Award winning outsider artist . Illustrator . Punker
March 21st 2021, 11PM—Deliveroo drivers are queuing outside Taka Taka, a Greek takeaway near Bridewell Police Station in the centre of Bristol. They negotiate orders through plastic visors, pick up bundles of oregano-laden chips and tzatziki pots, lamb kebabs that have pirouetted all day, swathed in flatbreads and topped with an ugly bell pepper. Grease-thick steam rises, condenses and is wiped clean from the brows of dough-hatted chefs; their mouths shout order numbers at the gig-economy crowd. About ten metres away, a police car is on fire. A protester does a kickflip.
There are swarms of people all over Bridewell. Lines of police hammer protestors with the blades of their shields. Protestors hammer back with fists and tossed debris, set off fireworks and fall back. The police, surprised, go harder still. The hospitals are filled with injured protestors. Medics are harassed, arrested, journalists bullied and truncheoned. The night echoes those we have seen play out across the USA for over a year, after the encoded racism of American Empire reified itself on the body of George Floyd as the sheer impossibility of breathing under the state’s unflagging tonnage.
In Bristol, the protests’ foundational scene is similar: the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police Officer. Both instances concretise the advance of political power against its subjects—a campaign of unmitigated exhaustion and depletion, the sweeping aside of black bodies, the predation of women’s, the abhorrence of the unexploitable and the negation of the exploited: an endless war on an outside which remains impossible to the logic of capital, yet integral to the economic expansion and social repression that that logic necessitates—‘how can you be so violent, when one of your mates murdered someone like me the other week?’ screams a woman in the crowd, before she is swatted away by the police as if she was nothing.
The structural target of the protests is the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which—at the time of writing—has stalled at the committee stage in the Commons, but still threatens to be pushed through in time. At over 300 pages long, its provisions are far-reaching and aim at overwhelming any opposition—though the Labour Party seem to be doing a good job overwhelming themselves; initially planning to abstain, they only opposed the bill after the public outcry.
One of the main sources of contention is what the bill could mean for protests. Currently, police must substantiate that a protest will cause “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community” before they impose restrictions on it. In the past, this vagueness has afforded police enough room to, for example, kettle 4000-5000 G20 protestors in April 2009, not because they themselves were deemed to be breaching the peace, but because a group nearby was. The crowds were held for four hours, before the use of “reasonable force” was sanctioned in order to disperse them. In the ensuing throng, Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller not attached to the protest, was batonned from behind by an officer who was wearing a balaclava and had his police number concealed. Tomlinson collapsed fifteen minutes later and was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.
If the bill passes into law, police chiefs will no longer need to demonstrate that a protest is likely to cause serious disorder before imposing restrictions and will be given even more interpretive room to justify repressive measures. Start and finish times will be mandated in advance on protests with as little as one person present, the “controlled area” around Westminster, which prohibits protest activities, will be expanded, police will be able to set noise limits in order to prevent what the bill calls “serious unease” of passersby and fines of up to £2,500 will be issued to protestors who refuse to follow the conditions laid out by the police. It will also be considered a crime if the protestors “ought to know that the condition has been imposed,” leaving the possibility of punitive actions disturbingly open-ended. Officers like the one who struck Ian Tomlinson will be entrusted with dictating the terms of their own backlash and what constitutes apposite freedom of expression will be decided by those in whose interests it is to limit that expression.
This is nothing new—the goalposts of peaceful protest have always been defined arbitrarily. Contemporary coverage of civil rights actions which are now considered exemplary of non-violent praxis, such as Martin Luther King’s marches in the South, show that any action which is potentially threatening to the status quo will be deemed violent—whether or not there is violence and whether or not that violence starts with the protesters or the police—until it can be recuperated into a Liberal imaginary of peaceful progress which doesn’t threaten capital. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari point out, “state overcoding is precisely this structural violence that defines the law, “police” violence and not the violence of war. There is lawful violence wherever violence contributes to the creation of that which it is used against.” Violence becomes “simply a natural phenomenon the responsibility for which does not lie with the state, which uses violence only against the violent.” In effect: the very constitution of violence proceeds from the a priori assumption that the state’s use of force is natural and justified, an assumption that consequently cannot allow for the idea that the social conditions which it perpetuates precipitate the exact types of violence it abhors.
