An estimated 300,000 people attended a pro-Palestinian protest Saturday afternoon in London, according to the Metropolitan Police. While hundreds of thousands marched peacefully through the capital, the day was marred by far-right clashes with police in the morning, as well as arrests being made at the march itself later in the day.
The week prior to the protests had seen increased friction between the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and the Metropolitan Police. Braverman had accused the Met of bias in an article in The Times, saying that right-wing protesters were ‘rightly met with a stern response,’ but that left-wing causes and ‘pro-Palestinian mobs’ were ‘largely ignored.’ She had earlier expressed strong disapproval for the protest going ahead on the 11th by saying that ‘The hate marchers need to understand that decent British people have had enough of these displays of thuggish intimidation and extremism.’ In a tweet on the same day as Braverman’s article in the Times, the Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, stated that the ‘events taking place this weekend are of great significance and importance to our nation. We will do everything in our power to ensure they pass without disruption.’ In a separate tweet, the Metropolitan Police later said that ‘There is no place for hate and or division in our city and we will take robust and positive action wherever we can.’
Saturday’s events started when far-right protesters amassed near the Cenotaph in Whitehall, just before the Armistice Day service at 11am. In a statement issued later that day, Assistant Commissioner, Matt Twist, said that these protesters ‘arrived early, stating they were there to protect monuments, but some were already intoxicated, aggressive and clearly looking for confrontation.’ They abused officers who were protecting the Cenotaph, shouting ‘you’re not English any more.’ A group of them left Whitehall and moved to Chinatown, where they confronted officers and threw missiles at them. Overall, nine officers were injured during the protests from the far-right, with two requiring hospital treatment.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign protest started at around 1pm and Twist stated that although this march ‘did not see the sort of physical violence carried out by the right wing, we know that for London’s Jewish communities whose fears and concerns we absolutely recognise, the impact of hate crime and in particular anti-Semitic offences is just as significant.’ Towards the end of the march, officers detained a breakaway group of around 150 people who were firing fireworks, which injured officers. Twist said that the force was also investigating a number of ‘serious offences identified in relation to hate crime.’ The Met have continued their investigations and released a number of photos of suspects on Twitter over the weekend and into Monday.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, issued a statement Saturday evening, where he said that the ‘overwhelming majority of people who used their democratic right to protest on the streets of London today did so peacefully.’ However, he said that tensions had been inflamed by the Home Secretary, stating that the ‘far-right have clearly been encouraged and emboldened by what they have heard this week, including from senior politicians like the Home Secretary. I hope everyone takes the time to reflect on the impact their words and actions can have on others.’
Downing Street came under increasing pressure from MPs to remove Braverman as Home Secretary over the weekend. On Monday morning it was announced that she had been sacked and replaced by James Cleverly amidst a cabinet reshuffle.
London is a famously cosmopolitan city and one that prides itself on its ability to embrace a plethora of cultures, perspectives and identities. Events over the weekend show how fragile this can be in the face of divisive rhetoric and political tensions. The change in Home Secretary was welcomed by many, from across the political spectrum and signalled the need for leaders that promote inclusivity, rather than discord. However, it indicates the necessity for public figures to consider the effect their words can have on public discourse and public order. It remains to be seen how far this new Home Secretary will stray from his predecessor’s polarising language and whether any wholesale change will be implemented.
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