Recent actions by London’s Metropolitan Police indicate a worrying descent into authoritarian practices.

Recent actions by London’s Metropolitan Police indicate a worrying descent into authoritarian  practices.
Anti-monarchists in London make their voices heard despite arrests.

The coronation of Charles III over the weekend in London not only re-animated conversations about the legitimacy and national value of the institution of the monarchy, but also issues related to the Metropolitan Police Force. Incidents involving the capitals police force over the past 5 months, including the passing of the Public Order Act 2023, has raised serious concerns about their prerogatives, the legitimacy of their power in the city and the impact of their actions on civil liberties. 

 

Often, the Metropolitan Police are thought of (perhaps by those who do not have regular direct contact with them) as a neutral force, unbiased and incorruptible in their actions. Over the past couple of years, public discussion and criticisms has illustrated that perhaps they are not as neutral and unbiased as once thought. Many in London wish to see the force reconfigured to better suit it’s inhabitants and further, change the way the city is policed. 

 

This report will look to analyse the plethora of issues that have been largely discussed in public debate in Britain in relation to the Met. impACT International wishes contribute in some way to continuing the conversation pertaining to the realities of the impact of the Met’s actions on democratic freedoms. It shall begin by considering the devastating March report on the force, then contextual events and patterns and finally the recent scandal involving rather authoritarian practices during the King’s coronation. impACT wishes to convince the British government that it must begin, rather than shy away from, serious debate about the actions of the force and take real action to regulate their powers and authority in London. Armed with the recently approved Public Order Act 2023, concerns regarding use of rather authoritarian policies to crackdown on dissent, civil liberties and the exercising of free speech by the Met is worrying. There must be a re-orientation of policy surrounding the policing of London by the British Government. A nation which professes to hold democratic values so close to it’s functioning must regard current threats to these values, by its very own police force, as wholly valid and worrying. The cumulative impact of devastating recent independent reports and a number of incidents involving the Met concerning overly vigilant policing demand that these problems can no longer be ignored and must be addressed. 

 

March Met Report

 

In March 2023, a 323-page report compiled by Louise Casey reported that the Met Police was “institutionally racist, misogynistic, and homophobic”. This came after a number of incidents, both internal and external to the force came to light. The most reported incident was the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in 2021. The crimes were committed by Wayne Couzens, an officer at the time who had used COVID-19 restrictions to lure her into his car, where he took her to another site, raped her, murdered her and burned her body. Previous to Ms Everard’s murder, he had indecently exposed himself numerous times, though he was not dealt with properly by the police. 

 

At a vigil held for Sarah Everard, in which women across London spoke of the continued threat of and exposure to sexual violence by civilians and the police. Those attending the vigil were then demanded to disperse, by the very force which Couzens had worked, who then began violently detaining attendees for not following orders. 

 

Further stories about cover-ups of officers sexually assaulting women emerged alongside a number of indecent incidents experience by women inside the force. Ms Casey’s report showed that 12% of women in the Met had been harassed at work and one-third had experienced sexism in it’s myriad forms. 

 

Internal racial incidents also were described. Muslim officers experienced targeting, such as the stuffing of bacon into their work boots, Sikh officers having their beards cut, and minority ethnic officers exposed to far higher chances of internal disciplinary proceedings and more likely to leave the force.

 

Over-policing of particular communities and ethnicities was also established.  This has long been recognised by many in Britain, the Black Lives Matter protests from 2020-2021 raised a number of concerns about how black people (and other ethnic minorities) in Britain were being treated by the police. Liberal and frequent uses of stop and search procedures, as well as, forceful actions against black Britons were found to be excessive and rife. These are notions that have found significant statistical support from other independent bodies and INQUEST’s 2023 report follows a similar vein. It found, primarily, that black men are seven-times more likely to die following police restraint and being placed in custody, citing 52 incidents where black people had died in or following police contact. Further, when this has occurred, no incident has ever resulted in disciplinary proceedings, at a conduct or criminal level, with any officers involved. This stood in stark contradiction to a previous internal report; ‘Death in police custody’ Government Report 2021 where the Home Office declared that black men are not more likely to die in custody. This illustrates a rather damning gap between institutional and public/independent understandings of the impact of the Met in Britain. 

