The city of Bristol is no stranger to civil unrest. A 1794 book said of Bristolians that they were, “apt to collect in mobs on the slightest occasions, but have seldom been so spirited as in late transactions on Bristol Bridge,” referring to a 1793 riot over the imposition of new tolls. Less than 40 years later, in 1831, the people of Bristol were back out in the streets. The rejection of the second Reform Bill, which would see greater representation for Bristol in the House of Commons led to hundreds congregating in the Queen’s Square, and rioting on the streets and in the houses of the rich merchants that occupied that part of the city. A deadly horse charge through the crowds led to the deaths of four rioters, with around 86 wounded. Fires set during the riot are said to have claimed up to 500 lives.
In 1932, a 10 per cent cut to unemployment benefits saw people take to the streets in the city’s Old Market area, just north of the centre. Thousands were beaten by police. Fast forward to the ’80s, and the first of a set of riots that gripped that country in reaction to endemic racism erupted in the St. Paul’s area of the city, which has a large Afro-Caribbean community. In 2011, Bristol once again became a precursor to national unrest, with the opening of a Tesco in Stokes Croft, which had previously been populated by independent shops. Despite strong local opposition, the store was opened regardless, and, following a heavy-handed squat eviction by the police, tensions spilt out onto the streets with a night of violence.
This week, unrest once again broke out on the streets of Bristol. By now, the story, or at least a version of it, is well told. On Sunday, March 21, protestors gathered to demonstrate against the passage of the Policing Bill through the House of Commons following its delay earlier in the week. After a few hours of listlessly making their way around the city centre, they descended on the city’s central police station, smashing windows, torching police vans and attacking police officers who stood helplessly by.
As events were unfolding, the BBC alleged in a tweet that several officers had suffered broken bones based on claims by Avon and Somerset Police, which were later rescinded. Condemnation of the unrest came from across the political spectrum, with Home Secretary Priti Patel referring to scenes in Bristol as “unacceptable” and Labour Mayor for Bristol Marvin Rees expressing his outrage at the protest.
The next day, Labour MP Nadia Whittome drew heat for refusing to outright condemn the protestors, urging patience while a full investigation of what happened was undertaken. For many, sensationalist photos of burning police vans summed up the events of Sunday night, but those who were there tell a very different story.
“It started off as a very standard march,” Saranya told me, who arrived at the demo at around 2 pm. Ellie, who was at the demo from the beginning agrees saying, “The original march went on without any real police presence.”
Riz arrived around the same time. “When I got there, there was a large crowd spilling out of College Green along with maybe 20 to 30 police officers, some on horseback. Because the protest wasn’t ‘organised’ no one really knew what was going on, but we milled around and people chanted and played songs. There was a group of people with drums. Eventually, the protest spilt onto Park Street and the crowd went slowly down College Green Road and onto Anchor Road, on towards Castle Park.”
According to one protestor, who wished to remain anonymous, the vibe in the park was “chilled”. Riz noted that someone had set up a slackline and people were messing around on it.
While thousands stayed within the park, several hundred congregated in the road outside on the junction of Wine Street, Union Street and Newgate, just next to an entrance to the city’s Galleries shopping centre. Some chose to sit on the road. It was at this point that one of the first real interactions with the police happened.
“Things changed when the police tried to move people who sat in the road,” Saranya told me, “everyone else joined in and started occupying it alongside them”. Live stream footage of the event shows four or five police officers trying to move the protestors in the road before being shouted away and retreating into a van, which reversed all the way down Newgate. Some in the crowd chased the van, while many remained in place. Speeches in the park continued until someone suggested moving the demonstration to the Bridewell Police Station, Bristol’s central police station, about five minutes walk away.
“We marched down to the station and occupied outside of there,” Saranya told me. “The police were not happy that we were encroaching on their territory. People were definitely spooked by the riot police coming out with their shields and batons drawn.”
The attempted removal of protestors from the road by the park happened at around 4:40 pm, with the majority of the crowd arriving at the police station at 5:30 pm. It was around this time that the situation escalated dramatically.
