Policing protests in London on issues that concern people deeply, especially when they are contentious, is never going to be easy.
Numbers are likely to be large and passions will run deep. Last Saturday’s pro-Palestinian march was just such an occasion. As if that were not enough, public comments during the week by the former Home Secretary – whatever you thought about them – just added to the headache for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He could surely have done without them. There is a time and place for these discussions. A few days before the march and in the media was neither the time nor the place.
One of the things the previous Home Secretary said, apparently, was that different marches and demonstrations were policed differently by the police. The police had favourites. I think protests are policed differently, though not for the reasons Ms Braverman suggested, but because if the object of policing is to enable protests to happen and law and order to be upheld, different protests need different responses. And by ‘different protests’ I don’t refer to who is protesting or what they are protesting about, but how they are going about things and the likely impact they will have on the communities where they are held.
In the nine years that I have been Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire we have seen many protests – from static demonstrations to marches. After the Jay Report on child sexual abuse in Rotherham, we saw marches by the far right (EDL) month after month in Rotherham. These were noisy, aggressive and unpleasant, often with an air of menace about them. We had the equally drawn-out trees protests in Sheffield. Since then, there have been any number of rallies and marches, usually in front of a town hall, and usually relatively peaceful. The pro-Palestinian marches and protests are just the latest. Each march, demonstration, rally or protest is policed differently, according to the police’s assessment of how peaceful and disciplined or otherwise it might be.
It was as a result of the Rotherham protests that I decided to set up an independent Policing Protests Panel to give me reassurance that the police in South Yorkshire were doing their job as they should. Panel members are briefed by the police beforehand, observe on the day and contribute towards debriefing afterwards.
Last week I joined the chair and panel members for a briefing by those officers – gold and silver commanders – who would be in charge over last weekend’s events in Sheffield. It was a salutary lesson in just how complex these things can be.
A pro-Palestinian march was planned, starting at 11am on Saturday morning in the Burngreave area of Sheffield and making its way to the city centre. Several hundred people were expected – and in the event this was correct: about 500 people came. On the same day, Sheffield Wednesday were playing at home and many visiting supporters – Millwall – would be making their way from the station to the ground, a route that would bi-sect the march if they coincided. Some supporters would also travel to the ground by way of city centre pubs. It was an afternoon kick off. And veterans were expected to assemble at the war memorial in Barker’s Pool at 11am.
This was far from straightforward for the police to handle. There were no grounds for banning the march. (Marches can only be banned if there is hard intelligence that it is likely to result in serious public disorder. There was no such intelligence.) The police needed to agree a route and times for the marchers to avoid too much contact with football supporters or those who might be at the war memorial. They needed to work out where officers should be deployed, at what times and in what strength. If the public feel there are too many officers, the police are criticised for wasting public money – something that was occasionally said during the trees dispute. If they are under resourced on the day and struggle to maintain order, they are criticised for being unprepared.
The senior officers explained their approach to the panel. I was particularly struck by their realisation that those who believed they were going on a peaceful march and had no intention of being anything other than law-abiding, might find the presence of large numbers of police in the city centre disturbing. The police would need to take what steps they could to assure the march organisers that the high number of officers was because there was a football match on Saturday as well and that also had to be policed.
Members of the public will know little of these meticulous plans that have to be made. So many judgement calls. And however careful the planning, the situation on the day is always going to be dynamic, requiring further decisions as events take some unexpected turn. Public order requires a specific set of skills for which the police receive training.
When we say, perhaps too glibly, that we rely on the police to keep us safe, this is part of what we mean.
Testament of youth
I visited the Rotherham Youth Cabinet.
They are young people aged between 11 and 18 who meet after school each Wednesday evening in Riverside, the Rotherham council offices, opposite Main Street police station. They come from across the district and from different schools. They are a committed and interesting group. Their meeting was chaired by one of their number who ensured that they were all able to join in and speak, even the youngest and the more reserved.
They made a presentation about what they call their Manifesto and I spoke about my role and issues around crime and anti-social behaviour.
The Youth Cabinet Manifesto 2023-2024 is an impressive document. The theme this year is Fear and Optimism and arose out of a study from the Prince’s Trust (now the King’s Trust). This had found that 49% of young people aged 16-25 felt anxiety on a daily basis about the future.
This is a distressing statistic. The young people in the survey said their worries were the result of the general political and economic climate and the 2020 pandemic – which had caused them to lower their hopes for the future. Despite this, a UNICEF report in 2022 found that most young people believe the world will be a batter place for them than the one their parents knew. So young people know fear and optimism.
The Rotherham Youth Cabinet have set themselves four priorities to work on:
Health and well-being
Religious education and PSHE
In each case, the cabinet seeks to inform themselves about the issues and to work out ways they might make a local contribution towards making a problem better. So, for example, their commitment to do something about violence means understanding why people resort to violence, how it affects young people and how, very specifically, they can work with the council and its partners to see ‘risky’ areas improved. They also want to campaign in their schools to raise awareness around knife crime.
I have no doubt that they will achieve a great deal as the year goes on. Already, from their last manifesto – which raised the issue of Violence Against Women and Girls – they have had an involvement with both my office and the police. They have joined the Rotherham Police Advisory Group, working with the police as an independent advisory body and a conduit between the police and young people.
I think this is what I found impressive about them. Unlike so many of those who take to the streets in protests, they weren’t demanding that others find solutions, they were determined to find some themselves, turning fear into optimism.
Above all, they want the voice of young people to be heard in those places where opinions are being offered or decisions made that impact on their lives. ‘Adults make big decisions that affect us all the time,’ was how one person expressed it. ‘But they don’t ask us what we think!’
One of the boys was from Dinnington. I told him that I had recently been to a meeting in the town called by the local councillors and MP who wanted to discuss anti-social behaviour, especially that involving young people. ‘I knew about the meeting’, he said. ‘My gran had heard something.’ ‘How many young people were there?’
Point taken. There were none.
What a difference it would have made to hear directly from the mouths of such thoughtful and articulate young people. I invite the MP to take note.
Two thoughts struck me about the remembrance commemorations – what we remember and why we remember.
What we remember are the fallen, not success in battle. At the end of the Great War we built a Cenotaph not an Arc de Triomphe.
Why we remember is because remembering is the way, the only way, we can thank the dead.