C/W: Police brutality, injury description.
On Friday night, approximately 2000 protesters showed out in Bristol, once again to demand the government kill the bill. Much like the protest on Sunday, it started with marches and chanting, and much like on Sunday and Tuesday, it ended with police beating the shit out of us.
It was also one of my first protests as part of an (admittedly small) anarchist bloc, and my first experience with police brutality – and thus, my first experience of how we treat each other after suffering violence at the hands of the police. Before the police started hitting us with riot shields, batons, and their feet, there was a stand-off, lasting multiple hours, with protesters peacefully chanting – including multiple periods of people chanting for “peaceful protest,” and riot police forming at least three ranks in front of us, with police vans to back them up. Obviously, a completely proportionate use of resources, and in no way a waste of funds.
The majority of the stand-off was just that – standing. However, there are three things that really stuck out for me. The first was a maybe 10 minute stare-down with a cop, right at the police line – nothing particularly exciting, if I’m being honest, but certainly formative. There’s a real difference between hearing from other comrades how much cops hate us, and making eye contact with them for yourself. Also, half of them weren’t wearing masks or visors, and were laughing and chatting with the fash who showed up, just in case anyone thinks they were there for public safety. The second was a drunk man harassing girls in the middle of the crowd. Yes, a man harassing women at a protest at least partly kicked off by a misogynistic act of police violence. I wish I had it in me to be surprised. We escorted him away, eventually, but not without being called both militant communists and undercover cops by people, and then it was back to waiting in our little spot near the front.
The third was the sheer number of people telling us to sit down, to be peaceful, to avoid posing a threat. As non-threatening as it made them look, sitting down did not stop anyone from being bladed with riot shields, beaten with batons, or kicked. Putting flowers on riot shields did not stop police from brutalising people, either, as had already been shown on Tuesday, but that didn’t stop them from trying again. It is the thing that was probably most upset me about that night, more so than the violence that I experienced.
Speaking of, I was hit over the head with the edge of a riot shield, kicked in the legs multiple times, and had a baton slammed down onto my hand so hard that it is still numb approximately 40 hours later. I was also kicked in the breasts, in the crotch twice, once in the solar plexus, and once in the stomach. I threw up at least once, and was nauseous for hours. I have bruises on both legs, my arms, and my stomach. My ribs and chest still ache.
I had my hands up.
I was pulled out by one of the people with us, after maybe half an hour, and went back to someone’s house – someone who I had only met that night. I was given food, water, painkillers, and safe travel to the place I was staying. That night, other protesters – anarchists and others – took care of me, while police beat the shit out of us. ■
An Bristolian A-level student
“Never seen anything like it. We were charged at down the street by multiple charging horses and police with dogs. Continuous beatings from the cops, extreme violence. They were literally punching peaceful people who were sitting down, with shields and trampling them. Spoke to someone who saw a woman on the floorget her jacket ripped off her and her hair pulled while coppers laughed and shoved her, they told her to run away while laughing.” – Protester
Yesterday around 150 people gathered on College Green to protest the Trespass elements of the the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. When the cops came in they acted exactly as the politicians and press insisted they should; no fighting back, no criminal damage, calm and passive. It did nothing to curtail hours of vicious police violence.
The Bill has many terrible elements, one of the worst is the attempt to effectively criminalise Gypsy, Roma, and Travellers. People in these groups already face widespread discrimination, violence, and attacks on their way of life from the government. The new criminalisation of trespass will also target other van dwellers, rough sleepers, squatters, ramblers, protest camps and more. It was a mixture of these groups and supporters of them who took to College Green, tents in hand, to voice their opposition and support the movement to #KillTheBill.
College Green has hosted numerous overnight protest camps before, focusing on homelessness, housing issues, and inequality. Its owners, Bristol Cathedral, have usually been happy to host them, provided they clean up after themselves. For the first five hours this camp felt like many of those before it. It was relaxed, and despite the clear political messages it had a ‘festival vibe’. Police were present throughout this time, but in contrast to Sunday evening they seemed to be hanging back and being ‘hands off’, however this wouldn’t last.
