Bristol has seen three major protests in the space of a week in defiance of the Police and Crime Bill, which threatens to curb the right to peacefully protest. As reported from the scene by the Cable and others, each protest has been different, with different crowds and stories of how events unfolded.
Following the peaceful protest that developed into a riot on Sunday 21 March, responses from local politicians and candidates in May’s local elections generally roundly condemned the actions of some protestors and expressed full support for the police’s actions.
However, differences have emerged from those seeking election in May in response to the forceful breakup by police of peaceful protests later in the week. Following the first demonstration on Sunday, on College Green on Tuesday 23 March and outside Bridewell police station on Friday 26 March riot police used shields, batons and fists to strike sitting protestors. Friday’s protest then developed into serious clashes with horse and dog charges by police and fireworks, rocks and other projectiles being thrown by some protestors.
Videos documenting the incidents have attracted global attention, prompting concerns or calls for inquiries into the protests and policing by some candidates. The police have apologised to members of the press that were forcefully confronted by officers this week, but have defended the use of force as proportionate to enforce coronavirus restrictions.
With the local elections around the corner, here is a round up of how local candidates and politicians up for election in May have responded following Friday’s protest:
Note: Some statements have been partially quoted due to length. Full statements are linked in the text below.
Mayor Marvin Rees
Responding to events on Friday 26, in a statement released on Saturday 27th March, the Mayor said: “The violence on our streets is unwelcome. Of particular concern are the number of people travelling into our city to protest or to cause conflict.” The statement did not cite the source of this information.
Along with the city’s four Labour MPs who have voted against the Bill in parliament, the mayor has consistently expressed his opposition to and concerns about the authoritarian Police and Crime Bill. Rees said “The question those engaging in the action should be asking is: is what I am doing advancing the cause I claim to be campaigning for? Many people protested peacefully but there are a number who refuse to go home and others who are here merely to cause conflict.” He added that the actions of some protestors had been “politically illiterate and strategically inept” in effectively opposing the Bill’s passage through parliament.
Rees did not directly reference videos that showed police using violent force on peaceful protestors and journalists. Rees did allude to the fact that other forces had been involved in the operations, stating that “Avon and Somerset Police in Bristol have shown they are capable of managing protests well and with sensitivity and have developed a strong culture of working with our communities. The numbers of people coming to Bristol mean more police have had to be brought in from neighbouring constabularies.”
He added that “This makes it more difficult to drive the culture we have been building over recent years. Our local leadership have a difficult job and they have the highest standards to maintain. We know they will review some of the incidents that occurred last night and ensure those standards are upheld.”
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In an interview with BCFM radio on the 29 March, Superintendent Mark Runacres, who led the operation on Friday, stated that police had liaised with the Mayor’s office about policing of the protest on College Green on 23 Tuesday.
Runacres said: “we spoke to people at the council, in the Mayor’s Office, we spoke to the Director of Public Health, to assess what would be the appropriate and necessary response. And it was decided collectively, that it would be necessary to move people from College Green, because there were concerns around the public health risk that that gathering would bring. We had concerns about how that encampment could grow if it went unchecked,”
Riot then police encircled the camp and forcefully removed the sitting protestors using shields and batons.
As spokesperson for the mayor said to Bristol Live, “It’s good practice that the police consult before events and the views of public health and other partners is important in achieving a common understanding of how to manage public events in everyone’s interest.”
“However, only the police can determine police operations,” he added.
16 Labour councillor candidates
In contrast to the mayor’s statement, 16 Labour candidates standing to be councillors at the local elections on 6 May have released a statement condemning the use of police force, and have called for an independent investigation following Friday’s protest.
The candidates said: “We are deeply concerned about the videos circulating on social media which appear to show police using excessive force against protestors” adding that“of particular concern are the reports of multiple journalists being intimidated and in some cases assaulted by the police”.
The statement continued “We condemn all violence. These scenes are chilling and should be of great concern to anyone who cares about civil liberties, regardless of views on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill or the demands of the protests”.
