Dave – the editor

Avon and Somerset Police came in for a lot of criticism for the way they handled the aftermath of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) protest in Bristol on June 7, 2020 when a sizeable number of people pulled down the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, rolled it down to the Floating Harbour and dumped it into the water. The critics said the cops should have intervened to protect the statue. The cops said that their decision to hold back was based on fears that matters could escalate to a point where they wouldn’t be able to control the situation. Basically, Avon and Somerset Police were caught on the hop and suffered some considerable embarrassment as a consequence when the barrage of criticism rolled over them.

Cops do not like being embarrassed one bit. They certainly do not like being seen as a soft touch. Avon and Somerset Police definitely did not enjoy the bollocking from the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel. So, having effectively ‘screwed up’ on the policing of the aftermath of the BLM protest on June 7, 2020 and having ‘allowed’ the statue of Colston to be given the mud pack treatment at the bottom of the Floating Harbour, the cops were looking for an opportunity to prove a point.

Fast forward to the Kill The Bill protest in Bristol on Sunday March 21 2021. Avon and Somerset Police felt under pressure to ‘look tough’ and by all accounts, they ticked that box and a good many more in what some protesters felt was an event that turned into a police riot. This piece from Bristol 24/7 goes into some depth about the police tactics on the day and into the night and the subsequent prosecutions and sentences that were handed out to dozens of protesters: Are Bristol’s ‘kill the bill’ protesters being made examples of by the state? 12.7.22.

We’ve talked to a few people who were on the protest and they all agree that police tactics were provocative. There were instances of kettling and then ‘dispersal’ when crowds were forced to move, did move in the face of police threats, only to find that they were being moved straight into another line of cops. From our long experience over the decades, when the cops start shoving protesters from pillar to post, claiming they are ‘dispersing’ them but in fact, doing the exact opposite, things will rapidly get out of hand. Protesters in a situation like this will start off feeling frightened and when it becomes clear that there’s no way out, quite often that fear will turn to anger and they will lash out. This was one of the factors that turned the Poll Tax protest in London on March 31, 1990, into a full scale riot.

Clashes at the Poll Tax protest in London, March 31, 1990

When protesters are getting shoved from pillar to post and not given the opportunity to disperse, it’s not because the cops are thick. It’s an intentional strategy to escalate the situation so they can then justify making a large number of arrests. That’s arrests on the spot and also, subsequently on the basis of ‘evidence’ the police have compiled to justify nicking people in the weeks and months afterwards.

There are other tactics the cops use to wind protesters up in order to escalate the situation so arrests can be justified. One that was used on the night of the Kill The Bill protest in Bristol was the use of the tall rectangular riot shields on protesters peacefully sitting on the ground. As an aside, the one thing I learned way back in the 1980s was to never, ever sit down on a protest, particularly in front of a line of cops because it will never end well. I learned that it was always best to stay on my feet, stay mobile and keep as far away from the cops as possible. It’s never good to have to watch protesters learn this lesson the hard way.

This is what Superintendent Mark Runacres has to say in his disingenuous bid to try and justify the violence his officers were meting out to protesters sitting in the road: “In terms of that tactic, it may look unsightly and shocking to some, but in terms of the reality of public order policing, and policing disorder, it’s a legitimate tactic that an officer can use, if it’s necessary to move someone away from an area, if they are a threat, or to keep themselves safe.” If the cops genuinely wanted to disperse protesters, battering the shit out of them while they were sitting on the ground and not letting up to give them a chance to disperse wasn’t the way to go. It was premeditated assault which all of the cops who were using their riot shields to batter protesters on the ground got away with without any sanction. It was also a tactic to escalate a situation, thereby justifying the subsequent arrests.