Reports began circulating at around 7.30pm that police were building up numbers near by, and they just didn’t seem to stop. Ten vans, then fifteen, then twenty, then we lost count. The van markings showed they were drafted in from at least four police forces, each van has a capacity of 12 officers, so for the number of people sat on the Green this was overkill to say the least. At 10pm, supported by mounted units, dogs, a drone and a helicopter, the vans pulled up the protest and endless lines of police in riot gear surrounded the protest camp blocking off side streets.
As the riot police moved in people were mostly sat on the ground, or still in their tents. Many had there arms raised chanting ‘peaceful protest’. These chants were either ignored, or seen as a sign of a vulnerable target as the police stormed in. They lashed out bashing peoples heads with their batons and shields, punching out, letting dogs bite at protesters limbs, and making repeated dangerous cavalry charges. They trashed everything and everyone they came into contact with, tearing up banners, smashing tents, and even trampling through the memorial to Sarah Everard and other murdered women.
What followed was chaos. Police shouted contradictory orders, as they attempted to both split up and kettle different groups, numerous protesters were taken away in ambulances, and police made arrests seemingly at random. Groups of protesters were forced in various directions. One of around 50 or so found themselves on Deanery Road with riot police all around them. Hoping for a reprieve they sat back down, chanting ‘peaceful protest’, ‘shame on you’, and ‘this is what a police state looks like’. Despite the face they were clearly no threat police once again charged in with horses, followed swiftly by batons. This pattern repeated itself all the way down the road, protesters would stop sit, and even lay out flowers, police would respond with violence. By the early hours of the morning the streets were empty, the last protesters having been arrested one by one, taken to hospital, or dispersed into the night.
The coverage of the protest in the press has been much more balanced this time round. There are a few reasons for this. Partly the lack of fight back means there are no exciting looking pictures of fire, or videos of protesters pushing back against police lines. However one key point may be how the police treated the journalists present on the ground. Reporters from both The Cable and Bristol 24/7 harassed by the police despite making their status as journalists clear (video footage). Some outlets will still try and put a pro-police or faux-neutral spin on things, notably the BBC clearly had a word with their points west journalist who initially said ‘it was peaceful before the police arrived’ and then deleted his tweet and video footage.
This new bill is dangerous not just because it gives the police new legal powers. They’ve never let a lack of legal powers stop them before, from illegal mass arrests, unlawful violence, and misuse of existing powers. I’ve seen them use existing anti-protest law to limit the location of a protest by declaring five people on a road side with placards a risk of “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. It’s dangerous because it clearly sets out how the government want to shape the country, and how they want the police to behave to enable them to do so. They want to create an authoritarian nightmare. To stop them we need to stand together and challenge them, whether or not the bill passes, we have to continue to defy them together.
There are numerous tactics and styles of protest we can carry out, whatever we choose it is clear that the police and government are willing to meet any effective protest with extreme violence. We have to be resilient, supportive of each other, smart, and prepared for anything. As one protester told us last night “this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning”.
We have seen anonymous calls for another #KillTheBill protest this Friday, 4pm on College Green ■
Article written by one of Bristol Anarchist Federation, after compiling reports from AFed members, other protesters, and independent journalists. Feel free to use all or part of it, unless you are working for The Daily Mail or The Sun, in which case go fuck yourself. Cheers.
If you or anyone you know was arrested, witnessed an arrest, or is concerned they may be arrested contact Bristol Defendant Solidarity for help. Remember, always ‘no comment’ until you’ve spoken to a GOOD solicitor.
If you want to join in the struggle, get in touch with AFed, BDS, Bristol Cop Watch, Sisters Uncut, Green Anti-capitalist Front, Solfed, IWW, Earth Strike, Resist Anti-Trespass, Bristol Trespass, or just a group of sound mates. Keep an eye on our social media for more how-to guides on staying safe and effective at demos in the coming weeks.
