What I witnessed this weekend in London leaves us all facing important questions.
Perhaps the most serious is, given the events of Saturday, whether the depleted police service could effectively cope with serious disorder on the scale of 2011’s riots.
Another Robinson protest is planned for next month while there has been twitter comments that a Brexit ‘betrayal’ will see disorder on a far greater scale.
Another question is, given the events in and around Whitehall, why, on the Sunday there wasn’t an emergency meeting of the Met’s senior leadership team followed by a statement deploring the violence, praising the officers and announcing a full criminal enquiry.
Given the fact that most involved in the violence were drunk and completely forgot to ‘mask up’ and given the amount of footage available on social media, CCTV and body worn-cameras, the miscreants are there for the taking.
There is concern as to whether the hard- pressed Met, with its out of control murder and violent crime issues, can find enough officers to conduct such an operation. To fail to do so however would be regarded as a betrayal of its officers so exposed on the day.
As I emerged from a trip to replenish some Polo shirts at Sports Direct in Piccadilly, on Saturday, I was drawn like a moth to a flame by the gathering of Tommy Robinson supporters which I knew was taking place in near-by Trafalgar Square.
Groups of Tommy supporters could be seen in clusters and I stopped to talk to a couple of Hackney officers, I was born and raised in Hackney and my brother and two nephews both served in that borough.
As I then continued past Downing Street, I noticed with concern that the gates were guarded by just a handful of officers in basic uniform.
Just beyond Downing Street occupying the centre of Whitehall, was a stage from where the speeches would be made. I continued walking down towards the Parliament Square end of Whitehall where there was the counter protest. Polite officers prevented the curious from getting too close and pedestrians had to divert down a side road which would take them to St James’s Park.
The counter-protest seemed much smaller and passive so, glancing at my watch, I walked back towards Downing Street where I could see that the hordes of Robinson supporters were moving down Whitehall. I managed to find a surprisingly vacant spot on the Downing Street side against a wall with a good view of the gates. I shared it with just one camera crew who were, like me, curious as to what would evolve.
We didn’t have to wait long. As the thousands of Robinson supporters poured down, those at the front made a bee-line for the gates. The handful of officers came under sustained bombardment from a shower of missiles and then the thugs launched a physical attack. The officers drew their batons and battled bravely back. Behind me also along the wall about 100 yards away was a serial of ‘Level 2’ (riot trained) kitted out officers. I turned to wave frantically at them and they came running.
Unfortunately, they had to clamber over police barriers before they could assist their beleaguered colleagues. The telling factor however was a series of shouted rebukes from the stage by an individual who was the ‘presenter’ for the afternoon. ‘Don’t give the media ammunition’ was his forcible theme and they eventually listened.
The original serial of officers were slowly withdrawn and replaced by those in ‘public order’ kit. Alas the unit who had come running had obviously been told not to deploy with their protective ‘NATO’ helmets which then had to be retrieved from a carrier parked in a back street.
The officers who were now deployed immediately in front of Downing Street gates were not destined to spend their afternoon listening to speeches from the stage. Despite the speeches, Robinson supporters engaged in constant face to face abuse of the impassive officers standing in front of them.
Occasionally, the crowd as a whole would turn towards the police pointing and chanting ‘shame on you.’
As the speeches drew to a close, another brief skirmish broke out in front of the gates and clearly there were concerns as to what would occur as the protestors dispersed.
The last main speaker was introduced as Tommy Robinson’s cousin and whilst he lambasted Robinson’s arrest, he did praise ‘front line’ police and insisted Tommy’s incarceration was due to the establishment. He then called for a round of applause for officers which occurred but was almost drowned out in a chorus of boos.
The dispersal was rapid. Most streamed back up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. I walked with some down towards Parliament Square before running into the rather surreal sight of a hen party each sporting a superman (or supergirl) outfit. I then decided that instead of catching a District Line train west, I’d walk back up a near deserted, bottle and can strewn Whitehall to Charing Cross and take the Bakerloo line to Paddington.
As I passed the Cenotaph, a bewildered American tourist asked me who this ‘Tommy Robinson’ was.
I pointed out that he didn’t like Muslims much and was interrupted by a passing lone Tommy Robinson supporter. We engaged in an animated but respectful conversation as the still bewildered American drifted away. After about five minutes we decided to walk up towards Trafalgar Square still chatting. As we reached the top we both became aware that all was not well.
Hundreds of Robinson supporters were mingling with tourists and the tension was palpable. My new-found friend was aghast; ‘Oh no, it looks as if the drunks have taken over,’ was his parting comment as we shook hands and went our separate ways.
Much of the attention seem to be focussed on Admiralty Arch. I walked across and in front of the arch stood a line of police fully kitted out complete, this time, with ‘NATO’ helmets. They were being pelted with cans and bottles and twice moved, batons drawn, towards the crowd which promptly retreated.
I also noticed the somewhat unusual sight of a double decker tour bus that had been taken over by protesters who were cavorting and haranguing police from the roof. The bus was later found to have been badly damaged and had to be towed away.
As the stand-off continued, reinforcements arrived. Alas, as they turned left on emerging from Whitehall they had to run the gauntlet of protestors and were pelted with missiles before being able to join their colleagues.
Meanwhile other Robinson protestors decided for some reason, to block the road by Trafalgar Square. Drunken individuals sat down in the road while others pulled police barriers across.
One problem for police was the number of tourists and other onlookers (like me) who were mingling with the Robinson protestors which made ‘vigorous’ actions rather more difficult. As more police in riot gear arrived, it looked as if the inspectors and sergeants on the ground decided to retake the ‘occupied’ south side of Trafalgar Square, a section at a time. After popping up to Charing Cross station to ‘spend a penny’ and chatting to some BTP officers, I returned to found that the Robinson protestors had been confined to the area around Nelson’s column; they were later to complain that they had been ‘kettled.’
Interestingly, I also noticed that several Robinson supporters were apologising to police for the actions of the drunken thugs.
I decided enough was enough and headed for home. It is, of course, always useful after an incident or event to say, ‘Well, I was actually there,’ but of course you can’t be everywhere at once.
Once home I quickly discovered via social media that I hadn’t witnessed several other serious incidents. One clip, tweeted by the Jewish Star, showed a fully ‘kitted’ public order serial being attacked presumably when running to help their colleagues at Admiralty Arch.
More footage then emerged of a small number of officers being cut off from their colleagues on the edge of Trafalgar Square and surrounded by hundreds of baying Robinson protestors. The officers were attacked and fought back attempting to force their way out their encircled position. As each attack was mounted, a woman could be heard shouting ‘oh no, oh no’ clearly concerned at the officer’s plight. Eventually, overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, they had to flee.
The most serious violence seemed to occur at the top of Whitehall when police attempted to push back a crowd of Robinson supporters and were immediately pelted with missiles. It was interesting to observe, how, during the disorder, so many protestors managed to hang on to their plastic glasses of beer. The violent confrontation ebbed and flowed with officers eventually withdrawing to Admiralty Arch which is obviously when I arrived on the scene.
The violence was clearly the worst seen in London since the riots of 2011, yet attracted only marginal interest in the media.
The Evening Standard referred to ‘scuffles’ and little footage was shown on national news.
There is a huge issue on police social media surrounding police ‘command and control’ which clearly failed on just about every level this Saturday.
It isn’t easy to manage a fast-moving public order situation but this was a disaster.