This bill however would go closer than ever before to criminalising protest, something which is supposedly sacrosanct to liberal democracy. It is hard to picture what protest could mean to its authors, since it's obvious they have never had anything to protest about. Protests must draw attention to themselves and insert a break in the homogeneity of day-to-day life in order to be protests. The outcome of the bill then, will be an absolute defanging of the legal means for reproach and a consolidation of the state’s monopoly on definitions of violence. It would, as the human rights barrister Adam Wagner points out, essentially make permanent the de facto ban on protests that is already in place due to COVID regulations.
As well as a result of the proposal of the bill then, the Bristol protests could well be a premonition of its effects, as the police used COVID regulations as a pretext for violent dispersal tactics (the police’s apology to protestors arrested outside the trial of the ‘Colston Four’ in January calls the legal legitimacy of this pretext into question though). Before the first Kill the Bill action was due to start, Avon and Somerset Police advised that protests should be carried out online. The bathos of a 10,000-strong Zoom call, disembodied faces expressing their anger to crunchy laptop microphones, perhaps this is what the bill’s authors are aiming for: mass politics denuded of the masses, all the spontaneity and potentialities of collective mobilisation stoppered and stuffed into however long your bandwidth is, occupations that only occupy Hertzian space.
In fact, the bill is preoccupied with space, its enclosure and the conditioning of the way bodies are allowed to move in it. Guy Shrubsole’s book Who Owns England? draws on FOI and map data to conclude that 48% of land in England is owned by less than 1% of its population. Of that 48%, 18% is owned by corporations and 30%, the largest amount owned by any one group, is owned by a very-much-still-extant aristocracy. A further 17% belongs to city bankers and new money, the typical bourgeoisie. To trespass on this land is currently a civil offence, but, if the Conservatives follow through on their 2019 manifesto, it will soon become a criminal one, giving police the power to curtail ancient freedoms and place further restrictions on the Right to Roam, which in England pertains to only 10% of the land.
The provisions of the current bill focus on those “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle.” Just as similar legislation under the Cameron government transferred squatting from a civil to a criminal offence and consequently criminalised a way of life that many unhoused folk rely on then, this bill will redound most heavily on those without fixed abodes, namely Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities. Vans—which, to be clear, are homes—will be confiscated indefinitely, the legal threshold for police to harass and intervene in settlements will be lowered and the extremely violent scenes that played out on Dale Farm in 2011 could become more and more frequent.
This is red meat for Middle England's more sadistic postcodes, where, according to YouGov polling, over 40% of people would be unhappy with a close relative forming a relationship with a traveller, over 10% think “gypsys/travellers should be refused entry into bars and restaurants, because they are gypsys/travellers” and GRT children have by far the lowest school attainment of any cohort. The local election literature of Labour MP Charlotte Nichols explicitly boasted of “dealing” with “incursions” by traveller communities, which speaks to both the willingness of the Labour Party to sell out these communities and the embeddedness of anti-GRT rhetoric to the extent that it is seen as a vote-winner by both major parties.
Again, this is nothing new, nor is it unique to the UK. Since the emergence of GRT groups in Western Europe in the Early Modern period, their status as subjects on the periphery of a nascent capitalism led to demonisation by the equally nascent, modern nation state. As capital drew peasants into the urban proletariat, traveller communities eluded incorporation into the sedentary labour pool and undermined the gradual subordination of the commons under a regime of private property relations by their nomadism.
The bill, which presents itself as a protection of private property, can be seen as proceeding directly from capitalism’s insolvency with this type of nomadic lifestyle. While it takes the cosmopolitan businessman to be its modern imago, the nomad is an absolute outside whose rootlessness is in tension with the basic injunctions of capitalist social production and threatens the accumulative property of capital investment—in particular, house prices, the inflation of which has been the Conservative’s skeleton key for clinging onto power for decades.
