Protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) took place across England and Wales on 3 April 2021. Most demonstrations passed by uneventfully. But as one participant told Phoenix Media Co-op, the Metropolitan Police engaged in aggressive tactics against protesters in London.
Police across England and Wales seemed to take a mostly hands-off approach to the national day of #KillTheBill demonstrations. Even Bristol, which had been the site of confrontational policing during past #KillTheBill protests, finished with little police aggression (although one journalist said police charged late in the night and snatched a protester who claimed to be a medic).
But the story was different in London. There, eyewitnesses said the Met (whose actions at the vigil for murdered woman Sarah Everard were crucial in igniting the #KillTheBill demos) assaulted and kettled protesters. Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to one person there on the day – who wished to remain anonymous – and found out more.
Positive atmosphere didn’t last in London
The protester said that the #KillTheBill demo began with a good atmosphere despite a heavy police presence from the outset. There were “at least 10 police riot vans” around Hyde Park, the protest’s meeting point, and more “police vehicles… parked on the surrounding roads”. That didn’t stop the gathering from maintaining high spirits though:
The atmosphere was positive and spirits were high. There were a lot of people from various groups and different campaigns, information stalls and even free water and hot food were being distributed. Music was also being played from portable speakers and there were groups who also had drums.
But that didn’t last. As journalist Damien Gayle reported, police drew batons and “fought with protesters” following an incident with a McDonald’s delivery lorry:
Police have drawn their batons and fought with protesters at the #killthebill protest.
— Damien Gayle (@damiengayle) April 3, 2021
The mood changes
The protester told Phoenix Media Co-op that this was the moment the mood of the day turned:
a police officer, who was in a line with other officers in front of a McDonald’s delivery truck, snatched a flag from a protester… [who] was forced toward the line of police and [the officers] responded by pushing and hitting him and [he] was knocked unconscious by one of the police officers.
The eyewitness explained that other protesters took the unconscious man to safety, but that police continued fighting with the crowd:
The police maintained a line on the road and kept pushing protesters back. This became more aggressive, and protesters subsequently pushed back. A scuffle broke out and police officers retaliated by swinging punches and then used batons against anyone who came close to them.
They said police ultimately used “CS spray” on the crowd, leaving “protesters, journalists and even some officers… clenching their faces in agony”. The London Anti-Fascist Assembly said this and other aggressive tactics left a “large number of injuries” among the crowd.
Reasons for arrest
The Met issued a statement, saying:
as the afternoon wore on it became clear that a small number of people were intent on remaining to cause disruption to law-abiding Londoners. Despite repeated instructions from officers to leave, they did not and, amid increasing levels of disorder, arrests were made.
The Met didn’t deny initiating aggression.
The protester, meanwhile, told Phoenix Media Co-op that some officers on the ground seemed to think differently from the statement above. After arriving at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, for example, they claim to have heard a senior officer telling other officers:
they needed to make ‘as many arrests as possible’ and to use ‘Covid as an excuse if need be’.
As the Met stated, it ultimately arrested 107 people in connection with the London #KillTheBill demo on 3 April. Most of these were for alleged “breach of the peace; violent disorder; assault on police and breaches of Covid legislation”.
However, as the Guardian reported, this figure also included two legal observers, whose role is to monitor police behaviour at protests. Human rights group Liberty described these arrests as an “intimidatory tactic to deter protest”. The protester speaking to Phoenix Media Co-op also described it as a “major red flag”.
Weaponisation of time
When the government chose to delay the next stage of the PCSCB’s passage through parliament, some quarters declared it a “victory for protest”. But it might be better to see it as a way of defusing the energy the protests built up. Nina Power, whose partner Alfie Meadows was brutalised by Met officers in 2010 and left with brain damage, aptly described these types of tactics as the “weaponisation of time”.
The question then that hangs over the next few weeks is whether the #KillTheBill demos will maintain their momentum or just peter out? Following the national day of action on 3 April, the next appears to be on 17 April, suggesting a slowing of momentum. But the threat of the PCSCB continues to loom. The protester told Phoenix Media Co-op that they believe, with “a lot of work”, the “protests and overall campaign can sustain itself – it has no choice but to”.
Main article image and body images via Aidan Frere-Smith