Orginally posted on www.afed.org.uk
It’s easy to get a sense of deja-vu when you get home and start reading press reports and twitter accounts from a demonstration. For that reason, whilst I’ll be writing about the events in Bristol this Sunday, I’m also writing about dozens of other demonstrations over the years. I hope you’ll join me on a ramble about how a protest went down, and how press, police, politicians, and their cheerleaders, constructed a narrative around it.
The Build Up
Anger at police and government abuse has been quietly simmering, since the UK BLM demonstrations of summer 2020. Whilst the streets were quieter, the racist and sexist policing has continued. The murder of Sarah Everard, likely by a police officer, led to an out pouring of both grief and louder (but still restrained) anger. Anger at the sexist violence women face on a daily basis, and at a so-called justice system that at best ignores this suffering, and all to often contributes to it. The largest of the vigils that followed the murder took place on Saturday 13th March on Clapham Common.
As if to prove the latter point, police attacked the vigil. They waited until the numbers at the vigil were smaller, until the sky was darker, and until they had built up enough force to overwhelm the crowd still present. The reports and pictures from these attacks spread, and this created a problem for the police. It also created a problem for their bosses in government, as they were hoping to quietly pass a bill aimed at increasing police powers to target protests, travellers, and those who damaged monuments.
The Narrative Begins
First the press responded to the attack on the vigil by reporting it in ‘passive voice’. Reports stated ‘clashes occurred at a vigil’ or ‘clashes between protesters and police’. Words carefully chosen to not indicate who had started the clashes (the police) and who had been on the receiving end of the majority of the violence (those attending the vigil). Whilst not technically a lie, the intention here is to avoid blaming the police, or to imply that the protesters were at fault. Of course had the protesters actually instigated the violence, the early reports would say exactly that, ‘crowds attack police’. Also, wait… Protesters? Now that was the second trick of words. People attending a vigil don’t sound very threatening or unlawful. Vigil invokes images of flowers, grief stricken speeches, candles, sadness. An accurate description of what had taken place on Clapham Common, but not the most useful if you want to paint the police positively. So many news outlets chose to term everyone present as ‘protesters’. Politicians, such as home secretary Priti Patel were quick to chime in condemning the ‘violence’ caused by ‘protesters’ at an ‘unlawful gathering’, and the press dutifully repeated these claims, often uncritically.
This wasn’t enough however, even if it was reported as a protest, people had seen the pictures, and most would agree that murder is worth protesting about. Next up we need the quotes from police. Sometimes these are lies, but often they are selective truths helping to build up a false narrative. They can let themselves off on a technicality. The aim here is to continue to paint the vigil as dangerous, and also to divide those present into a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ group.
First they will report on any police injuries ‘six police received medical attention due to the protest’ they might say. Look at what they aren’t saying. Injured how? Were they knocked out by an enraged protester with a bat… or did they feel faint from dehydration, trip over and crack a rib on a shield, catch their hand in a car door or break a finger bashing someone over the head? If you think i’m exaggerating how police may report injuries I urge you to read this report from a 2008 climate camp. This is a useful tactic for them, as it is very rare that figures are collected for how many protesters were injured, and the assumption may be that this means that number is zero, and the police were thus on the receiving end of more violence than they dished out.
Secondly they will seek to spread rumours. They’ll agree most of the thousands of people present were peaceful, support the cause, and shouldn’t have been attacked by the police. Then they will, in hushed tones, point out that there were a minority of those people present. Who are those people? Hardly matters. Whoever the boogie man of the day is. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Extinction Rebellion, Anarchists, ‘hardcore feminists’. Of course it is fairly common for someone to attend events about multiple issues without a secret plan to ‘hijack’ them. This isn’t important. What is important is the demonisation and othering of those who were beaten and arrested. They weren’t people like you and me, people rightly concerned about violence against women, and about police over reach. They were, hardcore agitational anarcha feminist BLM rebels!
Thirdly, they will desperately try and place the blame on the victims of police violence. They will talk about how the protesters stared shouting when police marched in (how terrible). How there were swear words on placards (oh my!). How the event was an ‘unlawful gathering’. How it is those dastardly vigil attendees who should be ashamed. They will under no circumstances admit that the police may have escalated a calm situation or otherwise acted to make things worse. In the past police and press have even gone as far as suggesting police were right to assualt a man in a wheelchair for rolling towards them ‘aggressively‘.
