The ugly scenes from the Clapham Common protest tell us about wider policing problems – and how policing the coronavirus regulations is being treated as a public order matter instead of a public health problem

14th March 2021

The scenes of the policing of the protest at Clapham Common last night were ugly.

The scenes were also shocking.

By ‘shocking’ I do not mean that they were surprising and unpredictable. 

Anyone with any awareness of policing in Northern Ireland, or of the miners strike, or of inner cities and BAME communities, will not be surprised.

This is what police do – when they can get away with it.

Something can be unsurprising and predictable and still be shocking – as anyone who has licked a light socket would tell you, if they are still able to do so.

And police brutality – and their other abuses of coercive power – should always be shocking.

Once it ceases to shock then the authoritarians and illiberals will have prevailed.


During this pandemic this tendency for the police to misuse and abuse their powers has had a further feature.

The coronavirus regulations – which restrict freedom of movement and assembly as well as other fundamental rights and freedoms – are public health measures.

But they have been enforced by the police as if they were in respect of public order.

Public health is not the same as public order.

The scenes from last night did not evidence any sincere concern for public health from the police.

Indeed – a responsible and socially distanced protest was entirely possible (and warranted) – but the police turned it into something else instead.


These ugly scenes were then followed by ugly evasions.

Reading that ugly statement is as sickening as the scenes from the protest were ugly and shocking.

‘Look at what you made us do,’ is – in the circumstances of this protest that was prompted by the death of Sarah Everard – an especially unfortunate stance for the police to take.

Even former home office ministers – not the most liberal of politicians – were not able to stomach this.


And in command of the metropolitan police is, of course, Cressida Dick.

How the career of Cressida Dick even survived the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is one of wonders of recent policing history.

How her career then continued to prosper is one of its deepest disgraces.

But the police are very good indeed at deflection.

Any criticism is usually first met by being told that one does not understand the pressures of policing, and so on.

And when the wrongs are established beyond doubt, the police effortlessly switch to their bland lessons-will-be-learned assurances.

But at no point will there even be any genuine accountability and redress.

Which is kind of ironic given that the police are, well, charged with the policing the rest of us and holding us to account.


This is not the sort of blog to comment on ongoing individual criminal cases – and this is not just because of the (outdated and inadequate) laws on contempt of court but instead because a blog is not a court room and serves a different purpose.

One purpose of this blog is to identify and explain the wider law and policy contexts of topical events.

The ugly scenes from last night can be seen as an example of police abuses of power generally and in respect of their illiberal and misconceived approach to the coronavirus regulations in particular.

The ugly doubling-down of the police this morning can, in turn, be seen as an example of their inability ever to accept that they have made operational mistakes.

And there are few – if any – official communications as misleading if not dishonest as the police PR after something has gone very wrong.

Shocking – but never surprising.


Thank you for reading this post.

If you value this free-to-read post, and the independent legal and policy commentary this blog provides for both you and others – please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

18 thoughts on “The ugly scenes from the Clapham Common protest tell us about wider policing problems – and how policing the coronavirus regulations is being treated as a public order matter instead of a public health problem”

  1. Jess Phillips, this morning: “Police put their foot down before they put their boot in”

    Their “public health” defence holds no water as what they did increased those risks significantly.

    There was an opportunity for engagement, for a peaceful, socially-distanced, COVID-safe vigil. The police chose to reject. [Incidentally, perhaps the judge could have been more helpful in his comments towards the applicants, which might have put pressure on the Met].

    We don’t know if the Home Secretary or the Mayor of London were consulted. Perhaps we will find out.

    But in spite of what preceded the vigil, the choice was made last night. A bad choice. An inflammatory choice.

    Raw grief was turned into raw anger by the force, one of whose members stands accused.

    The irony.

  2. Well, there is no mystery about the career of Cressida Dick.

    In case anyone does not know, she comes from an illustrious family, is very well-connected and had a career break from the police in the ‘Foreign Office’ (cough).

    So, she isn’t going anywhere.

    As for the policing last night – I don’t have much sympathy for the people at Clapham Common. They will very likely have spread the covid virus and potentially ruined one or more people’s lives.

  3. Saturday Night was never a vigil. Who has inflammatory speeches at a vigil?

    Once the Court ruled against the meeting, it was bound to be a staged confrontation by troublemakers. The police were stupid to rise to it yet again. Will they never learn?

    1. I have to take issue with one statement in your response, being that “the Court ruled against the meeting”. If one reads the judgment, it appears that the decision of the court was that the planned vigil was not prohibited by public health regulations. That was the question put before the court; not whether it should go ahead, but whether it was prohibited. I am sure that as a reader of this blog you take an active interest in matters of public law and will have understood this.

