The policing of peaceful public assembly during the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most central challenges to police legitimacy. This is arguably because mass gatherings are assumed to carry a high risk of contagion yet, at the same time, peaceful public assembly is a protected human right. In this article, we explore this issue by using a case study to provide a detailed chronological interactional analysis of the policing operation surrounding a highly controversial public assembly that took place on Clapham Common in March 2021 in London, England. We explore the utility of a research and theory-based model for public order policing in pandemics as a framework for understanding the way the event evolved and identifying what lessons can be learnt for policing assemblies, both in future pandemics and more generally. We contend that ambiguity in the application of emergency powers and the potential for heavy fines to be applied using the legislation created a divergence between stakeholders and culminated in a leadership vacuum among protesters. Moreover, the context of acute political sensitivity led to a highly centralized public order operation that limited the capacity of police to enact dialogue-based solutions when leadership (re)emerged during the event. We conclude by discussing the implications of our analysis for understanding the inherent dangers of regulatory frameworks that place too heavy a burden of discretionary power into the hands of police in determining whether public assemblies are ‘lawful’, and under what conditions they can occur.
|Policing (Oxford): a journal of policy and practice
|Published - 21 Oct 2021