(Photo: @EpigramPaper/Lucas Arthur)
Riot police showed up in force to break up a peaceful sitdown protest on College Green at 10pm last night, battering protesters with their shields.
This is the second time riot police have been deployed on Bristol’s streets in a matter of days, but these were very different scenes to that of the protest and riot on Sunday. Next to no resistance was put up by protesters but police used significant violence to disperse the crowd of about 200 people.
Up to 100 police from seven different forces were on the scene with dogs, horses, two helicopters and a drone to forcefully disperse around 200 protesters, stating that they were enforcing coronavirus restrictions. Having warned that Covid-19 regulations would be enforced, videos show the officers had surrounded the Green on three sides and advanced in on the sitting group. Fourteen protesters were arrested, no officers were injured. An unknown number of protestors were injured.
One of the protesters, Lucy* said the emphasis had been on it being a peaceful occupation to protest the elements of the Police and Crime Bill that target travelling and van dwelling communities.
“They just came in with a helicopter and forces from all sides and blocked off all the roads. One young girl just got picked up and thrown to the ground, I saw another man just being dragged out and arrested,” she told the Cable.
“They just came out of nowhere, the helicopter started coming over and then all the police vans came and then they just started running in.” Videos show police using batons, shields and fists to strike protestors who are sitting down. Some shouted “this is a peaceful protest” and later chants of “the whole world is watching”, “shame on you” and “this is what a police state looks like” started up.
While reporting at the scene, Cable reporters Adam Cantwell-Corn and Alon Aviram were physically confronted by an officer. Despite press credentials being clearly visible and identifying themselves as journalists, the officer proceeded to shove the reporters and threaten arrest and use of force.
A senior commander then stepped in and told the officer to stand down and stated that the Cantwell-Corn and Aviram could continue reporting unhindered. Avon and Somerset Police have today issued a formal apology to Cantwell-Corn and Aviram for the behaviour of the officer from Wiltshire police, who had been called in to provide extra force to Avon and Somerset . An Avon and Somerset spokesperson said “It was not acceptable for them to be spoken to in this way when they were entitled to be at the scene and were clearly identified as accredited media.
“The officer was spoken to about his conduct on the night and a message reiterating the importance of allowing the media the freedom to report on event was relayed on the night to all officers by a senior commander.
“Although it was not an Avon and Somerset employee, all officers were there under our command and we expect them to reflect our values.
Another protester, Robin* came off the Green looking shaken. She said the group had been sitting down for two to three hours singing songs. “Then out of nowhere the riot police all just turned up and surrounded us.
“Everyone stayed sat down, stayed singing, but then we had to stand up cos they were literally trampling people, they were hitting people on the head. They hit a girl on the head, she was on the floor crying and he was crushing her with his shield.
“They literally walked in and started crushing people. They didn’t say a thing to us. They didn’t give us any chance to communicate.”
Protesting for the right to roam
The occupation, which started at 4pm, was to protest the criminalisation of trespass that the Police and Crime Bill will bring in if introduced into law. The increased restrictions around trespass are bundled into the same Bill that also restricts the right to protest. The Bill plans to amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to make residing on land in a vehicle without consent a new offence and strengthen existing police powers in dealing with unauthorised encampments, lowering the threshold at which they can remove them and stop them from returning for 12 months. Campaigners and activists say these provisions would criminalise nomadic ways of life, including van-dwellers and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, demonstrators emphasised the need for the protest to be peaceful and the majority of it was spent sat down, listening to speeches and poems, and singing. Free food was being given out and people were litter picking.
The Bill follows the publishing of the results of a consultation on ‘strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments’ earlier this month. Various forces around the country, the National Police Chiefs Council, and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners responded to the consultation. They said that existing police powers to deal with unauthorised encampments were already strong enough and that the best way to deal with the number of unauthorised encampments is to build more legal sites.
Earlier in the day one of the protesters, who was walking around the group, picking up litter, told the Cable: “I grew up as a Traveller, my parents lived in a bus. So [coming here] is kind of a no brainer. It’s something I feel very passionate about”.
“A lot of the Travelling community don’t have that luxury [of legal council provided sites]. They are moved on regularly, hounded by the police and councils, so this would be yet another problem, yet another obstacle that they would have to overcome.”
Anti-racism charity SARI, who coordinate the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller voices group GR8+ and the GRT strategy group said: “SARI is extremely concerned about the potential impact of this Police and Crime Bill as it stands. We believe that in its current form, giving these additional powers and responsibility to the police is bound to detriment Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, including vehicle dwellers.
“We anticipate it will fuel malicious complaints by rogue landowners who will use the police to get free evictions rather paying for civil eviction which allows for a fairer and more due process. Sadly it will present opportunities for people with anti-Gypsy/ Traveller sentiments to make malicious allegations and evoke formal action where it’s not needed.
“While we have many officers locally who are determined to work with us to not allow these new powers to be abused we fear there will be officers fuelled by people’s malicious complaints and compelled to act disproportionately and unnecessarily.”
Chief Superintendent of Avon and Somerset Claire Armes said: “Officers had engaged with protestors and asked them to disperse, but tents and a sound system were set up so it was abundantly clear they were intent on remaining at the location, in spite of legislation in place to protect public health.
“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.
“Throughout the operation officers continued to urge protestors to move on – at no time were they contained – but there came a time when enforcement was necessary as gatherings are still not permitted.”
A spokesperson of the protest said: “Tonight we peacefully protested the anti-trespass bill. The protest never became violent, but we were brutally attacked by riot officers while we sat peacefully on the ground.
“Throughout the day people from the protest were liaising with police and at no point did they make it clear that they wanted us to leave, or even that we were going to be endangering riot officers descending on us.”