‘It was utterly surreal’: police accused of farcical error after 14 arrested at seminar on day of coronation | Police

“I felt that they knew by the time they had taken us to the station in the van that they had the wrong people,” said Lauren, 26, a medical writer in the pharmaceutical industry.

The post-coronation wash-up over the last fortnight has been marked by an array of surreal stories of bungled arrests, from the republican activists swept up by police for possession of luggage straps to the pro-monarchy Australian architect who had been simply seeking to enjoy a pleasant day out at Westminster Abbey.

It has been notable that in each of those cases, after intense media attention, the Metropolitan police has since admitted some regret and announced that no further action would be taken.

On the subject of a third raid that morning in Haggerston, east London, about five miles away from the coronation at Westminster Abbey, where shortly before 10.30am 14 people were arrested “on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance”, there has been no such candour from Scotland Yard.

Today, in a frank and occasionally humorous account of the day, despite the clear shock those involved continue to feel, Lauren and those detained alongside her – including a primary school teacher, an owner of an animal rescue centre and a former senior civil servant – ask that Scotland Yard breaks its silence about what they say was manifestly a farcical case of mistaken identity.

The group, almost entirely female or non-binary, aged between their mid-20s and late 60s and largely new to activism, let alone its more extreme manifestations, were arrested on suspicion of being a Just Stop Oil cell intent on disrupting the crowning of Charles III.

In reality, they had gathered in a small nondescript room in a rented work space in east London for a seven-hour seminar about the theory, history and practice of non-violent protest after expressing an interest in the social activist group Animal Rising, largely via its website.

“I was there to actually avoid the coronation,” said Tony Jenkins, 58, the only male attender, who runs South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty. His last involvement with the police was when working alongside officers in Operation Takahe as they sought to track down the so-called Croydon cat killer.

“It was utterly surreal,” said Caitlin, 29, from Finsbury Park, north London, who until a few weeks before her arrest – her first – had been a civil servant with high-level of security clearance. “I had almost brought my husband and dog along, and I am glad I didn’t because I don’t know what I would have done with the dog.”

Louisa Hillwood, 29, a primary school teacher in Hackney, was due to lead the “non-violent protest” training course that day from 10.30am to 5pm. She had attended a couple of the sessions herself and was comparatively experienced. There was coffee and tea on hand for people as they drifted into the ground-floor room. A whiteboard had “non-violent training” written across it.

The morning would be given over to introductions. Each of the group, sat in chairs in a circle, would be asked to speak of their hopes and fears about protesting and in relation to the day of quite intense and – dare it be said – quite dry learning ahead of them.

A discussion about the history of non-violent protest, taking in the civil rights movement, and then some pointers on their rights, would follow. The highlight of the day, for those looking for some action, would be at the end when the attenders would be invited to take part in some role play about how to react if someone is shouting abuse at you.

“It would be things like active listening, like trying to empathise with the people, but also not tolerating violence from others and ensuring that the situation doesn’t escalate,” said Hillwood.

“None of us had met before, I still didn’t even know most of their names and then about 10.25, we hear ‘police, police, we are coming in’,” recalled Hillwood, who had been arrested once before at a “rescue” of dogs last year from a breeding centre used by the medical researchers.

About 25 officers swarmed around the seated group, with all the drama of a terrorist swoop.

“They were all talking at once, saying you are under arrest, so I couldn’t hear why,” Hillwood said. “I said: ‘What are you talking about?’ Because they were saying that we were Just Stop Oil and that we were going to disrupt the coronation. And I was just like: ‘Absolutely not. I mean, we’re miles away. And we’re going to be here all day. We’ve got no intention of leaving.’” By this time, the king’s procession was already arriving at Westminster Abbey.

Jenkins was told not to sip his coffee. “The officer said: ‘You can’t do that, it could be poisoned or something.’ And then we were searched.” Only two of the 14 did not get handcuffed. There was one female officer. It took a while for her to make her way round the group. “They found my old Cabinet Office business card in my wallet, and were, ‘Ehm, OK’,” said Caitlin.

They were put in minivans outside the building, with eight of the group taken to Brixton police station in south London and six to Stoke Newington in north London. Hillwood was sat in the vehicle for hour and a half before disembarking in Brixton. There was a further 90-minute wait outside the station before being checked in at the custody desk.

It was 4pm by the time Hillwood was led to her cell. She asked for her solicitor and was served a vegan “all day breakfast”.“It was literally beans,” Hillwood said. A solicitor advised her to offer no comment to the officers’ questions.

But when it came to his turn, Jenkins felt no such compunction. “I said my intention was to sit in an all day training course learn about non-violent protests, meet some new people and avoid the coronation.”

The group were let out late in the evening on bail pending further investigation. Those arrested have since tried to piece together what may have happened. They learned that Just Stop Oil had previously used the building for meetings, along with many other organisations.

The police had mentioned some placards lying around in part of the building, and some paint unconnected to the training. The truth, said Caitlin, was that it was a horrible bungle. Animal Rising is planning a civil case for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. “I want the police to drop it,” said Caitlin. “I want my phone and my watch back and I want this wiped from the police database.”

The Metropolitan police has declined to comment.


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