This rhetoric often centres on a double-bind. Just as an anti-Semite might accuse Jews of being communists in one breath and the conniving financiers of international capital in the other, politicians engaging in anti-GRT prejudice will demonise GRT encampments for producing “excessive noise, smells, litter or deposits of waste,” as per the bill, but offer no solutions to the lack of authorised sites, even as families are left without access to running water, toilets or refuse spots in the middle of a pandemic. Again, the state asserts its prejudice on the outcomes it helps perpetuate and opts to criminalise a way of life rather than sustain it.
Pogroms, enslavement and expulsion are all commonplace to the history of GRT communities. They may have reached a peak with the “Porjamos” (literally “the devouring”), which saw close to half-a-million Romani people killed at the hands of the Nazis, but this was neither the first, nor the last genocide and evidence for coercive sterilisations of Romani women in the Czech Republic date as recently as 2001. Meanwhile, violent attacks against encampments, which are often sites of extreme privation, are on the rise across Europe in keeping with the reactionary turn of the past decade. Under these conditions, to further legitimise anti-GRT hatred and foreclose on their freedoms for electoral gains is deplorable.
On the 24th March, a protest is held in Bristol specifically focused on the anti-GRT elements of the bill. One sign reads, ‘first they came for the gypsies.’
A week after the first Bristol protest, Home Secretary Priti Patel, the architect of the bill, will denounce those involved as ‘thugs’—a word that was bastardised from Hindi by British colonisers in the 1800s and used to designate the othered subjects of the Indian interior that escaped assimilation into the Imperial machine, haunting the colonial imagination with the possibility of an outside. What followed this designation was of course a brutal and legal eradication of whoever was labelled ‘thug’ or ‘thuggee’ under the terms of the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, 1836–48. Since then, the word ‘thug’ has come to cipher the neuroses of the state, flung at any deemed outside, from striking miners to Irish immigrants and travellers.
The fascist Carl Schmitt wrote that ‘the core of the political is not enmity per se, but the distinction between friend and enemy, and presupposes both friend and enemy.’ The inconsistencies and fragility of political power cannot be seen as immanent to it, but rather as coming from a non-reconcilable other—a ‘thug,’ an ‘outside agitator’ or a non-incorporable community. Any regime which imposes a socio-economic orthodoxy as stridently as a state must have an outside to deflect the internal precarity of its normative social mores on to so that the inside, the ‘friends’ can be seen as whole and not lacking. In relation to the state then, the outside is caught in the curious position of having both its existence and its destruction as necessary components for the continuation of a state of affairs which designates it as such.
In Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control, he writes ‘there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’ As the Tory stranglehold on state power slides ever closer to all-out fascism, what will be left to do other than be ‘thugs’?
There are currently a lot of people saying that protesting right now, or protests that are partly violent or that encounter police violence is counterproductive.
There is absolutely no historical or social scientific basis for making such claims. Those who make them are pretty much always just expressing their own preferences.
I’ll make four points here.
1. Almost all successful protest anywhere in the world have some kind of violent element or confrontations with the police.
Just looking at this country, we can look to the Poll Tax, the Suffragettes or even the BLM protests last year. There are of course also many such movements that end in defeat, like Orgreave. But the reasons for success or defeat are much broader and more complex than whether there has been confrontation with police.
2. The confrontational part is always only one small part of the whole movement, but it is one that receives attention and can put the issue in people’s minds.
That is true for the current moment too. Loads of people are doing things actively to oppose this Bill on and off the streets. Very few of those have been involved in direct confrontations with police but those are the instances that tend to make local and national news. That confrontation/direct action element is then a key part, but just a part of the whole movement/campaign.
3. People who make claims about counterproductive tactics often point to the fact that protests are unpopular. But all protest is unpopular amongst the majority of the public.
Still, much protest is successful. Majority support is not a means to success. Instead, what is important is dedicated engagement and support by many people, but not a majority. Importantly, there are huge chunks of the population that do not support the protests themselves but have started considering this Bill and thinking that it probably is a bad idea. The goal of protestors is this not to become popular, but for their cause to gain support. And that is happening already. It was pressure on Labour following the Sisters Uncut vigil for Sarah Everard and police repression that led to Labour coming out against the Bill.
