Bristol Rallies for “Last Legal Protest”

Billed as the last legal protest, hundreds turned out for Bristol’s 15th Kill The Bill demo and march. 

The protest today (Saturday, January 15) saw around 600 Bristolians protest alongside 24 other towns and cities including Bath, Edinburgh, London and Manchester. 

The demo began at 1pm on College Green with speeches from representatives of Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate, Bristol Defendant Solidarity, Bristol Peace Vigil and Drive to Survive amongst other. 

Speakers also included Cleo Lake, Lawrence Hoo (who received a round of “Happy Birthday” as it was his birthday), long-time activist Diana Warner and Rhian Graham of the Colston 4. 

Rhian Graham speaks to the crowd on College Green. Image: James Ward.

The demo comes as The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill nears its final voting stage in Parliament. With a Conservative majority and a lack of opposition from Labour it looks set to pass.

The Bill will give police sweeping powers to clamp down on protest, including deciding when and where protests can take place and arresting protesters for being noisy or annoying. It has been condemned by civil liberties groups like Netpol, Liberty and the Good Law Project. 

The Bill would also severely impact Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities by making a crime of trespass with intent to reside in a vehicle. As authorised traveller sites are increasingly shut down by local authorities, the Bill would effectively outlaw the GRT lifestyle. 

From 3.45pm, protesters marched through the city centre. 

From the start the march was a chaotic affair with half the crowd setting off before the other, resulting in two separate marching columns. 

As it processed along St Augustine’s Parade the crowd soon spilled out of its neat column, subsuming both sides of the road and the pavements as well, weaving amongst cars on the gridlocked streets. The crowd was a wave, sometimes flowing, sometimes stalling and all the while pulsating to the beat of the samba band. 

The march had a friendly atmosphere for the most part, with a mix of ages and entertainment provided by the bands, hula hoopers and a gaggle of clowns.

Protesters flooded the road and spilled onto the pavements as they moved through St Augustine’s Parade. Image: James Ward.

At 4.30pm, in scenes reminiscent of last year’s protests, the march stopped outside Bridewell Police station. Already as protesters approached, police drew in reinforcements for their officers on the ground and formed a defensive line across the front of the station building. 

After 15 minutes the crowds, presumably to the relief of the police, moved on, arriving back at College Green just after 5pm where some people continued to block the road at the bottom of Park Street whilst others danced to the band.

A large crowd can be seen walking toeards
The crowd approaching Bridewell Police Station. Reminiscent of protests last year, today the mood remained positive. Image: James Ward.

The protest, and the others across the UK come as resistance to the PCSC Bill finally reaches wide public attention. Today, news broke that four Labour MPs plan to defy the whip to vote against the Bill, Labour having told its MPs to abstain. 

Protesters at today’s demo expressed their alarm at the Bill and the extent to which it will erode our rights to protest. 

Cleo said that she was ‘shocked’ when she found out how much was contained in the Bill, which deals not only with with protest and trespass but sexual assault and punishments for damaging statues, too.

Cleo believes that lots of people would want to know about this Bill, but that there is not enough said by the media. 

Another protester Kate said that ‘it’s terrifying to think that one day very soon we might be able to be literally thrown in jail for standing up for our rights.’ 

Her friend Alec said: ‘Protest, civil disobedience, activism: it’s brought us so much progress that we just otherwise wouldn’t have had. It’s what society uses to make itself better.’ 

Kate (left), Alec (right) and their friend Sophie. Image: James Ward.

Although aware of the risks the Bill poses should it pass, today’s protesters were resolute that they will not be deterred from protesting. 

Alec said: ‘It’s a scary prospect, but what’s the alternative?’ 

Even before passing, the PCSC Bill has been undermined by several recent high profile court cases in which activists have been acquitted by juries. The Colston 4, XR activists who glued to a train in 2019, and Palestine Action activists have all been found not guilty by juries after the defendants employed legal defences based on the necessity and moral justification of their actions. 

There is no question that Bristolians will continue to take to the streets should the Bill pass. Good people resist bad laws and if history has taught us anything it is that good people win in the end. 

The crowd prepares to march from Colllege Green. Image: James Ward.

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