Right to protest, not right to riot

Photo authors’ own

UPDATE: On 21 March, police claimed that two officers had sustained fairly serious injuries, including broken ribs and a punctured lung. This was untrue.
On 21 March, in the early evening, we put out this report on the peaceful protest in Bristol. Within a few hours, it looked wildly anachronistic – very, very sadly. The people who met in peace stood for the millions who are justifiably alarmed at the scope for the Police and the Home Secretary to quash citizens’ rights to express dissent in a peaceful and lawful manner.

The violence in Bristol was abhorrent and utterly counterproductive. If that minority who resorted to violence and vandalism genuinely wished to get the majority of people behind opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC), they did absolutely nothing to advance that cause. They ‘achieved’ the exact opposite.

The events in Bristol last night should not have strengthened Patel’s iron fist. The police already have the powers to deal with violent protest. This government wants to give them the power to stop the sort of event that our reporters attended in the early part of the afternoon.

When a government avoids scrutiny, bypasses parliament and abuses its power in favour of its cronies and donors and when people feel they have no access to power, or to the mainstream media or to justice, peaceful protest is one of only affordable means by which to raise awareness and press for action. Local hospital closures, developments that are insults to the environment, job losses, cuts in public transport or to essential services – it must be possible for people to walk down their local high street with banners and to rally outside council offices or public buildings where it is safe so to do in order to alert the public to their grievance.

It must also be possible for us to retain the right to march in our hundreds, thousands and even millions to the seat of power in Westminster – peacefully, earnestly and lawfully. It must also be legal for us to expresss our disgust at laws that would deny us this right.

What follows is an account of the peaceful protest against Patel’s crackdown bill in Bristol.

“Bristolians love a protest and despite no official organisation due to the possibility of heavy fines, posters around town and virally-shared invites were enough to get them out in force this Sunday. This in itself was a demonstration that attempts to curtail peoples’ right to protest will not be tolerated.

Having spent the best part of a year inside avoiding the centre of town, we found ourselves to be quite excited walking down Park Street toward the meeting point on College Green. We saw two police officers stopping a group of young people with placards to try and dissuade them from continuing – “nah I’m alright” came the response. 

The crowd was quietly expectant until a wave of applause rippled through the Green. Standing on our tiptoes, we saw that the source of entertainment was a man successfully climbing a lamppost. We stationed ourselves at the back where social distancing rules were well observed – that is, until The Ambling Band struck up and the whole focus of the crowd shifted to a few metres from where we stood.

At least we now had a better view of the clever placards without which no protest would be complete – inspiration came mainly from Tarantino and puns on ‘Priti’. Police presence was fairly light, with some officers roaming the outside of the crowd and a handful of mounted police standing their ground outside the Sustrans offices. Two men were watching the crowd from the roof of the cathedral. In their dark clothes and white shirts we couldn’t tell if they represented ecclesiastical or constabulary power!

The crowd (which still seemed to be growing) then took to the road, with remainer dads and free party ravers alike heading down St Augustine’s Parade, spurred on by regular chants of “kill the bill!”.

The tide of people swarmed through The Centre, engulfing some hopelessly beached cars, their passengers looking on bemused. After a brief congregation outside the church of St Mary on the Quay, focus turned to the (ex)-Colston plinth, before moving through town towards Castle Park. It was at this point that we took our chance to scurry up the Christmas Steps back to calm and isolation.

Covid restrictions may have limited the extent of the protest, but they definitely didn’t dampen the spirit of the protesters.”

Our reporters left well before trouble started and attended as advocates of peaceful protest.

We must hope that their non-violent dissent has not been nullified by thugs and agitators and keep reminding ourselves, the media and the government that the police already have the power to deal with violent protest. We must not lose our rights because of the violence of a few, violence that (conveniently?) damaged that cause.