Bristol Defendant Solidarity

Interview

30th May 2022
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Bristol has hit the headlines for a number of political actions throughout the 2010s and 2020s: The Stokes Croft Riots, Youth-Led Climate Strikes, Kill The Bill actions, and, most famously, the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, during a protest for Black Lives Matter.

For the last 11 years, one group has been doing essential, yet often overlooked, work. They provide, in their words, ‘effective, lasting, unconditional support and solidarity to anyone arrested or imprisoned as a result of demos, riots, direct action, and escalating class war.’

We spoke to Sam and Jack, two members of Bristol Defendant Solidarity (BDS), about their views on the work the group does, and the wider political situation we all find ourselves in.

So I figured I'd start with asking you, as individuals, why did you get involved with Bristol Defendant Solidarity?

Sam: I was involved from the start of BDS – before the start, really. I recall getting involved in defendant solidarity campaigns from the 80s, during the miners’ strike, in fact, and also during the Wapping dispute. Later on, I remember the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, and a group that grew out of it: The Legal Defence and Monitoring Group (LDMG). The first time I formally legally observed was in the late 90s at J18, and I continued doing this with LDMG.

When I moved to Bristol, BDS hadn’t yet formed, but there was already quite a bit of legal support and solidarity in Bristol. For example, we took 17 legal observers to the G8 in Scotland. So you could see that, like, that sort of work in Bristol was ongoing from the noughties, on quite a regular basis. It just wasn't formalised. Most affinity groups would have one person responsible for arrestee support, or checking out legal issues before taking action. Bigger events, like the West Side Climate Camps, also put a lot of legal support in place.

Then the Bristol ABC (Anarchist Black Cross, prisoner support group) reformed around 2007. ABC started to informally provide legal support and monitoring, which was the beginning of BDS. BDS itself emerged in the midst of the two Stokes Croft disturbances, in late April 2011. I was involved in ABC at that point, and have dropped in and out of BDS ever since. Most recently, getting back involved in June 2020, in the week before the Black Lives Matter demo, to support All Black Lives Bristol (ABLB), who were planning it.

No one could anticipate the statue coming down at that protest, but one did anticipate a relatively large protest that could potentially be quite feisty. So there was a call out for legal support. On the day, there was a small team of independent legal observers, and then another half a dozen of us handing out bust cards (small leaflets with basic legal info and contact details). And obviously, after the events of that day, then it was a case of staying involved. And eventually I was one of a small group that was consistently in the place.

Jack: I got involved after the third Kill The Bill (KTB) demonstration in April, last year. I was vaguely aware of BDS before, and then there was a sudden rush of requests for more support in the group. I had handed out legal advice, fliers, and stuff like that, but not in any official capacity. I have the experience in other anti-repression work, like supporting returning internationalists from Rojava. That involved helping people individually with cases, and working against state repression, but on a much smaller scale.

KTB was just a massive explosion of repression, right? It became apparent that many, many people were wanted by the state. Arrests started being made, as well. Suddenly, there was a massive need for more capacity, because dozens of people were being searched for by the state. People knew that there would be large casework requirements. But also there's been quite a lot of things not about individual cases. For example, injury support people. I wasn't personally involved in that, but other comrades were trying to collate what injuries people sustained at the different protests, and quantify them. There was quite a lot more behind the scenes, things happening suddenly, specifically in relation to the Kill the Bill protests, because it was such a huge wave of protest.

Does BDS just focus on legal support and casework, or does it have its own politics or political campaigning?

Sam: I think that it has a strategic perspective. It's definitely got a political one. BDS is a Multi Tendency Group. So not everyone has the exact same politics, but they are pretty closely aligned. We don't really tend to make statements or things like that. We stay focused on behind-the-scenes practical work, rather than being a media outlet. It is very much focused on legal work, on the ground at demonstrations, in the back office when people are getting arrested, and then through all the repression after that.

BDS has strategic political perspective, which is to try and block the state when it's attacking people in the terrain of the courts, right? Because it's part of the terrain of the class struggle.

Jack: Not everyone who gets involved in BDS is necessarily an anarchist. In fact, we took the ‘circle A’ out of the logo not long ago. But anyone who does get involved tends to be ‘on the Revolutionary Road’, so to speak. A lot of it comes down to capacity. We have to prioritise supporting defendants, and ensuring their well-being.

A lot of people involved in BDS do more overt political campaigning in other places. In BDS, we have to be a little careful. We don't want to worsen the situation of anyone we support because of some outlandish political statement we’ve made. At the end of the day, we want to see them found not guilty.

Jack: Let’s take the Colston Four, for example. There were four people from BDS, who started to work on that immediately after the statue came down. That reduced to two after the first Kill the Bill demos stretched our resources. Those people were just focused on the four defendants and their cases, supporting them with things like legal demands, their statements, and helping them understand and get through the process. Later on, both of us became an integral part of Glad Colston's Gone, which was a coalition of those supporting the Colston Four. I don't think it would be unfair to say that without our involvement, it would not have managed to achieve what it did.

