On Saturday 11 November, the Metropolitan Police (Met) and the peace march organisers faced very difficult conditions in London. Up to a million marchers were expected and while the majority would be peaceful, there would be some racists amongst them, a few would be violent and others hot-headed enough to respond to provocation. They also knew that extreme right-wing racist groups, whom the Met termed ‘counter protesters’ (the term I am also using in this piece), were intent on causing violence if given the opportunity.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman, backed by the prime minister, had put pressure on the police to ban the march. Braverman had accused the marchers of hatred and the police of bias in their policing of previous marches. The government, having created the environmental and rhetorical conditions for violence, indicated it would hold the police responsible for any disturbances. They were supported in this by much of the right-wing press.
The police plan for Armistice Day in London
The Met said it had no legal grounds for stopping the peace march.
The police’s plan for the day was one of separation and containment. They published their plan, the peace march route, and the prohibited locations (the Cenotaph, the American Embassy and Jewish neighbourhoods). This didn’t stop misinformation about the route and the marchers’ intentions being posted on social media, but it did much to reassure the public about how they could safely join the march or be in London on the day.
The plan made it clear that there was no legitimate reason for marchers and counter protesters to encounter each other or be in proscribed areas. The expectations for behaviour were firmly established and there was nothing in the plan that any reasonable person could object to. It allowed for the freedom to protest and express a view while ensuring those who were intent on violence would have to go out of their way to create an opportunity for it.
On Remembrance Day
On the day the police acted together, according to the plan and in a measured way, tackling incidents promptly (where they could) and preventing small groups getting close to their intended targets. They made arrests as necessary and will make others in the coming days. Their prior planning and assertive action reduced the need for aggressive policing, and violence was contained.
Although there has been some criticism of the police for not arresting all the protesters who chanting antisemitic slogans, carrying racist placards or being openly aggressive towards others, keeping the peace and ensuring the arrests of those who posed the greatest danger in the moment was a wise strategy. Photos and videos on social media will provide considerable evidence for further arrests, should this be necessary.
Despite some violence and some extremely nasty antisemitic and racist aggression, the level of both was comparatively low given the huge number of people – estimated at hundreds of thousands – and the vast area to be policed. The police maintained overall control and the aggression did not spill over into widespread violence or rampaging.
This was not an accident. We cannot measure events that didn’t happen because of good policing. But the compact between police and demonstrators is a very fragile and any excessive force by the police, or uncontained violence and disruption by the marchers or protesters, could have resulted in a disaster. Remember what happened in 2011 for example, when several days of riots, violence and looting spread across the UK following a peaceful protest against the death of Mark Duggan by a Met police marksman.
Policing and politics
Up until Saturday’s march, the police have always been able to rely on the home secretary’s support. Even when they transgress the boundaries of good policing, they are supported publicly although harsh words may be spoke privately. In defying Braverman and the government by refusing to ban the march, the police were asserting their legal and constitutional right to independence and to implement the law as they saw fit without political interference. In ensuring a largely peaceful march, the police reinforced citizens’ rights to peaceful dissent and disagreement.
In publicly disagreeing with Braverman and publishing the truth about planned routes and engagement with march organisers, the Met was, effectively, accusing her of lying and attempting to stoke conflict. This breach between the Met and the home secretary may be a tipping point and indicative of a greater change occurring; a change that goes well beyond the Met.
I have written previously, following the George Floyd (Black Lives Matter) demonstrations, that:
“The police service does not operate in a vacuum. It reflects the dominant values of society, ignorant and contradictory though these often are”.
The way society is policed changes over time and place. It is a constant act of negotiation and renegotiation and driven by failure as much as success. The way in which this march was policed indicates a changing relationship with the public. It is much more collaborative, working with march organisers as partners, and engaging with the public about the policing plans to secure their support.
Policing by consent: the centre is holding
If policing is by consent and the police reflect the dominant views of society, this new approach suggests the public want to see a change in direction from Braverman’s confrontational and, arguably, anti-Muslim and racist approach to the maintenance of public order. And the police are responding to this new mood. Moreover, by openly challenging Braverman, they are indicating that not only do they think it is she who is out of step with the public, but that her position as home secretary is so compromised, the public will back them rather than her.
In seeking to pressure the Met into banning the march, the government aimed to suppress (assumed to be left wing or ‘woke’) political dissent. In doing so Braverman constructed marchers as violent ‘haters’ and antisemites while ignoring, and thereby condoning, the evidence of planned violence from the far-right. But for an authoritarian regime gathering evidence for the need to crack down further on protest, right-wing thugs will do just as well as left-wing ones. The Met’s success in minimising injury and disorder, from any source, challenges the rationale Braverman will inevitably construct to try again to suppress dissent.
It is no wonder she has failed to congratulate the Met on their policing strategy and implementation, or the march organisers for their cooperation. The Met’s success is her very public failure and further humiliation. This may be dangerous territory but, for now, the centre is holding and we owe the police our thanks.