 

Citing the report, Sir Mark Rowley, the forces commissioner since September 2022, rejected terms used by Casey: 

 

“I’m not going to use a label myself that is both ambiguous and politicised” 

 

Suggesting that the examples and data put forth by Ms Casey are politically motivated, rather than backed by lived experience and data. Though Rowley did state that he will look into the failures laid out in the report.

 

For those who live in the capital, institutional denial about racialised violence relating to the police stands in direct contrast to experience. Perhaps the most recent iteration of this is the killing of Chris Kaba, a 24 year old soon to be father in Streatham, which is now being referred to prosecutors as an incident of murder. Initially, Mr Kaba’s shooting was reported as the conclusion of a ‘vehicle pursuit’ where officer NX121 had claimed he thought him to be armed. It was only later found out that in fact, Kaba had been followed with “no sirens or lights”, the Independent Office for Police Conduct also did not once mention a pursuit. After being shot once in the head, “no non-police firearm was recovered from the scene”, he was “not a suspect”. 

 

Given that this is by no means the first time that a black person in Britain has been subject to racialised profiling with meagre contextual evidence, particularly so close to the 30 year anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, impACT suggests that the findings laid out by Ms Casey illustrate a clear pattern. It is vital for the Met and Home Office, rather than shy away from findings and follow political rhetoric it must cogently address these issues.

 

Anti-drag protests in Honor Oak, South London

 

An event that has received significantly less attention within the British public debate are the recent protests and counter-protests by ‘anti-drag’ coalitions and ‘anti-fascist’ opposition in Honor Oak, South London. For the third time this year, on Saturday 29th April, hundreds protestors under the umbrella of ‘anti-fascism’ (a coalition of groups associated with activism in relation to LGBTQIA+, anarchism, socialism and others) took to the streets to counter an organised protest of a drag event at a pub. The latter protestors were coalition of groups associated with the far-right movement in the UK. Three groups, Patriotic Alternative, a neo-Nazi group, Independent Nationalist Network, a splinter of the former, and Turning Point UK which is the British expression of the same group that provides support for Trump in the US. Previous iterations of this protest at the same location and event throughout 2023 ended up with activists climbing the fences of a school opposite, attaching anti-drag and homophobic signs, and shouting related mantras at the event across the road. The protest and counter-protest, drew considerable police presence with some questionable results.

 

A Lewisham councillor indicated that TPUK protesters were allowed by the police to walk up to people outside the pub and film them with no police barrier. The Territorial Support Group (TSG), a quick-response wing of the Met were then seen pushing the counter-protestors aggressively, who were voicing their concern about the activities outside the pub. Some minor injuries were reported by the anti-fascist group, some counter-protestors reported their ribs being broken. This can be seen in a number of videos posted to the social media site Twitter and suggests uneven police focus on 'anti-fascists' rather than the anti-drag protestors. Many TSG officers had, according to various sources, donned badges on their uniforms showing solidarity with the “thin blue line movement” which is closely associated with US white nationalism (the Met is currently reviewing the legitimacy of wearing such badges).

 

Director of the Institute of Race Relations, Liz Fekete, voiced her concern about UK police voicing solidarity with a movement deeply connected to white nationalism. Referencing Rowley’s remarks about regaining trust in the Met, they stated: 

 

“[Rowley] could start by stopping his officers elaborating their uniforms with thin blue line badges - a US export often associated with white nationalism”.

 

Ada Cable, a local woman at the counter-protest whose interview was used by a plethora of news sites, stated that teachers from the school opposite came out to prevent anti-drag protestors climbing school fences and “leav[ing] banners and placards on the fence”. Subsequently, a Met police officer came and told teachers that they were a “risk to public order for standing next to the school”. The way that this protest was dealt with and the supposed uneven manner in which the Met policed the sides of the protest has prompted an official compliant against the Met by the Lewisham branch of the National Education Union. 

 

A concerning element of this is that the anti-drag, homophobic protestors at Honor Oak have significant and powerful institutional backing. Turning Point UK, the central organising entity, has Conservative MP Marco Longhi listed as their “honorary president”, and has received praise from Lee Anderson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel (also Conservative MPs) on numerous occasions.

 

After such serious accusations as “institutional homophobia”, reportedly uneven treatment of protestors looking to support the drag event only serve to further dissolve public support for the Met in London. impACT suggests that if Rowley is serious about gaining more support, he must address the realities of the politicised nature of the force in London.