At this point you’ll get the ‘opinion pieces’ in papers, the editorials, the endless reports on social media, here, free of any fact checking, it’s easier to lie. The early reporting may dance with the truth, but in the following days ‘antifa super soldiers hijack vigil and launch attack on police officers’ is deemed acceptable to print or share online. This will be followed by the ‘friendly fire’; the concerned criticism by people who claim to be ‘on the side of the cause’ but have either bought the narrative, or just want to look respectable (and score political points). Now let’s get back to the topic of the day…
What Actually Happened in Bristol
For over a week crowds had been gathering nightly on College Green to mourn women killed by sexist violence, and to protest the complicity of the police in sexist, and other, forms of violence. Alongside this, many had been sharing an anonymous call-out for a demonstration against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, under the slogan #KillTheBill. The demo explicitly stated it had no organisers, so there was no one for the police to pressure to cancel it, just call-outs from dozens of groups and news outlets.
From 1.30pm on Sunday, people started to gather near College Green. Police started to approach individuals and small groups, demanding they leave, threatening fines or arrest, or asking them to submit to questioning. However they quickly backed off as the crowds grew. Shortly after 2pm, there were over 5000 people present (the largest demo since the previous summer’s 15,000+ BLM demo).
Over the next few hours crowds moved around central Bristol with a party atmosphere that is somewhat stereotypical for our city. Chants, songs, samba, sound systems, and yes, more than a few swears, were the audio back drop to an incredibly diverse mix of placard waving Bristolians. Many drifted off, and most that remained had settled down on the grass in castle park, or milling around near the top of Union Street. It was there, as things were dying down that police manhandled and attempted to remove a protester who was sitting down. It was after this provocation, at about 6pm, that those still up for marching headed down the hill next to the Galleries towards Bristol’s central police station – Bridewell.
For the first ten minutes or so after the protest arrived at Bridewell there are only about a dozen police present, not in riot gear, and spread out in front of the police station entrance and a couple of parked vans. One of which is soon driven away, one left empty. One or two hundred people sat down in front of the police station chanting and ranting, overwhelmingly this group was young, and made up mostly of women, the rest of the protesters stood across the street from the station, or fanned out along the pavement approaching it. Despite the police being on the back foot, out numbered something like 90-1, no one attacked them. No one pushed past them to the unguarded entrance, or threw rocks at the GLASS WALLS of the station.
At this point the first major wave of additional police arrived, dozens of riot police, and half a dozen mounted units. They began to push the crowd back, surrounding and isolating parts of it. They pushed people over, moved them back, and some police lashed out at the crowd. Despite this, the protesters, whilst tense, remained restrained. Many people were still sat on the floor, or miling around by the station walls. The most retaliation from the crowd during this 20minute or so stand off consisted of chants of ‘shame on you’ and some rocking of the lone police van.
At this point, approaching 6.40pm the police had a choice, line up defensively by their station perhaps, even pull back a little, or escalate and create a dangerous and increasingly violent situation. They chose the latter, and sent in the dogs, literally in the case of the canine units who would soon deploy, and metaphorically in the case of the human officers who baton charged the crowd, striking at the heads of those standing, kicking folks on the floor, and even hitting a young woman sat on the floor hands raised telling them this was a peaceful protest.
As a public narrative, will simply not do! It paints the police in a bad light, so the false starts to be built, obscuring the truth. The news editors, politicians, senior police officers, the twitter ranting media personalities with talk shows and click-bait columns, all start to take note. ‘Protesters clash with police’ they say or ‘Clashes outside Bristol police station during protests’, as if the protests created clashes without even the need of anyone to clash with! Later they’lll report on the poor van ‘it was being rocked’! Who could blame the police for seeing a van being rocked, and then beating an unrelated protester? Even if that protester was sat on the floor half a minute down the road entirely separated from the van by a line of riot cops?
