Bea, a 19-year-old student, and her uni friends were among the protesters who attended the “kill the bill” protest in front of the cathedral on College Green in Bristol on Sunday afternoon.
They had been warned that they would be breaking Covid restrictions if they turned up, but were nevertheless among up to 3,000 people, many of them in their late teens and 20s, who peacefully made clear their disdain for the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.
Later, as darkness fell, Bea (not her real name) watched on aghast from her flat as New Bridewell police station in the centre of the city was besieged by hundreds of protesters, most angry, some violent.
“It became very clear that the people there were those using the protest as an excuse to be violent towards the police,” said Bea. “The rioters did not care about the original reason behind the protest.”
By the early hours, 20 police officers had sustained injuries, one suffering a punctured lung after being stamped on. Protesters hurled missiles at officers and the police station and daubed anti-police graffiti on it. Twelve police vehicles were damaged, two set on fire. One person defecated at the foot of a police officer standing guard outside the police station. The cost of the damage and the investigation into the riots is expected to reach £1m.
Demonstrators, too, suffered injuries as Avon and Somerset police defended the police station and eventually cleared the streets. Police used riot shields, batons, pepper spray, horses and dogs to keep the rioters at bay.
“The rioters do not speak for us peaceful protesters, who simply want to keep our rights to protest and freedom of speech,” Bea said. “The riot will most likely help the new bill to pass.”
The violent scenes were widely condemned by police chiefs and politicians, who depicted the protesters as thugs and criminals. Andy Marsh, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, said the demonstration was “hijacked” by “extremists”. Bristol mayor Marvin Rees called the riot “selfish, self-indulgent and self-centred”, with people living out their “revolutionary fantasies”.
But there is another side. Bristol has a long, proud history of protests and riots. NHS worker Connor, who passed New Bridewell on his way to work as workers scrubbed away the last of the graffiti on Monday, was one of many who refused to condemn the troublemakers.
“I work with poor, marginalised people and this bill will affect them most. A lot of the people here last night were poor, angry and have nothing. It may have looked like brainless, mindless violence, but this is what happens when people are desperate. As we get closer to becoming a police state, more stuff like this will happen. It was an expression of something very real, very true, very deeply felt.”
Deri Smith, a 22-year-old student, was there on Sunday night, watching the riot unfold from next to the old fire station opposite, though he said he did not take part. He, too, had sympathy for the rioters. “Given that the first-past-the-post system doesn’t work, our only form of democracy left is protest. And now they’re trying to take that away.”
Another student, 19, who asked for his name not be used, was caught up in the violence. “I now know how terrifying it is to be rushed at by riot police swinging batons, charged at by horses, threatened with dogs,” he said. “No wonder people fought back against the police.”
A Bristol entrepreneur in his 40s said he was bitten by a police dog. He tried to remind a police officer that the right to protest was “ingrained into our democracy for 800 years and was a central tenet of the way it operates”, but alleges the officer simply drew his baton and threatened him.
From the Bristol Bridge riot of 1793, against local tolls, to the St Paul race riots in the 1980s, the people of Bristol have always been ready to come out and make their point clear. And of course last summer the city made headlines when a Black Lives Matter protest culminated in a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston being hauled down and thrown into the harbour.
Cleo Lake, a Green councillor, said Bristol was often at the forefront of social movements. “It’s easy to blame the rioters, but in our hearts we know the situation is more complex,” she said. “Bristol has a strong history of protest and dissent. If I were police and crime commissioner, I would be asking for the police to conduct an internal inquiry into the policing of this shocking event.”
Martin Booth, the editor of the independent media outlet Bristol 24/7, said protest is “ingrained in the psyche” of Bristol people. “This was a protest about the right to protest,” he said.
Booth was struck by how low-key the police presence was on College Green and as the demonstrators marched into the city: “There were about five or six officers on bicycles and three or four outside the police station in the afternoon.” As night fell, there were lines of police officers outside Bridewell and police horses. “It was very much a game of two halves,” he said.
During last year’s Colston protests, Avon and Somerset police were criticised for not stepping in to prevent the statue from being removed. This time they are under fire from some quarters for both allowing the protest to go ahead in the afternoon despite Covid restrictions, and from others for allegedly overreacting during the riot. A police spokesperson said: “We have had no formal complaints relating to injuries caused by police at the protest at this time.”
Marsh described Bristol as “a city of wide political opinion, which means it can be a city of protests”. He said policing protests was complex. “A mob, a gathering, a protest, whatever word you want to use will look for a trigger point. Last night there was no trigger we could have avoided. Those people came here to commit crimes and assault the police. Full stop.”