Riot police advance along Wine Street

Opinion: Bristol Deserves the Truth from its “Leaders.”

On the evening of March 23, as protesters on College Green were being brutalised by police, “City Leaders” were composing a statement condemning the former and praising the latter. 

In the statement, released on March 25, 22 self-styled ‘City Leaders’ join to condemn the “violent disorder” of Sunday, March 21, the night of the riot outside Bridewell police station, and go on to confirm their “complete confidence in the approach taken by Avon & Somerset Police” that night. 

Ostensibly written by the communications agency Social, a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request shows that the writing of the statement was in fact led by the Bristol City Office, headed by Andrea Dell. 

The emails between Dell and City Leaders released in the FOI show how the statement was written initially in response to the March 21 riot, but quickly became tangled with the protest on College Green on March 23, which was entirely peaceful. 

On March 22, the day after the Bridewell riot, Dell emailed the City Leaders to say that the purpose of the statement is “to signal unity, condemn what happened and demonstrate the widespread support for our Police colleagues from the city’s leaders.”

Another email from Dell on March 23 – sent at 19:06, by which time protesters were settled on College Green – includes a draft of the statement and a comment from Dell: “we may need to adjust slightly dependent [sic] on the outcome from any activity this evening.”

By March 24, a final draft of the statement was circulated amongst city leaders by Dell. This draft contains the line: “we stand together in condemning Sunday’s [March 21] violent disorder and further disturbances this week.” By this time, only two protests had occurred, meaning that “further disturbances” must refer to the College Green protest of March 23. Timeline

TIMELINE OF THE STATEMENT
>March 21: riot outside Bridewell police station
>March 22: Andrea Dell drafts the statement with City Leaders
>March 23: peaceful protest on College Green from early afternoon into evening
>March 23: at 19:06, Dell circulates a draft of the statement, noting that it may change “dependent on the outcome from any activity this evening”
>March 24: Dell circulates a draft statement referring to “further disturbances this week”
>March 25: the final statement is published with the reference to “further disturbances” removed

The final draft also contains the line “we have complete confidence in the approach taken by Avon & Somerset Police,” suggesting that City Leaders had complete confidence in the approach taken by A&S Police not only during the Bridewell riot, but also during the College Green protest of March 23. 

By the time the statement was released publicly on March 25, the reference to “further disturbances this week” had been removed and with it reference to the policing of the College Green protest. 

TBA has contacted Ms Dell to ask why these words were removed, and whether it has anything to do with the nature of the policing at the College Green protest on March 23, which was condemned widely at the time, and later by a cross-party Parliamentary group who found that A&S Police used “excessive force” that may, in some cases, amount to “criminal offences against the person.”

Ms Dell has not responded to requests for comment. 

If A&S Police acted illegitimately on March 23, it is not unreasonable to question whether they did so on March 21.

Following the release of the cross-party Parliamentary group report on July 1, TBA contacted each of the City Leaders* to ask if they still had complete confidence in the approach taken by A&S Police in the policing of the March 21 riot. None were willing to comment. 

The City Leaders who signed the March 25 statement are unelected, largely unknown to most Bristolians, and operate, as the FOI makes clear, behind a veil of secrecy. 

They have the power to determine public opinion, and yet are seemingly unwilling to be held accountable for their views, even when evidence mounts that they may have been misguided in offering uncritical support to A&S Police. 

Five people have already gone to prison for their role in the March 21 riot. Many more have been charged and prepare to stand trial in the coming months. In the most serious cases, where defendants are charged with riot, they face sentences of up to ten years.

There is substantial evidence that A&S Police overstepped the mark on March 23, with the cross-party Parliamentary group report giving credence to earlier claims by protesters of “revenge policing,” and Bristol Cathedral supporting protesters’ claims of having been traumatised by the policing they faced that night. 

Similar attention has not been paid to the policing on March 21. If A&S Police acted illegitimately on March 23, it is not unreasonable to question whether they did so on March 21. And if they did, the riot is cast in a whole new light in which both sides share responsibility for an escalation of violence. 

Until our leaders are able to honestly seek clarity on the role played by A&S Police at both the March 21 and March 23 protests and their responsibility for the violence that ensued, their claims that Bristol, as “a city of hope,” will “continue to move forward as a city together” will be made a lie.

*At the time of contacting, James Freeman, John Hirst and Sue Mountstevens no longer held the roles they did when signing the Statement and were accordingly not contacted for comment.

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