"(...)if we can’t be honest about the way the police operate in society, then what hope do we have of stopping the next unnecessary death at police hands, and what hope do we have of holding onto our democratic right to protest peacefully? "
The past couple of weeks have brought a wave of protests against the Government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill. There are many issues with the Bill, for example, that in the shadow of the vigil for Sarah Everard (sadly yet another victim of violence against women), the bill would make the sentence for pulling down a statue equivalent to twice the minimum prison sentence for rape. Furthermore, the bill is an open assault on members of the Gypsy, Roma & Traveller communities in the UK and would also make protests of any sort effectively illegal, banning any protest that causes “significant inconvenience or annoyance”. Which is, in many ways, the entire idea of a protest. The Government even put a whole clause in the bill that would make ‘noisy’ one-man protests illegal, seemingly in direct response to the protests of Steve Bray (known to many as the “Stop Brexit!” man) over the past few years.
This culminated in a protest in Bristol on the evening of the 21st of March which turned violent. Police vans were set alight, and the police station that the protest was eventually located at, was vandalised. Political leaders on all parts of the spectrum rightly condemned the violence, and the police reported that officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung. The violence on that evening, has only managed to increase calls for these restrictions on protest and has vilified all protest in the UK as a result.
However, more worrying is what the media have neglected to report on. It later transpired that the reports of officers’ injuries were massively overstated, and none had attended hospital. Despite these ‘injuries’ being the meat of the headlines of most mainstream media coverage of the events, very little coverage or correction of this fact has been made.
It is the response to a subsequent protest in the city on the night of the 23rd of March, that I find most disturbing. Completely peaceful protestors gathered to oppose the bill and were kneeling with their hands in the air, facing police officers wearing full riot gear with shields, attack dogs and horses. Soon after, the police used force to attempt to disperse this peaceful gathering and even started to assault at least one journalist with a press pass. Local BBC and ITV reporters started reporting that the protest was “peaceful until the police arrived.” However, they were told to delete their tweets in favour of stories that showed no police brutality or wrongdoing. Meanwhile, amateur videos at the scene showed police assaulting protestors and even snatching one seated demonstrator and dragging them along the ground by their hair into an abyss behind the impenetrable line of riot shields.
Yet, when I wake up the next morning… The BBC and other major news outlets have adjusted the story to be about the protest being ‘unlawful’. No mention of the open brutality used by officers. On the evening of Friday, 26th March, videos from another PCSC Bill protest in Bristol were shared to social media showing more unprovoked police violence towards protestors, including officers beating seated protestors with the edge of their shields, and charges from mounted officers towards the crowd.
The sad reality is, as someone who has been to many peaceful protests, policing is a widespread issue. At the Extinction Rebellion demo in London last September, protestors that had started climbing trees were subject to a common Police tactic of two stages. First, storming the crowd with quick and overwhelming force (or as I call it, the Blitzkrieg stage), and then escalating the situation as much as possible to invoke outrage, in this case attempting to pull these protestors out of their trees into a 12ft drop onto the concrete paving of Parliament Square. Now, I’m no pathologist, but I think I’m right in assuming that a 12ft drop onto concrete could be a life-threatening injury or potentially fatal if you land in the wrong way, but the police obviously didn’t care, as the protection of those trees was of more apparent concern to them than the lives of several teenagers.
We, of course, remember the videos of the police using the aforementioned tactic at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard and were rightfully shocked. According to representations made to Streatham Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy by an officer at the vigil, officers felt compelled to use this brutal tactic when people began making “left-wing political speeches”, as that signified to them that the vigil “was a protest and we aren't allowed to protest”. Indeed, Home Secretary Priti Patel stated on the morning after the second Bristol protest that; “protest is unlawful” due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, that may be open to interpretation as I’d consider attending a protest to protect democratic rights a “reasonable excuse” to gather.
Covid restrictions and their ensuing legislation have allowed the Government to decide whether a protest warrants a draconian response at their whim. Protests like the one in Bristol get unacceptable brutality, but anti-vax marches through London seem to simply be escorted along. If all protest is ‘unlawful’; surely both would have been shown the same response.
Ultimately, this all condenses down to the huge problem of the way we vilify any young, progressive protestors in this country; or more broadly, anyone who dares to be at odds with the police. We are taught to assume that the police are always right, and when the media reports differently, they are forced to quickly backtrack and spin the story a different way. Of course, they can and do commit many wrongdoings regularly, but few ever get reported by the media. Mohamud Hassan died in Cardiff after a short but highly suspicious period in police custody. Gwent Police also caused the death of Mouayed Bashir whilst restraining him in response to a mental health crisis, however, it is hard to find any press coverage of this.
Quite simply; violent crime, crowd control, and mental health crises should not be the responsibility of the same institution that uses bullying tactics in training, and has the power to detain. These are different situations that warrant separate responses. But, if we can’t be honest about the way the police operate in society, then what hope do we have of stopping the next unnecessary death at police hands, and what hope do we have of holding onto our democratic right to protest peacefully? Especially when Tory media are pushing this PCSC Bill as a part of their “war on woke” and in reaction to the protests of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion (the latter of whom; I have made my criticism of their tactic of direct action affecting ‘innocent’ members of the public, well known on Demographica).
The Tories’ narrative of how the world works in these areas is being given 24/7 coverage in the mainstream media (and that’s without adding Andrew Neil’s GB News to the infernal pot), and if social media wasn’t there on the night of the Sarah Everard vigil - or the Bristol protest on the 23rd of March, then chances are, we would never have known about what really happened there.
My plea to opposition politicians, and any other readers of this piece, is to challenge the narrative of the “war on woke” or “culture war” or whatever they call it, to scare people into protecting statues more than women on the streets or our democracy. We might not be able to change the law against an 80 seat Tory majority (yet), but we certainly can influence the conversation, and that should be the job of any opposition.
Additionally, make sure that you tell everyone you know about the police brutality. Be the news anchor for your family, your friends, and your social media followers. Finally, if you are at one of these protests - know your rights and film everything.
I condemn violence. Whether it comes from protestors or the police. But we must be honest about where it comes from and who it’s caused by, if we want to credibly stop it. Banning protests will not stop them from happening, it will only make violent ones more common. After all, it was John F. Kennedy who said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
If you learn one thing this week, let it be that police contempt of protests is endemic. Change starts with you, the reader. No matter how much political clout you have. No matter your politics. We all have a part to play to defend democracy. Spread the word. Stay angry. Stay peaceful. Stay safe.
Cai Parry is a 17-year-old Labour activist and Director of Communications & Outreach at Youth Strike 4 Climate - Cardiff and UKSCN Wales. His local activism has focused on environmental policy and education, having recently organized a successful protest into the Welsh Government's A-Level grading during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.