This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the legacy of Bristol’s Kill The Bill movement one year after the first protest. You can read part 1 here.
Protests continued weekly throughout March and into April. Following the appalling events of March 21 and 23 both protesters and police were wary of one another, and although relations thawed over time there were still occasional confrontations.
These later protests saw participants grapple with who they were and what they stood for as a movement. Some demos became open discussions between hundreds of people in a crash course of self-organising.
Internal divisions and loosening coronavirus restrictions meant that people’s commitment to the protests waned over the course of the year and by the summer Bristol’s Kill The Bill movement had all but disappeared.
Protests continued throughout the first half of 2021. After the darkness of March 21 and 23, later protests in March and April were far more sedate and attracted a wider range of protesters, showing the depth of resistance to the Bill across all sections of society.
In reporting from these protests, The Bristol Activist met nurses, teachers, youth workers, social workers, students, parents and grandparents – all united in defence of basic human rights.
One protest on April 3 stood out for its frivolity, with plenty of music and colour, and a six-foot puppet of Priti Patel’s head.
Cracks were already showing, however, in Bristol’s budding Kill The Bill movement, between those who preferred mass participation marches and demos as a means of attracting as wide an audience as possible and those who wanted the protests to be explicitly anti-police, even at the risk of excluding other protesters.
At the April 3 demo, after the main march had ended and most people had gone home, a smaller group of protesters continued to march into the evening, ultimately as far as the M32 junction, causing major disruption to the motorway.
A protest in mid-April became a full sit-down discussion as individuals took turns addressing the crowd to debate the relationship the movement ought to have with the police. Some called for greater dialogue, hoping to appeal to the humanity of officers who might personally object to the Bill. Others stuck to a harder “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) line, seeing Kill The Bill as intimately tied to issues of police violence and the carceral state.
For all the goodwill of some protesters, just two weeks later the police made it clear that they were prepared to use heavy-handed tactics whenever they chose.
A Kill The Bill march on May 1 ended outside a squatted building on High Street after a peaceful march around the city centre. At this point 40 riot police arrived and pursued protesters along Wine Street and into Old Market. In a comical end to the night, some four dozen police were left pursuing around half a dozen protesters.
Another challenge that emerged during this time: self-organising during a pandemic, when organising a demo could land you with a £10,000 fine.
Protests were instead called online by the sharing of posters on Instagram accounts, leaving the originator untraceable. Whilst this method had the advantage of secrecy, it caused tensions within the movement as those not included in the right networks didn’t know about upcoming protests and missed them.
For all its power to grab headlines, Bristol’s Kill The Bill protests never managed to morph into a lasting movement. Protests remained symbolic and the anger against the Bill was never distilled into a defining identity that could push for meaningful change.
As spring turned to summer, the increasing relaxation of covid restrictions and the improving weather meant that Kill The Bill was now competing with people’s understandable desire to see friends and family. Turnout for subsequent protests suffered accordingly, reaching a nadir on May 29 when just 40 people joined a protest, a fraction of the thousands who participated in protests in March and April.
Bristol’s last Kill The Bill protest came in January 2022. Billed as the “last legal protest” around 600 Bristolians took to the streets to reinvigorate the fight against the Bill with a rally on College Green and later a march through the city centre.
With coronavirus restrictions gone, the January demo was the most well organised protest yet. Unfortunately, this only confirmed the issues that hindered Bristol’s Kill The Bill movement from its onset. A lack of clear organisation, a split identity and an absence of strategic goals (other than the obvious, and yet still fairly nebulous, “kill the bill”).
Bristol’s year of Kill The Bill protests offers a case study of mass protest, of wins and losses, dos and don’ts. Was it a campaign to stop the Bill, or was it a more general campaign against police repression? Was it a mass movement, open to all, or was it a closed group of more hardcore activists? What was more important, decentralisation and secrecy, or mass appeal and public outreach?
Looking backwards these are largely academic questions. Looking forwards, they are more important than ever.
Kill The Bill was always an uphill battle with the odds overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill passing. Bristol’s continued resistance shows that when the Bill passes it will be opposed, but precisely what that opposition looks like, and most importantly whether it succeeds, will depend on whether we can learn the lessons from the past year.
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