London's pro-Palestine protest plans hampered by difficulties and delays

Turnout of 500,000 is predicted, making it one of the biggest political demonstrations in British history

Police officers look on as protesters wave Palestinian flags at the gates of Downing Street. AFP
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This weekend's pro-Palestine march in central London is set to be one of the biggest and most controversial political protests in recent British history.

Against the backdrop of a febrile political atmosphere that has threatened to derail the march, police and organisers have, however, been sitting down to carefully and calmly plan the event.

The organisers are predicting a turnout of 500,000, which would make it the UK’s biggest demonstration since 2003, when an estimated one million people marched in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

It would also be one of the largest political marches in British political history, and much larger than the four previous Saturday protests against Israel's military action in Gaza, which have seen turnouts of about 100,000.

The groups who have come together to organise the event, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al Aqsa, the Stop the War Coalition, Palestinian Forum in Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, have all met police to plan a new route for the demonstration.

Instead of finishing at the Cenotaph war memorial, where the main Remembrance Day event takes place in central London, the protest will finish at the US embassy, tucked away in an area on the south bank of the River Thames.

Metropolitan Police has said almost 2,000 officers will be on duty for the event and roads around the back of the embassy have been declared a no-go area, along with the area around the Cenotaph. Any protesters could be arrested.

The Cenotaph will also have a dedicated 24-hour police presence which will remain in place until the conclusion of Remembrance Day events on Sunday amid concerns it could be a flashpoint for confrontations with far-right counter-demonstrators.

At the heart of the controversy is whether the march should have been allowed to take place at time when the UK remembers its war dead, a row reignited by Home Secretary Suella Braverman using a newspaper article to accuse the police of showing favouritism.

Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has stood firm in the face of criticism and insisted there is not enough firm intelligence of a “threat of serious disorder” to warrant a ban.

Away from the row, the police and the march’s organisers sat down and worked through the details of the route. But progress has not been helped by the political row, says Ben Jamal, director of PSC.

“There are logistical issues, which roads need to be closed, and a series of negotiations with the police, and that had become even more crucial with the numbers of people turning up,” he told The National.

As part of on-going negotiations, the organisers themselves identified Armistice Day over a week ago as being an event the march would clash with so offered an alternative route to the embassy, he explained.

But the talks were put on hold when the Met Police, caught up in the political row after the Home Secretary called the demonstrators “hate marchers”, asked that the march not go ahead.

“So we had a delay in that process, a couple of days where discussions were not taking place, which were crucial,” Mr Jamal said.

“It’s a difficult space to march to and we already had a sense that the numbers were going to be huge but because [the police] were fending off the other stuff after Suella Braverman had stepped in and they didn’t know if it was going to be postponed, it put a hold on all of those discussions.”

Mr Jamal said there had not been time for the organisers' request about how the end of the march could be managed to be discussed with police.

“So what Braverman’s done is created discord, defamed a whole bunch of people marching for peace but made the job of the police and ourselves much harder,” he said.

“And of course she has personal responsibility for public safety, so it's pretty disgraceful, to be honest.”

Graham Wettone, a former Met officer and expert in public order policing, explained to The National the planning that goes into marches.

“The organisers for the event will come in to, normally, Scotland Yard, and they’ll sit down around a table with the public order planning team,” Mr Wettone said.

“It's been a long-established practice that the Met’s public order planning team will always try and get event organisers to come in and sit down and agree meeting points, routes, duration, stewarding, barriers, traffic, etc, etc.

“They will say to them 'you can go here but we’re not going to let you go over there' and there will conditions under the Public Order Act about where you can go on the margins of the march.”

He said the Met has been working with groups such as the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and Muslim Association of Britain “for decades”.

“When I was at the Yard in the 2000s, we had these organisers coming in back then, so there’s a long-established relationship between these protest organisers and the police.

“I've worked alongside stewards on Stop the War and PSC demos where the stewards have actually stepped in and almost done a policing job to keep those on the march route reasonably peaceful.”

Mr Wettone said it was clear from public statements made by protest organisers that they wanted to avoid central London and Armistice Day events.

While not naming Ms Braverman directly, he said the atmosphere running up to the march had not been helpful to the police in preventing disorder.

“A lot of this has been exaggerated, sadly by some politicians who should know better, and ramped up by people in the public eye and, dare I say it, by sections of the media,” he said.

Meanwhile protesters are getting ready to converge in central London, with Stop The War saying there are waiting lists for buses it is organising.

The Met Commissioner himself praised march organisers, saying they showed “complete willingness to stay away from the Cenotaph and Whitehall and have no intention of disrupting the nation’s remembrance events”.

He said there has been “escalation of violence and criminality” from fringe groups who have attached themselves to the demonstrations “despite some key organisers working positively with us”.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 5:59 PM