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.
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.
The right to protest for rights
Despite howls of condemnation from Priti Patel, Marvin Rees and Avon and Somerset police, it is likely that the #killthebill protest will take its place in the pantheon of radical moments in Bristol's history. From St Pauls in 1980 - a year before Brixton - to Stokes Croft in 2011 and the Colston statue toppling last summer, Bristol has an uncanny knack of being one of the places where things tend to kick off first. There is a reason why Greta Thunberg chose to come to Bristol last year – it is a radical city and proud of it.
There will be many who argue that the violence simply plays into the government's hands in the context of their aim criminalising protest and certainly there will be attempts to do just that. Yet the truth is that what happened yesterday was mass defiance from mostly very young protestors, rather than the action of isolated agitators. In many ways it was a re-run of last summer, but this time with Bridewell police station as the focus for anger rather than a statue of a slave trader.
This is why the Tories should be worried. Their strategy in pushing forward the police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a risky one for them. People have largely accepted restrictions on their civil liberties in order to deal with a public health emergency, but are not prepared to see the pandemic used in order to permanently stifle their lawful right to protest and dissent. This includes many people who don’t regularly protest themselves, but who believe that they should have the right to protest should they so wish to.
As Martin Luther King once famously said, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America was the right to protest for rights.” Well, this should be the case in the UK as well.
The police attack on the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham last week was spectacularly misjudged and looked to many like callous brutality. In response, the Tories were forced to suspend the passage of the bill. Now, in the face of mass opposition, the police have lost control of the situation in Bristol. This is not currently a strong look for Priti Patel and the Tories.
The government can certainly be beaten, both in terms of their attacks on democracy and on other issues such as pay for NHS workers. However, for this to happen the radical energy of the streets will need to be fused with the mobilising power and social weight of the trade unions and wider campaigns. As yesterday in Bristol made clear, the real opposition to the government is out there on the streets rather than in the House of Commons.
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