News & Analysis

Bristol, riots and resistance

30 March 2021

It’s the police violence we should be condemning

On Sunday 21st March, thousands of Bristolians attended a demonstration against the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently working its way through Parliament. This bill grants the police further powers to ban political protests on the thin grounds of causing “public nuisance”, “annoyance” or “inconvenience”. Those who defy such a ban could be sentenced to up to ten years in prison. Stop and search powers, long used by police to harass poor and ethnic minority communities, will be expanded, as will powers to harass Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities through the criminalisation of trespass.

The demonstration on Sunday 21st was peaceful, until the Avon and Somerset Police, kitted out in riot gear, attacked the protesters. Protesters fought back, and the subsequent violence and mild vandalism made national headlines. Of course, the national and local media (aside from the Bristol Cable and a few other honest outlets) gave the police’s version of events, making out that the protest turned violent as a result of troublemakers looking for a fight. Vastly inflated accounts of the number and extent of police injuries were circulated. These are simply lies. Anyone who has attended a protest that has ended in confrontation will be familiar with the experience of being attacked by the police, only to return home to see the news reporting on how demonstrators had erupted in unprovoked violence. Such fabrications should, of course, not be entertained by anyone on the left.

We have since seen two further demonstrations in Bristol, one on Tuesday 23rd – a peaceful camp out at College Green aimed at highlighting the anti-Traveller elements of the bill, and another demonstration on Friday 26th. Both were attacked by the police. The police have also spent the last week harassing and arresting protesters, turning up at people’s homes and forcing their way in without showing identification.

The police have felt confident to attack these demonstrations because, by pushing through this bill, the Tory government has clearly signalled its intention to grant them carte blanche in exchange for the police their using these increased powers to suppress any form of opposition to the Tories’ agenda. Coming out of the lockdown, with a looming economic crisis due to both the pandemic and Brexit, the prospect of mass unemployment, low wages and precarious employment, and the promise of further austerity, the Tories have to assume that increased resistance is likely. They will therefore rely more and more on the police to quell discontent. Protests against these powers are therefore of fundamental importance to anyone who hopes to build resistance to the Conservative government. Unconditional solidarity with those who demonstrate, and condemnation of police brutality against them, should be demanded.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, many of Bristol’s Labour politicians have led the condemnations of those attacked by the police. Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, for example, said:

“Smashing buildings in our city centre, vandalising vehicles, attacking our police will do nothing to lessen the likelihood of the Bill going through. On the contrary, the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the Bill.”

Such denunciations, of course, are intended to signal that Labour politicians are committed to the “sensible” management of capitalism. Under Keir Starmer, the Labour leadership is on a mission to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of British capital, and nothing but full-throated support for police violence should be expected.

Why is it kicking off in Bristol?

Bristol’s youth and poor have been cut adrift by the very politicians who are now condemning them. As in the rest of the country, the young people of Bristol face rising unemployment, precarious and low paid work, massive amounts of debt, shoddy, expensive housing, and ever decreased prospects of advancement. Young people in our poorer and more marginalised communities, particularly from black, Asian and traveller backgrounds, face frequent police harassment. These issues led many young people to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many getting involved in electoral politics for the first time to do just that.

It is for this reason that plaintive calls for people not to resort to violence and seek peaceful solutions through legal means ring so hollow. Young people did, in their thousands, fight for policies to improve their own lives and those of others, by joining and voting for the Labour Party, and campaigning for its MPs to get elected, in the hope of forming a government that could enact meaningful reforms. While doing so, they witnessed many of the same Labour figures who are now demanding that they stick to peaceful, constitutional means sabotage those efforts and dash any hopes of such reforms. When “legitimate” avenues of political expression are closed off, we should not be surprised if people react with anger.

Others may be sympathetic to the protesters but argue that confrontation with the police is not real strategy for change. This is in a sense correct. Fights with the police on their own are not enough to enact real social change. The capitalist state is durable enough to withstand occasional riots of the dispossessed and alienated. It is only through the mass mobilisation of the organised working class – through actions such as strikes and workplace occupations – that a movement can be built with the power to overturn the capitalist system and build a new one. The working class’s potential power comes from its position at the point of production. However, arguments to this effect in response to events in Bristol ignore two basic truths. The first, already discussed, is that it was the police who attacked the protesters, not the other way around. The protesters did not fight the police as part of a wider strategy for social change, but rather to defend themselves and others against unprovoked violence. Secondly, if one argues that people should be pursuing other strategies, these alternatives need to seem like viable options.

It is inevitable when the working-class movement is moving so slowly, that some people will become impatient and run ahead. We have now suffered under eleven years of Tory rule, and thirteen years of austerity, with the trade union movement having barely put up a fight at all. The left, quite rightly, sees the organised working class as the key to bringing about social change; but so far, the left, and the trade union movement, have utterly failed to prove this in practice. If we wish to genuinely win the youth of Bristol, and of Britain as a whole, to a strategy of mass working class activity, we must stand in solidarity with them against police brutality, and demand that the trade union movement does the same. In standing up to defend the right to protest, they were fighting for rights not just for themselves, but for every trade unionist and activist.

We must link the police bill to the wider reactionary agenda of this government, and the Kill the Bill protests to the need for a mass working class and youth movement against this government and its austerity agenda, for employment and against benefit cuts, and against the racism and sexism endemic to our society and the violence the state is metering out to those who dare protest it.

The Bristol protests and those taking place up and down the country have brought together many organisations, from BLM and Sisters Uncut to anti-auserity campaigns and travellers’ rights organisations. The growing protest movement has put the Tories on the back foot. Through the continued coordination of this powerful united front in each town and city, the movement could both defeat this bill and go on to organise and escalate resistance to the Tories’ entire agenda.

Spontaneous outbursts of anger against the system should not be condemned but applauded. At least there are some who are not willing to take these sustained attacks lying down and are prepared to fight back. We should not be trying to hold them back; we should be trying to catch up.

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