In recent weeks Bristol has experienced numerous waves of protests, demonstrations, and riots, both violent and peaceful. These events have made headlines and captured the media spotlight because of the intense violence involved. This has come both in the police handling of them and in the actions of protesters and rioters themselves, with many police vehicles being vandalized and set on fire. At the time of writing, numerous protests are occurring across the UK, notably in Parliament Square and Bristol.
The protests (TW: Violence, mention of sexual assault)
But before embarking on why these clashes have occurred, the nature of these ‘protests’ must be demystified. In the case of Bristol ‘Kill the Bill’ some protests have developed into riots and violent clashes with police. Both sides blame the other for such escalation and the story is still developing with recent clashes and arrests occurring as recently as Saturday 3 April 2021.
As such, some conclusions cannot be made about these events until after official reports and investigations have been conducted. Because of the highly subjective and complex nature of protests and police violence, some other conclusions can only be made in loose terms.
The events in Bristol are only one part of ‘Kill the Bill’ protests occurring across the UK but they represent the most visible in the media and seemingly the most violent of these protests. Campaigning against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has been progressing through Parliament since 9th March 2021, came to the fore initially via a 3000-person strong peaceful protest in Bristol on 21 March. Bristol has been a focal point for the most violent and controversial protests with at least 40 arrests being made and continuous clashes between police and protesters since that first protest.
Instead of kowtowing the protests in Bristol have continued, albeit at a smaller scale with more limited riots and destruction also still occurring
The protest which occurred on 21 March was noteworthy in the level of violence and destruction it caused, escalating into a riot as the night progressed with New Bridewell police station enduring what was in effect a siege. This event captured not only the attention of the media but made the public aware of the bill. Instead of kowtowing the protests in Bristol have continued, albeit at a smaller scale with more limited riots and destruction also still occurring.
Damages have been estimated to be around £1 million, with graffiti, arson and other forms of vandalism being directed primarily at police property. Both sides have been heavily criticised, with that levelled at the police primarily concerning their heavy-handed way of intervening in what were seemingly peaceful protests.
Because of the developing and complex nature of this story, there are also many lies circulating. Notably, after the first set of riots, a report by the police reporting injuries suffered by officers such as broken bones and a punctured lung was made then later withdrawn. Protesters themselves have received numerous injuries and photos of bruises and other wounds caused by police batons and violence have circulated on social media.
The protests escalation into riots has been blamed as both a result of heavy-handed action by the police as well as that of thugs within the protest who ‘hijacked’ it. Scenes of burning police vehicles, police battering protesters, rioters and petrol bombs being thrown have projected the events in Bristol into the public consciousness. All this comes despite the UK being under lockdown regulations.
Use of horses, dogs and what many have deemed violent tactics by the police has turned this into a divisive and politically flammable story. But many are also citing these protests as a vindication of the upcoming bill which seeks to curb the current rights that protests, and protestors, have. Indeed, if the bill had already been made law the current protests in Bristol could potentially have been stopped and dismantled by police before reaching any sort of violent climax.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was introduced in Parliament on 9 March 2021 and has made comfortable progress through the House of Commons, passing its second reading by 359 votes to 263 on 16th March.
It is a hefty piece of legislation with the document itself containing 307 pages. Included are numerous provisions detailing harsher protest laws, notably increased sentences of up to ten years for damaging statues (this whilst the starting sentence for rape is five years).
Initial opposition to the bill was scant as the Labour Party had been in support of some of its proposals but planned to abstain rather than vote against. However, the police handling of the Clapham Common vigil on Saturday 13 March proved to be an impetus for Labour to instead vote against the bill. They have cited worries about police overreach, with many members also noting the absurdity of provisions in the bill such as the penalty for damaging statues.
[The bill] will allow noise limits and start and finish times to be set by the police
Upon becoming law, the bill would significantly alter the powers and responsibilities of the police and the home secretary in relation to protests, namely the powers and impositions they can exercise over static protests. It would allow noise limits and start and finish times to be set by the police, measures which previously could only be applied to marches. More interestingly, the bill applies these measures to protests consisting of just a single person.
Further, the bill would also mean that protests which are “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” can be deemed an offence. If the noise caused by a protest is deemed by police to cause “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity” or disrupt the “activities of an organisation”, the bill grants police the power to intervene. Currently, the police can impose the above restrictions on marches and have the power to intervene in static protests when they can show that it may lead to “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”.
Future disturbances and controversies such as those already witnessed in March may not be pacified by the bill but could be exacerbated
What is clear most of all is that clarification is needed for these vague and subjective terms. Instead, the bill could increase the already murky and often dangerous nature of protest policing. In that sense, future disturbances and controversies such as those already witnessed in March may not be pacified by the bill but could be exacerbated by what many are calling draconian measures.
Worries have even been expressed by Conservative MPs such as Steve Baker who, alongside ex-MP Dominic Grieve, wrote that the bill “may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police” and potentially granting “far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses”. Numerous human rights groups have also criticised the bill although the most vocal opposition has been on the streets of Bristol.
Questions must certainly be raised due to the clandestine nature of the bill, going through Parliament as a time of national crisis where the population is largely distracted from scrutiny of the legislature. In a recent article for Tribune Magazine, MP Zarah Sultana noted that: “New legislation is normally subject to weeks’ worth of public scrutiny before it is voted on in parliament. That has been reduced to less than a week.”
Why are the government trying to change the law?
Law-making in this area is incredibly problematic not only because of the diverse and commonplace nature of protests but because of the inherent subjectivity of the powers that police already possess and which this bill will amplify. There are also issues with the definitions of violent and non-violent protests; one person’s civil disturbance may be another’s anarchic riot.
It is an update to legislation from 1986 which Ministers say is outdated and cannot cope with the nature of modern protests
Justification for the bill is multifaceted. Various reasons have been given for the passing of this bill and the nature of its provisions. Fundamentally it is an update to legislation from 1986 which Ministers say is outdated and cannot cope with the nature of modern protests, such as those seen by Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Provisions aimed at dismantling protests which are deemed to be public nuisances and even those conducted by one person clearly have XR in mind.
The provision for damaging statues in the bill feel specifically directed at those who toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last summer. Extinction Rebellion has been notable in recent years for its highly disruptive and unorthodox methods, costing the Metropolitan Police over £37 million in 2019.
In that sense, the bill which provides for the prevention of these protests in their infancy before escalation might go some way towards preventing further violence. However, in doing so it allows the police to intervene in non-violent protests by virtue of their causing a disruption which is undoubtedly an authoritarian measure.
As the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil and the protests-turned-riots in Bristol show, it has been the actions of the police just as much as those of the protesters or rioters which have caused headlines and sparked shock. Instead of looking to the protestors maybe the police should first re-evaluate their own tactics and ideology to do with protests.