I genuinely think the power of the response from the protesters surprised the police. Initially it was relatively passive – the arrival of the police dogs was met by a couple in the crowd attempting to feed them pizza. Then, when the police took the gloves off and really struck out, the people struck back. Batons, pepper spray and shields were met with fists and sticks. The police vans that drove into the crowd were attacked with bottles and spray paint. Another key point in the press building the false narrative is that the BBC initially posted an article reporting on how the police vans were attacked with bottles after driving into the crowd. They edited it to simply say the police vans were attacked. A very different implication.
During the chaos someone let off a few fireworks in the crowd. Potentially dangerous, but less dangerous than those police dogs who did get taken away at this point, spooked by the loud noises (its unclear if this was deliberate). The dogs were repeatedly redeployed throughout the night. Despite how dangerous that is for the protesters, for the dogs, and even for the police, at least one of whom very nearly got castrated by his charge. One of the first media narratives that dominated was protesters endangering police animals, well, its the police that brought them there and used them as weapons. In fact the police horse units were still on the streets six hours after it kicked off (horses unharmed), so either there was never any danger to them from the crowd, or police chose to repeatedly put them in harms way all night.
That isolated van from earlier ended up spray painted in between the second and third waves of police violence, and then set alight, amazing how forgetful police are with one or two vehicles during every major protest. New vans lined up in front of the station as riot cops filled the streets. After a brief lull things kicked off again, the police were less sure of themselves as the crowd had not simply bowed down before their batons and pepper spray. People made it to those great glass walls and shattered a few panes (I heard some reports that people even got inside). Others spray painted windows reached by scaling the part of the police station made of brick, but only one storey high. The police secured the front of the station, but weren’t willing or able to disperse the crowd, or leave them be. After an hour the crowds been pushed back down side streets, but would repeatedly return to Bridewell Street. Many protesters were injured and others scared, but it was heart-warming to see how well people looked out for each other. Spontaneous first aid stations were set up, supplies were shared, and people made sure to get those worst off out of the area, often at risk to themselves. Running battles would continue for hours, and at least one more police vehicle went up in flames. By 8pm the police were desperately asking for any riot-trained officers to report for duty, and many officers were still on the streets well after midnight.
What is Important to Take From All This?
We cannot control the mainstream media narrative by simply trying to follow its rules. It doesn’t matter how we behave. If the police attack us, the media will paint us as violent. The most common cause of being arrested for assaulting a police officer at a demo is having been assaulted BY one, who then needs an excuse.
We should be ready to put out our own narrative as quickly as possible, before a false narrative solidifies in the hours and days following a protest, but with the dominance of just a handful of massive media corporations this is always a difficult proposition. However the media narrative is as predictable as it is out of touch with the reality of the situation. This is something we need to explain to people we converse with. We know what the police are like better than some journo sat in an office in London. A journo likely putting together and anti-protest hit piece with via copy-paste and random keyboard bashing.
We have to hope that those who broadly… very broadly… share our aims when it comes to the police bill will believe us over the press and police. This may take some persuasion. However, even the most strictly pacifist protester will have seen their actions twisted in the papers, and can hopefully be dissuaded from sharing the narrative of the police and politicians. Their willingness to buy into a false narrative, or desire to quickly differentiate themselves as more respectable than those that ‘clash’ with police may lead them to condemn protesters as a knee-jerk reaction. This simply plays into the hands of the police, helps confirm the false narrative, helps the attack on protest in general.
If this describes you then, well, don’t do that yeah? I respect anyone who can stand there and take a baton to the head, a kick to the ribs, who can watch their mate be pepper sprayed and stick to a personal code of pacifism. Who can put their hands in their pockets and not strike out… but for a lot of people, most of us perhaps, the strong instinct is to stop attackers from hurting us, and those around us. Even if this collective self defence involves the throwing of a punch or a stick.
