‘One of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen.’ Eyewitness accounts of police violence in Bristol.

A policeman in riot gear

On 23 March, people peacefully gathered on College Green in Bristol in the latest #KillTheBill protest. This ended in what protesters called “brutal” violence when riot police using police dogs and horses moved in on just 200 people.

“They turned up in their riot vans and surrounded us”

People gathered to raise awareness of the trespass aspects of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This has devastating implications for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, giving police new powers to criminalise and threaten everyone with a nomadic lifestyle. These new trespass laws also criminalise homeless people and restrict people’s rights to access the countryside.

Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to people who attended the protest. Their eyewitness accounts tell a very different story from the official police statement or mainstream media reports. Those on the ground spoke of heavy-handed police tactics and violent arrests, that were totally disproportionate for a peaceful protest. Avon and Somerset Police admit that they deployed “public order officers from Avon and Somerset, British Transport Police, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Dyfed Powys, Gloucestershire, Gwent and Wiltshire” to deal with “around 200” protesters. They also said “14 people were arrested for offences including breaches of COVID-19 legislation and obstruction of a highway”.

One protester said:

They turned up in their riot vans and surrounded us. They said in their statement that they warned people, but they didn’t give people any time to move at all. If they did, it was about two minutes – three max.

They came into the crowd in a really tight line,  full riot gear,  just smashing people with shields, kicking people, pulling people. Everyone was just sitting down; they pulled people off the ground, kicking them, assaulting them, hitting them with shields. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen. They used police horses and dogs – which were biting people – to push people down a side street.

“It’s absolutely disgusting”

The protester explained that this behaviour “continued into the night”, as police pushed people “into two different locations”.  During this time, they said:

Some people tried to reason with them [the police]. Others just shouted ‘we’re peaceful protesters’. On one side of the street, they charged at people who were lying down.

“It’s really important to point out”, they stressed, that this “was a really nice, calm protest” to raise awareness about “one of the most racist and classist parts” of a bill that also plans to criminalise protests. They continued:

Before the police waded in… it was a really lovely atmosphere to inform people about what’s going on.

I just can’t fathom how the police thought that was an appropriate response to people sitting down, strumming guitars, singing music. It’s absolutely disgusting.

“Tooled-up riot cops”

Another protester told Phoenix Media Co-op that, by about 10pm, “hundreds of riot cops” surrounded protesters while a helicopter flew overhead with a searchlight. “The police had massive numbers”, they explained, “so they could have easily made arrests” without violence; but instead, they brought in “horses behind their line” and then charged forward “trampling on some people at the front”.  This protester later (at about 2am) saw “around 200 cops” for 20 to 30 people; and at this point “they also used horses to lead the charge”. They continued:

It was just a complete waste of police resources. There was nothing to justify using that force at all. It didn’t need tooled-up riot cops and horses to push the remaining people down the hill.

Those present understand that one person was hospitalised after being “hit on the head by either a shield or a baton” and know of at least one person who sustained injuries from police dogs.

Evidence has since emerged that police also arrested, or threatened to arrest, journalists. Meanwhile, a BBC  journalist apparently deleted a tweet acknowledging that protesters were peaceful before the police showed up.

Were police actions really “necessary”?

Those on the ground said police actions felt like intentional “revenge” following Bristol protests on 21 March. As Phoenix Media Co-op‘s Glen Black reported, what happened there was also widely misreported by the mainstream media (and by both left- and right-wing commentators).

Avon and Somerset Police claimed they used hundreds of officers (from eight forces around the country) and “specialist police dog units, horses, the National Police Air Service and a police drone unit” to deal with around 200 peaceful protesters because:

After the scenes of violence witnessed in the city at the weekend it was necessary to bring in additional resources from our neighbouring forces to ensure the protest was safely brought to a swift conclusion.

The police force claimed it was ‘enforcing COVID-19 legislation’.

“The police are drunk on power”

The new policing bill also seeks to give police more powers, and to criminalise peaceful protest. Since it passed its first reading in parliament, people have taken to the streets. Emotions have been high since violent arrests at a peaceful vigil in London to honour Sarah Everard. The fact that a serving Metropolitan Police officer currently faces murder charges has done little to help ease tensions. As campaign group Sisters Uncut said, “the police are drunk on power and should not be granted more”.

“I think”, an eyewitness told Phoenix Media Co-op, “that this is the start of a long struggle against the police, not just in Bristol but for all of us around the UK. The police have shown what will happen if given unprecedented powers by the new bill. So I think that will put a lot of fire into the movement [against the bill].”

There were already genuine fears that we’re heading towards a police state. It now seems we’re already there, before the bill has even become law. But the challenge to #KillTheBill is far from over.

Main article image used with permission