While the citizens’ anger against the new Crime Bill sparked amongst the country, Bristolians lead the fight in defence of the right to protest.
By Chiara Castro: Political Editor
It was a warm evening last Tuesday, one of the first of the season. At 6 pm College Green, located at the heart of Bristol, started filling with people. Little groups were sat down on the grass, a light spring breeze and the smell of new flowers were inebriating the air. Friends enjoying the evening, while eating a pizza or kicking a ball.
If it was not for all the press standing around the park, it was look like a normal day. Although the atmosphere was heavy, everyone was waiting for the first move.
After one hour or so, a guy pushing a big speaker and a mic started to talk to the crowd. Everyone went closer. Some sat down and others standing in a circle, listening and cheering. Big placards waving in the air.
Several people from the crowd were taking the mic, using their voice to express their anger against the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that, if it is fixed into law, will criminalise peaceful protests thought to cause disruption to the community.
They were not the usual speakers that you can see in a demo alike. They were just participants willing to share their opinions and discontent.
Around 20,30 people started moving. When the march kicked off, the crowd looked bigger. Hundreds were walking across the city. There wasn’t the usual organisation, just lots of people united. Nobody knew where they were heading. Only a handful of officers were there, at the border of the parade monitoring the crowd.
After few ways around the center, the march stopped in front of the infamous Bridewell Police Station. That was the place were only few nights before a peaceful protest ended in violence, with many demonstrators injured and others arrested.
Although, Tuesday night the scene was really different of what we have seen on the covers of newspapers during the past days.
“After the events of Friday, the media are now against the police. That’s why they are allowing peaceful protests like this to happen,” said a protester who wish to remain anonymous to The Mackayan.
This was indeed the fourth time within the space of 10 days that Bristol has been raising its voice in the name of civil liberties. Many people, all united filling the streets under the chant “Kill the Bill.”
If the last rally ended with no incidents, on the Friday before the situation got sour.
“Also Friday it was a peaceful protest. What happened was the police decided to push us away and the people that were sat down they were attacked by officers with their shields. At that point people had no choice to defend themselves and strike back,” told a protestor who attended the Friday demo to The Mackayan.
“Police used unnecessary force that there was no need for, they just wanted to istigate protesters. The way the police jabbed people with their shield was disgusting,” he added, “the way that police is treating people at these protests is disgusting and it needs to stop.”
Several journalists who were there to cover the Friday events reported to be attacked by authorities. Also, footages circulating on social media showed the Avon and Somerset Police cracking down with force a peaceful sit-in. While demonstrators were handing flowers to officers, they responded with batons, shields, peppered spray, horses and dogs.
It is not the first time that Bristol become the symbol of the fight against oppression. It was less than a year ago that a BLM march made history when some protesters decided to topple down the lumbering statue of Edward Colston. That gesture initiated a wave of actions against colonial and imperialist memorials that spread across the whole country as well as around Europe and the US.
Now, it is the right to protest to be at stake. Once again, Bristolians are leading the fight.
The first Kill the Bill protest in Bristol occurred on March 21st. A peaceful demo went on for all day long across the city. There were drummers, many people of different ages, families with little kids. Although, nobody remembered its peaceful side.
Smell of burning, smog, blue of sirens, noises of helicopters: this was the epilogue of Sunday Bristol protests. In front of the Bridewell Police Station, police and protesters clashed. Many who were there told the media that it was peaceful until the police starting pushing away protesters.
The day after the news of violence filled newspapers across the country. The narrative was focused on how demonstrators set fire to two police vehicles, damaged the station and harmed officers. However, it has not been too long for the truth to surface.
The following week things changed completely. Two peaceful sit-ins were suppressed with unnecessary force by the police. Journalists have been attacked. Also the statement that the Avon and Somerset Police released after the Sunday protests, claiming that officers suffered broken bones and a punctuated lung, was retracted eventually.
While the Bristol mayor Marvin Rees condemned the protesters violence in a post on Facebook, the city representative of the Green Party Cleo Lake called for an independent inquiry over the events.
What it is certain is that the riot narrative finally crumbled. After all, who attended the protests already knew what the truth was. Now, all the eyes are watching over Bristol and its officers. Bristolians are even more willing to carry on the fight in the name of freedom. For them, for the whole country, for saving what remains of the concept of democracy.
WHY IS THE NEW CRIME BILL CONTROVERSIAL?
The infamous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Crime Bill, which already passed its second reading into Parliament, is a huge piece of regulation that would bring several changes to the UK crime and policing system. Amongst those there are: widening position of trust laws, expanded stop and search powers, increased the police power to crack down protests, harsher fines and jail time for unauthorised protesters as well as Gypsy and Traveller encampments.
More than 150 human rights organisations already signed a letter, urging the government to reconsider the proposed legislation that could bring several threats to the right to peaceful protest.
The proposed bill will indeed give the Home Secretary more powers to define a protest as serious disruption to the community. This will enable the police to crack down these non-violent but disruptive protests. It will also bring more control into the hands of the authorities, imposing condition on static demonstrations like time and noise limits.
Protesters could be charged for “causing public nuisance” with a maximum sentence of 10 years. Also, demonstrators that damage public memorial could face up to 10 years of jail time.
However, it still remains vague and open to interpretation what a “serious disruption demonstration” looks like. Plus, it seems that the police does not need any more power in their hands.
There are already some legislations providing a framework for the policing of protests. The Public Order Act 1986, for example, gives the police some power for restricting rallies that cause serious disruption to the public order.
This new bill comes mainly as a reaction of the big demonstrations occurred over the latest years. Especially, it is the civil disobedience at the core of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) tactics that the government is trying to suppress. Although, the bill does not seem to be able to serve this purpose.
As InterCardiff reported, an XR Cardiff activist said: “XR from the protesting point of view already break the law so bringing more laws to control XR isn’t going to work. They are going to carry on breaking the law because that’s what they’re doing.
“What they are doing is criminalising all the organisations that don’t break the law. They are the ones that will be criminalised. It’s silencing everybody.”
At its second reading, Labour voted against. Also from the Conservative ranks there have been some voices of dissent. Both the former PM’s Theresa May and Tory MP Fiona Bruce expressed their worries over the new legislation that could bring unintended consequences by undermining demonstrators freedom of speech.
Already with the Coronavirus Act people in the UK have seen their civil liberties deteriorate as reaction of the global pandemic. Plus, other laws revisions are expected to follow.
“They want to change the Supreme Court and also this year they want to revise the Human Rights Act,” said barrister and human right campaigner Michael Mansfield QC discussing the issue at an online event.
Although the bill was supposed to be discussed at the committee during the past week, the next stage seems now to be delayed until summer.
Whether the delay could mean that the government is listening to people’s anger or they are just waiting the right moment to finalise the legislation, Bristol is not willing to give up. The UK is not willing to stop fighting for its fundamental rights.
Next Saturday, April 3th, a national Kill The Bill demonstration will be held in several cities across the country. We can just hope that this time violence will not be the epilogue of the day.