OPINION
26/03/2021 09:21 GMT

Blame Bristol’s Protests On The Government, Not The Protestors

The scenes in Bristol are an expression of anger at a failing government – and its plans to further silence dissent, writes journalist Alice O’Brien.

This week’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in Bristol are the consequence of a year of government failures. 

History has taught us that most authoritarian governments begin to end when there is social discontent. After a year of dishonesty (PPE contracts given to mates and not experts), cruelty (giving the NHS claps but not a pay rise) and racism (creating inhumane and unsafe migrant camps), the events on Sunday were inevitable. Like a modern day Louis XVI, Boris Johnson is more concerned with remodelling his apartments than focusing on his country’s civil unrest.

The main storyline most mainstream media outlets have reported is that the recent Bristol protests turned into a rage rally, thanks to a few bad eggs who disrupted the peaceful protest for the rest. It was a peaceful protest turned violent because of rioters – no, extremists – who just took things too far. 

This angle is very clever, as it doesn’t really blame the police, and it doesn’t really blame the ‘nice’ protestors either, just, you know, those ‘bad’ protestors who aren’t actually protestors, but just bad people. 

And, look, it worked. Who among us in Bristol didn’t see Facebook friends condemning the violence, disgusted by the “thugs” who caused chaos in our streets. I can understand why, as some local businesses were vandalised on the night of the protest, but that’s not what the media or my Facebook friends were referring to. They’re talking about the vandalism at the police station, the fireworks and the burning police van. 

To me, these events were clearly an attack on the organisation who would have to uphold this hated police and crime bill – which could see a protestor face ten years in jail for being a “serious annoyance or inconvenience” or defacing a statue – if passed. 

Individuals I know who went to the protest explained that they were angry with the wording of the bill. One argued that it opened the door to abuse of peaceful protestor, Travellers and activists – how can you define a serious annoyance or what makes people uneasy?

Another protestor told me she believes the bill aims to muffle dissent, when we should be free to defend our rights and voice our concern when we feel that those rights are being taken away.

Now, there have also been reports of the police starting the violence at the protest. Several activist organisations, including Black Lives Matter UK, Disabled People Against Cuts and Women’s Strike, signed Sisters Uncut’s statement declaring “it was protesters, not police, who bore the brunt of that violence. Police tactics, including kettling, the use of batons, and dispersal techniques such as horse charges, are violent in both intent and effect.” 

You may say that the police might have gotten “heavy-handed”, they gave the public fair warning, and it’s the public’s fault if they don’t adhere. It’s a shame that this needs to be said, but the police are here to protect the public, not attack them.

And before you yell “but lockdown”, of course during this dangerous time protests could be problematic – but then why did the government put this bill forward now? If protestors adhered to the lockdown rules, they would have no way to speak out against the unjust new rules. But protest, and they’ll be accused of putting people at risk, causing harm, even causing another lockdown. You can see how the protestors were always destined to be branded the villains in this story.

However you may feel about the actions that happened, the public went there to fight against authoritarian oppression. Yes vandalism, attacking buildings and fighting with the police isn’t pretty or “acceptable”, but it’s the last form of protest. 

It’s an expression of the anger caused by the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic; by making their friends richer while not providing food for children; by not listening to the science and causing a higher number of needless Covid deaths; by failing to tackle the systemic racism in our country. And it’s anger at a government now hoping to silence us further.

Alice O’Brien is a freelance journalist and researcher.