 

Operation Golden Orb

 

The latest incident concerning the Metropolitan Police also demands significant focus and analysis. The coronation of Charles III on 6th May, the British public descended on the nations capital to welcome the event, on the other hand, many anti-monarchists chose this opportunity to voice their concerns about the expense of the event and the legitimacy of the crown. With many referencing the current devastation of the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’, vast socio-economic inequalities and widespread issues of food poverty. The likelihood of the event, which had reportedly cost the tax payer between £100 and £200 million, to be divisive was widely recognised. On the eve of the coronation, the Met released a tweet indicating that their “tolerance for any disruption, whether through protest or otherwise, will be low”. impACT is of the opinion that ‘low tolerance’ for any protest that is looking to peacefully voice opinion to a state institution is verging on authoritarian and uncharacteristic of a society that holds civil liberties in high esteem. If the police were truly a neutral public service that allows for safe democratic expression, low tolerance for protest could easily be seen as silencing dissent in order to protect contemporary expressions of power. 

 

Dubbed ‘Operation Golden Orb’, an operation was established to heavily police the celebration/protest. Some 11,500 police were involved in the operation, a third of the total workforce, making it the largest mobilisation of officers in decades. Shortly before the beginning of the event, Graham Smith, the chief executive of anti-monarchist group Republic, was prevented from handing out drinks and placards to demonstrators in Trafalgar Square (Republic had previously discussed with Scotland Yard that they were intending on peacefully protesting the coronation). Applying the newly established Public Order Act 2023 many of the protestors were searched and 52 were arrested. A journalist, present at the protest, was also reported to have his credentials ripped from his chest and arrested by the police under suspicion of “conspiracy to commit public nuisance”, a new offence under the draconian Public Orders Act. Reportedly, the journalist, Rich Felgate was told to “put it [camera] away”. The Met seen arresting a journalist under authoritarian practices, is a worrying sign. 

 

In a public statement on Tuesday 9th May, Sir Mark Rowley suggested that they were “extremely concerned” on Friday night over new intelligence threats. Explaining that the “rapidly developing intelligence about threats to coronation” demanded attention, such as “rape alarms to distress military horses”, “vandalism to monuments”, and efforts to “incur the route” were underway. Officers working on Operation Golden Orb then worked through the night “to identify full criminal networks, establish detail of their plans and make arrests”. 

 

These statements come as outcry has continued at authoritarian actions by the police, suggesting that anti-free speech attitudes have found a significant foothold in Britain. Some suggest that this is only the beginning. A broad group of critics have questioned many of Rowley’s comments. Jamie Klingler, founder of Reclaim These Streets, a campaign group which focuses on neighbourhood safety and protest rights, opposed claims that rape alarms were going to be used to disturb horses: 

 

“People were playing tubas astride those horses; a rape alarm would have made no difference”

 

In an interview with The Independent, MP for Nottingham East stated: 

 

“These arrests are not only an infringement on the fundamental democratic right to protest, but have also prevented nighttime safety volunteers from assisting vulnerable women with rape alarms” (referencing the arrest of activists handing them out beforehand).

 

Critics of the police have indicated that, though their public statements refer to some semblance of protecting public safety, they have largely used their powers to protect institutions from being exposed to criticism from the British public. This, a clear example of authoritarian practices, must be understood for what it is; an attempt by the Metropolitan police to silence dissenting voices at a time of serious social upheaval. Considering these events, it is unsurprising that Ms Casey’s report indicated that 50% of the public had expressed a lack of confidence (even before the report) in the Mets abilities to carry out effective policing. It is of the utmost importance that the British government review the practices of the police and begin a full investigation of the arrests at the coronation, primarily by an independent entity, to establish ways in which to prevent British authorities descending into the practice of authoritarian policing.

 

impACT International stresses that a vital starting point to rectifying these issues is to repeal the Public Order Act 2023. The Act, approved this year, cites a vast number of actions as illegal, most, if not all, associated with peaceful demonstration of free-speech. One of the more disturbing clauses, 1(b), states that “acts causing, or capable of causing, serious disruption to two or more individuals” can be considered and illegal offence. In order to protect British civil liberties and prevent a worrying spiral into authoritarian policing, the act must be repealed, the arrest of peaceful protestors and journalists must be stopped. More importantly, the targeting of ethnic minorities, particularly black people, in London must be taken seriously. The population of London should not be subject to a force intent on protecting systems of power at their expense and racialised murder by the state institutions.

 

 

Oliver Wood

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