Police in Edinburgh and Oxford have been accused of being “heavy-handed” when it comes to events linked to the royal family. Image: Eliza Pitkin / The Big Issue
A growing number of anti-monarchy protesters are being arrested during the proclamation of King Charles III.
As thousands of people attend events across the UK following the death of the Queen, some are taking the opportunity to speak out against the British monarchy’s history of imperialism and colonialism.
A man in Oxford named Symon Hill was arrested after he called out: “Who elected him?” when he passed a ceremony in the city marking the new monarch’s accession, but he has since been de-arrested.
And two people in Edinburgh were arrested and charged with a breach of the peace at the weekend – a 22-year-old woman who had been holding a sign reading: “Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” and a pensioner who was led away from the Palace of Holyrood.
Police also arrested a man in Edinburgh after he heckled Prince Andrew while he was following behind a hearse carrying the Queen’s coffin. The man has been charged with a “breach of the peace”.
Videos also surfaced online of a woman being moved on by police for holding a sign reading: “Not my King” outside the gates of Parliament on Monday, while King Charles III addressed MPs and Lords inside.
So why are police clamping down on protests as they patrol events taking place during the period of national mourning?
Why have anti-monarchy protesters been arrested?
Police in Scotland say the young woman was arrested outside St. Giles’ Cathedral, where a crowd had gathered ahead of the Queen’s coffin arriving, “in connection with a breach of the peace”. The force has said she was not arrested for displaying the sign, but for her behaviour. She has been charged and will appear at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
Barrister Tom Wainwright, an expert in protest law, says under Scottish law a person can be arrested for “disorderly conduct which is severe enough to cause alarm – or threaten a serious disturbance, or have used threatening or abusive behaviour intending to cause fear or alarm”.
The question is, is holding a sign disorderly or offensive?
It is the use of the word “fuck” that seems to have been deemed offensive, explains Wainwright, however a clear defence would be freedom of speech.
This isn’t the first time police have taken strong offence to the word “fuck”. In 2020, the Metropolitan Police apologised to a woman who was arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Fuck Boris” at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Police told the woman to zip up her jacket to cover it up, referencing the Public Order Act, despite no disorder having actually taken place in response to the slogan.
In Oxford, Hill says he had his hands cuffed behind his back while being “dragged off”, the Oxford Mail reports, after shouting: “Who elected him?” at the proclamation of the new king.
“I did not say *anything* remotely disrespectful today about Elizabeth’s death. I did not disrupt an act of mourning (and never would). My objection was to the proclamation of Charles Windsor as king,” Hill wrote on Twitter.
A Thames Valley Police spokesperson said he was arrested on suspicion of committing an offence under section five of the Public Order Act, which prohibits disorderly behaviour.
Did the arrests happen because of the new Policing Act?
The recently passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act clamps down on protests by making it a crime to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance. It gave police new powers to “tackle non-violent protests” that have such a significant disruptive effect on the public, such as being “too noisy”.
When proposed, the laws sparked the Kill the Bill movement, which aimed to stop the legislation being passed and won some concessions. When the act was passed, campaigners labelled the new laws “discriminatory and authoritarian”.
Hill, who was arrested in Oxford for shouting “Who elected him?” at a proclamation ceremony for the new king, has accused police of abusing their powers, claiming officers arresting him said they were doing so under the new Policing Act.
Despite this, Thames Valley police later said Hill was arrested under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which prohibits threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.
“There seems to be some confusion by police as to what powers they were exercising,” says Wainwright.
“There’s a good chance that (the police) will be heavy handed again about it, but if the people are protesting peacefully then there is no good reason why they should be arrested, and they shouldn’t be deterred from doing so.”
It’s not the first time the Policing Act has impacted protests. Last week the family of Chris Kaba, a 24-year-old Black man shot dead by police in south London, said the new laws were taken into consideration when arranging a protest.
Protesters being arrested at royal events is nothing new
“While the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act will make arrests at protests more likely, the police have a long history of abusing the powers they already have – especially in relation to royal events,” said Emily Apple at the Network for Police Monitoring.
For example, in 2011, protesters dressed as zombies were arrested during the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate. Police justified the arrest as pre-emptive, with the European Court of Human Rights ruling eight years later that there had been no breach of their right to liberty.
Another protester singing his version of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, reworked as “we all live in a fascist regime” was handcuffed and arrested in Soho Square, not far from where the couple were exchanging their wedding vows.
And in 2002, during the Golden Jubilee, a group of 23 anti-monarchy activists staging a protest in Tower Hill with the banner “execute the Queen” were arrested. They subsequently received £80,000 in damages from police after the group sued and the force agreed an out of court settlement.
What is the Public Order Act 1986?
Brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government, the Public Order Act sought to maintain public order by criminalising acts that fall under the categories of riot (where at least 12 people are involved), violent disorder, affray (fighting in public), threatening behaviour, and disorderly conduct.
Section five of the act makes “harassment, alarm or distress” a statutory offence in England and Wales. This makes a person who “uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” and “displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening” potentially guilty of an offence.
It is this section that is being used by police in England to arrest of individuals who are protesting against the monarchy in the wake of the Queen’s death.
A republican is someone who believes that the country should not be run by a monarchy, rather by a democratically elected head of state.
“In place of the Queen we want someone chosen by the people, not running the government but representing the nation independently of our politicians,” says the campaign group Republic.
“Hereditary public office goes against every democratic principle. And because we can’t hold the Queen and her family to account at the ballot box, there’s nothing to stop them abusing their privilege, misusing their influence or simply wasting our money”, they continue.
Even the prime minister Liz Truss, used to be a republican, saying as a Liberal Democrat in 1994: “That people, because of the family they’re born into, should be able to be the head of state of our country? I think that’s disgraceful.”
Why are people concerned about freedom of speech?
As more people have become concerned about how the police have dealt with anti-monarchy protests, some have sought clarity from the police over what they can and cannot do.
Barrister Paul Powlesland filmed himself holding a piece of blank paper in Parliament Square while asking a police officer what would happen if he were to write “Not My King” on the make-shift sign.
“Officer came & asked for my details. He confirmed that if I wrote “Not My King” on it, he would arrest me under the Public Order Act because someone might be offended,” he said.
Reacting to the video, deputy assistant police commissioner Stuart Cundy said: “The public absolutely have a right of protest and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place and we will continue do so.
“However, the overwhelming majority of interactions between officers and public at this time have been positive as people have come to the capital to mourn the loss of Her Late Majesty the Queen.”
Journalist Andrew Marr has slammed the “idiotic heavy-handed policing” as “actually longer term dangerous for the monarchy, because if the suggestion is that we can have a king or we can have free speech, then millions of us will say; ‘free speech’”.
Responding to the arrests in Edinburgh, Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right. Being able to choose what, how, and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy.”
“It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression.
“From restrictions on protest in the Policing Act to further attacks in the Public Order Bill – which rehashes the draconian measures thrown out of the act, including protest banning orders and expansions of stop and search powers – the government is making it harder for people to stand up for what they believe in. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the government safeguards our protest rights.”
A spokesperson for prime minister Liz Truss said they would not comment on “operational matters for the police” but added: “This is a period of national mourning for the vast majority of the country, but the fundamental right to protest remains the keystone of our democracy.”
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