“The Tories are attacking people’s right to vote, protest & strike. Their aim is to weaken people’s ability to defeat the unjust & unpopular policies coming in response to the economic crisis.”Richard Burgon MP.
By the Labour Assembly Against Austerity Team
A week of protests across the country against the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which extends police powers over protests, has seen a violent response from local police forces, particularly in Bristol.
Under the title, #KillTheBill, the protests in the city have been some of the largest in the country, with thousands turning out to protest against the bill, even as restrictions on gatherings due to Covid-19 continue.
Labour’s Shadow Cabinet member David Lammy had reportedly told Labour MPs the party would abstain on the 2nd reading of the Bill, until the scenes of police breaking up a vigil on Clapham Common on 13 March for the murdered Sarah Everard, forced the frontbench to oppose the bill.
However whilst protests in cities across the country have been largely peaceful, there have been scenes of conflict between protesters and police in Bristol, with police accused of publishing misleading accounts of violence and independent footage of police violence appearing online.
Protesters have condemned the use of dogs, horses and riot equipment, including batons and shields.
After protests on 21 March, Avon and Somerset police said two officers suffered broken bones and a punctured lung, but within a few days retracted the claim. Further protests on Friday 27 March saw multiple pieces of footage published where police attacked a Mirror journalist, a woman was seemingly hit in the face, and another individual was hauled over a wall. Other clips showed protesters sitting in the road, struck with riot shields.
The scenes have drawn a range of responses. Labour’s frontbench, despite opposing the bill, has condemned the actions of protesters over that of the police, causing divisions in Labour’s ranks.
On 21 March, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said, “The scenes in Bristol are completely unacceptable and inexcusable. My thoughts are with any officers injured, who have faced this awful violence, whilst at work keeping us safe. What we have witnessed was also a serious danger to local residents and deeply upsetting. It’s right that anyone involved in these violent scenes should face the consequences of their actions.”
However MPs on the left have sought to highlight the threat to democracy of unaccountable police action, who would only be empowered by the bill to prevent protest.
Richard Burgon, Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said, “Through Voter ID, anti-protest laws and anti-union laws the Tories are attacking people’s right to vote, protest and strike. Their aim is to weaken people’s ability to defeat the unjust and unpopular policies coming in response to the economic crisis.”
Zarah Sultana, said, “From Orgreave and Hillsborough to Mangrove and deaths in custody, we should learn from past repressive police actions. The first lesson is to end the establishment presumption that protesters are always guilty and must be to blame. History tells us that’s false.”
Other MPs have called for an investigation into police action in Bristol.
Beth Winter said, “The heavy-handed policing in Bristol yesterday is further proves that the police already wield unnecessary and excessive power against protesters. There is now the urgent need for an independent investigation into the use of force by the police in Bristol.”
While Ian Byrne said, “The images and reports of protesters and journalists injured last night in Bristol are deeply troubling and should worry us all. The need for an independent investigation into the policing of the #BristolProtests is indisputable.”
Leicester MP Claudia Webbe said, “There are clear acts of police brutality & violence targeting journalists & protestors; none of this should be ignored. This is not policing by consent and falls well short of acceptable standards; police are acting with impunity, this must be condemned. Silence is not an option”
Unite the Union called it ‘out of control authoritarianism.’
As reports of other #KillTheBill protests in places such as Manchester and Brighton have faced confrontational policing, it appears there is a marked trend in such an approach as the Conservative government green-lights a tougher approach to policing.
As Richard Burgon has remarked, the motivation for an increasingly hostile approach is to discourage dissent against government policies, whether that is on freedom to protest, campaigning for better pay and conditions, or even making it more difficult to participate in elections.
The Bill is now entering committee stage where amendments can be tabled, but with the government’s comfortable majority in the Commons, the most effective way to defeat the Bill will be to build extra-parliamentary pressure that forces the government to rethink.
As they attempt to limit protest, the only answer is to demonstrate that protest works – by successfully defeating this legislation.