      The court having judged that there was no prohibition on a proper reading of public health regulations, the usual course of action would be for the organisers and the police to agree how it could go ahead in a properly organised and marshalled way, as is the case for any mass gathering in the capital; it appears from comments by the organisers that the police refused to engage in this process and the police have made no statements to gainsay this.

  4. Yes, Jean Charles de Menezes (open verdict), and Ian Tomlinson (unlawfully killed).

    But also Blair Peach (misadventure) who was killed by police violently breaking up demonstration against a National Front meeting in 1979, and Kevin Gately (misadventure) who died from a blow to the head in similar circumstances in 1974. When the police violently overreact, as they have time and again for at least 50 years, people die.

    Yet somehow those responsible are rarely held to account – and I don’t just mean the people on the ground, but their bosses too, who tell them where to go and what to do. Coroners almost always seem to reach verdicts other than “unlawful killing”, and police officers are rarely prosecuted – and if they are they are rarely convicted. The Met was fined for a breach of health and safety legislation (!) in relation to Jean Charles de Menezes. (Please try not to shoot innocent men again, ok, thanks, bye.)

    All four essentially white men. Race adds another consistently unsavoury overtone. For example, the Mangrove Nine were tried and acquitted on most charges in 1971. And that is without considering stop and search, deaths in custody, forced confessions, failure to investigate racist or corrupt police officers, etc, etc.

    Dixon of Dock Green it ain’t.

    1. I suppose South American Europeans like Jean-Charles de Menezes are white, sunshine notwithstanding?

  5. “Indeed – a responsible and socially distanced protest was entirely possible (and warranted) – but the police turned it into something else instead.”

    I paused over “warranted”. I wondered what criteria would decide what is and is not a warranted protest during a pandemic where infection rates are still of concern. I also wondered where the basis for them would be found in law. We all know how easily Twitter, Facebook etc can police (sic) comments according to their own standards. I did not know the police could do likewise if comments did not amount to public order, “hate speech” or other offences. Is there something please in law (human rights or other) that gives them a framework to differentiate between a protest about violence against women and – say – a protest by vaccine sceptics? or by some Millwall supporters against taking the knee? If not I would be unhappy to see the police (or anybody else for that matter) assert the right to define goodthink.

  6. “Public health is not the same as public order.”
    Very true. Public order usually is about inconvenience and noise, public health is about serious sickness and death.

  7. Excellent analysis as always. Someone really ought to do a thorough investigation of the Met Police.

  8. The are many organisations in the UK that are institutionally incompetent. The police may be the most egregious but there is a lot of competition for that accolade.
    Do incompetent people join incompetent organisations or do incompetent organisations make people incompetent is difficult to answer, but until it can be answered improvement is impossible.
    It is a curse that affects police, the civil service, universities, financial organisations and so on.
    I can offer no solutions, just despair.

  9. There is also a related question of when and when not the police decide to enforce the law. Extinction Rebellion, BLM & NHS protests get a free pass, peaceful mourners do not.

  10. Where’s the gentle, helpful, trustworthy bobby that I met every morning as I was walking to the bus stop on my way to UCL, 60 years ago?

  11. Anyone who has recently watched Steve McQueen’s shocking series of ‘Small Axe’ films will recognise a direct line of behaviour from police abuse of black immigrants in the 1960s-1980s to the scenes we saw of police abusing women on Clapham Common.

    Cressida Dick, a woman, made no attempt to liaise with the vigil organisers, as suggested by the judge who reviewed the legality of the proposed vigil.

    The police officers were (largely) themselves men doing the abusing. Just say this sentence to yourself: “A group of men took it upon themselves to threaten and abuse physically a group of women who were peacefully protesting about the abuse of women at the hands of men”.

    The person arrested in connection with the murder that gave rise to this vigil is a male police officer.

    You could not make up a worse set of facts & circumstances surrounding the vigil – a protest that it is not at all clear was in any way a priori illegal anyway.

    Many people, myself included, are wondering what the hell has to to happen or be done to get our police – notably the London Met police – to behave in proper manner towards vulnerable and underprivileged groups. Maybe having a prime minister who has never sought to have a personal enemy beaten up would help? Having a liberally minded & compassionate Home Secretary would help. Having a Met Commissioner who is worthy of the role would help – perhaps a black liberally minded woman in the role would help?!

    Ha! Its a Big Axe (ask), that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.