Sam: So then equally with the Kill the Bill case. BDS has obviously supported individual defendants. But we also encouraged defendants and their friends and family to come together. We very much supported the coming together of the Bristol Anti-Repression Campaign, which grew from that. It is fully independent though. We don't lead it, because we want campaigns to be defendant-led. At present, we're so busy with cases there isn't a chance to do much more.

How did BDS get involved with the defence of the Colston Four?

Sam: We approached the organisers (ABLB) and offered them legal support on the day, and provision of legal information, which they gratefully accepted. We continued to meet with them after, and made it clear legal support was available, especially after the police released their ‘wanted gallery’. Consequently, we're in touch with most of the 10 people who were arrested.

What sort of general steps do you go through when offering legal support to demonstrators?

Jack: We start by handing out bust cards at protests, so that people have information to hand. That includes phone numbers for ourselves and recommended solicitors. So it's possible they contact us while still at a police station. If arrests are made, we arrange rotas of people to wait outside police stations. At times during KTB, we were providing support to people leaving the stations almost 24/7.

After that, it is a case of maintaining contact with an individual arrestee. Most of them are released under investigation. I mean, there are still people released under investigation from the 21st March 2021 protest, who don’t know if and when they will be charged. Plus another 30 the police are still looking for. It takes a long time for a case to be charged, and even longer to come to court.

Once in contact, we advise people to gather their thoughts and remembrances from that day, and make their own written notes. We encourage them to engage a solicitor, and we help them with any legal aid processes. We also support them in finding witnesses and gathering footage of incidents. Our support continues all the way through the trial, if there is one. We can be present at court and provide them with emotional support, as well as practical support.

Sam: Finding the people who've been arrested is actually part of the struggle. It is really amazing when people get in contact with us, and we can arrange to meet up. Usually just, like, over a cup of tea, or something like that. It often isn’t so easy though. Sometimes, we just go to court on a day that we know that people are going en mass, like when the court is doing pre-trial preparation. We'll actually stand outside the court and talk to anyone going in.

Jack: It feels a little bit like being an evangelical. People look at you like, ‘what the fuck?’ But sometimes it is the only way to actually get in contact with people.

It's an ideological and visionary process, as well. People can go from isolated individuals, facing the entire force of the state alone, to being joined up with other defendants and with BDS. It's about connecting people up with a wider network of support. Not just defendants, but people's friends and family, as well. We love being in contact with friends and family!

Is it normally possible to meet the capacity that is required or is it a struggle to get enough people, time, and energy?

Jack: Well, you can have a dozen people working on it, as if it was their full time job, and that could cover it. But, like, nobody has that amount of time. That would just be the minimum of what we should be doing; there's always more that we could do. We feel very pressured sometimes, because everything is time-limited. It's emotive work as well. Watching somebody get dragged through the court system is really shit. We have had people drop out, but also more people join the last year.

Sam: Yeah, but to be blunt, there aren't enough people involved. Too many people don't fully understand the importance of defendant and prisoner solidarity. It is extremely important if you're going to build movements. That, or they don't fancy the hard work, ‘cause it is hard work. It's slow work, that goes on weeks, months, in some cases years. We need people to be up for being involved long term, or at least to be part a revolving door, so that when one person needs to take a break, which is perfectly understandable, someone else is ready to step in.

With work that is so emotive, hard, and long-term, how do you keep each other going and avoid burning out?

Sam: More attention is being given to that over the last year, because the intensity of the work has been at a level that BDS has not previously experienced. Clearly, some people have been worn out, maybe not burnt out, but it is very tiring. I worked on the Colston case for 18 months, and at times you're at it every day, in some shape or form. It is mentally and physically exhausting. When we need people at court all day, especially at short notice, that might mean people pulling a sicky, or cancelling paid work. There is also a constant need to maintain records. You could’ve been in court all day and then spent several hours with a defendant who is clearly quite distraught at the situation. Then you go home at night and you spend a couple of hours making notes. It's pretty full on, which is why it really does need more people to step up.

Jack: I smiled when you asked this question, because it is a challenging one! To be honest, we don't have a great answer. I don't think that we have proper structures of mutual care and support. People are also juggling other things; paid work, having kids, having their own interpersonal stuff, their own health issues, or other organising responsibilities. During all this, we are accountable to ourselves and to the people we support. There's also a strong feeling of being accountable to the people we're working with, as well.

The element of comradeship is really important. I remember feeling quite alienated when we just had meetings online. It definitely helped when we began meeting in person. Sharing a struggle is actually deeply meaningful, and I feel much more connected to the people that I'm working with in BDS and ABC than in a lot of other groups. Because what we're doing is actually material, as well as being very ideological. Which isn't exactly a perfect answer for ‘how do you avoid burnout?’: ‘Oh, well, I just really enjoy the work that we're doing’.

Having structures of care is really important, in terms of an anti-patriarchal approach to organising. We have actively discussed this within the group, and with a new group ‘BASE Mutual Care’. They’ve been trying to find ways to emotionally support defendants and people doing BDS work. There were a couple of small sessions, but we haven't maintained them enough. We’ve also had more informal things, like sharing meals before a meeting.

