Reflections on the riot in Bristol

Yesterday Bristol erupted into rioting in what is likely to amount to the first instance of new forms of resistance to the draconian Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Following on social media it was hard to tell exactly what was transpiring outside the images of objectively cool people doing kickflips in front of burning cop cars and, well, so many burning cop cars.

That this happened in Bristol is perhaps unsurprising, but it could also have happened anywhere. There is popular anger against the police, both for a serving police officer allegedly murdering Sarah Everard and for the attack on the freedom to protest. There have been vigils and marches across the country, attended by thousands. A petition organsied by the Network for Police Monitoring has attracted near 300,000 signatures in the past week. As local radical outlet Alternative Bristol notes:

After a tough winter of lockdown & covid stress, many see the Tory move to introduce the Bill as outright cynical, and an attempt to turn temporary coronavirus restrictions into something more permanent whilst the people remain resticted by the lockdown. The last couple of weeks have seen simmering anger at the Government, and the police. Tonight that exploded, and it happened to be in Bristol, but could have been anywhere.

We should be wary of making distinctions between the riot and the protests that took place earlier in the week. To do so would be to lay the ground for the inevitable (indeed as of last night already underway) attempts to divide this nascent movement into the ‘bad’ rioters and the ‘good’ peaceful protesters. The police have criminalised in some form every resistance to the police crackdown bill. In Newcastle yesterday police harrassed protesters as they laid flowers in memory of Sarah Everard. Just over a week ago the Met attacked women at an entirely peaceful vigil for Everard, right in the raw moments of the news that a serving Met officer had been charged with Sarah’s murder. Protests this week have also been reactions to police repression.

credit: Alon Aviram/ Bristol Cable

The protests in London on Sunday and Monday were in response to police violence at the vigil on Saturday. Bristol ascsended into a riot once the riot police, horses and dogs had already been deployed. Again, from Alternative Bristol:

What was a carnivalesque party & protest at the top of Union Street/onto Castle Park at 5pm, has ignited into serious clashes this evening during a picket of Bridewell police station in the city centre. […] Outside Bridewell the atmosphere was initially a continuation of Bristol’s party vibe. But within an hour this escalated as riot police arrived in 6 vans, along with 4 mounted police, to protect their police station – and clashes developed as protesters refused to disperse. Later as dusk fell, more police with dogs arrived, and more riot police, but protesters continued to stand their ground, and some responded in kind to the police use of force.

Alternative Bristol Mar 21, 2021

There has already been talk of the ‘optics left’. And yes, it has been grimly chilling, if unsurprising, to see Labour MPs, so slow to condemn police violence at the vigil last week, make themselves indistinguishable from Priti Patel. We should never forget that the current leader of the labour party brutally repressed rioters in 2011 when he was director for public prosecutions. Disproportioniate sentencing and 24 hour courts are in his blood, authoritarianism is an instinct. What we don’t need now, is a kind of triangulation away from the riot and we should challenge those who try to do so.

What to take from the Bristol riot? First, we should look to our existing activist legal support infrastructure, something which has been providing a fundamental solidarity to those who have been subjected to police violence, be it arrest, Fixed Penalty Notices, incarceration in police cells or assualt. A heartening feature of this current movement has been the centring of legal support, something which the police have took notice of and are none too happy about. Second, we should recognise that the walling off of ability to protest, drowning a fundamental freedom in beaurcracy, officially sanctioned leaders and dizzyingly restrictive conditions will make what happened in Bristol more likely. Protest itself is not going away as the climate crisis deepens, as the state keeps killing and as the inequality and poverty spreads. For now we continue to build the movement we need for our present moment.