Campaigners have accused the Metropolitan Police of unlawful behaviour after clashes with protesters at this weekend's Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London.
Tens of thousands of people have flooded the streets of the capital for four largely peaceful protests since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The police response has seen riot cops deployed, a mounted police charge and the deployment of the controversial containment tactic "kettling" on at least four separate occasions. On three occasions across last week, protesters were kettled and held until after midnight. Campaigners alleged that police used the containment as an opportunity to film protesters' faces and take their names and addresses as a condition for leaving the kettle.
Campaign group the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) said: "On Sunday evening, legal observers witnessed the police only allowing protesters (including some minors as young as 12) to leave the kettles in ones and twos into a 'sterile area' outside of the police lines, so that officers could film each individual. Face masks were pulled down to make sure faces were captured. Officers also demanded people give their names and addresses under another anti-social behaviour power, section 50 of the Police Reform Act – we believe there was at least one arrest for refusing to comply to this."
Use of Section 50 is controversial, as the powers are only supposed to be applied where police officers have genuine and reasonable belief that the person they're speaking to has been involved in anti-social behaviour.
Ahead of Sunday's protest, human rights organisation Liberty and Black Protest Legal Support UK released a joint statement commenting on the use of kettling at Saturday's demonstration. The groups said, "We are particularly concerned with the use of [s.50 powers] during the kettle. The police grouped together hundreds of protesters, and stated that if they wished to leave they would have to give their name, address, date of birth and be filmed head to toe. This is concerning because s.50 must not be used as a blanket power. Despite the police not being able to comment on what actions each protester had taken part in that could be deemed 'anti-social' under the act, the police still insisted that everyone provide personal details before leaving."
Barrister and expert on the law around protests, Tom Wainwright, questioned the legality of the police data gathering, tweeting, "This is particularly worrying as the police know, following the Mengesha case, that this is unlawful." The Mengesha case was a 2013 High Court case in which the practice of forcing those within a kettle to provide their personal information and have their image taken in order to leave was deemed unlawful. According to Netpol, officers on the ground on Sunday were heard to say, "Mengesha rights do not apply tonight."
Sporadic bursts of violence have peppered each of the London demonstrations so far. Many of these clashes were sparked by the arrival of police officers, or the arrest of someone within the crowd. In several incidents witnessed by VICE, flash points occurred after police officers moved into the crowd to protect racists who were antagonising the protesters, surrounding them and escorting them away. On at least three occasions, shouts of, "Who protects the racists? Police protect the racists" rang out across Whitehall.
Police at last Wednesday's Black Lives Matter protest in London. Photo: Stéfan Weil
At each demonstration, VICE saw how police aggression or attempts to arrest would rile up the crowd and tempers would fray. The anger, previously channelled into chants and shouts, would then manifest in the throwing of projectiles at police. On Saturday, as torrential rain poured and lightning split the sky above, a small number of people in the crowd of at least 1,000 threw projectiles at the police outside Downing Street. At least ten mounted officers charged down Whitehall to disperse the crowd. In the panic that it caused, many were hurt, with horses trampling at least one protester as an officer rode into a traffic light and was knocked off her horse.
According to Metropolitan Police figures, 86 people have been arrested so far across the demonstrations. The list of offences include violent disorder, affray, criminal damage and offences under the covid legislation.
A spokesperson for the Met police said, "A number of violent incidents occurred during the protests in central London on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th June. In the late hours of both days, specially trained police officers formed a cordon around a group of violent demonstrators in order to manage the protest and prevent any further disorder. The priority for officers was to disperse the large group."
The spokesperson continued, "While individuals may have been asked for their details, if officers believed they were prepared to move on after engaging with them, they were left to do so with no further action. Section 50 of the Police Reform Act cannot be applied to an area/event, it is however a power available to individual officers should they believe an individual has been involved in anti-social behaviour. While this may have been used in isolated incidents, this power was not used as a condition of release from the cordon."
The Met were also approached for comment on the use of police horses, but did not comment.
Raj Chada, head of Criminal Defence at protest law solicitors Hodge, Jones and Allen, told VICE, "Police tactics at the weekend need to be strongly scrutinised. Charging on horseback at demonstrators escalated tensions. It appears that the Met hasn't learnt from the student demos [of 2010] at all. The Met are at real risk of being found to have acted unlawfully with what seems to be kettling, followed by demands for names and addresses – they need to start respecting the rules by which they are given these powers."
On Sunday, 35 officers were injured in London, along with numerous demonstrators, including at least one who was dragged out of the crowd unconscious, having been hit in the head with a baton.
The Met's approach contrasts with police forces elsewhere. In Manchester, 13,000 people turned out across two protests this weekend, according to the Greater Manchester Police. There were zero arrests. Reports indicate that the GMP took a very hands-off approach. One protester, who wished to remain anonymous, told VICE, "There was no noticeable police presence and the demo grew organically, mainly ran by black kids. It just naturally moved around the streets really peacefully and safely, and there was no trouble. No confrontation at all, and that's a crowd of 10,000 [on Saturday]."
Police in Bristol similarly took a light-touch approach. Avon and Somerset chief constable Andy Marsh released a statement on Monday explaining why officers did not intervene in the toppling of the statue of 17th century slave owner Edward Colston at Bristol's Black Lives Matter demonstration. "Can you imagine scenes of police in Bristol fighting with protesters who were damaging the image – the statue – of a man who is reputed to have gathered much of his fortune through the slave trade?" he asked.
He said that intervening would "likely lead to injuries to suspects, injuries to officers and people who were not involved in damaging property being drawn into a very violent confrontation with the police that could have had serious ramifications for the city of Bristol and beyond".