As a student at the University of Bristol, I was shocked at the violence that took place in the city centre last Sunday night. Bristol has garnered national and international press attention for protests and civil disobedience on its city’s streets in recent years, but not on the violent scale of this.
The normally quiet street which I walk down each weekday morning to visit the library was flooded with screaming figures. In an event which more resembled the final scene in Todd Phillips’ Joker than a lawful protest, police cars were set on fire, buildings were graffitied and vandalised, and police officers were left with broken bones. The ‘Kill the Bill’ slogan was seemingly taken literally by some protesters as they clashed with police, many of whom were on horseback or accompanied by snarling police dogs. The photos and videos from the scene were distressing.
Rather than win people over to their cause, those that opted for violent tactics turned potential supporters away. Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said that it was ‘a shameful day’, whilst a police chief described it as the ‘the worst violence in Bristol for many, many years’.
Looking at Sunday’s media coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched through the city in the afternoon. In recent days, students and activist groups have criticised the media as not painting a full picture of the day’s events, but can you really blame them for focusing on the violence?
Those that ruined the peaceful protest by clashing with police spoilt the message that the vast majority of the afternoon protesters were seeking to spread. They were protesting against a piece of legislation that would affect the ability for people in the future the congregate and reasonably protest, and I agree with them that the bill should not pass.
Part 4 of the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would change trespass from a civil offence to a criminal offence. Whilst on the surface this may seem like a small point, for the minority Roma Gypsy population this has enormous consequences. Police would have the power to arrest and fine this community, who choose to live a nomadic lifestyle out of tradition, choice and often times necessity. Regardless of your personal interaction with gypsy travellers, one must recognise that the bill seriously increases police and law enforcement powers at the expense of those less powerful. For a prime minster who likes to stress his libertarian tendencies, his support for this bill appears ideologically inconsistent.
A more major problem with the proposed bill is just simply how open to interpretation it is. Intentionally vague phrases such as ‘serious annoyance’ would be introduced to law which could be used by police forces to arrest those who are protesting. What constitutes ‘serious annoyance’? The fact that this phrase is open to interpretation means that it could be abused by those exercising power and is yet another reason why this bill is not fit for purpose.
The vagueness of the bill would also lead to problems of inconsistency in terms of its implementation, with some protests likely being broken up whilst other similar ones which aren’t deemed to be ‘causing annoyance’ allowed to continue. This would create more problems rather than solve existing issues.
Under the new proposals too, a maximum sentence of 10 years can be given for the defacing of a statue. This seems rather disproportionate. I hasten to think what punishment those that toppled Edward Colston’s statue would receive under these strict rules. Instead of increasing the punishment for something as trivial as vandalising a statue, why not instead focus on toughening up rape and sexual violence laws. Does it seem right that you could get 10 years for attacking a statue when the minimum sentence for rape starts at 5 years? Personally, I think not.
Of course, sadly all these problems with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill have been overshadowed by the violence on the streets of Bristol on Sunday night. I hope that future debates about this legislation will be thorough and fair, with opponents of the bill being loud and vocal. Giving more powers to the police is all well and good, but protesting peacefully with the permission and approval of the government defeats the purpose of protesting at all.