Photo: Alon Aviram
This article was updated on 15 April to include new data from police monitoring network Netpol on protester injuries.
Alex* was one of the protesters sat outside Bridewell Police Station on the afternoon of Sunday 21 March, before the protest escalated into a riot. The atmosphere was relaxed, almost jovial, he tells the Cable, and remembers the officers in front of them assuring the seated protesters the police weren’t going to “run for” them. “It all seemed fine.”
Later, around Cabot Circus, Alex says two protesters ran and hit the police shields, but he and big group around him responded by moving away and sitting down, to make it clear they were being peaceful. He says the police sprayed them with pepper spray, and when Alex started to stand up, he was hit hard on the head by a truncheon, then trampled as he lay curled up on the floor. The police were kicking him and telling him to stand up, but he recalls: “I was pretty scared so I was just in a ball.”
He ended up very bruised, with blood pouring from his head and all over his arms. Someone walked him to the hospital where it took several stitches to close the wound.
Alex is one of the thousands of protesters who have, over four protests in the past week, been demonstrating against the new Police and Crime Bill, which would give the police unprecedented powers to suppress protests, conduct stop and search and police trespass more aggressively. People at protests on Sunday 21 March, Tuesday 23 and Friday 26 have since come forward saying they’ve suffered excessive force at the hands of police. Injuries include heavy bruising and deep cuts from being knocked to the ground, being kicked once they’re on the floor and beaten with riot shields and batons.
While the first, mostly peaceful protest, on Sunday 21 March ended in a riot outside Bridewell police station, with windows smashed at the police station and police vehicles set on fire, the following two protests, a sit-down occupation of College Green and Friday’s protest in the centre, were peaceful until being broken up with considerable force by riot police. After the protest ban was lifted on 29 March, as Covid-19 restrictions were eased, a fourth protest on Tuesday (30 March) took place with minimal policing and no move to forcibly disperse protesters.
‘I was pretty shocked and really scared’
Two police officers ended up in hospital after Sunday’s protest-turned-riot. Initially Avon and Somerset police said they had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung, a statement they later had to retract.
Police monitoring network NetPol revealed that at least 62 protesters were injured during the protests in March, seven of which required treatment. Three people reported being punched or physically assaulted by police hands, seven reported being bitten by police dogs, and 22 received head injuries.
People have shared stories of being knocked to the ground and then hit, trampled and kicked while on the floor, having their phones knocked to the ground, their knees kicked at repeatedly while they sat, being hit with batons and shields.
Yann was filming in Broadmead on Friday night when he says he was forcibly separated from his bicycle, pushed to the ground and then kicked by at least two police officers. “I was pretty shocked and really scared,” he says.
Another was hit hard on the head on Friday, ending up with a cut across their right eyebrow and a large gash on their head. “My ears immediately started ringing very loudly. I felt incredibly dizzy and I fell, knees first, onto the metal sign that lay behind me.”
Another said they were “absolutely shocked” by scenes at Friday’s protest: “People sat on the ground were beaten in the head with the ends of shields or the truncheons of several officers at once. They were hitting people into walls, holding them there with their shields so other officers could beat them. And police dogs were being set on people who had done nothing wrong.”
“I saw people getting hit from behind, one guy with his hands in the air, was hit from behind and then when he was on the floor he got beaten by four officers!”
The Cable spoke to Steve*, a youth worker with first aid training who has been at the protests to keep an eye out for vulnerable people who might need support: younger, older, unwell, disabled, “and in the last days, people who are getting actively assaulted by the police”.
Steve is one of many people who because of their professions hasn’t been able to take part in the protests during coronavirus restrictions. Social workers, youth workers, nurses and doctors have instead been staying at the sidelines, coming in to give first aid to injured protesters, he tells the Cable. He points out that some medics have been assaulted by police as well as journalists.
He tells us about a young autistic man (not the man caught on video telling police he was autistic three times before being battered by police), who was at the front of the police lines on Friday with his hands in the air. Steve tells us the man had been trying to get people behind him to calm down when he got a shield to the chest and was knocked to the floor. When he tried to get up he was knocked to the floor again and hit his head. “He was quite traumatised. He couldn’t get up for quite a while,” says Steve. He says he saw one of the officers smirk when a bystander pointed out the injured man and that the officers told them to move or they’d make them move, “which is quite intimidating coming from people in armour holding shields and big sticks!”
In another instance, Steve found another man with a “very serious” head wound from a shield who was being patched up with a sanitary towel and a bandage. He’d been knocked to the floor and then “had a shield to the head” and later went to A&E. A few times Steve was thanked for his efforts by passing police as he was fixing someone up. “I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s a bit hollow thanking someone for attending someone attacked by your colleague.”
In an interview with BCFM, Superintendent Runaces said shield strikes are a legitimate tactic public order officers are trained to use, though it may look “unsightly and shocking to some”.
Cuffs on, cuffs off
On Monday, Tom Courtiour received a panicked call from his family after six police officers came to look for him at his family home. Tom went to the police and found himself being arrested, charged with “setting fire to a police car, assaulting a police officer and other offences”.
“I laughed!” he tells The Cable. “I had been at the first protest on Sunday, peacefully, and left well before it got dark.” But incredulity soon turned to fear as he was placed in the back of the police car and officers searched his van. He was released shortly after; one of the officers decided he didn’t look like the person in the photos.
The police continue their search for those behind the protest, with arrests (25 so far), on suspicion of violent disorder, arson or assault. But other reports of wrongful arrest based on mistaken identity have been reported to the Cable.
Last Friday morning, Katie McGoran, a second year photography student at Bristol University, says four plain clothed male officers and one dressed as a postman – burst into her room, handcuffed her and arrested her for “violent disorder.”
“I was shrieking, crying and having a panic attack but they just carried on,” says Katie, adding that police officers weren’t wearing PPE and hadn’t read her rights.
“I was just wearing a short t-shirt and dressing gown, I felt very uncomfortable with five male police officers in my room.” She tells us of her fear and humiliation as she struggled to pull on some joggers with her hands cuffed. At this point, the policemen conceded they should call for a female police officer.
Finally they showed her the photo of the girl they were after. “It didn’t even slightly resemble me!” Katie says. “The girl had blue hair, different height, different piercings!” Eventually the police retracted the arrest and took off the handcuffs.
This Saturday, another protest against the Police and Crime Bill is organised. It remains to be seen if the police will repeat the hands-off approach they displayed at the last protest.
“If the police had used the same tactics on Friday [as on the 30 March], we wouldn’t have seen the same sort of injuries,” Steve points out. There would have been the “same outcome as the protest on Friday, apart from on Friday the people went home a lot more battered and bruised.”
Injury Support Bristol is asking protesters to come forward with accounts: email@example.com.