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Protest and counter protest: a weekend of public order duty

Chris Hobbs reports from the long weekend of protests taking in Armistice Day and says that officers answered their critics with professionalism and necessary use of force.

Officers draw batons during one of the frequent outbreaks of disorder

Officers draw batons during one of the frequent outbreaks of disorder

Date - 14th November 2023
By - Chris Hobbs
1 Comment 1 Comment}

We were still some minutes away from 11am on the Saturday when I received a call from an independent photo-journalists who was also covering events surrounding the Remembrance commemoration. He had encountered a group of Cenotaph ‘protectors,’ who, on seeing his photographic equipment, had pushed and shoved him as well as attempting to trip him up. Those on the far-right tend to support Israel; this photo-journo is Jewish.

Later in the day, I saw a male having his expensive camera knocked from his hands and smashed on the floor in addition to suffering threats and abuse. Appeals that he was not a journalist fell on deaf ears.

The call by Tommy Robinson, for ‘patriots,’ to defend the Cenotaph had certainly generated a response which was probably beyond his own expectations. Hundreds lined both sides of Whitehall and, as 11am approached, reports were coming in of scuffles between counter-protesters (a term used by Scotland Yard when referring to the far-right elements on this occasion) and police.

Ominously some of the counter-protesters were masked but the conclusion of the two- minute silence saw a warm round of applause throughout Whitehall. Many of those who’d responded to ‘the call,’ began to leave and it was clear they were travelling home or to watch their team. For a short while, it appeared that the deployment of hundreds of officers from across the country could provide even more ammunition for the legions of Met police media critics.

Unbeknown to those of us who remained in the vicinity of Whitehall, Tommy Robinson left accompanied by a sizeable crowd and when they reached Chinatown, clashes broke out with police officers who were accompanying the group. Robinson, at some point, left in a taxi and was to play no further visible part in the day’s events.

Millwall and Parliament Square

Meanwhile, back in the Whitehall area, a quiet interval was coming to an end; a crowd was forming around Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. ‘Patriotic’ chants and songs began followed by chants of ‘Millwall.’ These chants morphed into Millwalls’s distinctive ‘no one likes us, we don’t care,’ to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing. Police in Parliament Square probably knew at that point that there was to be no early or easy conclusion to the day.

Suddenly and dramatically the crowd by Churchill’s statue, which had swollen and certainly didn’t consist entirely of Millwall fans, surged across the road and began running towards Westminster Station halting traffic. I assumed, but haven’t been able to confirm, that a Palestinian flag or placard had been seen. Officers moved quickly to cut them off  and disorder occurred. A lull in proceedings saw some of the counter-protesters congregate outside Tesco Express by the closed entrance to Westminster Station (TFL had decided on Remembrance weekend to close a number of lines).

All photos courtesy of Chris Hobbs 

The ‘kettle.’

Officers in NATO helmets appeared and suddenly there was a pitched battle between the two sides with batons, quite properly, being used. Another lull saw officers from other serials being deployed around the group that were now mainly congregated in Bridge Street. Seeing what was coming, I exited and minutes later it became clear that this troublesome mob had been kettled.

Several violent attempts were made to break out of the kettle which were foiled and for some time a stalemate resulted although those inside the kettle were being supported by small groups outside it, who amused themselves by hurling abuse at officers.

After half an hour, the Met attempted either to expand the ‘kettle,’ or move it to a ‘closed’ escort in order to get this group away from the area. It didn’t quite work as the mob saw the police cordon expand and they duly rushed it and broke through. Officers managed to close the gaps but now a sizeable, hostile and jubilant group were outside the ‘kettle.’ More officers were duly deployed and it became obvious that a feature of the afternoon was to be the abuse officers were receiving from individuals as intrigued but bewildered tourists looked on.

At some stage, those inside the ‘kettle,’ were released and eventually the atmosphere became more relaxed. A few individuals, with Palestinian colours passed by the counter-protesters but were verbally abused with no physical confrontations. By 2.30 crowds had built up around Churchill's Statue. Suddenly there was more disorder and officers from other parts of the square rushed to assist their colleagues

After a period of tension, that became a hallmark of the day, the atmosphere cooled and the crowd seemed to thin out. As I walked down Whitehall, small groups of counter-protesters could be seen walking up. It looked as if the day’s events were drawing to an end.

Pro-Palestinian protesters ‘picked off’

However, back in Parliament Square, a small group of Pro-Palestinian protesters with a placard and flag walked through oblivious of the situation. They were pounced on by counter-protesters who snatched the flag and it looked as if the pro-Palestinians were in serious trouble. Fortunately, officers nearby saw what was occurring and rushed in, arresting the main protagonist.

Minutes later, two more Palestinian flag carriers were attacked and again police rushed to intervene. Shortly after that we saw more flag wavers and more disorder. A counter-protester was arrested and wrestled to the floor in the middle of the road. Other officers raced to assist and form a protective ‘bubble.’ This was the cue for another counter-protester to ran up and hurl a glass bottle at officers unaware that another PC was just a couple of yards away. The bottle thrower too was thrown to the floor and arrested amidst chaotic scenes.

