Unless senior officers change their minds between now and Saturday 11 November about asking the Home Secretary to ban protests, the planned Palestine solidarity march from Hyde Park to the US Embassy in London this weekend will go ahead.
The policing operation is, however, likely to feel confrontational and aggressive. Here is what anyone taking part in the demonstration should know.
Restrictions on the route of the march
The Metropolitan Police have said that “officers will continue to take swift and robust action against any breakaway groups or individuals” so is almost certain that the senior officers will impose advanced restrictions on the timing and route of the main march to the US Embassy. That means an increased possibility of threatened arrest for breaching Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 for anyone who leaves the prescribed route.
There are two parts to breaking these laws: what you physically do (leaving the route or area) and what you were thinking (you knew you were breaking the conditions and did it on purpose). The law changed in 2023 and now says the police no longer need to show that you knew that restrictions existed – they can argue that you “ought to have known” and the obligation is on you to show that this was not possible.
Nevertheless, the police still have to publicise restrictions, often by making loudspeaker announcements, having Police Liaison Officers hand out leaflets and sharing information about the conditions on social media. One group of protesters recently responded to officers making an announcement by loudly chanting, “we can’t hear you”.
HAPPENING NOW: Jewish anti-Zionists are leading a morning prayer service at St Pancras train station in support of Palestine. pic.twitter.com/pTtyuYodSN— Clare Hymer (@ClareHymer) November 2, 2023
Anyone taking part in a protest who distributes this information is helping the police to do their job and making it more likely that people could be found guilty of an offence – so don’t.
This is also a useful moment to remind everyone that Police Liaison Officers (the ones in the light blue bibs) are not present to “facilitate” protests but intelligence gatherers – the eyes and ears on the policing operation right in the heart of the demonstration. You do not have to engage with them and for your safety and that of others, we urge you not to.
“Sit-ins” at stations and blocking roads
Since the start of November, both the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police (BTP) have used or threatened to use new powers to arrest people for a new offence of “interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure” created by section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023.
“Key national infrastructure” includes roads as well as rail, air transport, oil and gas and newspaper printing. The law says an offence involves protesters deliberately intending to “interfere with the use or operation of such infrastructure or [who] are reckless as to whether it will do so”.
BTP threatened people with arrest under Section 7 at the Charing Cross Station protest on 4 November, so it is possible they may do so in a similar situation again, not least because the limits of the new power are untested in court. The Metropolitan Police has indicated on social media that guidance for using Section 7 includes prior warning before arrests are made.
Currently, a number of Just Stop Oil campaigners who were arrested for this offence after marching in the road have been kept in custody until their trial begins, so anyone threatened with it needs to carefully consider the impact it might have on them personally.
Police powers to require the removal of face coverings or masks
The police can demand that you remove any item you are wearing that is mainly used to conceal your identity. Failure to remove the item can result in an arrest. Officers can seize the item, and you don’t have to be wearing it at the time for it to be seized. They have this power under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and it has been authorised towards the end of a number of recent Palestine protests, apparently to aid in CCTV and video facial recognition surveillance. It is invariably targeted at particular individuals rather than whole groups of protesters.
Unfortunatelt, police have previously demanded people remove face masks worn to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
Dispersing protesters after demonstrations
Police have also imposed a dispersal order towards the end of recent Palestine solidarity demonstrations. This is a power to exclude people from an area under Section 35 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Police must be ‘satisfied’ that the use of these powers is “necessary for the purpose of removing or reducing the likelihood of (a) members of the public in the locality being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or (b) the occurrence in the locality of crime or disorder.”
In practice, this is a very low threshold for them to reach. Officers also have the power to direct an individual who has been given a dispersal notice to hand over any items in their possession if the officer “has a reasonable belief that the items have been or are likely to be used in behaviour that harasses, alarms or distresses members of the public”. This may include the seizure of placards or banners.
Both Hamas (the Palestinian party that governs Gaza) and Hezbollah (the Lebanese militia group) are proscribed (banned) organisations under the Terrorism Act 2000 and section 12 of the Act makes it an offence – with up to ten years in prison or a fine or both – to “invite support for a proscribed organisation” or express “an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organisation”.
It is likely the Metropolitan Police, under immense political pressure to crack down hard on any suspicion of support for Hamas, may decide to interpret “support” very broadly: potentially as broadly as placards expressing support for “Palestinian resistance” or “freedom fighters”.
This does not just mean making arrests on the day but also using CCTV, public appeals, social media analysis and facial recognition to make arrests in the weeks that follow.
Racially aggravated offences
An offence is considered racially aggravated if it is “perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race” and this is a judgment the police can make themselves. However, what this means is the police, after making an arrest for offences such as criminal damage, using threatening words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, then “flag” the perceived motivation with the Crown Prosecution Service. For any conviction to receive enhanced sentencing in court, the police will need to provide sufficient evidence to prove the hostility element.
However, pressure from the Home Secretary – especially her extraordinary attacks on so-called “hate marches” – has led the police to make claims, seized on by detractors of Palestinian solidarity, that offences are racially motivated because officers have conflated opposition to Israel with abhorrent prejudice against the Jewish community.
For example, two Palestinian Action members were recently arrested on suspicion of “racially aggravated criminal damage” after the offices of weapons company Leonardo were doused in red paint. It is difficult to see how the police will prove this was racially aggravated if the campaigners arrested were motivated by hostility to a company complicit in the bombing of civilians, for reasons unconnected to race or nationality.
Unfortunately, some “pro-Palestine” actions, like the vandalism of the Weiner Holocaust Library in London, have shamefully crossed this line.
The promise by the Metropolitan Police of a “sharper focus” on perceived hate crimes also means this is likely to lead to a massive level of surveillance and filming of demonstrators.
Causing a “public nuisance”
The revised offence of ‘public nuisance’ was included in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act 2022. It is defined as an action that creates a risk of serious harm to the public or stops the public from being able to exercise their rights. For instance, if you interfere with a national event that is open to the public, or shut down a transport hub like a motorway that is used by lots of people, it may be considered as causing a public nuisance. It has previously been used when disruption is considered more substantial – for example blocking a motorway rather than an ordinary road.
Judges have jailed protesters in recent years for public nuisance and have indicated that this is because their protests were perceived as more likely to involve unjustifiable risks and impact a far greater number of people. Anyone considering a form of direct action during or separate from Saturday’s march where there is a perceived “immediate risk of serious harm” to others – as has been the case at protests trespassing at major sporting events, for example – has a greater chance of facing an arrest for public nuisance.
For most people on Saturday, however, this seems unlikely.
If you are heading to Saturday’s protest, take a read of the following key messages and download a copy of GBC’s latest bustcard.
No Comment – you do not need to answer police questions, so don’t.
No Personal Details – you do not have to give personal details under ANY stop and search power, so don’t.
Under What Power? – ask “What power?” to challenge the police to act lawfully
No Duty Solicitor – instead use a recommended solicitor with protest experience
No Caution – cautions are an admission of guilt. Never accept a caution without taking advice from a good solicitor.
If you are arrested or have urgent legal questions, the Protest Support Line is 07946 541 511
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