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‘She could’ve died’: Kill the Bill protester’s struggle to hold police to account for knocking her out with baton

Despite her physical injuries, the trauma that followed, and that her actions at a demonstration three years ago paled in comparison to the violence she faced, it’s Fleur Moody, not the officer who struck her, who was prosecuted.

Police and Crime bill

In a tightly-packed crowd moving slowly through the city centre, Fleur Moody loses her partner. Struggling to get her bearings – at five foot three inches tall she can’t see far over the heads of those around her – the 26-year-old pushes past people in a panicked effort to find him.

The crowd, gathered in protest against the Police and Crime Bill on 21 March 2021, comes to a halt outside Bridewell Police Station. Fleur shuffles to the front, where she’s greeted by the gleaming plastic shields of officers in full riot gear. She’s pushed against them by those jostling for position behind her.

Fleur is shoved back by an officer, so hard that she falls to the ground. Some time later, riled by the police’s use of force, she kicks an officer’s shield. She didn’t know it yet, but this would be enough for her to later be arrested for serious public order offences that carry up to ten years in prison.

The scene of the protest on 21 March outside Bridewell Police Station. Credit: Guy Peterson

What happens next, she has no memory of. Fleur is struck over the head a police baton and loses consciousness. She comes around, her head pouring with blood, on the floor outside the police station next to a protester who had carried her through the police line and laid her there, before stumbling back into the crowd where she is Pava sprayed.

“I was so scared, I had no idea where I was, I just remember wanting to get the hell away,” Fleur tells the Cable. “But there’s footage of me I’ve seen when [the protester] carries me past the police line – I look limp, I look dead.” 

Fleur’s one of dozens of protesters injured by police during the violence that followed a Kill the Bill demonstration in Bristol on 21 March three years ago, and at protests in the days afterwards. Despite her physical injuries, the trauma that followed, and that her actions that evening paled in comparison to the violence she faced, it’s her, not the officer who struck her, who was prosecuted.

The Cable spoke to Fleur and her solicitor about their uphill struggle to hold Avon and Somerset Police to account for their disproportionate and brutal use of force. Despite the evidence – photos of the large gash in her head from the blow, the video footage of the incident – can they expect any form of justice?

An image documenting Fleur’s injury after she was struck over the head with a police baton

Three days of absolute turmoil

A few days after the protest, Fleur received a message from her friend telling her that her name and photo had been published by the media. She was on a wanted list the police shared to help them catch the “violent extremists” – as police and many politicians branded the demonstrators, then and now – who ‘rioted’ on Bristol’s streets. 

Police had launched what would be their largest operation in the force’s history, with a team of more than 100 officers reviewing footage from CCTV cameras, social media and police body-worn cameras. According to the Guardian, the team identified 44 victims – all of them but one were police officers – and 158 suspects, including Fleur.

Fleur, her brain still fuzzy from her head injury, wasn’t sure what she had done. She remembered kicking a police officer’s shield, but nothing else. Maybe she had done something more? And she didn’t know that her actions – kicking the shield – meant she was at risk of being charged with riot, and up to ten years in prison. 

Officers raided Fleur’s flat on 26 March. She was arrested and taken to a police station for questioning. “My duty solicitor said to me: ‘look, this is nothing,’” Fleur says. “And I thought if I just play ball like the solicitor said, they will see that I’m apologetic, that I’m sorry for kicking the shield, and this will go away.”

She was originally charged with riot but later, frightened by the prospect of a lengthy jail term after some of her fellow protesters went down for a similar level of involvement, she struck a deal with police and prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of affray. She was the first of the 47 people charged at the time to do so.

“I just spent two or three days in absolute turmoil,” she says. “Because I knew this decision I was going to make would dictate my future for the next God knows how long.”

An influence was seeing a jury take just over an hour to find protester Charly Pitman, a 24-year-old woman from Easton, guilty of rioting, which would land her a prison sentence of three years. Avon and Somerset 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.”

Avon and Somerset Police said the force rejects any suggestion they did not facilitate peaceful demonstrations. “Our officers faced real violence and hostility as they put themselves on the line to keep the public safe and restore order, as a minority of people engaged in wanton violence, damage and disorder.”

