On April 24th, prominent British anti-monarchist Graham Smith met world media in London and said he had “no plans to disrupt” the coronation of King Charles but he confirmed his group, Republic, would peacefully protest at the event. Republic spent months liaising closely with Metropolitan Police, even informing it in advance of the words to be printed on protest placards (“Not My King”).
Shortly after 7am on Saturday, and just over three hours before the start of the king’s procession, Smith and five of his Republic colleagues were arrested by Met officers close to Trafalgar Square as they unloaded placards from their van. Overall, 64 people were arrested by officers policing the coronation. About 52 of them were arrested not because they had disrupted the event but because police said they were “concerned that they would” – in other words, these were pre-emptive arrests.
“These arrests have destroyed whatever trust might have existed between peaceful protesters and the Met,” said Smith, who was released 16 hours after his detention. He said officers had assured him in advance of the coronation that Republic’s plans to protest were of no concern to the police.
He continued: “What is the point in being open and candid with the police, working with their liaison officers and meeting senior commanders, if all their promises and undertakings turn out to be a lie?”
As the patriotic din of the coronation dies down, an uncomfortable focus has landed on the Met over its handling of the arrest of seemingly peaceful protesters on Saturday. The force has been accused of undermining free speech and the right to protest and is now firmly on the back foot.
On Monday evening, the force expressed “regret” over the arrest of Smith and his colleagues and said they face no further action. It appeared to suggest that the officers who made the arrests had no knowledge of the extensive liaison between Republic and senior Met officers in advance of the coronation. It did not explain why it took until 11 o’clock that night to release them.
The arresting officers, police explained, suspected that the Republic protesters could use straps that were found in their van to “lock on” to street fixtures or each other to disrupt the coronation processions. Locking-on is now illegal under harsh new anti-protest laws that were rushed into law last week, receiving royal assent from the king just four days before his coronation.
Those arrested from Republic had tried to explain on the scene that the straps were used merely to secure their placards. In any event, the group’s protesters have virtually no history of “locking on” at previous protests – that tactic is usually the preserve of eco-protesters such as Just Stop Oil. The police now say they are “unable to prove” that the straps were to be used this way.
Smith says three senior officers, including a chief inspector, called to his home on Monday to apologise. “I said, ‘For the record, I won’t accept the apology’. We have a lot of questions to [be answered] and we will be taking [legal] action,” he said.
The Republic protesters were not the only ones whose arrest on Saturday have caused disquiet about the heavy-handedness of Operation Golden Orb, the code name for the coronation policing plan. At 2am on Saturday, five hours before its officers arrested Smith and his colleagues, they also arrested three Westminster City Council-linked outreach workers who walk the streets late at night helping women. One of those arrested had known links to eco-protest groups.
The trio were carrying “rape alarms”, which they often distribute to women they encounter. The police claim they had “intelligence” that rape alarms were to be used to frighten horses in the procession. The police now seem to acknowledge that those arrested were merely going about their usual outreach work. Yet, again, officers failed to explain why it took all the way until the following afternoon, after the coronation had finished, the release them. Westminster City Council leader, Adam Hug, has said officers need to “rebuild trust”.
Political commentary on policing has become as a major issue in Britain in recent years, most notably under the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and her predecessor, Priti Patel.
One month ago, police in Essex who had seized racially-offensive “golliwog dolls” from a pub were scolded by sources from the Home Secretary’s office, who briefed journalists that police “shouldn’t be involved in this nonsense” and suggested Braverman was “furious”. Yet, following the coronation, she let it be known that she had no problem with police arresting peacefully protesting anti-royalists.
The Home Office had actually written to Republic members in advance of the coronation warning them about the strict new anti-protest laws that had just been rushed through. Republic had condemned the letters as intimidatory and threatening. It turns out that they were not a threat, but a promise.