We can’t let one protest dominate the discussion for long. This isn’t about one protest, this is about a bill that clearly spells out the governments plan for a far more authoritarian country. Some folks will want to argue back and forth about whether collective self defence against the police harmed or helped the cause, but we can’t let that be the main argument. I’ve already seen some say that violent protest will give the government an extra excuse to make this bill law, but this bill isn’t about people who fight the cops. You won’t be surprised to learn that police already have more power than they need to arrest you for fighting back against them. This law is about protests where no one is even fighting back. This law would cause MORE aggressive protests, because if peaceful, subservient, obedient protest is punishable by ten years in prison, why wouldn’t any sane person riot instead?■
Article written by one of Bristol Anarchist Federation, after compiling reports from AFed members, other protesters, and independent journalists such as Alon Aviram.
If you or anyone you know was arrested, witnessed an arrest, or is concerned they may be arrested contact Bristol Defendant Solidarity for help. Remember, always ‘no comment’ until you’ve spoken to a GOOD solicitor.
If you want to join in the struggle, get in touch with AFed, BDS, Bristol Cop Watch, Sisters Uncut, or just a group of sound mates. Keep an eye on our social media for more how-to guides on staying safe and effective at demos in the coming weeks.
[Editing March 24 2021, Typos, Fixed Link, Photos Added]
Earth Strike is another campaign putting environmental action to the front throughout 2019 and tomorrow they'll be bringing it down in Bristol's Bearpit.
In the works since November 2018, they called out for an international general strike on the 27th of September with three days of action before hand. Tomorrow is the "Halfway Earth Day Protest" and Bristol shall be coming out in force for “DEARPIT TAKEOVER” which is beingco-ordinated by the local branch of Earth Strike UK and the IWW's Environmental Unionism Causcus and has a particular focus on spreading it's wings and developing closer ties with other unions and organiser networks. They are rocking up with free music, food, workshops and a climate protest ofcourse! Which knowing Bristol should be lit!
Their case for a strike is pretty clear,
“The Anthropocene is forcing life on Earth towards extinction. Our planet and our future is under attack. Governments have failed to curb the exploitation and pollution of our climate by a handful of corporations. It’s time to take the power back and shut the power off! We don’t want new pipelines and airports and fracking sites. We want sustainable energy, clean water, decent housing and respect for all people.”
The organisers are actively looking for folk to come and help set things up so if you've got the time and the will get on it, maybe shoot them a message on their Facebook Page.
This being held at the Bearpit is pretty rad too. If you hadn't heard it basically goes like this; The council pretty much hands responsibility for the Bearpit over to an Arts and Community network called “The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft” who quite happily made great use of the space for ages. Then one day the word come down that the council had decided to shift them on and were about to get their dogs to come and move people out and wreck the community that had been built. Keys were handed over, resistance prepared and a tidy bunch of renegades has been squatting the place since.
The logical thing here for any decent city council would be to celebrate this hub of political freedom, arts and community. Instead of threatening it, Bristol council should be working with the community to keep Bristol the lively, dynamic, colourful city that it's so well known to be, always they are crook mother fuckers and so people have to act.
So yeah, great location, great networks, great cause and some fucking kick ass events planned for the afternoon. Sad to hear that the London detachment had to cancel their event but expect Bristol to rock it!
Here’s a timeline for the day (which may be subject to change):
13.00 Set up – all & any helpers are welcome!
14:00 Opening talk “What is Earth Strike”
14:10 Talk on ‘Climate Crisis and the science of extinction’ by Extinction Rebellion
14:20 Talk by Youth Strike
14:25 Talk by Rent Strike
14:30 Workshop by Animal Justice Emergency
15:00 Workshop on Social Ecology by Bristol Social Ecology Movement
15:30 Talk by Bristol Anarchist Federation “Capitalism and ecology”
15:40 Strike Announcement by IWW Secretary Russ Spring
15:50 Bearpit Takeover Direct Action Briefing Earth Strike
16:00 TAKEOVER ACTION (XR Samba Band will lead us out onto the streets to block roads around the Bearpit)
16:30 Music by ‘The Acronyms’
17:30 Music by ‘Invincible PIgs’
18:30 Music by ‘Perverts’