May 7, 2023
Culture secretary defends Scotland Yard’s ‘heavy-handed’ response to peaceful protests after 52 arrested
Republic’s Graham Smith is arrested ahead of the coronation. He was released on Saturday night. Photograph: Daniel Boffey/The Guardian
By Robert Booth Social Affairs Correspondent | The Guardian
A minister has defended the controversial arrests of peaceful protesters at King Charles III’s coronation on Saturday, claiming police were right to act as “we were on the global stage”.
After six members of the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic were arrested at about 7.30am – before their protest had even begun – and placards seized, Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg: “I think they were quite right to take into account the context of the event as a whole.”
She said: “There were 200 foreign dignitaries in the UK, in London, at an event with millions of people watching, and hundreds of thousands of people at the scene. I think it was really important that they took that into account when it takes making their decision.”
Scotland Yard said they made 52 arrests on Saturday for offences including affray, public order offences, breach of the peace and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. “Lock-on devices” were seized in the arrest of the Republic organisers, a police statement said. But the group denied having any such equipment. It claimed one protester was arrested for possession of string that was part of a placard.
Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic, who said he was released at about 11.30pm last night, tweeted: “Make no mistake. There is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK. I have been told many times the monarch is there to defend our freedoms. Now our freedoms are under attack in his name.”
Adam Hug, the Labour leader of Westminster city council, said he was “urgently pushing the police for proper answers” after three council volunteers were arrested at about 2am on Saturday in Soho and later released on bail after they were found in possession of rape alarms. Police said “military colleagues” had feared such devices could be used to disrupt parading horses, posing “significant risk to the safety of the public and the riders”.
However, the council said the devices were actually for the Night Stars volunteers to give out to vulnerable women and they were funded by a Home Office grant. They also give out flip-flop, vomit bags and water to revellers in need.
“It seems very likely the Night Stars have got caught up in a blanket presumption of arresting anyone with potentially disruptive devices even if they had them for lawful or approved purposes, an approach the Met had not briefed partners about,” a senior council source said. “Because the arresting officers weren’t local they didn’t know who the Night Stars were and didn’t know to call the council to try and de-escalate.”
Frazer stressed the Met was “operationally independent” and had to make “tough calls” but defended new protest laws introduced last week as a necessary response to “a change in tactics of protesters”, saying: “We have seen them stopping people going about their day to day business, whether that’s going to school, being able to go to hospital, being able to go to work.”
The former justice secretary Robert Buckland told GB News: “The police would be in the dock if they let something happen and the parade was obstructed or horses were frightened. We can’t, that’s not safe.”
Scotland Yard said its tactics were proportionate.
Cmdr Karen Findlay, who led the policing operation said: “We absolutely understand public concern following the arrests we made. Protest is lawful and it can be disruptive. We have policed numerous protests without intervention in the buildup to the coronation, and during it. Our duty is to do so in a proportionate manner in line with relevant legislation. We also have a duty to intervene when protest becomes criminal and may cause serious disruption. This depends on the context. The coronation is a once in a generation event and that is a key consideration in our assessment.”
She added: “A protest involving large numbers has gone ahead … with police knowledge and no intervention.”
The arrests triggered accusations from campaigners and human rights groups that the freedom to protest was under attack. Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh, said: “Being in possession of a megaphone or carrying placards should never be grounds for a police arrest and Human Rights Watch said reports of arrests of peaceful protesters were ‘incredibly alarming’ and ‘something you would expect to see in Moscow, not London’.”
On Sunday, Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “I don’t know the exact reason the police arrested those people … but I actually hold the Conservative government responsible for passing legislation to clamp down on protests that breached British traditions of civil liberties and I think the Conservatives have got a lot to answer for.”
Asked about the arrests of protesters in Trafalgar Square, Jason Arday, professor of sociology and education at Cambridge University, said: “What we are beginning to see is an infringement of our ability to have free speech. I think it was a peaceful protest and to be quite honest, and without surprise, I think the police’s reaction to that particular situation was pretty heavy-handed and rather unnecessary.”