4. One of the main problems with this Bill is that it’s actually unenforceable.
No state or police force can control protests to the extent that the Bill aims to do. The current protests in Bristol, which may spread to other cities, show how impossible it is to police protest in such a way. Bear in mind that the Bill would render most protest illegal and have severe punishments for lawbreaking protest. That would push the organisation of protest underground, making it more volatile and less coherent. That is actually exactly what is happening right now under Covid restrictions. Thus, continuing these protests become a kind of direct action to show what the future will look like under this Bill.
And one last point on Bristol: mayor Marvin Rees says that Bristol is a pointless site because Bristol MPs are already voting against the Bill.
But if Bristol is a catalyst for protests around the country, showing how unenforceable this Bill is, then that will ultimately cause problem for the government.
Of course, we don’t know that that will happen. It may or it may not. But neither the Mayor of Bristol nor the shadow chancellor know that either. So what they are saying should not be taken with any more credibility than what Joe Bloggs has to say about it.
None of this is decided. There is no clear and obvious way to success or failure. All is to play for, on the streets and in the Houses of Parliament. ■
Dr Oscar Berglund
Dr Oscar Berglund is a lecturer in international public and social policy at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies. You can find him on twitter @berglund_Oscar
Over the last few weeks protests against the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill have hit the headlines, particularly protests in Bristol, where police have acted violently and lied about the extent of injuries inflicted upon them by the protesters.
Online the hashtag #KillTheBill has been used extensively, leading to a debate about the ambiguous language. I've seen people pleading with protesters not to use such a phrase because it could be misunderstood as referring to the police.
I've seen people delighting in the ambiguity. I've seen police officers in high positions lamenting the fact that police officers they know have died in the course of their 'duties' and appealing for a different use of language. One high up officer described being a police officer as a difficult job, as if being part of the oppressive state is actually work. It isn't a job; it's a role. It comes with dangers because oppression will naturally pit you against the people.
Of course, the British like a good pun. We also have a rich history of dark humour. The fact that people are protesting about a Bill going through parliament and 'bill' is slang for cops is a rich opportunity for punnage, irony and dark humour. Dark humour invites people to judge the joke and either choose to laugh or be offended. Choose wisely as there is a flip side to this coin. Your choice will be noted by those around you and in turn you will be judged for your sense of humour.
The first protest I attended was in London, at the back end of 1994. The Criminal Justice Bill sought stricter rules around raves, even restricting the number of beats per minute a track of music could go up to before a party was shut down. The establishment were worried about the impact on young minds, particularly as people seemed to attend these events and then consume drugs. Imagine. The Conservative government couldn't tolerate the fun being had. So they legislated to stop the right to party.
In 1994, the Bill going through parliament would also curtail trespass rights, just like the current one. I remember the placards on the protest I attended. "Kill The Bill" was the phrase most commonly used. There was also disorder. A large London protest saw people attempt to scale the gates at Downing Street. The protest I attended was not allowed to go past the Prime minister's residence. I remember getting close and seeing for the first time in my life a row of riot police at the ready.
So, let's be clear. Everyone using the hashtag is aware of the connotations. A minority of hardcore protesters might even take it literally and delight in the killing of cops. Most though are using it to highlight the problems with the police and the problems of the bill passing through parliament. They are linked and the slogan works to link them. It's dark humour, get over it.
I don't see any valid limit to protest. While we are not totally free, all protest is legitimate. I do not advocate all forms of protest, however. It really depends on circumstance and it's not my decision; protests sway democratically in their tactics. What form a protest will take is for those present to decide, but often it is dictated by the policing of the event. When the police turn up for violence, the protest ends inevitably with violence. Any legislation restricting protest is wrong in principle. The police have enough powers already. They not should be given more. #KillTheBill ■
Jon Bigger, Anarchist Writer.
Originally hosted on Jon's Journal.
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]