On Saturday evening I was on my way to a Eurovision party in Dalston when a notification popped up on my phone about an immigration raid near Dalston Junction station targeting delivery drivers. I messaged the local councillor, who happens to be a friend and who was already on their way to scene.
When I arrived about 20 police officers were on Ashwin Street, a side street with a theatre, concert venue and McDonald’s where delivery drivers rest in between jobs. They were speaking to drivers about their licences, insurance and other documents, such as the compulsory basic training required of all motorcycle drivers. I asked one of the officers about what was happening and they said it was part of Operation Vespa, targeting moped-related crime, and that there had been complaints of anti-social behaviour on Ashwin Street. The officer reminded me that they have the power to check driving documents whenever they want. The environment was relatively calm, but on edge.
Behind us, things took a quick turn. According to a witness, a driver was asked about their immigration status, had his phone seized and was arrested. Local activists intervened to try to stop it, which led to a scuffle. At one point a young person off to the side was having a panic attack. There was about an equal number of police and protesters at that point and the police quickly established a box around the driver being arrested, before waiting for reinforcements to arrive on the main road. In the minutes it took them to get there, more protesters and members of the public had gathered on the main road, blocking the police in. It took another few minutes to push back the crowd and to extract the driver and put them in a van.
At that point the police probably could have dispersed and the incident would have been nothing more than an unpleasant and heavy-handed bit of policing. But, for unclear reasons, they decided to stay. The police moved back on to the high street, where a few vehicles remained, including a van from the the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group. The police kept to the east side and jostled with protesters. The group of officers from the side street rushed through the crowd, which included a woman pushing a pram, seemingly without any regard for who they were running through. At this point the police appeared to have arrested a second person and had them in a dead-end side street while blocking off the front in large numbers.
The police pushed into the road, establishing a hand-holding line up to the west side of the street. Activists would periodically jostle with the police as they pushed out; a lot of them were shouting “scum” or “shame” at the police, as were members of the public, others of whom were confusedly picking their way through the crowd that now blocked the whole street. Batons were deployed. It was a tense moment and it felt like the police were not sure what to do. At several points there would be a flash of activity, a person pushed, restrained against a car, arrested. I saw two people restrained against cars, one being lifted over and carried by several officers into a car. Another arrested man sat on the road called across to a second to ask him if he was OK.
At one point the police charged into a group on the west side of the street, sending someone over a recycling bin while another was hit several times with a baton before being restrained and arrested on the floor. The charge appeared to come out of nowhere and felt indiscriminate. It was a scary moment. In video from the incident, you can see onlookers trying to get out of the way. The police slowly put arrested people into vans and foot-police pushed back protesters to let the cars out, and the mood became less menacing. The police eventually left, the last car getting a few glancing kicks, and the mood settled down.
The activists and crowd were obstructive and often verbally abusive, but nothing I saw justified the use of force I witnessed by the police. For an operation that started out as dealing with what they described as a noise nuisance issue, the police managed to inflame the situation to a point where there were nine arrests and multiple injuries. That should never have happened.