Police who arrested anti-monarchy protesters before King Charles III’s coronation have “destroyed whatever trust might have existed between peaceful protesters and the Metropolitan police”, the chief executive of the campaign group Republic has said.
After six members of the group were arrested at about 7.30am on Saturday – before their protest had even begun – and had their placards seized, Graham Smith said officers “should hang their heads in shame” and “showed no judgment, no common sense and no basic decency”.
Smith and his fellow campaigners for an elected head of state were held at a police station until late on Saturday night despite previously liaising with Scotland Yard. After his release, Smith said: “What is the point in being open and candid with the police, working with their liaison officers and meeting senior commanders, if all their promises and undertakings turn out to be a lie?”
He added: “It is notable that King Charles has said nothing about these arrests. Rather than defend our liberty and values he is content celebrating his anointment as monarch while citizens are locked up.”
Scotland Yard said officers made 52 arrests on Saturday for offences including affray, public order offences, breach of the peace and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. “Lock-on” devices were seized during the arrest of the Republic organisers, a police statement said, but the group denied having any such equipment. It claimed one protester was arrested for possession of string that was part of a placard.
Adam Hug, the Labour leader of Westminster city council, said he was “urgently pushing the police for proper answers” after three council volunteers were arrested at about 2am on Saturday in Soho and later released on bail after they were found in possession of rape alarms. Police said “military colleagues” had feared such devices could be used to disrupt parading horses, posing “significant risk to the safety of the public and the riders”.
However, the council said the devices were for the Night Stars volunteers to give out to vulnerable women and they were funded by a Home Office grant. They also gave out flip-flop, vomit bags and water to revellers in need.
“It seems very likely the Night Stars have got caught up in a blanket presumption of arresting anyone with potentially disruptive devices even if they had them for lawful or approved purposes, an approach the Met had not briefed partners about,” a senior council source said. “Because the arresting officers weren’t local they didn’t know who the Night Stars were and didn’t know to call the council to try and de-escalate.”
Earlier, a minister defended the arrests, claiming police were right to act as “we were on the global stage”.
Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg: “I think they were quite right to take into account the context of the event as a whole.”
She added: “There were 200 foreign dignitaries in the UK, in London, at an event with millions of people watching, and hundreds of thousands of people at the scene. I think it was really important that they took that into account when it takes making their decision.”
Frazer stressed the Met was “operationally independent” and had to make “tough calls” but defended new protest laws introduced last week as a necessary response to “a change in tactics of protesters”. She said: “We have seen them stopping people going about their day to day business, whether that’s going to school, being able to go to hospital, being able to go to work.”
The former justice secretary Robert Buckland told GB News: “The police would be in the dock if they let something happen and the parade was obstructed or horses were frightened. We can’t, that’s not safe.”
Scotland Yard said its tactics were proportionate.
Cmdr Karen Findlay, who led the policing operation, said: “We absolutely understand public concern following the arrests we made. Protest is lawful and it can be disruptive. We have policed numerous protests without intervention in the buildup to the coronation, and during it. Our duty is to do so in a proportionate manner in line with relevant legislation. We also have a duty to intervene when protest becomes criminal and may cause serious disruption. This depends on the context. The coronation is a once in a generation event and that is a key consideration in our assessment.”
She added: “A protest involving large numbers has gone ahead … with police knowledge and no intervention.”
Smith, who has campaigned against the monarchy for two decades, claimed the arrests showed “the right to protest peacefully in the UK no longer exists” but said Republic would keep protesting “wherever Charles goes, wherever William goes … with one simple message: Charles is not our king, it is time to abolish the monarchy.”
The arrests triggered accusations from campaigners and human rights groups that the freedom to protest was under attack. Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh, said: “Being in possession of a megaphone or carrying placards should never be grounds for a police arrest and Human Rights Watch said reports of arrests of peaceful protesters were ‘incredibly alarming’ and ‘something you would expect to see in Moscow, not London’.”
On Sunday, Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “I don’t know the exact reason the police arrested those people … but I hold the Conservative government responsible for passing legislation to clamp down on protests that breached British traditions of civil liberties and I think the Conservatives have got a lot to answer for.”
Asked about the arrests of protesters in Trafalgar Square, Jason Arday, professor of sociology and education at Cambridge University, said: “What we are beginning to see is an infringement of our ability to have free speech. I think it was a peaceful protest and to be quite honest, and without surprise, I think the police’s reaction to that particular situation was pretty heavy-handed and rather unnecessary.”