy with the nature of the protests would arrive in their hundreds to protect the Cenotaph, proved unfounded. About 30 arrived complete with flags which they were allegedly told they could wave but not drape over the barriers.

One feature of the day was the presence of numerous groups of smartly uniformed Royal Navy personnel walking around the Whitehall area. It transpired they were submariners who were attending their own Remembrance event and at its conclusion were frequenting the local hostelries. They were in good spirits but impeccably behaved. It remained to be seen whether their presence would create friction with the protesters later in the day.

By 3.30 Trafalgar Square was full to overflowing. The vast crowds eventually forced the closure of the roads around the square and, with the rally concluded, groups formed and either engaged in chanting, listening to speeches or dancing to music. The original Israelites were now predictably protected by a serial of police serials from angry pro-Palestinian supporters. At around the same time, the TSG were making an arrest at the top of the Mall.

Charing Cross Station occupied

The ’occupation,’ of nearby Charing Cross station was due to take place at 4pm according to leaflets handed out to protesters. It would appear police were aware and there was a policing plan. Despite this, protesters arrived and duly occupied the station which closed. One photo, which caused social media resentment, showed startled elderly poppy sellers surrounded by protesters. There are no reports however, of them being otherwise harassed.

In and around Trafalgar Square the vast crowds gradually eased but this, yet again, resulted in truculent younger members of the protest grouping together and causing problems for the police.

A walk back down Whitehall saw that the situation had changed. The protect the statues group were still there but across the road, young pro-Palestinian protesters were now together and chanting at their rivals. Any individuals walking down from Trafalgar Square, including other protesters, were directed away from the group still displaying UK flags.

A pause for coffee after the temporary loss of a rucksack and a conversation with the BTP’s Operational Support Unit (below) led to thoughts of home, but a flurry of activity involving carriers travelling on blue lights plus the ever-present NPAS police helicopter led to an assumption that the evening was not over

Disorder and helmets on

A walk around the Covent Garden area of London saw no trace of any protest but on returning to Charing Cross, I was informed that police had used batons against violent protesters in Trafalgar Square. On reaching the Square, it was obvious that the situation had changed. Officers were now sporting NATO helmets with groups of youths including girls congregating at the top of Whitehall. Serials could be seen moving as a unit while the situation at the Cenotaph had now concluded with no groups from either side present. Loud, fireworks were periodically being ignited by individual masked youths who would ‘fire and run.’

Attempts to move the groups of youths on proved difficult and officers could be seen advising the submariners outside the Clarence pub to move inside. As far as I’m aware, however, no hostility was shown during this period towards those in navy uniforms.

An arrest sparked a skirmish with the youths as more officers massed to disperse the crowd who had become aware that a Section 35 dispersal order was now in force. A determined push by a significant number of ‘fully kitted,’ officers did have some effect.

In one incident, four officers attempted to detain a violent youth who managed to wriggle free before being pursued. He suddenly turned around and threw a glass bottle at those officers before disappearing into the crowds along the Strand.

In all there were 29 arrests and whilst there were unedifying scenes, there was no mass disorder while the police showed remarkable restraint that would not have been witnessed in just about every other European country. Having said that, four officers were injured and there were clearly groups of youths who would have welcomed an escalation in violence. As stated above, these elements tend to come together after the majority of protesters have left for home and their numbers seem to be increasing.

November the 11th

Next Saturday sees what may be the largest and most controversial march thus far. In fairness, the organisers will use Hyde Park for a rally and meeting point before marching to the United States Embassy in Nine Elms. This area is south of the river and away from Whitehall and the Cenotaph.

The rally, march and protest is due to commence at 12.45pm in order to allow ‘travelling time,’ for those arriving from other parts of the country. This could conceivably enable some pro-Palestinian protesters to make their feelings known in, or close to the Whitehall area before 11am. There is no suggestion that this will occur and if it did, the numbers of police should be sufficient to deal with any small groups.

The major concern would be post the demonstration and the habitual walkabout undertaken by the youths and other potential troublemakers which could take them back across the river to Westminster although this would be well after the morning’s ceremonial events. Despite the poor turnout of the far-right and other counter-protesters on Saturday, the social media outrage over the protest is likely to increase as are their numbers.

As has been pointed out, calls to ban the march, if heeded, may well not result in the total absence of pro-Palestine protesters on the day. The worst- case scenario would be that many thousands, possibly tens of the thousands would turn up in any event. This would probably include the more troublesome youthful and militant elements while the mere prospect of conflict with the police could attract other undesirables such as those from London’s gangs.

Thus, the ban could conceivably attract a greater level of the violence that its implementation would be seeking to avoid. Officers who policed previous pro -Palestine demonstrations will also be only too well aware that hundreds of young children were present including toddlers in pushchairs and babies in prams. Nevertheless, resisting the clamour from Conservative politicians and media for such a ban may prove difficult.

Whatever decisions are made, officers policing these events will be only too well aware that the shadow of the Independent Office for Police Conduct will loom over the weekend. Concerns that any action deemed as ‘disproportionate,’ by the IOPC could lead to months and perhaps years of investigation could lead to hesitation during an incident by any officer which could prove costly. There is also a suspicion that the IOPC are eager to prove their ‘credentials,’ where there is an allegation that includes a suggestion of racial bias. 

In any event, it is likely that the arrival of Monday the 13th of November after a relatively uneventful weekend will be more than welcomed by the Commissioner and his team. One certainty is that even if the weekend is relatively trouble free, there will be little praise for the Met, the policing operation or the officers involved.

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