On the 9th of March the UK government, alongside Police chiefs including Cressida Dick, announced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to parliament. The bill proposes changes to a variety of laws, however it has been criticised for a number of points including its implications on people’s rights to protest, its impact on the Gypsey, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, its encouragement of stop and search bias towards black men and youths and numerous other things.
Bristol is famous for its radical identity ; its historic riots and protests have shaped the England we know today. In addition to the fact that there is a longstanding political presence in Bristol, it hosts a substantial number of GRT’s and people of colour who would be affected by the passing of the PCS&CB. So several weeks after the controversial bill was put to parliament various local activist groups, and concerned Bristolians, organized a peaceful protest in Bristol City Centre on Sunday 21st March.
An anonymous eyewitness said, “We were there [on Sunday 21st] just to make a presence by marching against the bill”. However, after a typical protest walk around Bristol City Centre, “the crowd gathered outside Bridewell Police Station to stage a sit-down protest”. Another different eyewitness stated, “The aim of the sit-down protest was to show police, who were regularly arriving with extra vans of reinforcements, that we were not a threat. Not there to intimidate them… [However] the cops seemed overwhelmed by the sheer number of people protesting so they tried to disperse us with batons, shields and horses”. When questioned about the use of force by the police, the same eyewitness told how, “We were sat on the floor [by the police line] when a policeman almost hit my girlfriend with their baton. I had to jump in the way so she didn’t get hurt… [we] tolerated the beatings at first, to show we were being peaceful, but there’s only so much you can take before you need someone to help you”.
The next day Avon and Somerset Constabulary put out a statement that on their website, talking about how, “A total of 20 officers were assaulted or injured and two of them were taken to hospital after suffering broken bones. One of them also suffered a punctured lung.”
The statement about the broken bones and punctured lung was quietly retracted some days later but it is important to acknowledge that the statement had already been used by the media and police to paint the protesters in a bad light- probably so that they would lose public favour and interest- with The Guardian, amongst others, reporting that, “Police officers in Bristol feel “under siege” and that, “[Police were left] battered and bruised after protest turned violent”
Similar accounts were described two days later, at a slightly smaller follow up protest, organised on Tuesday 23rd, where about 200 protestors from Bristol’s GRT community set up tents on College Green to resist the bill. The event poster read, “We want to show solidarity with travellers who are targeted by this bill that will criminalise trespass with intention to reside…We [are] also stand[ing] in defiance with other groups under threat, including squatters, rough sleepers, protesters, hunt saboteurs, van dwellers, ravers and boaters…”.
ITV interviewed protesters who stated that, “We’re looking for a nice Bristol protest…This is going to stay peaceful”, but despite their intentions the protest was broken up with riot police- who were backed up by The British Transport Police, Devon and Cornwall, and Dorset and Dyfet Powys, as well as police dog and horse units, helicopters, and a drone. A tweet from the Avon and Somerset Police later in the night stated that the police are “safely bring[ing] an end to the protest in #bristol”(sic).
My own personal speculation is that most people at this point, even the most naïve people who had been attending, with the most faith in the police and the media, started to realise that the media and police narratives of the last two protests were severely warped- except for that of The Bristol Cable), who provided some excellent coverage. As a result of this, at the third demo on Friday 26th- which started on College Green and culminated in the bear pit being shut down by protesters, and another sit-down protest outside of Bridewell Police Station- most protesters knew they could not put a foot out of line; and the day went well. There was an excellent turnout, and the protest walk went around the centre with little hassle from police. However, at 10pm the Police made their decision to use force to disperse everyone.
I was observing from the front three rows of protesters and personally witnessed a lot of excessive force, against an unthreatening crowd who were chanting, “we are peaceful, what are you”. I saw the police swinging their batons at the front rows of people, when they inevitably fell to the floor the same police would slam down on them with the hard bottom edge of their shield. I saw one boy, who looked about 16 or 17, get cracked in the head by a policeman’s baton- he was holding in the tears in front of his friends and shouting that he doesn’t know what he did wrong- and at this moment I heard him say “fuck it”, he picked up a bottle and threw it at the police line, smashing on a police riot helmet. He would not have done that if he was not the victim of police violence 5 minutes prior. In fact, one thing that surprised me that day was the amount of police throwing their fists at people when they got the chance. It seemed to me as if the policemen looked personally offended a lot of the times when I saw this happen. They looked angry, and out of control of their rationality, as if they may have seen someone that they suspected might have just thrown a bottle at them (a lot of people were dressed in black block, or nondescript, so it would have been hard to tell). It seemed as if they thought about settling it with their own two fists, and without going through the courts or paying any attention to “the book”, and without any thought of repercussion upon themselves.
The crowds eventually did disperse, after police charges with dogs and horses; and more clashes, of course, some of which involved fireworks . I left that day feeling utterly disappointed, I had a lot to think about. For the third time in a week the Avon and Somerset police had brutalized the people of the city they serve. Men and women, adults and teenagers, young and old… It was bad when it happened once, but three times in a week is no coincidence. It is now almost impossible for many Bristolians to deny that this institution does not exist to protect us, but merely exist to protect and enforce the interests of whoever is in power. With no commitment to public order, or protection.
Thankfully, the Bristolians did not give up. They had a small victory on Saturday 3rd April, as part of a national day of kill the bill action , which featured protests in 32 different UK towns and cities. The Bristol Cable reported that, “there was a minimal police presence and no attempt to clear out demonstrators, which allowed an entirely peaceful protest to go ahead… In contrast to the previous protests, there were much fewer police officers on the scene, with no riot gear, mounted police officers or police dogs.”. With the police adding that, “We have a long and proud history of facilitating peaceful protests”
As of the 17th March it was announced that the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be post-poned for evaluation later in the year. Labour MP Peter Kyle commented that “A small group of MP’s [will] go through the bill line-by-line and can put amendments and vote to change it… no doubt when it reappears it will look very different than it does today”. Although this announcement happened about a week before most of the protests did, it is important that they still happened and continue to happen as the harder we protest the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the clearer the message becomes that we will not tolerate basic rights being stripped away, an increase in police powers, or a crackdown on protest.
Conclusions drawn from these past few weeks include the fact that a “riot” does not represent a failure on behalf of the people, but rather a failure on behalf of the government and/or police; the fact that direct action and resistance does indeed work as an effective strategy for change; and that the police serve to protect and enforce the interests of whoever is in power.
Written by Matty O.