#killthebill, Bristol, 21st March. Photo: Jeni Van Heerden #killthebill, Bristol, 21st March. Photo: Jeni Van Heerden

As the government seeks to restrict our right to protest, Bristol makes its feelings clear, reports Jeni Van Heerden

While the media will concentrate largely on the riots that broke out Sunday night in Bristol between protesters and police, the #killthebill demonstration that took place across the city yesterday was largely peaceful. Thousands flocked to College Green in the afternoon to stand against the Tory Bill which seeks to criminalise protesters with up to ten years in jail.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill also includes anti-trespass laws that will give police the power to arrest people from the gypsy and traveller communities and charge them up to £2,500 for setting up camps, further threatening people who already face widespread prejudice and marginalisation – rather than seeking to find sites to support travellers to live in peace.

The #killthebill demonstration grew in numbers throughout the day to reach an estimated ten thousand people by late afternoon. Activists marched from College Green across the city to Castle park in what was a very positive outcry from the public to protect the right to protest and keep the freedom to demonstrate.

Protestors make their feeling clear. Photo: Jeni Van Heerden

A large number of activists and protesters split from the main demonstration and marched to Bridewell Police Station to demonstrate their resistance to the bill in a ‘sit down’ demonstration outside. Reports from protestors and video footage show the police in riot gear pushing and shoving protesters and using batons, which aggravated tensions. Later in the evening, riots broke out with police vehicles set on fire.

While some of the public will view the demonstrations as being irresponsible due to the current Covid restrictions, many would argue that the intimidation against democracy and freedom of speech is a much larger threat. Moreover, the evidence from last summer is that outdoor protests, where most participants wear masks, do not significantly contribute to rising Covid cases.

The violence that broke out could be argued to have been the perfect storm. College Green holds a memorial covered with flowers following the recent rape and murder of Sarah Everard, for which a police officer has been charged. This crime against an innocent young woman allegedly by a serving Metropolitan Police officer has been seen by many as another example of police violence. This stirred up similar resentment to that expressed following the death of George Floyd, which fuelled last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. In this context, after many months of lock down, it’s hardly surprising that the government’s bill should provoke a reaction.