Kerry Barker, Labour Police and Crime Commissioner candidate
Mr Barker has not released a formal statement on the events, on Saturday 27 March, he tweeted “People who have followed me or who know me, will be aware that I have called out violence whenever and by whoever it is perpetrated. Unlawful violence whether committed by protesters or by police officers can never be tolerated.”
The Green Party
Bristol Green Party issued a statement in response to the week’s events, jointly signed by Sandy Hore-Ruthven (candidate for Bristol Mayor), Cleo Lake (candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner) and Jerome Thomas (candidate for West of England Mayor).
The candidates expressed opposition to the Police and Crime Bill, saying that “This authoritarian Conservative Government is trying to silence any opposition to their plans.”
The candidates said “we know that the vast majority of individuals present have conducted themselves beyond reproach: protestors, police officers and media.
“We condemn those few rioters who couldn’t control themselves and undermined the cause they claim to support – defending peaceful protest.” adding that damage to police property or violence towards officers “must be investigated fully and perpetrators brought to justice.”
Referring to police actions, the candidates said “We also know that most police officers have had to tread a very difficult path – most have managed it, and we are grateful to them and support them fully. But sadly, some officers appear to have failed the test. The police need to investigate quickly and ensure justice is served. We have been appalled by the use of defensive riot shields to batter people sat peacefully on the ground. Reporters too have been targeted – a free and Independent press is another pillar of our democracy and must not be silenced.”
Cleo Lake, the Green Party Police and Crime Commissioner candidate has issued an additional statement in response to the week’s protests and policing. Lake said: “Our Police seem unable to recognise that it is their duty to prevent violence, yet numerous videos are circulating showing them arresting journalists and using force on peaceful protestors.”
Expressing support for the protests against the Bill, Lake has called for “an urgent meeting between police and protestors to agree guidelines for future demonstrations” and reiterated a call for “our Police to commit to an independent inquiry into their actions so we can all learn from what has happened.”
In joint statement released on Saturday 27 March, Lib Dem candidates Heather Shearer (candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner), Stephen Williams (candidate for candidate for West of England Mayor), and Caroline Gooch (candidate for Bristol Mayor) said “we agree with the protestors that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill the Government are trying to put through Parliament is draconian and severely restricts people’s civil liberties.”
“We recognise that the police were trying to handle a very difficult situation, but fear they made some poor judgement calls. We have seen violence from a minority of protestors. However, the response by police officers was disproportionate and excessive, which is also unacceptable. We do not condone violence of any kind, from either side, and we question the necessity of moving people on when they were sitting down in the open air.
There should be no reason to attack protestors, and certainly no reason to detain or lash out at journalists, who were performing a vital democratic function in their reporting.
We call for an inquiry into how the policing this week has been handled, and call for the government to withdraw their freedom trampling Bill.”
John Smith, independent Police and Crime commissioner candidate
Smith said, “I understand people’s serious concerns about the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – I share some of them myself. I also understand people’s desire to express that concern through protest. However, all protest must be lawful and peaceful.
“Thankfully, that is possible now that the Government have relaxed the COVID-19 regulations and I continue to strongly urge the organisers to engage with the police to ensure the safety of everyone – the protesters, the police and the general public. Planning protests with the police – routes for any march, expected numbers, timings and other details – is crucial to ensure any protest goes off without violence or unrest, and it also discourages the small minority who have non-peaceful intentions from attending.
“Where there are concerns about the police’s approach to the policing of these protests, these should be investigated fairly and transparently, and if elected, I would ensure that this happens if it has not already.
“However, as a city, we need to find a way to break the pattern that has been established over the last few protests, and I believe that engagement between the police and the protest organisers is key. Bristol is a diverse and tolerant city, and we need to show that to the outside world.”
Local Conservative Party candidates have not yet formally issued a statement on Tuesday or Friday’s events.