Behind the clashes in Bristol

These shocking scenes are exactly what the PCSC bill threatens to make inevitable across the country, argues Matt Hollinshead

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC) poses what is arguably the biggest threat in decades to the labour movement, socialist politics, and anyone concerned with the rights to freedom of assembly and to speech.

If passed in their current form, Clauses 54-60, Part 3: Public order will criminalise protests that disrupt the public or business for being too loud or “annoying”.  This includes the new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance”.

A protestor would be in breach for such heinous acts as “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”. They could even be charged for simply causing the risk of annoyance or inconvenience and face imprisonment for up to ten years. This is particularly chilling for any trade unionist looking to picket their employer ever again. Elsewhere, the bill even proposes sentences of up to ten years for damage to statues or memorials – twice the sentence for assault causing actual bodily harm.

Perhaps the most craven element of the bill extends the area around Parliament in which protest is absolutely prohibited. As Ann McLaughlin, SNP MP pointed out:

“We will not hear them because we are putting in an exclusion zone around Parliament so far-reaching that what they have to say—their legitimate protest—will not fall on deaf ears; they will simply be so far away that it will not be audible. They will effectively be silenced.”

I am sure the threat to our movement will already be clear to Labour Hub readers. However, it is worth spelling out that workers’ ability to picket employers or protest politicians effectively is under grave threat. Of course, this is the point: Home Secretary Priti Patel has made it clear that she thinks protestors are “dreadful”, “thugs”, “hooligans”, and “criminals”.

History of protest and police engagement in Bristol

Over the last several weeks, protests in Bristol against this legalisation and recent police brutality, under the banner of ‘Kill the Bill’, have made international news. Sadly, the main reason we are discussing them is the scale and ferocity of police repression at early protests, which have generated a great deal of noise within the left and labour movement – both in support and condemnation.

Very little of the commentary has moved beyond simple narratives around the need for ‘peaceful protest’ on the one hand and the government’s authoritarianism on the other. It is, however, vital that these events are situated in a broader historical context, and we consider the effects on the nature of protest, should the PCSC bill become law.

The first Kill the Bill demonstration was unexpectedly large. I joined around 5,000 people marching during the day on Sunday, 21st March. During the demonstration, friends of mine – also inveterate protestors from the city – commented on the police’s remarkable absence, the disorganisation of the march and the evident inexperience of the vast majority of protestors.

It was clear to us that the police had not adequately prepared for the day. This was despite the whole profession being under direct criticism from the demonstration, the enormous popular scrutiny following the murder of Sarah Everard and the public reaction to the Met’s subsequent attack on her vigil. These speculations were later confirmed by Supt Mark Runacres of Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) on local radio.

COVID-19 restrictions had created a strange legal state of exception that functionally banned protests – foreshadowing the inevitable effects of the PCSC bill. With the usual communication avenues between police and protest organisers closed, negotiation or liaison between the two was non-existent. Add to that an erratic, inexperienced and leaderless group of protestors, and it was clear on the day that things had the potential to go very wrong.

I also suspect that Priti Patel’s Home Office was putting real pressure on local forces to take a robust approach. According to an ex-ASP officer, I spoke to “[The Home Office] will have been on the phone to senior police the night before screaming at them to take a hard line.”

By the evening and once the majority of the protest had left, a smaller pocket of protestors began a sit-in around the central Bridewell Police Station. According to ASP, elements of the protest involved some vandalism which became the pretext for the police to move in with riot gear. Many protestors claim the reverse, and things degenerated from there. The best narrative reporting of the night can be found in the local independent newspaper, the Bristol Cable.

Over the last decade, the police in Bristol have developed a highly institutionalised response to demonstrations, meaning this level and intensity of policing has been vanishingly rare since the last major wave of protest in the early 2010s. Like much of the UK, Bristol was caught up in the 2010-11 student movement and anti-tuition fee protests which were met with novel methods of police repression: the widespread use of “kettling”, batons, horse charges and other riot control tactics on otherwise peaceful protests. While this strategy was replicated across the country, ASP was often amongst its most enthusiastic exponents. 

I was personally beaten with batons on several occasions during peaceful demonstrations in that period. I was never arrested and, to my knowledge, didn’t commit any crimes. Given the level of surveillance they expended on those protests, I’m sure they would have caught me if I had been stupid enough. The use of violence was a strategic choice to deter future protests, not a measure to control the crowd or prevent crime.

The following April, a botched police raid on a squat in Stokes Croft – a busy area of bars, cafes, and restaurants – led to consecutive weekends of running fights between ASP and locals. Later that summer, Bristol rioted again in the wake of the police killing of Mark Duggan. While only the first night of the Stokes Croft Riots saw the ASP routed and driven off the streets by protestors, all of these protests saw the police and protestors relatively even matched – deeply embarrassing the police.

In each case, the police escalated tensions. Whether the intent was to deter protestors and send a political message or simply poor situational judgment is immaterial -the effect was the same, and the police apparently recognised a change in tactics was necessary.

In the intervening years, ASP pulled back dramatically. Facilitation of protests became normalised, and when interventions did occur, they were limited and rarely disproportionate. This change in police attitudes accompanied a significant change in the protest tactics used in the city. A decade ago, police violence’s ubiquity meant that confrontation was inevitable and direct action became seen as an essential component of most demonstrations. 

As the police backed off, larger and less kinetic protests developed, along with the organisational infrastructure to support them – such as the People’s Assembly, ACORN Community Union, and eventually the Corbynite-led local Labour Party.

This semi-formal relationship between the police and those looking to voice dissent had a mutually reinforcing effect on the protests’ size and demographics, seeing them grow larger and with greater diversity across the board.  This reduced the likelihood of police violence and disincentivised confrontation for both parties. Even last year, ASP rightly took a non-confrontational attitude to the Black Lives Matter protests despite the toppling of the statue of Edward Coston.

What I suspect changed in the last week is that Priti Patel’s Home Office pulled the rug out from under both protestors and the police.

On the side of the protestors, lockdown restrictions threatened up to £10,000 fines for organisers. This had been seen in action several weeks earlier in Manchester, where a demonstration over NHS pay saw a 65-year-old woman arrested and fined for her part in organising the protests. Combined with the justified popular outrage at the police attack on Sarah Everard’s vigil in Clapham, this meant that while the protest was inevitable, any formal leadership and negotiation with the police was impossible.

On the side of the police, it seems increasingly likely that direct political pressure was applied to ASP from the Home Office not to tolerate protests during the lockdown.

We have seen the effect of lifting restrictions on political gatherings on the protests in Bristol in recent weeks.  This has led to much-reduced police violence. For example, on the brilliant, peaceful and vibrant protest on 3rd April, there was even a popular ‘Mums and Nanas’ block, showing their support to the protestors and opposition to the bill.

The shocking scenes in Bristol are exactly what the PCSC bill threatens to make inevitable across the country. The bill will only intensify and exacerbate more kinetic protest tactics for those willing and able, as alternatives are taken away, while pushing out those less keen on being on the receiving end of violence or prosecution.

If we want free speech on the streets and a trade union movement able to take effective action in the workplace, we must oppose this bill. The consequences would lead not only to the escalation of tensions, criminalisation of protest and the inevitable backlash, but to people not able or not prepared to risk violence and criminalisation – like the ‘Mums and Nanas’ block – being driven out of our demonstrations.

Matt Hollinshead is a socialist and trade union organiser in Bristol.

Image: Author: Toni Mayo.

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