In her memorable speech outside Tufton St during the massed climate protests of the last weekend of April, Zadie Smith said that she rarely used the word “evil” but she believed that the work of the dark arts of the Tufton think tanks, including Policy Exchange, who ghost wrote the recently passed Public Order Act, falls within that category.
The inclination to be measured is a worthy one as often hyperbole is the enemy of truth. However, Zadie Smith is right. With all of the fears for our freedoms at the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing Courts Act 2022 (PCSC) and the Public Order Act realised so rapidly during the Coronation and its run up, it is I think, high time to ramp up the rhetoric to meet the threat to our democratic rights head on.
Arrests under the Public Order Act
Much publicity has rightly been given to the arrest of activists from Republic in advance of their openly trailed non-violent protest in Trafalgar Square; one that had been negotiated with and approved by the Met; the Coronation itself trumpeted by Tom Tugendhat as showcasing to the world Britain’s commitment to free speech.
However, much more sinister and essentially instructive are two other events which reveal the dark hand of a government whose far right-wing is soon to rebrand itself “National Conservatives” and determined to work to a totalitarian playbook. The description ‘sinister’ needs repeating for emphasis. We are moving from authoritarianism to tyranny in the blink of an eye.
Although a measure in the Act purports to protect journalists from arrest when covering protests with the assurance that “the police cannot use their powers solely to prevent a person from reporting on or observing protests” (added following the scandalous arrest of LBC’s Charlotte Lynch), journalist Rich Felgate was arrested while filming a Just Stop Oil activist holding a banner near the Coronation route.
In spite of showing his BECTU press accreditation, he was arrested for “conspiracy to commit public nuisance” (public nuisance is now the preferred charge as its sentencing parameter is draconian) under the PCSC Act 2022. He was held in police custody for 18 hours and remains under investigation. The deliberate vagueness of the caveat to this clause, that: “The police can still lawfully exercise their powers, for example of arrest […] for other legitimate purposes”, was exploited to override the supposed safeguard.
But most disturbing is the unfolding story of conspiracy and collusion between press and police – evident in the case of Riz Choudhry.
I met Riz when he came to support me when I appeared in court in 2019 following arrest for a section 14 violation during the XR April Rebellion of that year. I later ran into him doing an evening shift helping with a food bank at St Martins in the Fields. I had no idea until reports of his arrest that he was also part of the Night Stars safety team who help vulnerable people at risk in London’s west end. If ever anyone was an embodiment of altruism, he ticks all the boxes.
One of the undertakings of the group is to provide rape alarms to help keep women safe on streets at night (not least of all from the police themselves post Sarah Everard).
The night before the Coronation he was doing his usual shift with other volunteers, all of whom wore hi viz tabards emblazoned with Metropolitan Police validation, when he was detained at around 2am “on suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance” (presumably for ‘going equipped’, the new catch all clause of the Public Order Act) and the rape alarms confiscated. He was kept handcuffed for three hours and detained for 14.
As Riz himself said after release: “The devices we were in possession of are a usual part of our duties […] and for this to be turned into an excuse for an unwarranted arrest is incredibly worrying and very upsetting.”
Councillor Aicha Less, Cabinet Member for Communities and Public Protection, concurred: “We are deeply concerned by reports of our Night Stars volunteers being arrested overnight. This service has been a familiar and welcome sight in the West End for a long time and [volunteers] have extensive training so they can assist the most vulnerable on the streets late at night.”
But this arrest didn’t come out of the blue.
The ‘rape alarm plot’
During “the Big One” (the mass climate protests at which Zadie Smith spoke), when it became clear that their smear that Extinction Rebellion was going to disrupt the marathon had no traction, a ‘rape alarm plot’ story first appeared in the Mail on Sunday. Citing “senior security sources”, it went to great lengths to suggest that ‘extremists’ including ‘eco-activists’ were involved in a “vile plot to spook King’s horses with rape alarms.”
The article is littered with psyops trigger words such as “terrorism” and “injury”, intended to subconsciously ramp up the fear of a non-existent threat, and conditional clauses which preclude any chance of rebuttal (especially as no specific groups are named). It is after all impossible to refute a “fear” or rebut a “concern.”
Who could disagree with former Grenadier Guardsman Julian Perreira when he says muses: “If a cavalryman – with the full weight of his gleaming ceremonial breast-plate and helmet – was thrown from his terrified horse, he could easily be killed.” It is a truism cynically engineered as an accusation.
The article invites us to consider the “potential” lethal consequences of a rape alarm aimed at horses and “imagine the horrifying consequences of several 1,500lb horses bolting into a packed crowd of spectators”. But when a piece appeals only to the imagination, or potential scenarios, it reveals its hand as fiction. Authors Glen Owen and Mark Hookham even provide counter-evidence to the rationality of their argument by providing a hyperlink to the report of Animal Rising’s mission to protect horses from harm at the Grand National.
Shamelessly, it then goes on to report the plot as though it had been confirmed eliciting condemnations by Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Jacob Rees Mogg.
Strangely, the Mail on Sunday reported on the 22 April that the Met had “received intelligence” suggesting people would use rape alarms to disrupt the coronation while the Met puts the date as the 5 May, two weeks after the article was published.
This obfuscation begs the questions, was there a cosy symbiotic relationship between police and publication, both working, to the home secretary’s agenda, to ‘find’ a convenient cache of rape alarms to fit the Mail’s story and justify the police’s newfound powers?
And does it not seem all too convenient for the police to then come across Riz, whose mission to distribute the alarms will have been well known to them?
Did the Mail set up a ‘false flag’ excuse at the behest of the police to shut down legitimate protest on the day? Might they be guilty of joint enterprise?
I would suggest that the answer to these questions might lie with the Met’s new head of media, Chris Greenwood who, lo and behold, joined the police after a long career at the Daily Mail where he was the executive news editor for over eight years and served as chairman of the Crime Reporters Association until January this year. Might he be both source and propagator?
If this is true, it would seem that the cancelling of Leveson part 2, and the avoidance of scrutiny regarding corrupt collusion between police and press, has emboldened both bodies to act with an astounding level of arrogance.
Policing by consent?
Before the Coronation many activist groups were sent an intimidating letter from the police warning that their “tolerance [for disruption] will be low.” But it has never, since Peel, been within the police’s remit whether or not to ‘tolerate’ freedom of expression, a right enshrined in Article 10 of Human Rights Act.
We have until now enjoyed a longstanding convention of policing by consent, a consent which assumes political non-alignment and an understanding that any attempt by the government to direct the police in operational matters would be gross political interference. We are now moving towards a situation where the police are as complicit in their protection of their political masters as are the client press.
The Bank Holiday Coronation instigated initiative, The Big Help Out, saw 50,000 volunteers hit the streets on 8 May. One group of volunteers who have been keeping their heads low is the Night Stars.
The conclusion of Mail on Sunday’s article, asking us to imagine the potential consequences of a rape alarm plot by conscientious protectors, is classic projection: “You have families with young children who could potentially lose their lives[…]. As far as I am concerned, that is terrorism.”
Yes, children may lose their lives; there will be terror.
But the jackboot is on the other foot.
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