Angus Colwell Angus Colwell

Inside the Armistice Day protests

(Getty Images)

The Metropolitan Police today staged their largest-ever operation with two marches – the pro-Palestinian march and a smaller counter-protest – taking place in London. The latter, centred on Westminster, provided most of the arrests.

The main route of the pro-Palestine march (which started in Park Lane and was moving towards the US Embassy in Vauxhall) passed more peacefully with fewer scuffles. The demonstration drew perhaps 300,000 (although Jeremy Corbyn claimed a million) and the main arrests seem to be those who decided to sit down at Waterloo station and not move when asked. No one person on the march can hope to give an account on the whole thing. But I can say what I observed and summarise some of the various reports.

The police were right to worry more about the counter-protesters, intent on causing trouble. They were ‘not one cohesive group’, said the Met: factions, each trying to provoke in different ways and places. One of them tried to run for the Cenotaph and disturbed the peace during the wreath-laying ceremony. They were doing all they could to provoke, throwing missiles at police and trampling on the names of dead Palestinian children which had been placed on the National Gallery. 

The main Palestine march gathered at midday as promised (they had promised to avoid the 11am Cenotaph ceremony) and started moving (very slowly) at 12:45pm. Many of the slogans were toxic, some disgustingly anti-Semitic. I saw one saying: ‘Gaza is a real Holocaust’ and there were reports of the Hamas flag (which is illegal to fly) and other chants that are so anti-Semitic as to be illegal. But few arrests for this: not today, anyway. Police insist they make arrests for the offending slogans in due course. Their approach has been not to arrest at the time so as not to inflame the crowd.

Officers had one overriding objective: don’t let it kick off. And keep the protesters and counter-protesters apart. The EDL types started at 9am in Westminster and their target seemed to be the police. ‘Several hundred arrived’, said Matt Twist, a Met assistant commissioner, a few hours later, ‘and seemed intent on confrontation and intent on violence’.

That certainly squared with what I saw. One scuffle broke out in front of me at Westminster: a man with a ‘Free Palestine’ sign was walking towards Parliament Square. An officer went over to him and I followed. ‘The protest starts in Victoria’, the policeman was saying, ‘so why have you come to Parliament Square?’ Or that’s what he was trying to say. 

The counter-protesters moved in instantly: the idiot with the flag was ready to give them the fight they wanted. Spotting this, a blur of police officers charged screaming ‘Cordon! Cordon!’ They penned the counter-protestors into a little side street next to a pub, where they remained for the next hour, occasionally spasming and chucking a bottle. As I write, many of them are still drinking in central London pubs. 

Sadiq Khan, London Mayor and Humza Yousef, Scotland’s First Minister, both referred to the counter-protesters as ‘far right’ (and a ‘direct result of the Home Secretary’s words’ Khan said). That label was rejected by those I spoke to. They insisted they had come down to London for Armistice Day to remember the fallen: ‘In every other country this is allowed. In every other country you’re allowed to be patriotic.’ The Met, as a group of three told me, are ‘traitors’. (At one point, they started singing ‘You’re not English anymore’ at the police). When I asked them whether they approved of charging at British police – the bottle-throwing, the firework-hurling etc. – a couple said that we ‘don’t need that shit’. ‘Sometimes you’ve got to do something like that, though, to get yourself noticed?’ So like Just Stop Oil, I asked. ‘Yeah, yeah, bit like that.’ 

Today, the Met focused on keeping the streets free of violence, actual violence, and thuggery – and to a large extent, they succeeded. So far, at least.

None of the counter-protesters I spoke to thought that the pro-Palestine march should have been banned. ‘Because it’s free speech and they’ll come for us next.’ The last march to be banned (due to security concerns) in Britain was an EDL march in Tower Hamlets 2011. 

I then moved over to the Palestine march where most were walking slowly, occasionally bursting into song (and yes, ‘river to the sea’ was the most common). There was a distinct smell of weed floating around. Drugs may have been common on both sides: on the other side, the Met said they’d chalked up a few of the counter-protestors for class A usage, most likely cocaine. One war memorial was targeted: a First World War memorial near Wellington Arch where a Palestinian flag was hung around the waist of a statue. Elsewhere, a protester climbed a drainpipe to the locked basement of the Irish embassy to a chant of ‘Allahu Akbar’ Police tried to give chase but were blocked by the crowd.

One of the more bizarre events of the day was the emergence of Michael Gove, fully suited up. He ended up being bundled into a police van after protesters came after him shouting ‘shame on you!’. They didn’t say why he should be ashamed. The Times reported this morning that Gove has cuckolded a friend of Kemi Badenoch, but that’s unlikely to have been the reference. 

The police may draw criticism for devoting more officers to the smaller march in Parliament Square, but from what I saw that was the right decision. They were the more aggressive crowd, and were far more likely to kick off. The Met may be vulnerable to the accusation of not caring about anti-Semitic hate speech, since it has made a great deal of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ and language over the past few years, and suddenly seems calm about it. There are reports of about 100 arrests, more than 90 of whom were the counter-protesters but that figure is bound to rise later on this evening. Today, the Met focused on keeping the streets free of violence, actual violence, and thuggery – and to a large extent, they succeeded. So far, at least. As night falls, their job might get harder.