Why are there riots in Bristol? ‘Kill the Bill’ protest explained after police clashes
The ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in Bristol turned into riots, leaving 20 police officers injured and critics of the Government’s plans to rein in demonstrations worried they will only increase support for crackdown
The streets of Bristol were awash with burnt-out cars and debris as seven people were arrested.
A ‘Kill the Bill’ rally against planned controversial protest reforms descended into chaos overnight.
Officers clashed with rioters who torched a police van and stormed a station in Sunday’s protests.
Rioters in the harbour city prompted widespread backlash – including from critics of the Government’s bill who see it as a crackdown on the democratic right to protest.
Avon and Somerset Police Chief Constable Andy Marsh told Sky News twenty police officers were injured, including one officer who suffered a collapsed lung after being stamped on, while another two officers suffered broken bones.
Seven arrests were made overnight – six for violent disorder and one for possession of an offensive weapon.
Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, accused the “self-indulgent, selfish, self-centred” rioters of actually handing the Government public backing to crackdown on protest with their actions.
He told Good Morning Britain: “What they have done has nothing to do with the bill, in fact, as everyone has been pointing out, it will be used as evidence for people who want to support the bill.”
He continued: “Being a black man, I am from a community that’s disproportionately likely to end up at the wrong end of the criminal justice system, and receive unfair treatment from that system.
“If they make the bill more likely, it doesn’t bring me closer to justice, it pushes justice further away.
“For myself, for my brothers and sisters, people from traditionally poor communities, they have done nothing to support us.”
Why are people in Bristol protesting?
Protesters took to the streets of Bristol on Sunday – a city which has a long and rich history of public demonstrations.
The “Kill the Bill” protest was organised against the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which could see the police handed more powers to tackle demonstrations.
The controversial Bill looks to toughen up powers the police have to tackle “non-violent” protests which are significantly disruptive to the public or on access to Parliament.
Critics view it as a Tory crackdown on the right to protest, leading some to brand the Bill an assault on democracy.
The Bill tackles a wider variety of offending as part of efforts to overhaul the justice system and cut offending, and also include laws to reform sentencing, the courts and handling offenders.
If passed, some of the measures will be UK-wide – while others may only apply in England and Wales.
What does the Bill actually say?
The proposed law worrying critics includes an offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”.
According to the Bill, someone commits this crime if they cause “serious harm to the public”, which can include “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”. Those convicted could face a fine or jail.
The Government says the reforms will target disruptive protests – such as the types where streets are blocked by huge crowds causing frustration for the public trying to go about their everyday lives.
The plans could also hand cops more powers to impose more conditions on static protests – like time and noise limits.
Some of the specific proposals that have prompted the protests include laws increasing police stop and search powers.
Stop and search as a crime-fighting tool has long been particularly controversial due to concerns about police racial profiling.
A recent report by the police inspectorate criticised the embattled Met Police over the tactic, finding almost half of all stop and searches in England and Wales are carried out by the London force.
The Bill would also hand police more powers to crack down on unauthorised encampments which interfere with the ability to use the land.
That part of the plan is being widely interpreted as a crackdown on the likes of the HS2 protests and environment campaigners’ Extinction Rebellion protests of recent years.
Home Secretary Priti Patel also wants to give more protection to police, which could bring in harsher penalties for protests that turn violent.
The Bill would double the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker to two years.
Many critics have zeroed on the Bill’s proposal to extend the crackdown to one-person demonstrations.
It has led to questions over whether the Bill has specifically been designed to target solo protests led by some notorious figures outside Westminster Palace – like the ‘Stop Brexit guy.’
You would probably recognise Steve Bray – usually to be found sporting an EU flag outside Parliament and popping up in the background of TV news shots.
The remain campaigner was filmed shouting about protests rights at Boris Johnson as he got out of his car in Whitehall last week.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan was asked about this very issue recently, and told LBC being “heckled” might be a nuisance for politicians – “but that’s one of the joys of living in a democracy. We’ve got to be a bit careful, it’s a slippery slope.”
