By Ali Karbalaei

UK crackdown on monarchy dissent under fire

May 22, 2023 - 22:17

TEHRAN - Anti-monarchy groups see membership rise after “alarming” police arrest of protesters at the coronation of King Charles.

Condemnation is mounting in the aftermath of the harsh police crackdown on those protesting against the coronation in London on May 6.

Controversy was already brewing before the event, when the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury called on all British citizens to pledge allegiance to the king. That sparked a backlash with anti-monarchy activists branding it an "offensive and tone-deaf gesture that holds the people in contempt'.

The criticism forced the archbishop of Canterbury to tone down the move to an “invitation” to pay homage, but polls show that that didn't go down well with the public either.

In a sign of dwindling public support for the British royal family, a new poll has revealed that only one in ten people pledged allegiance to King Charles during the ceremony.

On the coronation day itself, police have been accused of a heavy-handed approach in arresting scores of peaceful protesters despite apparently holding discussions with the organizers and giving them assurances that their demonstrations can go ahead.

But many demonstrations didn't go ahead. And the police arrests began even before the coronation started on the morning of the ceremony. Among those arrested later in the day were several volunteers from a local council who work to keep vulnerable people safe on the streets. 

However, those targeted by officers appear to be mostly from one of the largest and most active anti-monarchy groups in the UK called Republic. The protesters were arrested under new legislation dubbed the new Public Order Act, which offers police more powers to shut down protests and make arrests.

Coincidentally or maybe not quite so coincidentally, the new law was given final parliamentary approval just days before the coronation took place.

One of the most high-profile arrests was that of Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic. He was released without charge (like many others) after some 16 hours in detention. He said it had been "traumatic to be arbitrarily detained" and is calling for an inquiry.

Such has been the backlash against the police measures, with the Human Rights Watch accusing the police of “incredibly alarming” tactics. Smith has been given the opportunity to speak before a Home Affairs committee which is looking into the police’s handling of the protests.

Smith argued that the Met should have known Republic “never had any intention” of disrupting the coronation, as the group had been in discussion with the force about protest plans for months.  

He told MPs “we told the Met [The Metropolitan Police responsible for Greater London] how many placards we would have and what they would say on them. We told them we would have megaphones and amplifiers for the purpose of making speeches to the crowds. We told them exactly where we were going to be on the route.”

Smith also says “the Met Police were very clear with us that they did not have a single concern about anything we were going to do,”

The activist argued that his arrest and subsequent detention had “all the hallmarks of being premeditated” as it appeared to him that officers had turned up “with the intention” of taking him into custody for the duration of the coronation.

The bigger question is who gave police the orders to target Republic on the day of the coronation and why?

During the committee meeting, Police chiefs were asked whether officers had been under political pressure “from above” to make the arrests? They responded that there was “no pressure politically".

Shortly after news surfaced of the controversial arrests, the Metropolitan Police expressed “regret” that demonstrators from Republic were arrested.

Smith said “I had three officers at my door personally apologizing and handing the straps [for the placards] back to me. They were a chief inspector and two other officers from the Met. They seemed rather embarrassed, to be honest.

I said, ‘For the record, I won’t accept the apology. We have a lot of questions to answer and we will be taking action.’”

Republic later wrote in a social media post “this has been a disgraceful episode and we will be speaking to lawyers about taking legal action" while stressing that the group expects an inquiry to find out "who authorized the arrests.”

The anti-monarchy movement are adamant the arrests were a premeditated attempt to “disrupt and diminish” the republican demonstration.

Human rights groups are concerned over police statements about “low tolerance” of protests, with Amnesty International saying “merely being in possession of a megaphone or carrying placards should never be grounds for a police arrest. Peaceful protest is clearly protected under international human rights law.”

Environmental group ‘Just Stop Oil’ said more than a dozen of their protesters had been arrested. Separately, another campaign movement, Animal Rising, said a number of their supporters were arrested “miles away from the coronation”.

A spokesperson for the group warned “this is nothing short of a totalitarian crackdown on free speech and all forms of dissent.

“Just Stop Oil, Republic and Animal Rising have experienced the true character of this government’s attitude towards peaceful protest. We are sleepwalking into fascism and it is every single person’s responsibility to stand up and say ‘No more.’”

Politicians joined the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, in seeking answers from Scotland Yard (the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police) over the detention of Republic protesters and volunteers working for a local council to keep people safe.

Police also arrested members of Westminster city council’s women’s safety campaign Night Stars, who hand out rape alarms to women and other items to vulnerable people in an attempt to keep them safe on the streets from rising levels of crime.

Green party politician Caroline Russell, who chairs the London assembly’s police and crime committee, has described the crackdown as “really worrying".

She told the media that “It felt like, for someone who was trying to protest and trying to do it by the book, it was very difficult to understand what the rules were.”

The mayor of London says “some of the arrests made by police as part of the coronation event raise questions and, while investigations are ongoing, I’ve sought urgent clarity from Met leaders on the action taken.”

Since the coronation arrests, Republic saw its membership almost double in one week, further reflecting the anti-monarchy sentiment among the British public. The group says it has attracted a wave of new paying members.

Smith says “people understand it’s quite worrying if the law allows police to arrest the most peaceful of peaceful protests. I think it has done the police an awful lot of reputational damage. A lot of the coverage of the coronation was dominated by these arrests.”

The new polls showing that a tiny proportion of people had pledged allegiance to the king isn't surprising. Analysts believe it reflects the fact that there is only a small group of enthusiastic royalists left in the country and say it strongly signals that Britain is no longer a nation of monarchists.

The days of the British empire with a powerful monarchy are over as the majority of the British are now struggling to put food on the table.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell says police were forced to "construct a watchtower in front of the demonstration so that the king would not see the protest as he passed by on the way to the palace.”

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