‘A show of force’ by police: Bristol protesters describe what happened

On social media protestors are asserting a different narrative, of police inciting the majority of the violence and protesters largely reacting to it.

Anvee Bhutani is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford where she is reading for a degree in Human Sciences She has a keen interest in telling stories and writes about identity, politics and global affairs.

On Friday, police and protestors clashed for a third night in Bristol, with reports of officers using excessive force on demonstrators as well as journalists. This piece looks back to the events of the 20th March to set some light on the growing movements

Bristol drew global attention this week when a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest over the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is being debated by MPs turned violent. This bill includes a number of proposals on crime and justice in England and Wales, including changes to protests.

What followed was condemnation and indictment of the protesters and the violence inflicted on police by both mass media and leading politicians. But on social media protestors are asserting a different narrative, of police inciting the majority of the violence and protesters largely reacting to it. I spoke with protesters that attended both Sunday and Tuesday to understand what really went on.

It is important to understand the significance of this new bill. Currently, in the UK, police must show that the protests may result in “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community” in order to place restrictions on them. They also have the authority to impose certain measures on the routes of marches.

The new bill allows a far greater level of restrictions on protests. Police can institute a start and end time, set noise limits, and even extend this legislation to demonstrations by just one person. Another section mentions “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”, which is designed to stop occupying public spaces and employing other tactics to make themselves seen.

This led protesters to attend in the first place. Student activist Saranya Thambirajah, explained: “I think the bill going through parliament right now is a dangerous piece of legislation that’s completely putting our rights as citizens to peacefully protest under attack, is threatening the rights of gypsy and Roma traveller people, and is just a very authoritarian piece of legislation that could take away some very basic civil rights and liberties.”

Student activist Louis Holmes said: “With the bill that’s trying to be passed through parliament, that’s a huge encroachment on civil liberties and the ability to organise and to protest fundamental rights. We have democracy being curtailed, so I think it’s really important for people to show up to these things, and even if things manifest into violence I think that’s justifiable.”

Cities all over the UK have seen similar protests. Bristol had two: the ‘Kill the Bill’ protest on Sunday and the Travelers’ protest on Tuesday. Both were recounted to me by people who were either actively protesting or were watchful bystanders.

The Sunday protest started off peaceful, but by the end of the night things escalated beyond control. 

Jess* said the protest started in ‘high spirits’ with music and chanting.

She said: “We marched through the streets to samba drums for an hour, ending up at Castle Park. Here, there was the threat of police but we sat down to show our pacification and they kindly moved away in respect. 

“Later, we marched to the police headquarters as it was believed to be a symbol of the law.” 

This was one of the last calm moments witnessed.

Holmes remarked:  “The police report about the day said that the protesters just went there and started smashing and vandalising stuff, but we were just sitting on the road [outside the police station] doing chants. It was very much a normal protest before some police officers started getting aggressive towards people…

“The riot police showed up much before [it got dark] and they were pepper spraying people and they had batons out way before any vans were set on fire. A police van was vandalised with spray paint but it was not exactly a riot before they started bringing out things like horses and police dogs.” 

Nearly all of the protesters said they felt personally afraid for their safety.

For Holmes, for instance, it was “the first time [he had] been charged at by police on horses which was a very alarming experience”

The Tuesday protest started with the police being quite heavily prepared for any kind of violence that might break out, so most people present recounted an overreaction on their part. 

Student journalist Siavash Minoukadeh who covered the protests for the Epigram newspaper said: “The actual protesters themselves were very, very calm, and they laid daffodils at the feet of the line of riot police.” 

Despite a far smaller event of 200 people as opposed to Sunday’s 4000, the police had a very active presence. 

“The protesters} were very insistent that they kept their distance from the police and they tried to talk to them and engage with them. They weren’t being violent or aggressive or challenging the police in any way and were chanting something along the lines of ‘if you go home, we go home,” said Minoukadeh.

“It was a really chaotic reaction from the police…It felt very much like [the police] wanted to have a show of force and to show that after Sunday they were in control. At every stage, they didn’t de-escalate, and the opportunities will really clear.”

The question remains: where things might go from here? While lawmakers have not yet voted on this legislation, the police are actively looking for suspects from both days and continue to make large numbers of arrests. 

Holmes concluded, “There’s rarely conversations about state violence or police violence when we talk about protests. It usually gets  talked about as if violence from protesters happens in a vacuum but it’s really important to get these alternate perspectives out.”

*surname has been removed as per the individual’s request

Photo credit: Filiz Emily Gurer

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