Cops using riot shields to assault protesters on the ground

The tactics used by Avon and Somerset Police on the night of the protest were the consequence of political decisions taken at the very top. As were the subsequent wave of arrests, the charges of riot and the sentences that were handed out over the following months. Because it’s not enough to tighten up the legislation to make any kind of effective protest pretty much impossible. No, there has to be blatant intimidation as well. That’s the calculated use of violence on protesters that will make people thin twice about going out on future protests for fear of being injured or possibly worse. It also comes with the kind of sentencing that will seriously screw up people’s lives and future prospects.

Obviously the cops pick and choose where they think they can get away with the kind of intimidation that will deter people from going on any more protests. In London, during 2020 and going into 2021 on a number of anti-lockdown protests, the Metropolitan Police tried to use the tactic of snatch arrests in order to provoke ‘situations’ that would justify arrests. The cops eventually stopped their tactics of provocative arrests designed to provoke confrontations which would then be used to justify the subsequent arrests. From my experience of attending a few anti-lockdown protests in 2021, unlike many other protests that I’ve been on over the decades, there was a high proportion of working class people on them. The kind of working class people who don’t take shit without fighting back. Which is why apart from one scuffle at the start of a march in late December 2021 when the cops were sent packing, we were pretty much left alone. As an aside, here’s an explanation of sorts of why I attended a number of the antt-lockdown protests: Dealing with reality… 2.2.22.

There has been criticism from some quarters of the ‘soft’ tactics used by the police on Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests. That’s despite the fact that arrests have been made and to date, XR tactics have in part been about a willingness to take mass arrests in such numbers that the judicial system starts to grind to a halt. A strategy that has caused some controversy, particularly with those who will go to great lengths to not get nicked on protests and actions. With XR announcing a change of strategy and tactics, it’s difficult to predict how things will pan out from this point: An interesting change of strategy and tactics… 1.1.23. There have also been criticisms of the ‘soft’ tactics by the police on Just Stop Oil (JSO) protesters. For sure, they may have used ‘soft’ tactics to get protesters down from the gantries on the M25 but, as a number of jailed JSO activists will tell you, the subsequent sentencing was anything but soft.

It’s abundantly clear that the state is implementing a strategy and deploying a variety of tactics to clamp down on protest. However, looking at the approach of the cops to protests ranging from Kill The Bill through the anti-lockdown ones and onto the JSO actions, it’s admittedly difficult to discern a pattern. You can be forgiven for thinking that the differing approaches are pretty contradictory and incoherent. That’s unless the aim is to pit one group of protesters against another. Then things start to look quite different. Sadly, I’ve seen too many anti-lockdown people join in the chorus of criticism of the police tactics deployed against the likes of XR and JSO. I’ve also seen some of them rail against XR and JSO saying that their protest tactics will result in a clampdown on all protests.

It’s the classic strategy of divide and rule. Something that a lot of people across the board has succumbed to. From the so called progressives who denigrated the anti-lockdown protests through to those anti-lockdown people having a pop at XR and JSO, they’ve all fallen for the divide and rule psyops. No one comes out of this looking good. Once the state has succeeded in getting different groups of malcontents and rebels at each others throats, it’s easier for them to conduct the mopping up operation of clamping down on any form of dissent. All of us need to take a step back to see what’s being done to keep us divided and have the humility to start building some bridges.

As for the future of protest, that’s difficult to predict at the moment. I suspect that hit and run direct action may well continue to rise as a response. Something that’s a lot harder for the cops to monitor, particularly given the lessons activists have learned from their grim experiences with spycops over the decades. Something that posh owners of 4×4 vehicles in Clifton that have and never will see the mud of a field or farm track are finding out when they wake up to deflated tyres. I’m pretty sure there will be more mischief to come…

When things reach crisis point, while people may eschew more traditional forms of protest out of the fear of police violence and heavy sentencing, they’ll always find a way round the barriers to make a point. That’s where we are now. Things are going to get ‘interesting’.

For information on how to support the Kill The Bill protest prisoners, see here: Bristol ABC: November Kill the Bill Prisoner List.