For weeks, the Mail on Sunday and similar papers have warned that “republican fanatics” were planning violent disruption at the coronation.
There was undoubtedly violence at the coronation yesterday. But it was not carried out by republicans. The only people behaving violently were the police and a minority of ultra-royalists who attacked peaceful republican protesters.
At one point fairly early in the morning, as we stood peacefully in the rain in Trafalgar Square, holding placards and chanting, several police officers suddenly pushed their way through us to grab hold of a particular activist who they wanted to search. They dragged the person in question away, pushing other peaceful protesters to the side, grabbing a banner from someone who they later claimed was in the way, and violently shoving people so forcefully that they fell into each other. I happened to be standing near a family with young children. I had to push back against some of the people falling onto me to stop them falling onto the children, as the parents scooped up the frightened toddlers. The police later claimed that all this was necessary to search Patrick – on whom they found nothing suspicious.
A bit later, a policeman told me I was upsetting people. I had been having a fairly calm conversation with a royalist who had come to Trafalgar Square to celebrate the coronation, and had found himself near the republican protest that I had joined. But the police officer clearly thought that it was dangerous for two people who disagreed to talk with each other, and he had come over to tell us to stop.
He then told me that I had upset people because I had sworn in front of children. I replied that I had not sworn all day and certainly not in front of children. He seemed inclined to believe the royalists who had made this accusation rather than to acknowledge that there were competing factual statements. He asked me to move away from the area. I insisted on my right to continue demonstrating where I was standing, next to lots of other republicans. To be fair, he didn’t try to come up with some excuse to arrest me – as his colleagues had done with many other coronation protesters.
As has now been widely reported, police arrested almost the entire staff of Republic at around 7.00am when they turned up to set up for the demonstration. As Graham Smith of Republic had pointed out many times, he and his colleagues had negotiated with police for months and had been repeatedly told that their peaceful, lawful protest would be allowed to go ahead.
But police swooped on the Republic organisers on their arrival in what looks very much like a pre-planned move to arrest the organisers of the protest. It seems they had decided to arrest them and were prepared to use whatever threadbare grounds they could for doing so. They also confiscated their van, full of placards and other entirely lawful materials, and threatened to arrest anyone with a loudhailer. Graham and his colleagues were released late last night, but the police kept their phones.
Often, the police seem to have a very hierarchical understanding of the world. I have several times seen police confused as they ask who is the leader of a campaign or protest that has been organised by people working together as equals. Given this outlook, they may even have thought that by arresting the organisers, they could stop the protest going ahead. They failed. We continued to demonstrate peacefully and vocally, against the coronation and what it represented.
Despite the arrests and outrageous policing, there was a good atmosphere on the demonstration. I’m told this was true of other protests at other sites along the route of the procession. There was a strong feeling of solidarity among republicans of varied views, backgrounds and ages, and we were further encouraged by all the supportive messages sent on social media by people who could not be there in person. I came across other Christian anti-royalists, many of them expressing delight at not being the only Christian at the protest. I was pleased to meet many people who I had previously been in touch with only remotely, including Paul Powlesland and Patrick Thelwell (pictured below), who were both arrested or threatened with arrest for their resistance to monarchy, not long after my own arrest in Oxford last year.
The police crackdown was made easier by the new Public Order Act that had been rushed through and come into force only three days earlier. Amongst other things, it has given the police the power to stop and search people at protests without giving a reason – a power several of them were clearly enjoying exercising for the first time yesterday. As well as 52 people arrested, there were many more people searched.
A police sergeant, trying to insist that they were applying the law fairly to everyone, told me that a royalist had been arrested for assaulting republicans. I am pretty sure he was the only one, despite other assaults by royalists. Later in the day, a royalist tried to pour water over me and another republican, mostly missing – and also missing the point that it was raining and we were already soaked. Some royalists chanted “hang the traitors”, in our direction. It was far more violent and abusive than our peaceful chants of “Not my king”, “Down with the crown” and “He’s just a normal man”.
Only days before, Graham Smith had encouraged me not to worry too much about being arrested. He considered that the police would stick to their agreement with Republic. After being released last night, however, Graham tweeted, “Make no mistake. There is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK.”
When they crowned him yesterday, Charles Windsor promised to protect our “liberties”. If he does not even question the arrests of peaceful protesters, he will already have broken his promise. Royalists like to talk of their pride in British history – about which they tend to be carefully selective. But the British traditions of free speech, for which our ancestors struggled so hard, seem to be of little concern to some of them.
Police have of course been abusing the right to peaceful protest for years. They have exceeded their legal power and broken their own laws. Their abuse of power is now aided, however, by a piece of legislation that imposes the greatest restrictions on freedom to protest in the UK since the Second World War. And yesterday has made clear how they will use it.
Future historians will study yesterday’s events. It may be that 100 years into the future, 6th May 2023 will be mentioned frequently in history books. If it is, it will be remembered not because of the antiquated coronation of a mediocre monarch, but because it was the day that the right to peaceful protest died in Britain