On 30 March, the fourth #KillTheBill demo in Bristol went ahead peacefully. Although police were present, they kept their distance. The result? No violence. Coincidence? Absolutely not. It demonstrated that tooled-up riot cops inflame and inflict violence. Not the other way round. “It is clear”, campaign group Sisters Uncut says, that it’s “police who turn protest into violence”.
As momentum gathers around the UK to challenge the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB), it’s time to confront not only why the police don’t need any more powers, but also to fundamentally question the entire basis of an institution rooted in systemic racism, sexism and violence.
The PCSCB plans to increase police powers to clamp down on the right to protest. It also threatens to attack and criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities even further. Introduced on 9 March, it passed the second Commons reading on 16 March. This came only days after police threatened women around the country with £10k fines if ‘legal vigils’ to honour Sarah Everard and highlight violence against women continued. A serving Metropolitan Police officer’s currently charged with Everard’s murder. But this didn’t stop Met officers violently attacking women who did go to Clapham Common to protest.
The bill was always going to face strong opposition from activists and campaigners, but the Met lit the blue touchpaper in terms of mobilising even greater collective challenges.
A week of action led by Sisters Uncut showed the true power of protest, forcing a delay in parliament. But the draconian threats of the bill haven’t gone. And if there was any question about what increased police powers might look like, just ask the hundreds of people violently attacked and injured by cops in Bristol across three recent Kill The Bill (KTB) demos.
The mainstream media and other establishment forces have gone into overdrive to gaslight protesters since 13 March. Countless headlines misleadingly reported that police ‘clashed’ with protesters in both Clapham and Bristol. There’s no ‘clash’ when cops with batons hit unarmed people. The general media response is textbook victim-blaming against protesters.
Headlines also accused Bristol protesters of ‘attacking’ and hospitalising police with ‘broken bones’ on 21 March. These accounts were fuelled by official police statements and egged on by home secretary Priti Patel calling protesters ‘thugs’. These ‘accounts’ subsequently turned out to be false.
Eyewitness accounts, meanwhile, totally contradict most mainstream media narratives. Phoenix Media Co-op has spoken to some of those whom the police battered with batons in Bristol. Many needed hospital treatment. We’re also aware of several young people who have faced police violence in their homes after false identification and accusations of ‘violent disorder’.
Also fuelling the mainstream media stance is an establishment apparently intent on justifying police brutality. On 31 March, reports emerged that an allegedly “independent, objective, evidence-based inspection” review into policing at the Clapham Common vigil insisted the Met’s response wasn’t “heavy-handed”. The fact that most women there went to honour Everard and highlight wider issues of police violence and violence against women seemed irrelevant. And when it comes to systemic racism, there’s even more reason to challenge our entire policing and penal system.
‘Vigil’ or ‘protest’?
Everard’s shocking murder became intrinsically linked with protests against the policing bill. But we need to draw a vitally important line under seeking ‘permission’ to protest as the spectre of the PCSCB looms. The establishment may want us to liaise with police and negotiate carefully marshalled routes with agreed start and finish times. But this fundamentally misses the point. True change won’t come from liberal, middle-class white people politely holding placards and then retreating to comfortable suburbia. Effective protest challenges the status quo and is inherently disruptive. At its heart, this is what the PCSCB threatens.
In 2020, following global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, police officers were investigated for taking pictures near the dead bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman – both Black women. That it took a young white woman’s murder to rally people around the country to action says it all about white privilege. We also need to think carefully about the language we use to define collective mobilisation.
“Why is it,” asked gal-dem‘s Diyora Shadijanova, “that when an event is dedicated to a horrific death of a white woman, it’s presented as a vigil, but when people gather to mourn Shukri Abdi, some will only ever see it as a protest?” A point also reflected by writer Jason Okundaye:
When the perpetrator is the state or a violent man, every vigil is a protest and every protest is a vigil. There can be no hierarchy of whose public grief is legitimate and worthy of protection and empathy.
— Jason Okundaye (@jasebyjason) March 14, 2021
“Routine and systemic violence perpetrated by the police”
Mobilisations led by Sisters Uncut to protest “against routine and systemic violence perpetrated by the police” shifted the narrative about women’s experience of violence and police brutality; and it led to nationwide mobilisations to oppose the PCSCB. As the group explained:
Recent research by the Prison Reform Trust found that survivors reported being repeatedly arrested by the police despite their partner being the primary aggressor.
With increasing cases of domestic violence across the country due to the ongoing pandemic and a criminal justice system that only increases violence, Sisters Uncut say that the right to publicly protest state and interpersonal violence is more important now than ever before.
