What’s Going On In Bristol? A Centrist’s View

“Look,” Matt said, “this is town right now”, he held out his phone for me to see. On the screen, a police van burned, officers fought with crowds and young people seemingly swarmed in on them, causing carnage and recording it on their mobile phones. In places, I could just about make out the dark and smoky shadows of the shops and locations that I knew, the city centre that I’d been through dozens of times before.

As I stepped outside, I could hear the distant rotary blades of the police helicopter, louder and quieter as the police helicopter moved closer and further away. As we watched the live feed, the situation seemed more and more violent, this was one time that the live feed just wasn’t live enough.

My heart broke.

Regardless of what you think of the new Police and Crime Bill, there is no way that we can condone the actions of those who attacked police officers on that fateful night. Regardless of where you stand, there is no fathomable way that anyone should be left fearing for their lives, simply whilst doing their job.

Perhaps for me, I care so passionately about this because my own father was attacked while doing his job. A social worker for children in social care, one of the young people tried to stab him in the chest as he left work for the day. Very fortunately, the offender only caught my father’s jacket and my father left unscathed, but the mental impact of that experience stayed with him until the day he died. Police officers are not mere commodities, they are loved ones, too.

But the equestrian and the dog mom in me couldn’t let up. As I saw police horses and dogs on the front line, I feared that they too would be attacked and harmed, even killed. Not the horses and dogs, please, not the horses and dogs. Nobody deserves to die.

Fortunately, that I know of, know dogs or horses have been hurt.

But what’s behind this protest, and what’s really been going on?

Understanding the UK’s New Police and Crime Bill

After the protests of groups like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter last year, the government has proposed new legislation that gives the police more powers to manage protests and stop protests getting out of hand. After Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter bought parts of London and other cities to a standstill last year, the police were understandably left feeling helpless and frustrated as statues were toppled, services were disrupted, paint was spilt and graffiti was sprayed. Despite the claims, the new bill does not make protest illegal. It does, however, impose limitations on the ways that protests are run.

Furthermore, the bill also proposes other rules which have caused a lot of upset, for example, imprisoning people who topple statues (particularly after the toppling of Edward Colston) would be set to ten years, versus the statutory 5-year prison sentence for rape. It also subjects Traveller communities to a three-month prison sentence for trespassing onto private land and living illegally if they refuse to move. There are further clauses which propose doing away with early releases for certain prisoners, and doubling the sentence for assaulting an emergency worker from one to two years – something some of Sunday’s protesters can surely be looking forward to right now.

So Why Are People Being Arrested For Protesting If It’s Not Against The Law?

This is the tricky bit. The new Police and Crimes bill has not yet been passed through government and so the police cannot act on it as of yet. However, England’s current lockdown laws prohibit the gathering of more than two people from separate households for any reason, apart from an emergency. The protesters are absolutely right in that they have a right to protest, and this is a huge part of a democratic Britain, but they were strongly encouraged to protest online in line with Coronavirus regulations and to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, and this is what these protesters have refused to do.

Why Are There Riots In Bristol, Particularly?

First and foremost, it’s important to undertand large swathes of Bristol’s demographic. Bristol is home to several colleges, as well as the University of Bristol halls and campuses. Given that laws impact their future, it is natural for young voices to campaign louder against the restrictions that are being imposed on them. Furthermore, Bristol also typically aligns itself with the Labour party, politically. Human rights, liberty and our vibrant, multicultural community make up the heart of modern Bristol, so where there’s a sense of repression, there is certain to be rebellion.

Secondly.i t’s important to understand that Bristol is, at least in part, a progressive city. We have pop-up shops run by young entrepreneurs, we have the Paintworks, which offers residency and workspace for creative minds full of innovative ideas. We have Bristol’s “poo bus” (it doesn’t stink, we promise!) and we took home the European Green City award in 2015. We have wind turbines in Avonmouth and GENeco, which helps convert food waste into biofertiliser and even more electricity for our city. We also now have a clean-air zone in central Bristol and plans for eight water fountains to be installed in our city centre, hopefully cutting down on plastic waste. Given this, then, it’s hard to say that Bristolians aren’t embracing positive change.

But Bristol feels affronted by protesters, too.

In June last year, protesters pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and after Black Lives Matter protests. This immediately led to a lot of uproar in Bristol between those who saw the statue as part of their city, and its history and those who saw the statue as a symbol of oppression. It’s removal was not elected and nor was the decision made on its fate. Because of that, a vast majority of Bristolians saw Black Lives Matter protesters as a bunch of thugs and hooligans, hellbent on destroying the city that they call home.

When Extinction Rebellion protesters blocked up parts of Bristol, many Bristolians were beyond livid. In our city centre, besides mass employment, we also have five hospitals including an emergency department, a cancer unit, a heart unit and a childrens’ hospital. When protesters failed to make way for emergency vehicles, Bristolians had had enough. Preventing people from accessing medical care was one thing, but preventing care for people in need of urgent help and potentially sick children was something else.

Very quickly, Bristol was stirred into action, and not in a way that the protesters were hoping. Far from being empathic to the protesters demands and concerns, many Bristolians deemed them as “hippies” and “troublemakers” with nothing better to do. From there on, each time activists turned up and caused trouble, Bristolians refused to listen. Far and wide, calls rallied out for the police to be given water cannons and rubber bullets to remove these groups from our streets.

