Three teenagers have been arrested on suspicion of racial hatred amid reports that a group chanting “Free Palestine” removed and tried to set fire to Union flags in Twickenham.
The youths, one aged 17 and two 18-year-olds, were detained outside The Fox pub in Church Street shortly after 6pm on Monday.
The Metropolitan Police said it is alleged the suspects, from Hounslow, made reference to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza.
They were held on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage and inciting racial hatred. Pubs and independent traders on Church Street have a tradition of flying Union flags on the street, as well as the colours of England’s international rugby opponents and in support of Ukraine.
It came as Scotland Yard chief Sir Mark Rowley continued to clash with ministers over how to police pro-Palestine protesters shouting “jihad” after Saturday’s rally in central London.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the Commons officers currently had sufficient powers to arrest those inciting violence or racial hatred. But writing in the Daily Telegraph, Sir Mark said a “chasm” existed between the law and what the public expects, meaning officers could not be expected to enforce “values, principles, taste or decency”.
He said: “Most would assume the police can surely intervene and that we’re overlooking the impact on those who are already suffering. Many have called for a blanket ban on demonstrations across London.
“We don’t license or give permission for protest to happen, but we are determined to ruthlessly tackle anyone who puts their foot over the legal line. That line, however, is drawn by Parliament.”
Three years ago, Sir Mark wrote a report with the then counter-extremism tsar Sara Khan calling for the law to be rewritten to combat “hateful extremism”. They warned extremists could glorify terrorism as long as they avoided specifically encouraging a terrorist act and steered clear of directly supporting a proscribed group.
In Twickenham, Lib Dem councillor James Chard praised police for “responding robustly” to the incident and wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Church Street traders have a grand tradition of flying many flags, including for Twickenham’s guests in rugby internationals, Ukraine and others. This will no doubt continue. There is no room for hate here.”
His colleague Gareth Roberts added: “Hate speech and associated actions of any kind have no place on the streets of our borough.”
A Met spokesman said: “At 6.09pm on Monday, October 23, police were called to Church Street, Twickenham, following reports of a group trying to remove and set fire to Union flags. Three men were arrested at the scene on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage and inciting racial hatred.”
The Fox said: “We are assisting police with their investigation following two flags having been stolen from outside our premises.
“We would like to reassure our customers that safety of our customers is our number one priority and our CCTV has been handed over to the police.”
Meanwhile, a vigil was to be held on Tuesday outside Parliament “to mourn the almost 2,000 children killed in Gaza”.
Organised by Medical Aid for Palestinians, it demanded an immediate ceasefire following Hamas’s assault on Israel.
The families of British-Israeli kidnap victims were also holding a press conference at Israel’s Kensington embassy.