Many women, and their allies, took to the streets to Kill The Bill and continue to do so. Speeches and marches at protests continue to highlight violence towards women and the importance of protesting to challenge this. What’s equally important is highlighting the continual police violence and harassment towards Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and GRT communities.
Say their names…
In 2020, images of a police officer killing George Floyd sparked BLM protests around the world. Floyd’s murder showed that, although UK police don’t carry guns, you don’t actually need one to kill someone.
BIPOC people know only too well that the colour of your skin has a massive impact on the violence and harassment you face from the police.
In the UK, we also have a tragic roll call of BIPOC deaths in police custody. Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner, Smiley Culture, Julian Cole, Mark Duggan, Dalian Atkinson, Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, Jimmy Mubenga, Sarah Reed, Trevor Smith, Mzee Mohammed-Daley, Roger Sylvester. Investigations are currently underway over the cases of Brian Ringrose and Simeon Francis, who also died in police custody.
Disproportionately bad treatment of BIPOC community
Between 1990 and 2020, 1,781 people died while in police ‘care’ in England and Wales. Of those, 14% were BIPOC. (The 2011 census suggested that 14% of the population in England and Wales was BIPOC, but if some previous projections play out in the 2021 census, this percentage will be higher.) However, INQUEST notes a disproportionate use of restraint, force and “mental health-related issues” in these BIPOC deaths, stating:
people of black, Asian and minority ethnicity die disproportionately as a result of use of force or restraint by the police, raising serious questions of institutional racism as a contributory factor in their deaths.
It doesn’t end there, though. Because Black men are reportedly “nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white men” in England and Wales. Meanwhile, Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. There are also huge discrepancies in custodial sentences and remand. A Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) report investigating policing during BLM protests concluded that:
The police disproportionately used excessive force in black-led protests, against black protesters.
The excessive use of force used during the BLM protests in general and against black protesters in particular, reflects wider problems of police racism.
Policing by consent?
UK policing theoretically operates under a ‘philosophical’ system known as “policing by consent” dating back to 1829. In 1956, historian Charles Reith claimed this derived “not from fear but almost exclusively from public co-operation”. According to the Home Office in 2012, this concept also “refers to the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state”.
He also completely undermined the concept of policing by consent, claiming the police are “crown servants not public servants”.
This isn’t news. It confirms what too many people already know, having experienced police harassment and violence. But it really does highlight that our policing system is out of date, out of touch, and needs to go.
Defund the police
For many people, the big priority and challenge right now is to stop the PCSCB from passing into law. But behind that, many are also calling to ‘defund the police’. This echoes similar calls during BLM protests in both the UK and US. Other groups put forward compelling arguments that even this isn’t enough, though, saying the current police system needs to go entirely.
In 2019-2020, policing costs in the UK stood at over £18bn. Defunding the police is a radically simple idea that proposes diverting these funds “into non-policing forms of public safety and community support”. As activist Mariame Kaba explains:
The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.
This model isn’t about “abandoning our communities to violence”. Instead, it aims to make police “obsolete”. Kaba continues:
We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.
We can build other ways of responding to harms in our society. Trained “community care workers” could do mental-health checks if someone needs help. Towns could use restorative-justice models instead of throwing people in prison.
Conservative-led austerity since 2010 has decimated vital services. YMCA research established a 70% (nearly £1bn) real-terms decline in funding for youth services from 2010/11 to 2018/19. Sisters Uncut continues to fight because, since 2010, refuge funding cuts mean onein two survivors now get turned away. Cuts have also slashed funding for mental healthservices and housing, while forcing record numbers of people to turn to food banks.
In short, the PCSCB landed within a perfect storm. And police brutality did nothing to calm the situation.
‘Good’ v ‘Bad’ protesters
How much did it cost to send eight police forces to ‘deal’ with around 200 protesters in Bristol? Because when police violence batters people, it’s not surprising that more people question the police’s very existence.
But it’s also vital that we challenge the dangerous concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ protesters, or that a certain type of protester ‘deserves’ police violence. A medic at the Bristol KTB demo on 30 March pointed out that sitting down because that makes you look peaceful is actually more dangerous, and standing up doesn’t mean you’re violent. It’s also time to call out the dangerous Extinction Rebellion-led policy of police liaison. Not only is this an insult to all BIPOC and GRT communities – it doesn’t work and only leads to increased surveillance.
It’s time to challenge the systemic racism, sexism and violence of the entire policing institution. In the face of a bill that seeks to give them even more power, this has never been more important.
The last Bristol protest highlighted that police initiate violence. Testimonies from countless young people battered by batons for the first time in previous demos back this up. So too do the families of those killed by police.
At the time of writing, at least 36 KTB protests are planned across the UK. As this movement and collective action grows, our voices rise ever louder because this is what democracy looks like and we won’t be silenced.
Main article image used with permission