If, like me, you’ve spent the last three years battling to defend the right to free speech, often from over-zealous police officers, the policing of yesterday’s pro-Palestinian protest was a bit of a shock. Apparently, you can be arrested for comparing a WPC to your “lesbian nan”, but chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – code for wiping Israel off the map – is totally fine. In one bit of footage circulating on Twitter yesterday, a protestor clambered down some scaffolding, having been shouting slogans from a rooftop, and was handed back his Palestinian flag by a police officer who’d been holding it for him.
So, where should the police draw the line?
Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, thinks the Met granted yesterday’s protestors far too much latitude. He told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Philips: “Chanting ‘Jihad’ on the streets of London is completely reprehensible and I never want to see scenes like that. It is inciting terrorist violence and it needs to be tackled with the full force of the law.”
The Times has some of the gruesome details of the protest:
As the pro-Palestinian march began, riot police were stationed beside monuments along the route, including the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and Eros in Piccadilly Circus, following intelligence that some demonstrators planned vandalism.
Among posters seen at the march were ones stating “Stop the new Holocaust” and “Zionism is the new Nazism”. One demonstrator held a poster that said “From London to Gaza, globalise the Intifada”. One protester who had a placard stating “Gaza is a holocaust” had it confiscated by officers and was asked to attend a police station.
Ten arrests were made in London relating to the use of fireworks, affray, a public order offence and the assault of an emergency service worker. Five Metropolitan Police officers suffered minor injuries.
The force earlier said it had identified a hate crime offence after footage was published on social media of a small group of protesters chanting the words “Yahud”, the Arabic word for Jew, and “Hamas”.
The words “Nazi Israel” were scrawled on a building in Piccadilly, while protesters graffitied “Free Palestine” on a wall of the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.
Speakers at the rally included Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef train driver’s union, and Daniel Kebede, the leader of the National Education Union. Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, and John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, also attended.
Last week, the Met said there had been a 1,350 per cent increase in hate crimes against Jewish people since Hamas attack, compared with the same period last year.
At a separate rally in the capital, about 300 supporters of the Islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir protested outside the Egyptian and Turkish embassies, claiming those countries were not doing enough to help Palestinians. At one point, a speaker asked the crowd, “What is the solution to liberate people from the concentration camp called Palestine,” to which one attendee shouted: “Jihad, jihad, jihad!”
The Met said that counter- terrorism officers had reviewed the footage of the man shouting Jihad but they had “not identified any offences arising from the specific clip”.
The force said: “The word jihad has a number of meanings but we know the public will most commonly associate it with terrorism … However, recognising the way language like this will be interpreted by the public and the divisive impact it will have, officers have identified the man involved and will be speaking to him shorty to discourage any repeat of similar chanting.”
In the Spectator, Andrew Tettenborn points out that the Met has been less tolerant of pro-Israeli protestors than pro-Palestinian ones:
On Wednesday, pro-Palestinian protesters encountered one of these vehicles in Parliament Square. They stood menacingly in front of it, shouting anti-Israel invective. What did the police do? Instead of preventing an attack on the van and clearing a passage for it, they stopped it and spoke to the driver. They told him they could not allow him to proceed and shortly later ordered him to switch off his display immediately and leave the area. The chief executive of CAA, when he arrived, was prevented from crossing to speak to the driver. Nothing, it seems, was done about the protesters.
What were the reasons for this apparent exercise in suppressing the speech of one side but allowing that of the other? At the time, the police present used phrases like “breach of the peace” and “your own safety”. In a subsequent statement, they said they had acted for “public safety” and to prevent the van “becoming a point of tension or conflict”, and added, slightly disingenuously, that they had earlier prevented an ugly mass march on the Israeli embassy.
In a way, you can understand the actions of the harassed coppers on the ground, who were clearly out of their depth and one suspects lacking determined leadership. They deserve sympathy rather than brickbats. Indeed, they may even have been acting lawfully. (The CAA are currently investigating the legalities, and it is certainly true that the existing law is not entirely certain when it comes to how far a person is entitled to speak his mind amid a hostile crowd threatening violence.)
Nevertheless, this whole development is distinctly worrying.
Worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Met police chiefs will be summoned to the Home Office to explain their failure to arrest protestors chanting ‘Jihad’ yesterday. The Telegraph has more.
Stop Press 2: It looks as though the only people on Saturday’s march that got into trouble for waving an inappropriate flag were a couple of lads holding up an England flag. You can see our boys in blue hard at work apprehending these dangerous, far Right hate-mongers here.