SATURDAY’S protest in Glasgow’s George Square was well thought through and well organised. In good time before its 10.30am start, organisers had turned up at the city’s civic centre to draw chalk marks carefully measured two metres apart. Anti-racist demonstrators joining the Stand Up To Racism event were directed to take a chalked cross as their own while stewards in high-vis vests patrolled the lines, reminding people to stay well apart.

The event itself, backed by well established and respected organisations such as Positive Action in Housing with union branches from the RMT and Unite, went off peacefully with chants of “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” and “Black lives matter”.

There was, as would be expected, a heavy police presence at the event. Just on Wednesday, a group of agitators styling themselves the National Defence League, gathered in the square ahead of another demonstration in support of refugees.

A skirmish, by these counter-protesters, ended in six arrests.

The previous weekend saw similar scenes in George Square as National Defence League supporters turned out to “protect the statues” and the Cenotaph from some unshaped and unnamed threat.

Police Scotland must be sick to the back teeth of it now and, certainly, a statement released last week by the Scottish Police Federation gave off that vibe. The statement, condemning the gatherings in Glasgow, caused controversy as it was perceived to make a “both sides are equally bad” argument about two very distinct groups, one with a clear moral motivation and the other tainted by racism and sectarianism.

While there was a great deal of anger about this statement, I’m not sure SPF chairman David Hamilton was commenting on the disorder that broke out when he said, “left-right, green-blue, statue-wrecker or statue-protector – your side is as bad as the other.” He seems to have been commenting purely on the presence of protesters breaking lockdown to hold a gathering.

On that fact, of the coronavirus law being broken, there isn’t another position he could have taken. Mr Hamilton could hardly say that flouting the law is acceptable depending on one’s politics. That would have been just as outrageous.

The issue with the statement is that it does not make a clear distinction between the mass gatherings and the public disorder caused by one group.

To return to Saturday: impeccable organisation from Stand Up To Racism and its supporters, plus a heavy police presence, saw the event go smoothly. Yet when the anti-racist and pro-asylum seeker demonstrators tried to leave the square, the situation changed.

Mounted officers and officers on foot herded a large number of protesters into a corral and forced them away from the city centre, seemingly rapidly and unexpectedly, with people asking politely to be let out.

Afterwards, in a statement, Chief Superintendent Alan Murray said that a group of “football risk supporters” had been identified as possible troublemakers and, after engagement with the group, police “at their request, escorted them to the Gallowgate area of the city where they dispersed.”

Yet the people inside the cordon of police officers were not football risk supporters. They were members of Stand Up To Racism and the anti-racism demonstrators. As they were propelled down the High Street they continued their pro-refugee chants.

Afterwards, a neighbour who had been caught inside the ring of police, told me, “We worked hard to make sure we were socially distanced in the square and the people who were coming to support us were kept safe, but then the police undid all that work within minutes. We were cheek-to-jowl with complete strangers.”

There has to be some sympathy for police, who are working in unprecedented times under new laws and repeatedly having to use vast resources to manage crowds when large gatherings are illegal.

It’s not, though, reasonable to ask demonstrators to wait until after the pandemic to carry out protests given that the issues on which they seek to enact change are time-sensitive and vital.

Local councillor Kim Long, who sits on the local police scrutiny committee, has said she will question why these tactics were used. The situation calls for meaningful answers.

The issue is the small group of disruptive agitators who must be dealt with – but not at the expense of peaceful protesters and those protesters’ health.

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