This is part one of a two-part series looking back on one year of Kill The Bill in Bristol and asking what lessons can be learned and what questions remain unanswered. Part two is available here.
On 21 March 2021 Bristol experienced its first, explosive protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.
One year on 12 people are in prison and dozens more bear scars of the police violence meted out that night and at subsequent protests. The Bill itself is on the brink of passing into law, changing the nature of protest as we know it.
Over the last year Bristol has hosted 14 Kill The Bill protests, and protesters have grappled with the intricacies of self-organising during a pandemic, relationships with the police, and hostility from public figures.
For all the blood and hype, questions remain over the legacy of what Bristol’s Kill The Bill movement actually achieved. Questions linger too over the responses of public figures in the city, so ready to condemn protesters and yet silent in the face of police brutality.
March 21: thousands took to the streets in the very first Kill The Bill demonstration, the largest demonstration since the Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020, during which the statue of Edward Colston was torn down.
After an afternoon spent marching through Bristol in defiance of the Bill, protesters gathered outside Bridewell police station from 5pm. The protest so far having been entirely peaceful, demonstrators were surprised to find police awaiting them in riot gear.
Over the next three hours the situation escalated as police used batons on protesters and called in first mounted police and later dogs to intimidate sections of the crowd who were not directly engaging with police.
From 8pm protesters targeted the police station by breaking windows, and set two police vehicles alight. A third vehicle was targeted with a fire but this was extinguished by officers before it took hold.
In total, 86 people were later arrested and 42 charged by police in the weeks following what was quickly branded a riot. Of those charged, 12 have been sentenced to prison for durations ranging from 9 months to 14 years.
The official narrative is that it was the protesters who turned violent. The lazy middle ground holds that there was violence on both sides. The fact is that only one side came prepared with batons, pepper spray and attack dogs.
During the trials, the presiding judge has been keen to highlight the trauma inflicted on the police, uncritically parroting the testimonies of police. No mention has been made of the trauma inflicted by police on protesters, nor the fact that dozens of protesters were injured whilst police claims of broken bones and punctured lungs were found to be false and were later retracted.
And although the judge argued that the actions of protesters “dehumanised” the police he left unanswered the question of whether the police dehumanised protesters by setting attack dogs loose on them or battering them as they cowered on the floor.
Bristol’s public figures were quick to condemn the riot, calling it “shameful” and “politically illiterate”. Any hope for a nuanced conversation about police repression was immediately stifled although it was briefly rekindled during the trial of Ryan Robert – eventually sentenced to 14 years – who attempted to explain to the jury the need to defund the police.
Given what was to come just two days later this absence of meaningful debate about the causes of the riot becomes even more regrettable. If March 21 was a glimpse into life under the PCSC Bill, March 23 was like walking into a fully-fledged police state.
March 23: around one hundred people gathered on College Green for a peaceful sit-in against the sections of the PCSC targeting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, sections that would outlaw the GRT way of life.
At 10pm, a dozen police vans screeched onto College Green deploying 200 riot police from multiple police forces who stormed the protest camp, violently evicting those inside.
Many protesters sustained injuries on College Green due to officers’ indiscriminate use of batons and shields in what was widely seen as vindictive policing, retribution by the police for the events of March 21.
Despite the manifest evidence of police brutality, Bristol’s establishment gave its unequivocal support to Avon & Somerset Police. On March 25, 22 “City Leaders” published a joint statement in which they proudly acclaimed their “complete confidence” in A&S Police. Freedom of Information requests have since shown that the statement was being circulated and drafted even as protesters lay bleeding on College Green.
Later in the year, a cross-party group of MPs published a report finding that A&S Police’s behaviour on March 23 was based on a misinterpretation of coronavirus restrictions in place at the time, that their use of force was unjustified and that tactics employed by A&S Police in some cases amounted to “criminal offences against the person”.
No apology has ever been issued by A&S Police and none of the City Leaders has ever retracted or altered their statement supporting the police. The Bristol Activist contacted each of the signatories but either received no reply or was told that no retraction was planned.
In July, the Dean and Reverend Canon of Bristol Cathedral did issue a statement validating a number of complaints protesters made about policing on March 23. However, their statement stopped short of explicitly criticising the police.
The first two Kill The Bill protests in Bristol confirmed exactly what critics of the PCSC Bill have always said: the police don’t need any more power.
The response further confirmed that public institutions as they stand cannot be trusted. When push comes to shove, politicians will unquestioningly side with the police, even in the face of evidence the latter made grievous mistakes.
Read part two of this series here.