Sadly, as is so often the case, whenever there is conflict in the Middle East there is fallout on the streets of Britain. Unsurprisingly, some on the British far right have seen the ongoing conflict as an opportunity to exploit anger and advance their own divisive politics.
Last week, the focus of much of the far right shifted towards Saturday’s pro-Palestine demonstration that coincided with Remembrance Day. As was the case during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, rumours spread online that the Cenotaph may be desecrated by protestors, generating anger. Tensions were significantly ramped up in the preceding week by the then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who on 3 November posted on Twitter that it was “entirely unacceptable to desecrate Armistice Day with a hate march through London.”
Braverman followed up on her inflammatory comments with a divisive article in The Times, in which she again referred to pro-Palestine demos as “hate marches” that represented an “assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists” and made unfounded accusations that poppy-sellers had been “mobbed” by protesters.
Most strikingly, Braverman appeared to justify any grievances that far-right demonstrators might hold against the police, noting what she described as “a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters”, going on to say that “right-wing and nationalist protesters who engage in aggression are rightly met with a stern response yet pro-Palestinian mobs displaying almost identical behaviour are largely ignored”.
For a Home Secretary to justify the grievances of “right wing and nationalist” protesters against the police just days prior to a situation where they would face off in central London is unprecedented, and surely contributed heavily to the Prime Minister’s decision to dismiss her this morning.
While Braverman’s inflammatory stance drew widespread condemnation – including from within the Conservative Party – she was not without supporters. Douglas Murray tweeted: “UK Hamas supporters […] plan to defame our war-dead and desecrate the Cenotaph itself. This is the tipping point. If such a march goes ahead then the people of Britain must come out and stop these barbarians.” He unsurprisingly failed to attend himself.
Further fuel was added to the fire three days before Armistice Day by the Daily Mail, which ran a front page suggesting a credible risk of rioting at the Cenotaph, despite the agreed route for the march going nowhere near Whitehall:
Despite the fact that the planned march was never due to pass the Cenotaph and the area around Whitehall, rumours spread fast that pro-Palestine demonstrators would disrespect or desecrate the monument to Britain’s war dead.
Until two weeks ago, the football hooligan world had shown little interest in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. However, convinced the Cenotaph could face attack, they then began to mobilise. The hooligan chat groups saw an outpouring of vile racism and threats, and one WhatsApp group saw its numbers double in seven days as hooligans and racists piled in.
The day before the demonstrations, HOPE not hate raised the alarm about what we were seeing in the groups, which were awash with terrorist videos, vile racism and threats of violence. There were even links shared to buy high calibre crossbows, with many commenting how they would like one to take out their opponents.
The anti-Muslim extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) added fuel to fire in a series of videos and emails calling for all British men to come into London to make a stand.
The day itself started early, with a group of men – some of them in balaclavas – gathering outside Embankment tube station from around 9:30. There was a very limited police presence at this point. By 10:00 this had swelled to a crowd of 500, who were then joined by a contingent led by Tommy Robinson. The combined group then moved towards Whitehall.
By 10:30, numbers had reached 1,500-2,000 and scuffles broke out in Whitehall, as police attempted to restrict the flow of protesters to the pavements rather than the road. The assembled hooligans climbed over fences and bollards, chanting abuse and eventually charging at and breaking through police lines.
By 11:30, with the minute’s silence having passed, Tommy Robinson then led the group through Trafalgar Square and towards Chinatown. However, they were met by riot police, and Tommy fled in a taxi as his comrades began throwing missiles at police and the first arrests were made.
The day progressed with sporadic reports of violence around Westminster tube station, and hooligans gathered in pubs around Victoria attempting to coordinate their movements with the intention of disrupting the pro-Palestine demo. The largest group was taken out of action around 14:30 by pre-emptive arrests on Tachbrook Street, where police made 82 arrests of those preparing to attack the demonstration as it passed one street over.
Another group of hooligans had remained in Parliament Square where they were prevented from re-entering Whitehall by police. After a bloody confrontation, where officers responded to volleys of punches and flying traffic cones with baton-charges, the mob quickly turned about and set off down Millbank to attack the Palestine demo.
By 15:45, around 200 of the far-right crowd headed for Vauxhall Bridge Road to confront the pro-Palestine demo, verbally abusing passersby as they went. The group then stopped at Lambeth Bridge to pick a fight with a group of pro-Palestine protesters who were making their way home, before turning on the police who intervened to separate them. Members of the group screamed “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack” and “Allah is a paedo” and threw punches and missiles.
SkyNews has since reported 126 arrests, at least 92 of which were from the far-right crowd during the day and an unknown number later that evening. The Met Police revealed at least two arrest for the possession of weapons, an arrest for the possession of Class A drugs and an arrest for assaulting an emergency services worker.
Tommy Robinson’s decision to jump in a taxi when he, followed by about 200 right wing protesters, had arrived in Chinatown has not gone down too well within the hooligan fraternity, many of whom resented his fame and wealth anyway.
Comments by followers on his Telegram chat group, ordinarily supportive of Tommy, were scathing, accusing him of “leading sheep into the trap” and “running off in the taxi after leading them to where they’ll be arrested!” The fact that riot police turned up minutes later even led some to publicly question whether the two events were connected.
Robinson has claimed that his departure in a taxi was proof that he was only in central London to mark his respect to the fallen, rather than a desire to cause trouble. This was, however, at odds with the tone of his videos and emails in the days leading up to Saturday, where he urged all British men to come into London.
The events of this weekend were encouraged by the actions of the former Home Secretary and a handful of newspapers. The government has a responsibility to make all communities feel safe and to prevent a fallout from international events here. Instead Suella Braverman helped whip the far right into a violent frenzy.
That’s why it was right for Sunak to sack her, and we hope to never see her in Cabinet again.
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