EMERGING on to The Strand from Charing Cross tube station at 6pm yesterday evening, I expected Trafalgar Square to be full of people protesting against the second lockdown. To my dismay there were police vans everywhere and no more than 200 protesters standing across the road by the South African High Commission. Scores of police were on the other side of the road. Three women me told that anyone crossing the road on to the pavement by the square was being forced to move on immediately by the police.
Thirty yards away I saw one paltry home-made banner whilst I clutched my huge, A1-size commercially-made banner by my waist, hiding it from sight whilst I evaluated whether to raise it. Not wanting to be stopped en route, I had covered it up to travel there, but I sensed that with so few banners visible that to hoist it would attract the wrong sort of attention.
Piers Corbyn arrived next to me. Then some police teams wandered amongst us in groups. I spoke with a man my age (mid-50s) from Canterbury and asked why he was there. ‘For democracy,’ he said. He couldn’t believe what a country we’d become where political protest was no longer allowed.
The police started being more assertive and more crossed to our side telling us to move on. There was no obvious leader of the demo and somehow the crowd figured out that the best way was to keep moving. So we started walking down and then left on to The Strand. The police intensified their presence. ‘Move on or face arrest,’ they shouted.
I estimated that the crowd had grown to about 500. Too small for us to hold our ground with the police who started breaking us up into smaller groups by forming lines of ten or more officers and bisecting our column and stopping each group proceeding. ‘S’cuse me,’ said a lead officer sarcastically, leading a bisect team from the left in behind me. Many of the police were from the Territorial Support Group (TSG), the unit that was renamed in 1987 from its previous incarnation as the Special Patrol Group which had a reputation for brutality. These officers wore paramilitary-style baseball caps but had helmets attached to their waists.
The front of the column got to the junction with Burleigh Street and were forced to turn left up it by an oncoming group of TSG officers. It was a pinch point and I stayed back waiting for the column behind to push us through but it was still being held by Officer Sarcasm and his team. I was left with three others who were young white men from Essex protesting, they said, for their right to protest. As we walked up Burleigh Street to try to catch up, another group of 15 or so TSG officers started following us at pace to intercept us. We were soon halted and the lead officer stopped me and asked what I was doing. ‘Going for a walk,’ I said. ‘No, you’re not, you’re going home.’ he said. A pint-sized twenty-something female officer, emboldened by her larger male colleagues, shouted to us, ‘Go home or you’ll be arrested and fined.’ Another Cressida Dick in the making there.
We re-traced our steps. I lost the other three and crossed over The Strand to avoid more police on the north side. There must have been at least 200 police in the area. I found a covered entrance with a few other onlookers just in front of four empty TSG vans. I watched as a middle-aged woman in a padded green jacket was frogmarched by four officers and put into a van. I phoned a friend, John, to find out if he was there, but he had stayed at home. I told him that this demonstration was being snuffed out by the police due to lack of numbers and clever tactics and I was going home. If I stayed I’d have been picked off, alone as I was on The Strand. I’d happily be arrested and pay a fine but only if we’d had a good demonstration and got some coverage for our cause. There were a few photographers there but no TV crews. It seems the media are not interested in our civil rights. Extraordinary.
On the train home to Hertfordshire I reflected on the evening’s events. The demonstration – ostensibly the annual, anti-establishment Million Mask March but hijacked by us anti-lockdowners – was a failure. If I had raised my banner I would have been targeted immediately by the police and arrested. I’d been lucky not to be arrested anyway. Their strategy was clearly not only to break up the crowd into small groups but also target leaders and influencers. Anyone with a megaphone was arrested or had it confiscated. I heard later that one column got to Oxford Street where it was kettled. Piers Corbyn was arrested, again. In all, reports state that more than 100 people were arrested. I’d say the police were very assertive but not physically aggressive from what I saw, but I read that later it got worse and horses were involved too.
During the last lockdown, other protests such as Black Lives Matter supporters and statue smashers were allowed to assemble and to be violent. Our peaceful, anti-lockdown protests were much more heavily policed and were ended early. It seems that if you protest directly against government policy you are targeted by the police. If it’s a woke cause that doesn’t challenge the government’s authority it’s open season. In this second lockdown, political protest has effectively been outlawed by the new Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020. The barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta would be surprised at how supine the population of this country has become.
Update: The Metropolitan police say 190 people were arrested for breaching coronavirus legislation at the protest; 189 of these are being investigated for a fixed penalty notice and one person is being investigated for a £10,000 fine.