At perhaps 10,000 people, Sunday 21 March's Kill The Bill protest was one of the largest demonstrations I've been to in Bristol. Heading there from my home, it was as if the whole city was coming alive, people coursing through its otherwise quiet streets, all heading in the same direction, and to stand up for the right to protest. This is even more impressive given that it had to be organised “under the counter” due to current anti-protest regulations. The demonstration was energetic and angry, but with a buoyant and creative atmosphere.
The large majority of participants were comparatively young, under mid-30s. There were many home-made placards, and little else. Almost everyone was wearing masks, taking covid-safety seriously.
There was a strong appetite for wider politics, and excitement about the copies of Solidarity and Women's Fightback that I was selling.
As far as I could tell, hundreds or thousands on Sunday had come out as part of last year's Black Lives Matter protests: challenging police violence against black people. Many more had been out a week earlier as part of Reclaim These Streets, incensed by the police murder of women, and attempts by police to prevent and violently attack such protests.
Many others still had taken part in climate strikes, in Extinction Rebellion, or in other political protest movements.
After a lively, spirited and peaceful march, many demonstrators started to depart, taking a celebratory atmosphere from our sense of having fought back, and drifting into the sunny park, beers in hand.
Police attempts then to clear protestors from the road provoked hundreds of us to march down to the police station. Over the next few hours, kitted-out riot police — and horses — tussled with furious protestors. Police used batons, cameras, and pepper spray against demonstrators, while a small number of activists graffitied, rocked and eventually burned a van. Activists and police were injured, and many activists have been arrested.
The police are due a fair share of criticism for the rioting that happened, as are the media for their reporting of it and the protest as a whole. In this case, the direct action against the police was disadvantageous for fighting for the right for protest. But the big surprise here is that such a destructive expression of people's outrage hadn't happened previously.
Fury at the police's impunity when repressing, attacking, and murdering people is apt. Attempts to strengthen police powers and numbers justly fan that fire. And when the leaders of the labour movement and the left let us down or even attack those trying to challenge this; when the labour movement is not loudly offering a constructive and energetic alternative, is it any surprise that righteous ire gets channeled this way?