Sam: There’s definitely a greater recognition and attempt to put things in place. Each meeting, we have a ‘check in’ and a ‘check out’. People are encouraged to be brutally honest about how they're hanging. Sometimes, three-quarters of us literally are worn out, and say so. There may be a bit of a chat about it, and some mutual support outside of group meetings. We've lacked the time for social activity, like a day out in the country, or some such.

Some people have stepped back completely, others will take short breaks. There is an understanding that it isn’t failing if you need to take a break. There's much more acceptance of the need for support now. Twenty years ago, it was often seen as a bit of a cop-out, as if someone just can't be arsed any more. This work is much less male-dominated now, there is much less of a macho attitude about it.

How did the group adapt to meet the challenge of the amount of arrests in the last year?

Jack: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is the phrase that fits most. Since I joined, I think BDS underwent a lot of different transformations, trying out different things. New types of data entry! That sounds so boring, but it is really important. We really tried several different ways to make sure everything we needed was secure, yet accessible. It was more challenging to work out how to do that than other stuff people have been doing for decades.

I feel we’ve adapted, and have an internal structure that works, and can be fluid when it needs to be. Now, people can join something that has a clear way of working. When I first joined, it was much more chaotic.

Sam: No one could have predicted beforehand that, within the course of a week, you would have substantial demonstrations, which were both attacked by the cops, and actively defended by protesters. There were a hundred arrests. BDS was not set up to cope with something of that enormity. So it's been an interesting time. Ideally, one day, someone will have the ability to sit down and write about it, so that others can learn.

Are there any other groups you've been working with, or getting help from?

Jack: We've been working with London Sisters Uncut recently, who were supporting Jasmine specifically. We ask NetPol (The Network for Police Monitoring) legal questions occasionally. We're also in contact with similar groups in other countries, who we hope to learn from.

Sam: We’ve also had some help with the day-to-day practical work. Extra legal observers and court support folk came from London, largely due to personal contacts with groups like the Green and Black Cross and the Activist Court Aid Brigade (ACAB). ACAB also wrote some good articles, including looking at the laws around riots. Other groups in Bristol have been supportive, and some of their members have been involved at times. In that initial time period around KTB, there was a wider support network put in place, but it did drop off over time.

Jack: A lot of this came from the Bristol having a large interwoven radical community. There's been a lot of ad hoc and individual support, mostly things that grew organically rather than were put in place formally. BASE (anarchist social centre) has helped a lot, and BASE and Roses (mutual aid food program) has provided food at demos and events.

We have also been in contact with TUHAD-FED, a predominantly Kurdish group, that supports political prisoners detained by the Turkish state. We asked them ‘how many?’, and they said ‘ten thousand’! It's a completely different scale of work, with a different political context and history. We spoke for hours though. There was a very two-way interaction and experience of solidarity and comradeship when we met.

Sam: Got to give a shout-out to local gig organisers, like Scum Collective, who put out a benefit album and put on several gigs. It is impressive how much support there has been to provide funds and solidarity, from bands, collectives, and individuals. But we still like to have more people to do the core work.

Other than in London, are any groups similar to BDS operating elsewhere in the UK?

Sam: There is a group in Scotland, SCALP (Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project), and a Green and Black Cross group in Manchester, and similar work done in Brighton. I think there was a small group active in Newcastle, where some people were arrested for KTB charges and have won their case.

Generally, there is a shortage of defendant solidarity groups and work being done. That needs to change. People need to wise up, get themselves organised. This shit ain’t gonna go away, and it's not going to get better in the short term.

How would you suggest someone go about starting a group?

Sam: Lots of people are aware of groups that have online resources, which are a useful starting point. Groups like Green and Black Cross, NetPol, and the Black Protest Legal Support Group, who have been really important, as they are able to reach out to communities we sometimes struggle to contact.

Until shit happens, it can be hard to appreciate why you need to go beyond just having the information, to actually having people on the ground. You need that local knowledge, you need people to go to police stations, to court cases, to spend time with defendants. You never know when it's going to happen, but it's probably going to happen regularly from now on. People need to prepare themselves and get more organised.

Many places already have individuals who take on legal and arrestee support roles. Maybe they need to formalise more. It would be great if other groups are better prepared in the future. So, speak to other existing groups, or people already doing the work, gather new like-minded people. Then start small, basic legal support and getting information out. Then start to learn and prepare yourself for when you do support arrestees.

Any closing words?

Jack: We all need to be able to keep carrying our politics in the work we do, and make sure it isn't lost in the organising. We also need to battle the state’s narrative around protests like KTB. I think BDS has been doing this pretty well. Although it is very reactive in many ways, it's also quite prefigurative. We’re building at the same time, taking on things like transformative justice. I think that is a really beautiful aspect of the work, because actually we are building something as well. And yeah, we need more of that.

If you want to support those arrested during Kill The Bill protests, BDS suggests donating to Bristol ABC via www.gofundme.com/f/ktb-prisoner-support-fund.

You can also write to Kill The Bill Prisoners, a list is available on www.bristolabc.wordpress.com/2021/12/16/ktbprisonerinfo/

If you would like to get in touch with BDS, you can do so via [email protected] or their social media www.twitter.com/BristolDefenda1

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