Is this about statues?
Last summer’s Black Lives Matters protests turned a focus onto statues, peaking with Bristol’s demonstrators toppling a monument to slaver Edward Colston into the harbour in scenes that gripped that world.
Protesters in London daubed graffiti branding Winston Churchill a racist onto the wartime leader’s Parliament Square plinth.
Britain’s statue saga erupted from a debate about the country’s bloody colonial history into an all-out modern day culture war.
Statue topplers said they were tearing down monuments celebrating figures whose legacy was stained by racism.
The ‘free speech’ camp argued the past could not be erased – and that some statues could be discussed in their context.
In Churchill’s case, many of his defenders claimed Britain’s WWII leader beyond was beyond rebuke, leading to scenes of his statue being guarded by counter-protesters who cleaned graffiti off the plinth.
Critics insisted statues of slavers like Colston should come down as they appeared to honour the historical figures, not prompt debate.
Local authorities in some parts of the UK’s to declared they would remove controversial monuments and street signs proactively, provoking more outrage.
All that brings us to the Bill on the table, which could see the Government seek to increase the maximum penalty for criminal damage to a memorial.
This point captured the attention of women’s safety advocates during a week of vigils for Sarah Everard.
They pointed out that the starting point for a rape jail term is five years – while defacing a statue could soon get you ten years behind bars.
Isn’t protest illegal in lockdown anyway?
That’s a thorny issue dividing campaigners and politicians alike.
This question was important in the backlash over the Met Police handling of the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common.
Reclaim These Streets organisers took the police to court in an attempt to overturn the Met’s ban on the vigil as police tried to halt the gathering during lockdown.
In a landmark ruling, the judge said the legal right to protest must be considered by police forces even during lockdown, but handed the decision back to officers to decide on a case-by-case basis – and warned the organisers they could still be fined if it went ahead.
The Sisters Uncut group instead led the protest in Clapham Common, and scenes of police manhandling women as they were arrested prompted widespread outrage.
The wave of Black Lives Matters protest last summer during the coronavirus pandemic had also raised the question over the right to gather for protest during the global health crisis.
Demonstrators took to the streets in response to the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States.
In Britain, the protests occurred at a time when large gatherings were against the rules, but wider coronavirus laws had been relaxed in the warmer months as cases and death rates dropped after the first wave.
Supporters noted marchers were seen wearing face coverings and social distancing in the vastly non-violent protests.
They stood in stark contrast with anti-lockdown protests seen around the UK over the past year – as huge crowds not wearing masks or distancing flocked to streets and parks.
Far right counter protesters who opposed the BLM demonstrations caused widespread anger when they clashed with police.
Some critics said no one should have been gathering anywhere at all.
However many in the BLM movement described the racial injustice faced by Britain’s black community as a health crisis in and of itself.
The BLM movement also highlighted the issue that black people in the UK were dying from Covid at a disproportionate rate, as advocates felt let down by officials’ efforts to uncover and address the causes.
Why does this new Bill matter?
Many supporters of protest actions would say whether the rallies are legal is not the point anyway.
Some of British history’s biggest protest movements resulted in arrests in their quest to achieve attention for their causes and effect change.
The Suffragettes went on hunger strikes in prison more than a century ago.
In the 1980s, LGBTQ campaigners and allies were arrested in protests against Margaret Thatcher’s Government’s handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
In recent times, everyone from remainers to leavers, Extinction Rebellion protesters, anti-lockdown protesters, and Covid conspiracy theorists have been hauled off in handcuffs as they block streets and bridges and refuse orders to leave public spaces – all in order to publicly make their point.
But with arrest already a reality for protesters – many are concerned that those powers will only increase in the introducing of this new Bill.
Critics worry the risk of harsh penalties will only chill the rights of campaigners to take to the streets to get their voices heard at all.
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