On Saturday 1 May, thousands of people demonstrated against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) in at least 39 cities across the UK. The national day of action against the PCSCB was the biggest show of force so far.
There have been at least 12 mass demonstrations against the PCSCB in my home city of Bristol. Resistance began on 21 March, when thousands of Bristolians turned out to protest the Bill. When the police attacked the demonstration with horses and batons, people defended themselves. The resultant anti-police riot saw people laying siege to the police station and setting alight three police vehicles.
It’s been inspiring to see people taking back the streets, and defying the police state.
The demonstrations on May Day may have been the biggest so far nationally. But history shows us that we’re going to need more than just numbers if we want to succeed.
The #KillTheBill movement is the third mass street movement aimed at challenging state policy that I’ve been part of. The first two – the 2002-3 movement against the Iraq War and the 2010-11 movement against student tuition fees – were heroic failures.
The challenge now is to imagine how the movement against the PCSCB can be different.
The anti-war movement
Being part of the anti-war movement at the start of the 2000s changed my life; it was the first time I’d really engaged in radical politics. I met comrades back then who I still organise with now. Our local anti-war group in Brighton had meetings where, for a while, over a hundred people regularly turned up. On the day war began, I and fellow workers walked out of our workplaces and students climbed through windows to escape classes and join a mass demonstration aimed at bringing the city to a standstill. By the end of the day, angry protesters were trashing Brighton’s town hall.
But the million strong marches in London, the local direct action movements that occupied town halls and military recruitment centres across the UK, the actions at the offices and factories of arms companies, and the thousands of us who tried to disrupt the warplanes taking off from US bases, weren’t enough. They couldn’t shake the Labour government’s stubborn resolve to support US imperialism in using violence to open up new markets for Western international capital in the Middle East.
As much of the institutional left (ie. left parties and mainstream trade unions) – who had dominated the anti-war movement – channelled its energy into setting up a short-lived new political party, I joined anarchists and other radicals in trying to build a militant anti-militarist movement aimed at hitting the profits of the private companies fuelling the war machine and benefiting from US/UK imperialism.
In 2010, I remember exactly where I was when news came through that student protesters had smashed their way into the Tory HQ at Millbank and occupied the roof. By then I had been organising for a decade against US and UK militarism in the Middle East and in solidarity with the uprisings in Palestine. By 2010, I was feeling despondent at the decline of the anti-militarist movement, and what felt like a lack of a real fightback against state austerity politics . The news of those smashed windows lifted my spirits, and I’m sure the spirits of countless others. It was a sign, showing that people were ready to take risks, and fight.
The 2010-11 movement against the Tory-led Coalition’s increase in tuition fees, and cutting of Education Maintenance Allowance brought tens of thousands onto the streets again. Demonstrators clashed with police in London, and rioted in London’s West End, even surrounding Prince Charles’s limousine as he passed by on his way to the theatre. Students suffered severe injuries from police batons. But the strength of the movement didn’t stop the government from tripling student fees.
Of course, there have been plenty of other UK street movements before and since. But the anti-war and student fees movements are two examples of national level organising in the UK’s recent history. Although they failed at their stated aims, they shaped the politics of many new radicals. And they inspired the birth of new ideas and political movements.
The institutional left played a large part in both movements. And both were quite centred on London, although the anti-war movement had a much firmer local grassroots base.
An interesting beginning to a new nationwide movement
The movement against the PCSCB began at an interesting point in history. In March 2021, as the resistance to the Bill kicked off in earnest, the UK was in the midst of a Coronavirus lockdown. Our organising was necessarily local. And the #KillTheBill demonstrations have mostly remained focused in local areas, rather than being built around demonstrations in London.
Covid-19 put a temporary stop to a lot of national-level radical organising in the UK, and refocused a lot of attention to the hyperlocal level. Thousands of mutual aid groups were set up nationwide as a response to the pandemic. In my area of Bristol, street level groups were set up to support people who were shielding. Many of us had high hopes that these groups would begin to fill a broader function as local mutual aid structures . Unfortunately, a lot of these groups are now much less active. But some of the relationships and infrastructure, like street level WhatsApp groups, still exist.
Other more resilient projects were born too. In Bristol, the local anarchist social centre set up a mutual aid food distribution network, delivering food boxes and free meals across Bristol. This project is still going, regularly distributing food to hundreds of households on the basis of solidarity. Similar projects like Reading Red Kitchen, Cooperation Kentish Town and Cooperation Birmingham have stepped up during the pandemic, organising to meet people’s needs at the local level.
When folks rioted in Bristol against the PCSCB, and against the the violence of the police, although we were part of a national movement, the demos felt local. Resistance in Bristol had its own momentum, which was fuelled by the subsequent occupation of the city by an army of riot police in an attempt to stamp out the radicalism that was seen on 21 March.
Remembering the lessons of the pandemic
As the #KillTheBill movement continues to gather national momentum, we need to stay rooted at a local level and see our organising against the PCSCB as just one part of building up grassroots radically democratic power as an alternative to the repression of the state.
We need to continue our efforts to meet people’s daily needs in our communities, and continue to build a base of support in our streets and neighbourhoods. Not focusing on single issues, but presenting a holistic critique of modern nation state capitalism, and visualising a radically different world. If this movement against the PCSCB becomes just about stopping a piece of legislation, then we’ve already lost.
At the Mayday demonstration in Bristol, demonstrators gathered outside Bridewell police station, the place which has been the scene of many clashes with the police since March. Some of the police station’s windows are still boarded up
Mayday demonstrators set up a sound system outside the doors of the police station, and sang songs about resistance. Several people got up on the microphone and spoke about the police killings of people of colour, about deaths in custody and about the need to abolish the police.
This kind of radical message was something that was often sorely lacking in past mass national mobilisations. Mobilisations where conservative forces like the leadership of mainstream unions often enforced a liberal message.
These radical messages are a sign that our movement is still truly grassroots; they are something we need to cling on to, and not allow to be diluted.
The current movement against the PCSCB has already come with sacrifices. Comrades in Bristol and elsewhere are facing serious charges as a result of the resistance so far; two people are on remand in prison. We need to support those experiencing repression, and carry on their struggle.
Last year’s focus on hyperlocal mutual aid movements has strengthened our radical movements in the UK and we need to build on that strength as we struggle against the PCSCB. Nationwide organising is important, but it needn’t take us away from our local networks.
This article is part of a series of Shoal Collective articles about the lessons that can be learned from the mutual aid responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Our next article will take a deeper look at how hyperlocal organising can fit into a nationwide mass movement.