Jasmine York was among dozens of protesters injured by police when a Kill the Bill protest in Bristol descended into violent clashes between officers and demonstrators in March 2021. She is also one of the 34 mainly young people who have so far been sentenced for their involvement in the ugly scenes.
But exactly two years to the day that she suffered severe bruising and haematomas as she was struck repeatedly with a police baton, and after serving her nine-month jail term for arson, she returned to the scene to speak at another protest outside Bridewell police station in the city centre.
“I often get asked: ‘Jasmine, if you knew your involvement in that protest would land you in prison would you still go?,’” she told the hundreds of demonstrators, many carrying placards and banners denouncing police violence, on Tuesday evening. “Yes I would,” she added, to applause from the crowd.
“Us protesters aren’t a threat to society, we are a threat to the state,” said Jasmine, disguising her face with a snood scarf. “I believe, perhaps for my own sanity, that my incarceration symbolises how powerful we are as a unit and why it’s imperative we continue to be proactive in the face of state oppression.”
Bristol’s Kill the Bill protests in March 2021 were part of a wave of demonstrations across the UK against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill that was being passed through Parliament at the time. The Bill, which campaigners say seriously undermines the right to protest, has since become law.
The demonstrations also followed a vigil nearby for Sarah Evarard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in London by serving Met police officer Wayne Couzens — who is now serving life in prison — earlier that month. Many of the protesters joined the Kill the Bill march following the vigil.
Fast forward two years. Tuesday’s demonstration came on the same day that the Met was found to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic by a report commissioned by the force following Evarard’s murder. Meanwhile, the Tory government’s drive to clamp down on protest is ramping up.
Speakers at the protest, including Jasmine, the mother of a protester serving a jail sentence, and representatives of a number of grass-roots organisations, demanded the reversal of the government’s protest busting legislation and condemned police violence and “corruption”.
“What started as a peaceful protest suddenly turned violent with the arrival of the overpowering riot police who went in heavy handedly,” Heidi Gedge, the mother of a Kill the Bill protester currently in jail, told the crowd. “Hundreds of protesters, a lot of whom were young women, were subject to their violent attacks.”
Her daughter, Mariella Gedge-Rogers, threw a traffic cone and a skateboard towards officers, and smashed a window of Bridewell police station during March 2021 violence. Mariella was acting in defence of herself and her fellow protesters who were under police bombardment, her mum said.
Mariella is one year into a five-and-a-half year jail term after being found guilty of the rarely used charge of riot – the most serious public order offence. Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) and the Crown Prosecution Service’s use of the riot charge against demonstrators is reportedly the most widespread since the 1980s.
“People get lesser sentences for manslaughter, firearms offences, or rape,” Mariella’s mother said in a speech to demonstrators outside Bridewell police station. “I ask myself constantly, why was she sent to prison, and why were none of the violent police officers punished for their part?”
Despite evidence that police used excessive force against the protesters – at least 62 people reported injuries during the protest and others that followed between 21 and 26 March 2021 – none are facing criminal action. This is a point raised by some of the demonstrators at Tuesday’s protest, including Heidi.
Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) has, however, paid out-of-court settlements to some of those injured. In an exclusive report last month, the Cable revealed how the force is counting the cost of protest crackdowns by paying out damages to protesters on hundreds of claims.
Speakers at Tuesday’s protest also highlighted the number of ASP officers serving in the force despite misconduct including sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Some 26 officers in the force are still serving despite committing misconduct or gross misconduct, its top officer Sarah Crew admitted this month.
Meanwhile, on top of the 34 jail sentences already handed down to protesters, which amount to a combined total of more than 100 years, about half a dozen more are still awaiting trial or sentencing over their involvement in the clashes. Joseph Parry, Rose Lazarus, Francesca Horn, and Matthew O’Neill are among the names of those who were jailed last year, for charges including riot, violent disorder or arson.
Charly Pitman, a 24-year-old woman from Easton, was jailed on a riot charge for three years last July. Bristol Crown Court heard that she had not set out to join the Kill the Bill protest but the vigil that followed Sarah Everard’s death. “She was supporting women’s rights generally to be on the street,” her lawyer said.
ASP detective superintendent James Riccio said of Charly’s actions: “[She] may not have used the highest levels of violence, but she took up a prominent role at the front of the crowd and her actions undoubtedly escalated tensions and encouraged others to attack police officers.”
A 21-year-old woman in February became the 31st person to be sentenced following the violence two years ago. Indigo Bond, who kicked and threw wood at officers during the disorder, pleaded guilty to violent disorder at Bristol Crown Court and was jailed for 20 months.
However, for some of the protesters charged over the violence and decided to plead not guilty – the trial has gone their way.
A jury cleared Kadeem Yarde, 24, in May last year after finding that he was acting in self defence and defence of a fellow protester. When faced with excessive force by police officers, the court was told, he took a police officer’s baton and kicked their shield during the March 2021 clashes.
He was found not guilty of a single charge of riot and violent disorder.
The verdict wasn’t well received by the right wing press. The Daily Mail ran with the headline: ‘Woke’ Bristol jury CLEARS Kill the Bill rioter’ – a line the paper also took after another jury’s decision to find those who toppled slave trader Edward Colston’s statue not guilty of criminal damage.
Changing the narrative
The coverage of the March 2021 riot in most of the national media in the days and weeks that followed was of violent mobs wreaking havoc, as our editor Matty Edwards observed in an opinion piece for the Guardian at the time. The story was told largely from the police perspective.
ASP initially said that officers had suffered broken bones in the riot, but later retracted it after it was widely reported. The exaggerated claims of injuries were condemned by civil liberties campaigners, including Kevin Blowe, the coordinator of Netpol, which campaigns on the policing of protest.
“It does raise concerns that Avon and Somerset may have been trying to sell the case not only for their operation on the night, but for what happens next,” he said at the time. And what followed was reportedly one of the force’s largest ever investigations, set in the context of a government drive to allow police to curb protests.
Speaking at Tuesday’s march, Heidi, who said her daughter Mariella is coping well in jail, described the “disproportionate” sentence she was handed as “unfair, inconsistent and unjust”. She called for a review into all of the criminal cases mounted against Bristol’s Kill the Bill protesters.
“We set up a campaign group called Justice for the Bristol Protesters, with some of the other parents [of those jailed] and supporters,” she told the crowd gathered outside Bridewell police station. “And we are committed to working together to raise awareness of the cases, change the narrative, and get our message out.”
In an interview with the Cable last year, Heidi said that she doesn’t condone her daughter’s actions, but that seeing the excessive force used by police towards protesters – and being aggressively restrained by officers herself – upset Mariella and caused her to lash out.
“These cases have had a massive chilling effect on those thinking about protest in the future,” she told the crowd on Tuesday. “But we will not let them win… I know I will never stop protesting until we get justice,” she added, describing protesters who stood up to police risking arrest as “an inspiration for us all”.
The March 2021 unrest in Bristol was widely condemned by authorities as “shameful”. But the truth is far more nuanced than some of the national media, the police and the Tory government claim. Protesters’ involvement in the violence varied in severity – and in some cases was matched or even trumped by the excessive force by police.
Speakers at Tuesday’s protest sought to make this clear, and set against the wider context of police failures a government clampdown on protest, their frustrations are not just only justified – but vital.
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