The new Police and Crime Bill probably comes at a very bad time after the criticism of the ‘excessive force’ used by the Metropolitan police towards a vigil for Sarah Everard. On top of being accused of being a group of murderous individuals after the arrest of disgraced former police officer Wayne Couzens, any use of force was bound be seen as police brutality and another show of excessive force. Where there is anger, fear and a sense of injustice, there is always the potential for violence to ensue and when the police cracked down, so too did the protesters.

On Sunday, a peaceful protest was planned to protest against the Police and Crime Bill with a peaceful sit-down protest on College Green, Bristol. Under current UK coronavirus laws, anyone organising a gathering of more than 30 people can be subjected to a £10,000 fine and, with an estimated 3,000 people in attendance, nobody claimed organisation of the event so that nobody could be fined. However, a loathing for the police and s lack of true leadership quickly paved way for trouble to start.

Whilst many protesters said what they had to say and went home, an estimated 500 people remained in the city centre. It is believed that one protester instigated the violence, causing anarchy to descend on Bridewell Police Station. In the end, several police vehicles were burnt out, Bridewell Police Station was severely damaged and several cars – which belonged to NHS workers and were parked in a nearby multi-storey car park – had their windscreens smashed. Twenty-one officers were also injured in one night, two were left with broken bones and one of which also suffered a punctured lung.. In another horrifying incident, protesters attempted to set fire to a police van with officers still inside. Those behind this incident are now being sought for attempted murder.

But even for those of us who weren’t on the front line, the scenes from Sunday night were still shocking.

In the wake of this horrific incident, my city came alive once more. Just as Bristol descended into darkness on Sunday night, so the sun shone again on Monday morning. As Council workers swept glass from the roads and removed graffiti from walls, the police received an outpouring of local support.

On Monday, there were tears. This city, this city we all knew and loved, had been trashed. People were left shocked and appalled and a zero-tolerance attitude towards the protesters rung out. A lot of people decried the protests, citing that the new Bill only tamps out the way that protests are run,, it does not prohibit the right to protest, which is enshrined in British law. Even those who didn’t give gifts still showed strong moral support for the officers, with many positive words shared on social media.

But the protesters weren’t done there.

Last night, the protesters took to camping out on College Green to protest the Right To Roam and the Right To Reside. To a point, what the protesters say is true.

As British or Irish citizens, or those with indefinite leave to remain, they do have a right to reside in the UK. However, the protesters argue that the Right To Roam entitles them to park on any land, public or private, and set up a home if they choose. This is where they would be breaking civil, and eventually criminal, law. The Right to Roam means the right to walk through owned land, it is not the right to stay there and set it up as your new home.

As someone who has seen both sides of the divide, I can understand the anger, but I can also understand why travelling communities are a problem for those of us with private land and permanent homes. I have dated a van-dweller and he was nothing but lovely towards me, and as such, I’m sure many others are as well.

But that, unfortunately, still doesn’t put them above the law.

Furthermore, for all of the lovely folks, there are some not-so-nice individuals and, when a group of Travellers accessed land at Blaise Castle Estate in Henbury, Bristol, news quickly circulated on social media that individuals from the encampment were threatening or trying to steal peoples’ dogs. My brother, himself a security guard, has had to deal with thefts, harassment and the aftermath of an acid attack after two rival Gypsy communities decided to have it out with one another in his place of work.

So then, wherein lies the solution?

Whilst I do understand the what’s and the whys behind this new law, I think its imperative that we understand the what’s and the whys of the Nomadic way of life and we understand and work towards a solution on the homelessness crisis. It is not enough to criminalise these people when homes stay empty and Traveller sites are derelict. As well as cracking down on the misuse of private land, we must also make it possible for everyone to have somewhere to stay that is safe, functional and suitable. It’s fine to decry them parking on private land, but in doing so, we must ensure that they have somewhere suitable to go.

What About The Right To Protest?

Unfortunately, even in spite of all of these outstanding and contentious issues, the coronavirus laws do still remain in place and the focus is on preventing the spread and the impact of the virus right now. I have heard young poeple decry the virus as “stupid” and “no more dangerous than a common cold”, though I’m sure that family members of the 126,000 who have lost their lives to Covid-19 would disagree. Public gatherings of more than two people are still illegal until Monday, when the ‘group of six’ rule will come into effect. Even if not organising the event, those who attend can still expect a £200 fine (most likely to increase now in the wake of Sunday night), plus further charges for assaulting a police officer (if it’s appropriate) and obstruction. Bristol itself is already becoming resolute towards protesters and, if these scenes continue for much longer, I fear that the protesters may face a large, plain-clothed task force which is far more uncoordinated and ruthless than the police could ever be. Bristol does welcome change, but it does not welcome lawlessness, violence and destruction.

Instead of gathering right now, there are still plenty of of other ways that we can protest without putting lives at risk. Coordinated front-door vigils, socially distanced sit-downs and, of course, writing to MPs and starting online petitions. Despite the cries your voice has not been silenced, and I say use it sensibly while you’ve still got it, Heaven forbid you should lose it for real.

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