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In Bristol

Rebecca Ruth Gould

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.


Comments

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  • 8 April 2021 at 5:23pm
    Mark Weinstein says:
    I live in Nottingham and went to the Kill The Bill event that was organised for Saturday 27 March. The event was relatively well attended - maybe 1000 or so - and consisted of a series of speeches led by women that focused as much on patriarchy and male violence as it did on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In all honesty, it wasn’t a particularly inspiring event, but it felt important to take a stand and participate when faced with such a fundamental assault on basic democratic rights. Prior to the day, I mentioned that I would be going to a couple of people who I don’t know that well and who don’t really know me. The first thing that both of them said related to potential violence and whether the intention was to attack the police. I’m hardly naive, but I was still a little surprised at how faithfully these people elaborated the established media/police narrative. As far as I’m aware, Bristol has been the only place where some form of violence has occurred and re-occurred (please correct me if I’m wrong). What I haven’t seen anywhere - and I’m not sure if this blog post does it - is really seek to understand and explain why this is the case. Why have events taken this turn & unfolded as they have? The Nottingham event that I went to was accompanied by a meagre police presence, although maybe this was because the event took place on a big open and green space a mile or so away from the city centre.