Protesters hold a free speech demo opposite St Giles' Cathedral, in Edinburgh, ahead of a a prayer service for Queen Elizabeth II. The blank pieces of paper are in reference to a barrister being told he would be arrested if he wrote the words "not my king" on a piece of paper. Photo: Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images
A man who was arrested by police in England for asking who elected King Charles III says he’s worried that his arrest could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in the country.Symon Hill said he was handcuffed, dragged away by officers and put in a police van after asking “Who elected him?” at an event in Oxford proclaiming King Charles as monarch.
Several other arrests connected to anti-royalist sentiment or protests following the death of Queen Elizabeth II were carried out elsewhere in the UK, including a woman who held up a “fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” sign in Edinburgh, and a man who heckled Prince Andrew as he walked alongside the Queen’s coffin. Meanwhile, someone was led away by police in London after holding up a sign that said “not my king.” Paul Powlesland, a barrister, was subsequently warned by police in Parliament Square that he would be arrested if he wrote the same words on a blank piece of paper.
Hill, 45, said he had been inundated with messages and media requests since revealing details of his arrest on Sunday.“I’m glad that people are interested and concerned about what’s happened. This isn’t really about me, this is about freedom of expression and the powers of police. This is about other people who get arrested for protesting who don’t get this attention,” he told VICE World News in a phone interview.
Hill’s actions barely amounted to a protest, he was just walking home from church when he stumbled upon an official event in Oxford proclaiming Charles as the new king – one of many similar events that took place over the UK last weekend.
“I am involved in some campaigns on some issues, I do oppose the monarchy. But I wasn’t carrying a badge, or a placard,” he said.“The first part [of the proclamation] was about mourning the previous monarch, and I didn’t say anything, I respect people’s grief. But then it moved on to declare Charles as our only rightful lord and king. That’s when I called out, ‘who elected him?’.”Hill said his comment caused barely a ripple at first, with no one really reacting apart from one person who told him to shut up, to which he said that the UK was having a head of state imposed on it. “Before I knew it, there were security guards pushing me away, police dragging me off, handcuffing me, and placing me in a van,” he said.The Queen’s funeral will take place in London next Monday, and will be the largest ever state funeral in the UK. Responding to incidents in London, including the footage tweeted by barrister Powlesland, Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy said that people “absolutely have a right of protest and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place and we will continue to do so.”
Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at advocacy group Liberty, said: “Protest is not a gift from the State, it is a fundamental right. Being able to choose what, how, and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy. “Whoever you are, whatever your cause, it is vital you are able to stand up for what you believe in without facing the risk of criminalisation. It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression.”There are no specific laws against criticising the monarchy in the UK. The arrests in Scotland were made in connection with alleged breaches of the peace, while in Oxford, Hill said that police told him he was being arrested under the deeply contentious Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, a law passed this year that critics said imposed new limits on the right to protest. But in a statement provided to VICE World News and other media outlets, Thames Valley Police said Hill had been arrested – and then de-arrested – under the Public Order Act 1986.“Whatever view anyone takes of the issues, it’s important there’s a due process. It isn’t about police arbitrarily arresting people,” Hill said. “It’s really alarming. I think we’re in a dangerous place if this is becoming normal.”Asked whether heavy-handed police actions were inadvertently amplifying anti-royalist sentiment to a larger audience, Hill added: “On the one hand almost no one would know what I said in Oxford if the police hadn’t arrested me. But I am worried about it having a chilling effect, because whether people are arrested or charged, people might become frightened and afraid to protest.”