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Editorial: Despite Covid-19 we must have the right to protest

THE report of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary on the police riot at Clapham Common on March 13 should itself raise further concerns.

When it comes to dishing out criticism, the inspectors take a feather duster to the Metropolitan Police and a baseball bat to the force’s critics. Perhaps it’s just as well for the women who stood vigil in memory of Sarah Everard that the inspectors were not present that Saturday evening, given their utter insensitivity to the issues involved.

Everard went missing in early March, her remains had just been found and a Metropolitan Police officer charged with her murder.

More than 1,000 women decided to gather in her memory and, in doing so, remind us all that male violence against women is an all too common and deeply rooted cancer in our society.

A High Court judge had decided not to uphold a challenge to the Met’s ban on the vigil, thereby placing a higher value on the British government’s Tier 4 anti-Covid regulations than on the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated in British law.

Fortunately, the women who nonetheless turned up displayed a different sense of priorities. The dignified commemoration continued into the dark evening, passionate but peaceful.

As some in the almost universally masked crowd drew closer to hear the speeches, police officers intervened in a shockingly heavy-handed manner, forcing women to the ground, handcuffing them and marching them off to police vans.

Naturally, this provoked shouts and chants of protest from onlookers. Some officers were pushed although the wing mirror of a police van appears to have suffered the most damage.

After seeing film and photographs of these events, political and civil liberties figures criticised the Met’s ugly over-reaction to an understandable breach of anti-Covid regulations.

Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey were among those who expressed their concerns.

Presumably, they were all part of the “chorus” of condemnation which, according to the inspectorate’s report, showed “a distinct lack of respect for public servants facing … a sensitive and complex situation.”

The police actions were “justified” as they “did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd” in a “measured and proportionate way.”

The Met’s detractors, on the other hand, are accused of forming conclusions on the basis of “very limited evidence.”

Taking his cue from the inspectorate, Metropolitan Police Federation chair Keith Parr has since hit out at the “knee-jerk commentary” of “armchair critics” who ignore the facts.

Yet the facts are there for all to see: bands of burly officers in high-vis padded and protective jackets waded into women who had not threatened or abused them in any way.

Instead of soft-pedalling his previous strictures, London Mayor Sadiq Khan should be calling for — or organising — a genuinely independent inquiry into the events of March 13. But not only should the Metropolitan Police be put under the microscope.

The Inspectorate of Constabulary has also demonstrated its unfitness to investigate such matters. Its attacks on elected political representatives are yet another sign of the growing mood of authoritarianism in state and ruling class circles.

Above all, the right to collective protest while maintaining Covid safety rules — recognised in Tier 1, 2 and 3 regulations — must be restored for Tier 4 as a matter of urgency.

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