Fleur was given a suspended sentence in November that year. While she swerved prison, by taking the deal she missed an opportunity to put the police violence she faced in front of a jury, and potentially clear her name in the eyes of the law. She plans to sue the police for the violence she faced, but she knows making a successful claim will be no small feat.

The long term consequences of the injuries Fleur sustained remain unclear

“Protest cases are difficult, because the law is weak at protecting the rights of the protester and is strong in protecting the powers of the state,” says Sarah Ricca, a solicitor with civil rights and judicial review firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, who is helping Fleur with her civil claim against Avon and Somerset Police. 

“There are concerns from a political and moral point of view about all sorts of aspects of policing on the night of 21 March 2021,” she tells the Cable. “In Fleur’s case, the concerns are the apparent use of an overhead strike with a baton, the apparent failure to facilitate the provision of adequate and appropriate medical treatment – by taking her to A&E – and the subsequent use of PAVA spray against her.”

Fleur says that she left the scene that night and didn’t seek medical attention as the ordeal made her scared of officials. Of the footage she has seen, and what little she can remember of those moments, it’s clear the officers who could have offered her medical assistance “didn’t do anything”.

Batons kill people 

When we last spoke, Fleur was on her way back from her penultimate probation meeting. Her 18-months sentence will soon be spent, but her attention is still firmly on holding police accountable for their disproportionate use of force at the Bristol protests – against her and her fellow protesters.

According to Bristol Defendant Solidarity, a group of volunteers who support protesters arrested or imprisoned, across three Kill the Bill demonstrations in 2021, roughly 60 demonstrators were injured across three Kill the Bill demonstrations in Bristol in 2021. Seven required hospital treatment and 22 reported head injuries. They were struck with batons, shields, were kicked and punched, pepper sprayed or bitten by police dogs. Some 40 police officers were reported injured, one of which was bitten on “his right buttock” by a police dog.”

A parliamentary inquiry in 2021 found that officers used excessive force, including the controversial tactic of “blading”, where the edge of a riot shield is used to strike a protester. The report described how Avon and Somerset officers “failed to distinguish between violent and peaceful protesters, leading to the use of force in unjustified situations,” and that its approach to handling the protests “caused, or at least exacerbated, some of the violence.”

The ordeal, including her interaction with the criminal justice system more generally, has had a big impact on Fleur. It reset the clock on her recovery from drug misuse and mental health issues that she says she’d largely overcome before March 2021; she moved away from Bristol, fearing she would be targeted again by officers.

“I needed to get away, I was so worried that because this happened, am I going to be then pinpointed by the police for anything else,” she tells the Cable. “You hear stories about somebody being arrested once, then always getting arrested because they’ve got their eye on you.

“My drug use was getting worse,” – Fleur says she had previously been battling a crack and ketamine addiction – “because of being so stressed out by the situation,” she added. “I couldn’t socialise with people properly, couldn’t go out with groups of people, like, even crossing the road stressed me out. I was having panic attacks all the time.”

“I kicked a shield, but they hit me, they struck me over the head with a baton… To anyone who saw what happened, me being hit, what happened to us, it’s clear that it’s totally unjust what the police did,” she says.

The consequences for her actions that night have been life-changing. But more than that, Fleur says her doctor told her that the head injury she suffered at the hands of police, on top of another knock to the head she suffered afterwards, might continue to cause her cognitive problems in the longer term.

“Batons kill people,” Sarah, Fleur’s solicitor tells the Cable. She points to the case of Blair Peach, who died after being struck over the head with a police baton by a Met Police officer during a demonstration in London against a Nation Front election meeting in 1979. “That’s one of the things that stands out in Fleur’s case – that she could have died,” she says. “And we still don’t know the long-term consequences of the injuries she sustained that night.”

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  • Having only just finished reading Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest (Foot and Livingstone), I am absolutely horrified at what I just read.

    The police have long known that they shouldn’t hit people on the head – the guidance manuals are clear on this. The fact that they choose to do this in clear contravention of national policy, surely renders it criminal and the perpetrator/s should be dealt with through the justice system.

    The police need to be held to higher standards. Letting them get away with what would, in almost any other case, amount to Section 8 Wounding, is sending out the wrong message.

    Time to bring the hammer down (only not on their heads.)

    Reply

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