Establishment and press reaction to the events in Bristol are a brief lesson in counterinsurgency

Photos and videos of Bristol’s ‘Kill the Bill’ demo caused immediate waves in both news and social media. The city erupted into street confrontations between police and the public, with spectacular images of a burning police van and smashed up police station spreading wildly. And then a familiar chorus began, emerging from the keyboards of digital onlookers: the violence is unacceptable and undermines the cause.

Spinning a yarn

Kill the Bill protests took place across England following the 13 March 2021 Sisters Uncut vigil held to remember Sarah Everard. A serving police officer was subsequently charged with murder and is awaiting trial. Saying they were enforcing Covid measures, officers policing the vigil at Clapham Common, London, took aggressive action against the vigil’s crowd. Though their actions were broadly condemned by the public, a minority of police apologists on social media used shouting and baseless claims of attacks on officers to claim the vigil provoked the officers’ responses.

A week later, Bristol erupted. A protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that began on Sunday afternoon, 21 March, turned into confrontation as darkness fell. Witnesses at the event said police escalated a previously calm situation, and Bristol Anarchist Federation wrote that crowds remained non-combative despite repeated provocation by police. It was only after officers sent in riot police that protesters responded in collective self-defence.

However, BBC News published the counter-narrative very early on. In an article initially titled “Demonstrators clash with police” but (at the time of publishing this piece) now titled “Police attacked as ‘Kill the Bill’ demo turns violent”, BBC News promoted the claim that “a small minority” of protesters were responsible for souring the day’s mood.

This reporting swelled the ranks of police apologists, with Labour MP Toby Perkins going so far as to say in a now-deleted tweet that video of an officer repeatedly striking members of the public “looks… like entirely appropriate use of the baton”:

MP Toby Perkins tweets support for police officer striking protestor with a baton.

However, it was comments coming from some on the Left that revealed how the State attempts to disseminate control over situations slipping beyond its grasp.

Victim blaming

Social media lit up almost immediately. Those condemning the ‘violence’ of protesters did so from multiple angles. These ranged from overtly authoritarian calls for greater State aggression (some from suspiciously named accounts) through to victim blaming some demonstrators. These are obvious stances to take for the conservative minded.

However, claims that events in Bristol would push the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through faster offered a glimpse into low-level British counter-insurgency strategy. This reasoning was put forward by the general public of Twitter. But, more notably, it was quickly taken up by those on the establishment ‘Left’. Standing Mayor of Bristol, Labour’s Marvin Rees, told ITV News that “the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the Bill”. And the shadow housing secretary, Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire, tweeted full support for this point of view, saying Rees was “absolutely right”.

Underlying this is an ideology of non-violence, made explicit by statements from some higher profile left-wing and activist figures. Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, for example, appeared to condemn the actions of the Bristol public when tweeting that we should “condemn violence at protests”. Green Party candidate for Bristol Mayor, Sandy Hore-Ruthven, said that “rioters in Bristol should be ashamed of themselves”. Most disturbingly, the Bristol branch of Extinction Rebellion, the organisation that the government is ostensibly targeting with many of the new Bill’s measures, used the events to explain that XR’s “absolute commitment to non-violence” is the correct way of protesting.

And at their heart, what these people are saying is that actions that are spun by media and politicians as ‘violent’ will delegitimise efforts to “kill the bill”.

Hostile populations

In The Illegitimacy of Violence, the Violence of Legitimacy, US-based anarchist collective Crimethinc wrote:

The discourse of violence and nonviolence is attractive above all because it offers an easy way to claim the higher moral ground. This makes it seductive both for criticizing the state and for competing against other activists for influence. But in a hierarchical society, gaining the higher ground often reinforces hierarchy itself.

When the mainstream press, establishment figures and liberal activist groups condemn ‘violence’ and claim that it will play into the government’s hands, they are deploying a discourse that protects the interests of the State. The irony is palpable.

Anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos described this as a “fundamental function of counterinsurgency”, writing:

police strategists have identified the need to keep resistance movements arrested at the level of nonviolence or simple verbal dissent… treating society like a hostile population and keeping it from rising up.

The Tory government has already drafted a bill that could imprison people for 10 years for damaging statues, though this is already exposed as more “headline-grabbing” than practical. Meanwhile, the events in Bristol are neither here nor there with regards to the bill because there are already laws against what happened. Instead, the bill is about continuing to disempower people by making even non-confrontational protest illegal. The government’s treatment of society as a hostile population is clear.

It’s not a zero-sum outcome, though, and there are ways to defend against it.

Solidarity not respectability

On 23 March 2021, Sisters Uncut spoke out following the events in Bristol. The statement, which was also signed by a number of other direct action and campaign groups, concluded:

The police use violence to divide us, but we will not be divided. The conservative media attempts to paint a moral hierarchy, but we will not be forced apart.

Recognising the importance of solidarity over respectability is a crucial antidote to the State’s presence. For all its faults, social media shows that the general public also see through this despite the narrative of condemnation promoted by mainstream media, as responses to BBC News’s original tweet show.

Police nationwide are already attempting to control the narrative of future protests, saying they are preparing to “keep… communities safe” from violent protest. But the police themselves repeatedly show that it is not them that keeps us safe. We keep us safe, and sometimes that means from the police.

Main article image used with permission