‘Kill the bill’: surge in Bristol riot charges prompts alarm over civil liberties

MP says police seem to be punishing people for challenging them during clashes in the city last year

Dozens of mainly young “kill the bill” protesters have been charged with riot – the most serious public order offence – following clashes in Bristol last year. The decision by Avon and Somerset police and the Crown Prosecution Service appears to be the biggest use of riot charges against demonstrators since the 1980s.

The force launched one of its largest investigations after a confrontation between riot police and protesters opposed to the police and crime bill – which will allow the police to curb protests – spiralled into violent clashes outside a police station in Bristol on 21 March last year.

It has been accused of giving the impression of “revenge policing” and giving in to political influences. The police claimed mobs of people attacked officers, damaged police vans and a police station in a night of sustained violence. But MPs later heard evidence that the disorder was sparked by the police pepper-spraying and beating demonstrators taking part in a sit-down protest outside the station.

The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on democracy and the constitution also heard that the police’s use of force, including deploying dogs, batons, and shield strikes, known as “blading”, was often considered disproportionate in the days that followed. The report says it was not clear who struck first but that there was ‘“significant and serious” violence directed at police officers.

At least 62 protesters reported injuries over the course of the week, including 22 with head wounds and seven who required hospital treatment, whereas 44 officers were hurt. The force withdrew widely reported claims that officers suffered broken bones and a punctured lung.

Protesters charged with riot, which is rarely used and requires the sign-off of the director of public prosecutions, could face jail terms of up to 10 years. Analysis of Home Office figures shows only 22 people have been convicted of riot since 2011.

Jasmine York, who was cleared of riot last week.
Jasmine York, who was cleared of riot last week. Photograph: Tom Wall/The Observer

Avon and Somerset police said it was still in the middle of one of its largest ever investigations after “police vehicles were damaged and set alight, officers were assaulted and our neighbourhood police station was vandalised during a riot in Bristol city centre on Sunday, 21 March 2021”.

The charges against 38 protesters come amid growing concern from civil liberty groups that protesters are facing ever more serious public order charges, which could have an impact on the right to protest.

Detectives are still seeking 34 people in connection with the Bristol clashes, so even more protesters could be charged with riot over the coming months. At least four of the people charged are homeless. Others have learning and mental health difficulties. Ryan Roberts – who attempted to set fire to occupied police vans in the most serious incidents of the night – has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and was said to be living on the fringes of society. Roberts, of no fixed address, received a 14-year sentence in December.

Many protesters face trials later this year but some have already gone to court. So far, 13 people have been sentenced to a total of more than 51 years in prison, including five charged with riot for kicking police shields, throwing items at police, kicking police station windows and hitting police vans. A woman was jailed for five months for urinating at the feet of an officer.

Last week, Jasmine York, who was charged after she complained she was beaten by officers and mauled by a police dog at the protest, was cleared of riot by a jury. The court was shown footage of York, 26, being struck at least three times by batons and bitten by a police dog. She was convicted of a lesser charge of arson for pushing a wheelie bin towards a burning car and will be sentenced next month. Another woman, Mariella Gedge-Rogers, was found guilty of riot on Friday.

Geraint Davies MP, the chair of the APPG on democracy and the constitution, which investigated the disturbances in Bristol, criticised the police. “They massively overreacted at the time and were found out after they misled the press and tried to mislead our inquiry,” he said. He questioned whether the riot charges appeared to be “seeking to punish peoplein an excessive and disproportionate way, not just for protesting but for challenging the police”.

Davies added that the police should not be handed even more powers in the police and crime bill. “The police abuse the power they have but the government still want to give them all sorts of new powers to restrict protests. They need more accountability not less.”

Avon and Somerset police added that the MPs’ report also recognised that officers faced real violence and hostility and put themselves on the line to keep people safe.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has taken an active interest in recent operational policing decisions in Bristol. She described the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020 as “utterly disgraceful” and demanded an explanation from the then-chief constable about why officers did not intervene.

Patel and the prime minister, Boris Johnson, also backed the police’s version of events following the “kill the bill” protests in Bristol. Patel said the law-abiding majority would be appalled by the actions of a “criminal minority”, while Johnson gave the police his full support and branded the protest “a mob intent on violence”.

Shami Chakrabarti, the former shadow attorney general, said she feared Avon and Somerset police had been influenced by the government’s increasingly harsh and authoritarian approach to public dissent. “Charging people with such serious public order offences is going to chill dissent and protest,” she said. “It is especially concerning when it comes after criticism of the force from the home secretary.”

She added: “It is particularly worrying if people face serious charges after they have complained to the media about their treatment. Defensive and political policing only undermines public trust in the law.”

Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor, who is co-writing a book on the policing of protests, said his research suggested the sheer number of demonstrators charged with riot in Bristol was almost unprecedented. “This is by far and away the biggest use of riot charges since the mid-1980s – and in all likelihood the most under the current public order act.”


Tom Wall

The GuardianTramp

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