The first demonstration against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill took place in Bristol on 21 March. It has been followed by demos in cities from Brighton to Manchester, and further protests in Bristol. Over the Easter weekend there was a carnival atmosphere, with dancing on College Green, festive drums, and flowers around an impromptu memorial for Sarah Everard.
Bristol has a long history of protest. In 1793, citizens organised against the imposition of a toll for crossing the bridge over the Avon. The military was called in and soldiers fired on civilians, killing at least ten people and severely injuring more than forty-five. Some of them had simply been returning home from work. In 1831, the city erupted after Parliament rejected the Second Reform Bill. The bus boycott of 1963 led eventually to the Race Relations Act 1965, which made racial discrimination in public places unlawful. More recently, BLM protesters removed the 19th-century statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston from its plinth and dumped it in the harbour.
Early media reports of Bristol’s first ‘Kill the Bill’ protest last month left little room for doubt concerning who was to blame for its unexpectedly violent turn. Videos circulated of protesters setting fire to police cars. The windows of Bridewell Police Station were smashed by drunken protesters with glass bottles. The Avon and Somerset police force released a statement claiming that twenty of their officers had been injured, some with broken bones.
As with most contested events, there was a grain of truth to the different conflicting narratives. Something definitely went wrong on the night of 21 March, as the protests moved in a direction not intended by the organisers. But the lines between good and bad were not as neat as the initial media reports suggested. As the protests continued into the following week, more footage of police brutality emerged. Riot shields were used as weapons. Reporters were targeted by police violence.
Meanwhile, the Avon and Somerset police force admitted that their statement about the injuries endured by their officers had been exaggerated. No policeman had broken any bones. What motivated the police to overstate their evidence? And what prevented the media from examining the facts more critically?
As the protests progressed, police violence became indiscriminate, arbitrary and indefensible. The story of the noble and innocent policemen, bruised by reckless protesters setting fire to their cars and breaking their bones, was coming undone. Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the public action necessary to expose false narratives like these would be criminalised. By promising to suppress even non-violent protests, the government is following the surest path of turning every peaceful demonstration into a violent one.