A stand-off followed with the counter-protesters taunting police singing, ‘you let your country down.’ More inappropriately, just a two- minute walk away from where PC Keith Palmer was murdered, chants of traitors and terrorists were directed against officers.

Frequent police interventions

As night fell, more and more small groups could be seen returning from the Palestine march with flags and sporting scarves which clearly marked them out. Some were picked off but officers, now aware of the situation, swiftly intervened. One large Palestine flag was confiscated. I felt compelled to escort a blind pro-Palestine protester, and his wife, along Bridge Street to the relative safety of the Embankment. Many returning from this march had hoped to use the closed Westminster Station.

On one occasion, a distressed victim of this ‘patriotic,’ violent attention was in the company of her two small children as police raced to her rescue. During this period, a number of Palestinian supporters were racially abused with the P word being prefaced by the F word.

Police eventually formed a formidable looking line at the Bridge Street junction with Parliament Square and moved forward. An eventful day in this part of central London was ending.

However, at the Trafalgar Square end of Whitehall, a police cordon consisting of ‘kitted,’ officers blocked off the road other than for theatre goers. It was explained to me that large groups of Palestinian youths were now the problem and had moved to Trafalgar Square. However only a handful remained; the rest perhaps wisely, had decided to head for home.

Disorder elsewhere

Whilst I was aware of the disorder that occurred much earlier around Soho, I was completely unaware of the significant challenges to police elsewhere. It would seem that protecting the Cenotaph had extended to attempting to attack pro-Palestinian protesters in the vicinity of Vauxhall Bridge with police having to intervene on several occasions. The Mail-on-line referred to these clashes in some detail and its tone was uncharacteristically sympathetic to police. The Independent reported that the head of the march suddenly were confronted by a violent group of counter-protesters and shouted urgently for police assistance which was relayed back down the march and then rapidly given by officers who rushed to the front.

Elsewhere it would seem that a Orange Order marching band were distinctly unimpressed by the conduct of the counter-protesters as their band had to march between what was now clearly a mob. This incident was clearly captured on social media and the same footage also appears to capture a counter-protester spitting at a police officer.

In Victoria Station, the BTP dealt with rowdy pro-Palestinian protesters and escorted Michael Gove through, what could only be described as a violent mob. Again, this was fully captured on social media footage and Gove later publicly thanks the officers.

A needle in a haystack quest

Once again, the Met have been criticised for not pouncing on pro-Hamas banners, placards and flags. Whilst the only pro-Palestine protesters I saw were risking their safety in passing through Parliament Square, I have spoken to independent journalists who spent some time watching the tens of thousands of marchers passing across Vauxhall Bridge. They state that they didn’t see any evidence of Hamas supporting flags/placards unless the Palestine flag is now deemed as such. That, of course given the vast number of marchers, doesn’t mean none were on display. Clearly some were as shown by sections of the media.

Certainly, there may have been some jihadi chanting by small groups and indeed, in all the pro-Palestine marches I’ve covered in this and during previous years, I’ve only heard that chant once. I suspect that the first priority of uniform serials accompanying the march in this volatile situation, was the safety of protesters from both sides together with other members of the public in the vicinity. I would suggest that illicit banners/flags and actionable chanting would be a needle in a haystack quest for police officers given the huge numbers involved.

The former Home Secretary uttered some faint praise for police after one of the most challenging days for the Met in recent years. Yet even that was tempered by comments in relation to the ‘valorisation of terrorism,’ that once again implied a failure on the part of the Met.

Whilst ‘actionable,’ behaviour on the part of pro-Palestinians may be illicit, the impression given in the Mail and other right wing media outlets, is that it is rampant and easily observed. It clearly isn’t and even if it was, rushing in the grab offenders in a huge protest such as those we have been seeing, is fraught with peril in relation to possible panic given the presence of children including toddlers in pushchairs and babies in prams. The presence of youngsters was in part evidenced by two officers unwisely posing with a fully masked young child albeit with the uncontroversial slogan on a Palestine flag placard of ‘Save the Children.’

Most police officers will tell you that more worrisome than a dangerous thug is a dangerous thug with a cause. On Saturday, as seen in previous years, the dangerous thugs had a cause and the flames of that cause had petrol poured on them by Suella Braverman.

Remembrance Sunday: The antidote

Mutual aid officers from Cheshire 

Officers from the Met and indeed those who arrived to assist the Met from across the country, were uncertain whether Sunday would see a return of the thugs and further confrontation despite the fact that the presence of Palestinian elements was unlikely. In fact, Remembrance Sunday would be the perfect antidote for all officers who endured such a demanding Saturday.

Whitehall and the surrounding areas were awash with good people who mingled happily with the many bemedalled veterans and indeed with the hundreds of police officers. It was a totally different sort of policing and a completely different atmosphere from the previous day.

There can be little doubt that the contrasting police operations over the two days were a huge success for the Met and indeed those officers from across the country whose professionalism shone through and prevented disorder from reaching a level which could, so easily, have resulted in serious injury or worse.

Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer who has been following protests for Police Oracle as an observer since the pandemic 

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Anonymous - Wed, 15 November 2023

Its sometimes hard to distinguish good from evil in these kinds of protests, but the police are always the good guys and it seems like they did a wonderful job on this occasion.