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The TV cameras have long since moved their gaze away from the coronation. But the conduct of the Metropolitan Police remains steeped in contention after the arrest of dozens of peaceful protesters – many of whom are still reeling from their first time in a cell.
On Wednesday, the Met Police hinted that an apology might be forthcoming for protesters arrested on that day, in a hearing of the London Assembly policing committee.
Anti-monarchy campaign group Republic – subject of eight arrests on coronation day – has expressed its deeply-held scepticism of the meaningfulness of any apology without a change in the force’s actions – and the legislation surrounding protests.
Graham Smith, spokesperson for Republic, made clear afterwards: “They continue to defend what was palpably an unlawful arrest of eight peaceful protesters. They continue to suggest that the nature of the event gave them lawful grounds to have a lower tolerance of such protest.”
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The issue at stake here is not only the denial of civil liberties but also the continued dissembling from the Met Police over the arrests.
For a democracy to function, it must provide a space for peaceful dissent. That space has, in the wake of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and more recently the Public Order Act, shrunk to the size of an envelope.
The force’s statements have been awash with calculated misinformation. This includes vague references to supposed ‘intelligence’ that instigated the arrests of Republic’s members. There has never been a shred of evidence shared that Republic plans serious disruption or illegal disorder.
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Met Police bods protested their innocence in light of a “rapidly evolving situation” on coronation day. But they had ample time to communicate with liaison officers on the day and avoid unnecessary escalation.
Instead, more credence should be given to the public pronouncements before coronation day: “Our tolerance for any disruption, whether through protest or otherwise, will be low. We will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration.”
That word “undermining” – an entirely subjective notion that could place even the mildest of public grumblings in line for cell time – seems to have driven the Met Police’s actions during King Charles’ crowning. This, indeed, seems to be the real thinking behind the crackdown. The Met’s assistant commissioner Louisa Rolfe told the Assembly: “Our threshold and tolerance for disruption might have been lower than if we were dealing with other events.”
Even less reassuring is the assistant commissioner’s statement that the “arrests were a very small number in comparison to the tens of thousands of Londoners who came along to enjoy the celebratory event.” So that’s all right then? They had a watchlist of 10,000 people. It could have been you.
The force continues to trot out claims that Republic possessed ‘heavy duty’ straps which could have been used to lock on illegally to…things. They are the same mundane straps found in any airport. Here’s a picture of them. They could easily be cut through with good scissors.
And for all their claims of “intelligence” about disruption, in person Met representatives continue to deny prior knowledge of four months of dialogue between the protest group and the police prior to coronation day.
Yet Republic’s request for a meeting with London Mayor Sadiq Khan – effectively the capital’s police and crime commissioner – has been “met with silence” they say.
Smith is clear: “We remain of the view that this was a premeditated action and not a consequence of mistakes.” If it wasn’t premeditated, it shows an alarming level of incompetence in our police force. Neither of the two possibilities is good. We need to see the body-worn video footage from the officers involved. And we need an urgent review of anti-protest legislation.
Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of any democratic institution. The Met’s seeming reluctance to admit their shortcomings, coupled with an almost brazen effort to manipulate the narrative, paints a troubling picture of an institution that is losing sight of its duty to protect and serve. It is one we have seen time and time again in recent years from a force that now looks unreformable.
In the end, what matters most is not the apology but the steps taken to rectify these gross miscarriages of justice. The Met’s role is to facilitate, not frustrate, fundamental rights like peaceful assembly. Anything less is a dereliction of duty that makes them look more like a paramilitary wing of the palace than the servant of the public they are supposed to be.
Republic – and the dozens of other peaceful activists arrested on the day – deserve proper answers, real contrition and genuine changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Sadly the suite of arrests of peaceful protesters from Just Stop Oil in the weeks since the coronation provide little reassurance.
Because this isn’t just about those arrested. It is about all of our rights. As Assembly policing chair Caroline Russell said: “If people are being arrested for possession of a small flag or for wearing a [campaign] t-shirt, that puts a pretty chilling weight on on Londoners who might want to protest.” What of the governing party? Tory London Assembly member Tony Devenish went out of his way to undermine the policing committee chair holding the Met Police’s feet to the fire, saying: “I didn’t have any complaints whatsoever.”
Can we trust the Met not to repeat its authoritarian missteps in the future? The answer will be found not in words but in actions. Sadly, even the force’s words so far don’t hold out much hope for that.
Josiah Mortimer is Chief Reporter for Byline Times. Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing email@example.com