Yesterday’s #SikhLivesMatter protest: My perspective

Given everything that has been happening in Punjab (India), both currently and for many, many years, plus the emergence of the recent #SikhLivesMatter campaign, I thought that the very least that I could do was to take the short train ride into central London yesterday morning.

I arrived outside the Indian Embassy on Aldwych a couple of minutes before noon, the advertised start time of the day’s protest. At that time, there were perhaps 15–20 of us in total, including a couple of cameramen from one of the Sikh channels (Akaal).

Outside Indian embassy (Aldwych): Before the protest moved into the main road

Upon realising that the shutters were down — it turns out the Indian embassy was closed that day for a national holiday in India — my initial disappointment was only fleeting. At least the embassy folks can’t possibly cause a fuss and complain, I thought. Perhaps this was a good thing for our protest.

I would estimate the distance from the pavement to road, outside the embassy, to be around 15 feet in width perhaps. There was a section of metal barriers — one wall of which was against the road, and the other around 8 feet behind it — and so, approximately, cutting the width of the pavement in half. These two parallel barrier walls went on for several metres down the pavement.

The group of police there (at that time, perhaps 8–10 of them, all in high-visibility jackets) were trying to keep the pavement clear for the public and encourage us to go within the enclosed area. This made sense — for now, I thought. I got talking to one of the more senior policemen there, a pleasant and friendly chap. After greeting him, the first thing I assured him was that if there was one thing that Sikh people definitely weren’t, it was violent — and that they (the police) shouldn’t be in any way concerned about that. He told me that he completely understood — and it was clear that his words were genuine and matched his body language; it turns out that he knew a couple of Sikh folks — indeed, one of whom sounded like a fairly senior figure in the police force. He was of the opinion that Sikhs were a ‘good bunch’ — or words to that effect.

I told him about my feelings about the enclosed area with the barriers — that this would serve purpose initially, but that — as numbers grew — the size of the crowd would outgrow this. He asked me how many protestors I expect to turn up that day — he had been told to expect 150–300. My initial view was one of surprise and that the true number was likely to exceed this. I told him as such. Despite being a weekday, I knew that the protest had been advertised widely amongst the Sikh networks and the media, and was for a cause that was close to many of our hearts. I also knew that at least a couple of coaches from Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) all over the country were expected. At least a couple.

I must admit, it hadn’t occurred to me that — even with 300–400 people turning up (which I knew was highly likely), it would be a long stretch of us along the length of the pavement — even outside of the enclosed area (i.e. across the width of the pavement). It was no surprise that, soon enough, the crowd just got too large to stay within the area, and more and more turned up and simply stood where there was space — in front of, adjacent to, and behind the enclosed area.

At around 1pm or just before, a small group moved into the road itself, very quickly followed by the bulk of the protestors. In my view, given the size of the group and the relative size of the pavement, this was simply inevitable. The police immediately came into the road and stopped traffic — they had no choice.

The movement of the group into the road had been started by a group of particularly vocal members of the protest — vocal but, I must stress, non-violent. In fact, up until I left the protest at around 1.30pm, I witnessed no violence whatsoever.

After the protest had moved into the main road

The Met Police’s statement later read: “Whilst it was initially a peaceful protest, the demonstrators blocked the roadway at the Aldwych and caused significant disruption to the central London road network. Police liaison officers attempted to negotiate with those present, in order to facilitate peaceful protest and minimise the disruption to the public.”

The reality is as simple as this: the Met Police had underestimated the number of protestors that would turn up, and were ill-prepared as a result. The Aldwych roads should have been closed off beforehand, just as (I understand) they have been with previous protests outside the Indian embassy.

I cannot comment on exactly what happened after I left the protests at around 1.30pm — simply as I wasn’t there. But I can say that it was wholly peaceful and non-violent whilst I had been there, and even after it had moved to the main road.

In my view, the police were on the back-foot from the start due to underestimating the size of the protest. Clearly, it’s a major road and a significant portion of central London was brought to a standstill. Again, it comes back to the fact that the police should have been prepared for this and closed off the roads beforehand.

Once the protestors were in the road, tell me, how would one expect them to be gently encouraged/escorted/’whatever you want to call it’ — off the road?

I have since read, in various reports, that a Sikh flag was snapped in half, a protestor’s kirpan removed, and a Sikh man’s turban removed (there is picture evidence of the latter — here).

These are all highly offensive and disrespectful to Sikhs — the police should well know this. They are police in the City of London after all, arguably the most diverse city on Earth.

Given the above, I would urge those Sikhs whom the above acts were inflicted upon to seriously consider launching an enquiry with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

By one point, I have read that riot police were ‘kettling in’ a group of protestors — this is what we saw during the London riots! I mean come on — the protestors were made up of individuals young and old, male and female — many came in pairs or groups as close friends and families.

In summary:
The police were unprepared from the start, underestimated the size of the protest, and simply should have been better prepared. The roads should have been closed off well in advance. [Furthermore, mainstream media reports such as the ones below paint a rather unfair, misinformed and unbiased picture. The so called ‘escalation’ and presence of the riot police arose due to the police being unprepared in the first place, and failing to close off the road(s)].

Before I left…
Firstly, I spoke to one of the freelance journalists who was reporting there. I would be intrigued to see his account as an eyewitness. [As an aside, it seems to be the freelance journalists who have the freedom — and hearts! — to report on issues which the mainstream media will not touch, for one reason or another. One example of such a journalist is Samantha Rea, who recently interviewed Jagmeet Singh, and wrote this article — titled “Is There Really a Media Blackout on Sikh Deaths in India?”].

I also took a look at the traffic that had been held up. It occurred to me that they would be held there for a couple of hours at the very least. I looked at the vehicles right at the front of the queue; if only we had been a few seconds earlier, we wouldn’t have gotten caught up in all of this! — I imagined the drivers/passengers must be thinking. Indeed, had they been just a few seconds earlier, they would have been well on their way to where they were headed.

The vehicle closest to me (on the side of the pavement where the protest had originally begun) was a white van. I saw two men inside, and the driver’s window was rolled down. I felt compelled to go and speak to them, to apologise for their being caught up in all of this, to try and explain what the protest was all about and why, as Sikhs, we felt so passionately about our cause — about the injustices over the last several decades, the terrible acts against humanity, the lack of empathy or media coverage shown.

I was pleasantly surprised with how our conversation unfolded. It turns out the two men, Ben and Jack, had been friends of Lee Rigby, the innocent soldier who had been brutally attacked and killed near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich in 2013. On the protest march in London for Lee Rigby, they were accompanied by several ‘Sikh brothers’ who they knew had ‘done a lot for this country’. They told me they were fully in support of the Sikhs and our cause — and were even glad to be right at the front and in the thick of the action!

These two men would have every right to have been dismayed, annoyed even, at being caught up in this and facing a couple of hours’ wait at the very least. And yet there they were, completely at peace and smiling, and happy to be there. I expressed my gratitude and shook their hands, and asked if I could take a picture — they volunteered themselves (I didn’t ask them) to do so holding the #SikhLivesMatter leaflets and showing their support. (Again, I would be very interested to hear their version of the events as eyewitnesses right at the front of the action — literally).

To me, this speaks volumes in itself. This isn’t just about Sikh lives, it’s about human lives. Not #SikhLivesMatter, or #BlackLivesMatter, but rather Human Lives Matter.

Twitter: @JasrajHothi

Ben & Jack: The white-van-men ‘stuck’ right at the front of the traffic queue.