Much has been made of the question of who instigated the violence on Sunday night. The truth is, very few people agree. What we know is that the majority of the crowd was not directly outside the police station, instead, spilling back up the road towards the Primark in the city centre. The live stream footage available is obscured by a police van, so the actual moment that things descended is hard to pinpoint. “I’m not sure what the initial escalation was,” Saranya told me. “What I do know is that a load of riot police arrived literally two minutes after people got on top of a police van, so I assume they had been deployed earlier.”
‘I got to the crowd outside the police station at around 5:30 pm,” Melina told me, “and when we arrived there were already police with riot gear and on horseback.”
She said that “loads of people were getting pepper-sprayed,” including a friend of hers who “wasn’t doing anything aggressive (he’d been shouting ‘peaceful’ protest at the people throwing things at police).”
“Something that I think highlights the absurdity of the police response is that there was a guy juggling for pretty much the entire time,” Riz told me. “This wasn’t a group of people intent on causing violence. The police horses started getting agitated at some point and the police were riding them into the crowd as more riot squads arrived. People threw empty drinks cans at the police reinforcements. The police started pushing at people, using their batons and pepper-spraying them.”
Protestors were trying to gather everyone who had been sprayed to one area so they could more easily get water in their eyes. As news of the violence spread, many went down to help those who had been injured. Becky was one of them. “Many protestors had been hit with batons. I saw one girl have a riot shield rammed into her face. The main thing I saw was the police van on fire and then, explode,” she told me.
It was that image, of the van on fire, along with the footage of protestors caving in the windows of the police station, that was broadcast across the country. But the damage done to protestors by the police was almost completely absent in much of the discussion.
“There were lots of overhead swings from the police and lots of bloodied faces of protesters,” another protester told me. “I saw one guy hit his head on the floor and blackout for a second”
“Friends of mine were beaten very badly,” said Ellie. “The narrative of the police being there to protect people is untruthful, because they only moved to ‘control’ the protest when protestors were in front of the station. While we were there some kids (14 to 15 years old) got pepper sprayed unprovoked and horseback police moved in on people just sat in the street. I would go so far as to say that the violence would not have been spurred on were the police not to have suddenly arrived.”
Saranya agreed that the situation was “more heated than it maybe would have been” because of the police using “scare tactics”. She told me, “the energy was unparalleled to other protests I’ve been to, and the hostility from the police was really palpable the whole time.”
At around 9 pm on Sunday evening, Avon and Somerset Police released a statement in which Ch Supt Will White, Gold Commander, said: “What started out as a peaceful protest has been turned by a small minority into violent disorder. These scenes are absolutely disgraceful and they will be widely condemned by people across the city. There can never be any excuse for wanton disorder.”
Much has been made by those in power about the “wanton disorder”, which they’ve used to justify the policing operation that followed. On Monday, Labour MP Toby Perkins stated in a now-deleted tweet that the use of batons by police officers against unarmed protesters was “a good example of proportionate policing under extreme pressure”.
Just two days later, on Tuesday night, another protest took place in the centre of Bristol. Through the day, demonstrators had gathered to protest the elements of the policing bill that would target travelling communities. It was a peaceful event which saw speakers and performers address a crowd of hundreds and for much of the day, it carried on as such. As night fell police moved in. Video footage of officers trampling across flowers laid in tribute to Sarah Everard appeared on Twitter.
As reports of violence began circling, several headed down to the scene to help. Tom was one of them. “I arrived around 11 pm, having seen some videos of what was happening. A friend lives nearby and she said someone had been bitten by a police dog and she was out giving first aid, so I came down to bring some extra bandages.”
Further footage from the night appears to show officers harassing and attempting to manhandle journalists.
“It was completely peaceful the whole time,” says Tom. “It was tense, but the crowd never got violent or threw anything. We were literally sitting in the road singing and they [police] came at us with shields and horses.”
The events on Tuesday night saw 14 people arrested and many more brutalised and attacked by the police. Unlike Sunday night, however, the protest did not receive national coverage the following day. Tensions in the city remain high as another demonstration against the bill has been organised for Friday afternoon. One activist in the city, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me they feel that this demonstration will mark a tipping point.
With all eyes on Bristol this Friday (March 26), you can follow live coverage of the events over on Huck’s Twitter.
Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics Editor. Follow him on Twitter.