Socialist Alternative

Kill the Bill protesters attacked by police in Bristol: defend the right to protest

Last weekend saw protests around the country with thousands of people taking to the streets despite the pandemic in opposition to the Tories’ new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill. This bill is rightly seen as a deeply concerning attack on the democratic right to protest. Socialist Alternative has discussed this bill in a previous article. 

These protests culminated on Sunday night with widely reported clashes between police and protesters at the #killthebill protest in Bristol.

Recent coverage of the events by right wing media has more closely resembled a police press release than fair journalism and strongly differs with the accounts of protesters on the ground. All accounts agree that the protest was peaceful initially, with crowds of thousands of people marching throughout the day in the city centre, building off vigils in previous days. Around 6pm, demonstrators continued to Bridewell police station. A large number of protesters, including many young women, seated themselves on the pavement outside the station chanting. By the end of the night, police had deployed pepper spray, batons and canine units. Protesters fought back, resulting in station windows smashed and a police van set ablaze. 

Police have attacked peaceful protesters repeatedly in recent days, including beating a seated woman at the Bristol demonstration, but if protesters defend themselves or cause property damage, this receives disproportionate attention. Despite farm work, construction, lorry driving, and even car maintenance ranking as more dangerous jobs than police, the hazard of spray paint, a firework, or a crowd pushing over a van has been represented as a fatal threat, with some police reporting they were afraid of being killed in the news. This is a clear exaggeration of the danger posed by unarmed protesters. Adding to the irony of this, of course, is that a member of the Met police currently stands accused of a gruesome femicide. 

This one-sided portrayal of the protesters as violent, while neglecting the role of police violence against protesters, poses the question of what violence is taken seriously in our society. Is the repression of democratic rights violent? Is it violent that a woman is killed by a man every three days on average in the UK? What about the thousands of preventable deaths from austerity, including grotesque cases of benefits claimants starving to death while waiting on the DWP? 

No gains under capitalism have ever been achieved without conflict between the working class and those in power. Recent disputes in France over pensions and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA have required mass mobilisations over periods of months in the face of heavy police repression, and have equally come under fire in the media. While some Labour MPs have condemned the riot, along with left-media figures like Ash Sarkar who have said that it disturbs the “tentative alliance” between the left, the Labour front bench and Tory backbenchers, we utterly reject this analysis and must continue to protest against the expansion of policing powers. Change does not happen through coalition building with politicians who represent the interests of the ruling class. 

This is not to say that we would argue in favour of setting fire to police vans on a protest. While reflecting the deep anger felt by young people in particular, such actions can be used to justify further state repression. We fight for a mass movement of working class people including trade unionists, young people and community activists that can fight around clear demands and win concrete gains. But we understand completely why protesters faced with violence instinctively respond with violence.

This bill, and the approach of the Tory government to crack down on protests and working class opposition is a sign of a government in crisis, and one that feels threatened by protests. We have seen that this weak Tory government can be pushed back through the numerous U-Turns they have made over the past year. 

Socialist Alternative calls on members in trade unions, campaigning groups, and student unions to organise solidarity motions to #KillTheBill, defend the right to protest, and mobilise members to attend future vigils and protests. All groups with an interest in fighting this new legislation should come together in conferences of resistance around the country to discuss how we can build such a movement and what kind of programme we need to defeat this bill. We would call for democratic control over policing with power over where and how police are deployed, and the power to hire and fire officers. 

Such a movement would also need to organise defence and support of protesters victimised by the police. Last week, a Socialist Alternative organiser was fined and threatened with arrest for peacefully protesting in Merseyside. Please consider donating on the gofundme page we have set up to support them and others who may face similar treatment: https://www.gofundme.com/f/socialist-fined-for-defending-the-right-to-protest?utm_source=whatsapp-visit&utm_medium=chat&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet

Ultimately, the ruling class will always use the state to attack protestors and to crack down on movements they see as a threat. We need to fight for socialist change to put society into the democratic control of workers and young people. This is the only way to guarantee a society that operates in our own interests. If you agree we urge you to consider joining Socialist Alternative.