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Arresting coronation protesters wasn’t police overreach. It was the point

The Metropolitan Police’s detention of anti-royal protesters has been condemned as ‘overreach’. It was anything but

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
9 May 2023, 1.02pm

The Met Police has expressed "regret" over the arrest of six Republic members on the day of the coronation of King Charles III


Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Inside the cathedral, Charles was handed truncheons and swords – symbols of his power to quell rebellion. Outside, forces loyal to the Windsors arrested those who objected to the coronation of a king none of us chose.

The detention of Republic’s staff as they unloaded placards reading ‘not my king’ from a van in central London over the weekend has been widely denounced as “police overreach”. But what is the point of the police if not to protect those things our rulers have told us are sacrosanct?

Operation Golden Orb, as it was called, was the largest mobilisation of Metropolitan Police officers in decades. Some 11,500 of them were involved, around a third of the total force. They lined the route, managed crowds, and ‘protected high profile individuals’.

Why, you might ask, is the Metropolitan Police having its biggest mobilisation in decades for this particular event? Why this rather than, say, the 2012 Olympics? Why does all that energy go into a silly royal ritual rather than following up on allegations of sexual assault, wage theft, corporate manslaughter or Thames Water dumping untreated sewage into rivers?

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As they waggled their truncheons around, the Met’s social media accounts got a bit overexcited, and revealed the answer – ejaculating royalist propaganda across the internet, with pictures of flags and declarations of loyalty to royalty.

When it comes to monarchy, the police aren’t – as they usually like to pretend – just some neutral institution designed to arbitrate between different parts of society in order to keep everyone safe. They are a part of the show.

“Our tolerance for any disruption, whether through protest or otherwise, will be low,” they said on Twitter before the event.

“We will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration.”

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It’s not just the police. For most of British history, actual coronation rituals have only been seen by people inside the cathedrals where they have taken place. What everyone else saw was the military parades – vast displays of physical strength, clear reminders that sovereignty is about the control of violence, and that it’s the monarch who is sovereign.

And the thing about violence is it doesn’t matter if you believe in it.

In fact, perhaps the clearest thing about the coronation ceremony itself was that you weren’t really meant to believe any of it.

Does Justin Welby really think that God themselves actually blessed the olive oil that he basted onto Charles? Does he expect us to believe it? While Welby spread said chrism over Windsor, the former told the latter he was becoming “king over the peoples, whom the Lord your God has given you to rule and govern”.

Does the archbishop actually believe that you and I were “given” by God, to Charles? This doesn’t just mean British people, but also the peoples of Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands; the original peoples of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; the descendents of enslaved people across the Caribbean realms. Wasn’t there some other process that led to Charles reigning over subjects across the planet?

When we were all encouraged to say “may the king live forever,” what were we meant to think? That we actually wanted the king to live forever? That we thought that was possible?

Of course not.

Even at the street party I covered in the north-east of Scotland, most people I interviewed didn’t exactly believe in the monarchy. They just saw the whole day as something “historic”. It was something they participated in, even if, as one of them put it: “I’m not that fussed about monarchy.”

To partake in the ritual isn’t an act of declaring our own belief in a specific truth. It is to submit to subjecthood. It is to accept that reality is what someone else declares it to be. Monarchy makes people say obviously ridiculous things – like declarations of hope that a septuagenarian lives forever – as a way of testing our willingness to submit to this lesser epistemological status. It does obviously silly things to sort outsiders from insiders.

And arresting protesters is a clear way to reinforce those lines: to draw a clear boundary, and put some people outside it.

The police aren’t there to mediate between us. They are there to defend the systems of power in our society, monarchy first of all. What happened to Republic’s protesters wasn’t a bug, but a feature.

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