For the third time in less than a week thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Bristol last Friday to oppose the controversial police and crime bill, which many fear will criminalise the social movements and vibrant, alternative cultures that have made the West Country city such a hub of resistance to the government.
As the grey rain clouds over Bristol’s crumbling, graffiti-scrawled Georgian streets and tower blocks gave away to cool spring sunshine, a diverse crowd of mainly young people assembled on muddy College Green, starting point for so many of the city’s demonstrations over the years, including the Black Lives Matter march that toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston last June.
“I’ve got my all rights from protest,” said Ellen Healy over chants and the buzz of a police helicopter. “As a young lesbian, I owe everything I have to protesting. Taking away protest is taking away human rights.”
There was little sign that the movement was losing momentum despite a week of largely negative headlines and mainstream denunciation. “Bristol is the Portland of England – I used to live there so I know,” said another protester, Pomona Lake, referring to the liberal city in the US state of Oregon. “It’s small and quite chilled but it’s got morals, and if you get us angry we will do something about it.”
As the night wore on, riot police forcibly dispersed another large sit-down protest outside Bridewell police station, half a mile away. Ten people were arrested and footage circulating online appeared to show a journalist and protesters being hit by truncheons and shields.
The latest confrontations took place metres away from where violent clashes first broke out last Sunday, after the first “kill the bill”march, with more protests planned for coming days and weeks. Shocking footage of a burning police van led to almost universal condemnation from politicians including Priti Patel, Keir Starmer and the Labour mayor of the city, Marvin Rees.
Yet a week later protesters believe their side of the story of that momentous night has still not been fully told. Avon and Somerset police originally announced that 40 of its officers had suffered injuries. Most seriously, it said that two had suffered broken bones, and one of them also had a punctured lung. Yet by the end of the week, the force had admitted that this was not true.
What is still not known is how many in the crowd were injured. A first aider on duty during the demo told the Observer that he personally treated six protesters, including people with bleeding head wounds, serious bruising and eye injuries. The first aider, who asked not be named, said he was also struck repeatedly with a baton. “I told the policeman I was a first aider but he continued beating me,” he said. “I had to go to hospital and I now need weeks of physiotherapy.”
Worse was to come in the view of the protesters. On Tuesday the city’s large community of van dwellers and travellers set up a protest camp. The policing bill will introduce a new criminal offence of living in a vehicle without a landowner’s consent and will give the police more powers to remove roadside encampments. Riot police cleared the camp in the evening and arrested 15 people for allegedly breaching Covid regulations.
Although no arrests were made for violent offences, many witnesses told the Observer they had seen people being struck by shields and pushed over while they were walking away from the camp.
The city’s former lord mayor, Cleo Lake, who is the Green party candidate for Avon and Somerset police commissioner, has called for an independent inquiry. “There’s been a complete shift from the policing we had last year [during the BLM protest in the city] to the policing we have now,” she said. “We need to look at it in the round. We’ve heard about the police that were injured – and nobody wants anybody to be injured – but we haven’t heard about how many protesters have been injured.”
An NHS worker on duty that night told the Observer that no officers were treated in the hospital designated for the police, whereas the hospital designated for protesters was inundated with injured people. The worker, who also asked not to be named, said: “Over the course of the night the hospitals that were taking protesters filled and the hospital taking police did not see a single officer.”
Avon and Somerset Police said officers used force on Tuesday after protesters refused to disperse in spite of being told they were flouting Covid rules. The force added that officers were abused and attacked on the Sunday protest. Superintendent Mark Runacres said the crowd threw items including bottles and bricks at officers on Friday. “Officers repeatedly encouraged people to disperse but once the atmosphere changed and people became physical, it was necessary to take action,” he said.
For many in the city, the bill feels like a direct assault on their hard-won rights and alternative ways of life – at a time when lockdown makes it much harder for people to make their voices heard. An estimated 200 to 400 people live in vehicles in Bristol, making it one of the largest communities of “van dwellers” in the country.
While some of these are artists and musicians who enjoy the freedom of life on the road, many are low-paid workers priced out of homes in the city. They include people who want to live in a low-impact, more sustainable way as well as homeless people escaping life on the streets.
Yet there are growing fears that Bristol’s van dwellers may be hounded from roads and laybys under the proposed powers in the bill.
Rhiannon Craft, co-founder of Vehicles for Change, which represents van dwellers in the city, said they had no choice but to take to the streets over the bill.
“Many of us feel we’ve got to protest because otherwise our way of life is going to be completely outlawed. It’s our last hope – our last resort. What else can we do?”
The number of young people living in vehicles is thought to be increasing as rents remain high. Michael Truesdale, who lives in a Transit van, said he was worried he might lose his home if the bill is passed. “I live in a van and I’m worried that soon I won’t be able to – I’ll be getting fined or imprisoned just for doing it,” he said. “But I would never have got into this lifestyle if rents weren’t so unaffordable for people like me.”
The bill contains measures that will have a direct impact on movements that have been nurtured in the city, such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. The bill will allow the police to impose far-reaching restrictions on protests, such as maximum noise levels and start and finish times. The home secretary will be able to define the point at which a protest becomes seriously disruptive, when the police can intervene.
While XR did not organise the recent protests, many of its supporters joined the marches. Colin Davis, a professor at Bristol University who has been part of Bristol XR since its beginnings, said there was a great deal of concern in the group. “The bill has been drafted to outlaw the kind of disruptive protest that is our modus operandi,” he said. “But we need disruptive protest because we are sleepwalking into catastrophe.”
The bill also contains a new offence of damaging a statue, which could have landed the BLM protesters who pulled down the Colston statue with 10-year sentences. Lake said a generation of young people in the city had experienced the power of collective action during the BLM protests last summer and saw the bill as an attempt to prevent it ever happening again. “Like it or not, they feel they made worldwide change last year,” she said. “Their right to protest like that is under threat, so of course they are going to challenge it.”
Lake, who grew up in the city, added that Bristol valued the right to protest, which stretched back into its history. “I’m a woman of dual heritage. I’m black. I’m white. I was taken on demonstrations by my white mother from the age of about six in Bristol – it’s always been there,” she said. “The city has a revolutionary, creative spirit.”
One of the city’s foremost scholars of modern urban riots, Roger Ball, a research fellow at the University of the West of England, said Bristol wasn’t unique but a culture of resistance had built up there over the past 20 years.
“There is a culture of protest here that goes back to the 2010 student protests,” he said. “In this city people are much more likely to take direct action, such as blocking roads. The pulling down of the Colston statue is a good example. They solved in 20 minutes a problem that had been around for 100 years.”