a skateboarder does a trick in front of a burning police van in Bristol

What actually Happened in Bristol – and How a Narrative is Built

It’s easy to get a sense of deja-vu when you get home and start reading press reports and twitter accounts from a demonstration. For that reason, whilst I’ll be writing about the events in Bristol this Sunday, I’m also writing about dozens of other demonstrations over the years. I hope you’ll join me on a ramble about how a protest went down, and how press, police, politicians, and their cheerleaders, constructed a narrative around it.

The Build Up
Anger at police and government abuse has been quietly simmering, since the UK BLM demonstrations of summer 2020. Whilst the streets were quieter, the racist and sexist policing has continued. The murder of Sarah Everard, likely by a police officer, led to an out pouring of both grief and louder (but still restrained) anger. Anger at the sexist violence women face on a daily basis, and at a so-called justice system that at best ignores this suffering, and all to often contributes to it. The largest of the vigils that followed the murder took place on Saturday 13th March on Clapham Common.

As if to prove the latter point, police attacked the vigil. They waited until the numbers at the vigil were smaller, until the sky was darker, and until they had built up enough force to overwhelm the crowd still present. The reports and pictures from these attacks spread, and this created a problem for the police. It also created a problem for their bosses in government, as they were hoping to quietly pass a bill aimed at increasing police powers to target protests, travellers, and those who damaged monuments.

The Narrative Begins
First the press responded to the attack on the vigil by reporting it in ‘passive voice’. Reports stated ‘clashes occurred at a vigil’ or ‘clashes between protesters and police’. Words carefully chosen to not indicate who had started the clashes (the police) and who had been on the receiving end of the majority of the violence (those attending the vigil). Whilst not technically a lie, the intention here is to avoid blaming the police, or to imply that the protesters were at fault. Of course had the protesters actually instigated the violence, the early reports would say exactly that, ‘crowds attack police’. Also, wait… Protesters? Now that was the second trick of words. People attending a vigil don’t sound very threatening or unlawful. Vigil invokes images of flowers, grief stricken speeches, candles, sadness. An accurate description of what had taken place on Clapham Common, but not the most useful if you want to paint the police positively. So many news outlets chose to term everyone present as ‘protesters’. Politicians, such as home secretary Priti Patel were quick to chime in condemning the ‘violence’ caused by ‘protesters’ at an ‘unlawful gathering’, and the press dutifully repeated these claims, often uncritically.

This wasn’t enough however, even if it was reported as a protest, people had seen the pictures, and most would agree that murder is worth protesting about. Next up we need the quotes from police. Sometimes these are lies, but often they are selective truths helping to build up a false narrative. They can let themselves off on a technicality. The aim here is to continue to paint the vigil as dangerous, and also to divide those present into a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ group.

First they will report on any police injuries ‘six police received medical attention due to the protest’ they might say. Look at what they aren’t saying. Injured how? Were they knocked out by an enraged protester with a bat… or did they feel faint from dehydration, trip over and crack a rib on a shield, catch their hand in a car door or break a finger bashing someone over the head? If you think i’m exaggerating how police may report injuries I urge you to read this report from a 2008 climate camp. This is a useful tactic for them, as it is very rare that figures are collected for how many protesters were injured, and the assumption may be that this means that number is zero, and the police were thus on the receiving end of more violence than they dished out.

Secondly they will seek to spread rumours. They’ll agree most of the thousands of people present were peaceful, support the cause, and shouldn’t have been attacked by the police. Then they will, in hushed tones, point out that there were a minority of those people present. Who are those people? Hardly matters. Whoever the boogie man of the day is. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Extinction Rebellion, Anarchists, ‘hardcore feminists’. Of course it is fairly common for someone to attend events about multiple issues without a secret plan to ‘hijack’ them. This isn’t important. What is important is the demonisation and othering of those who were beaten and arrested. They weren’t people like you and me, people rightly concerned about violence against women, and about police over reach. They were, hardcore agitational anarcha feminist BLM rebels!

Thirdly, they will desperately try and place the blame on the victims of police violence. They will talk about how the protesters stared shouting when police marched in (how terrible). How there were swear words on placards (oh my!). How the event was an ‘unlawful gathering’. How it is those dastardly vigil attendees who should be ashamed. They will under no circumstances admit that the police may have escalated a calm situation or otherwise acted to make things worse. In the past police and press have even gone as far as suggesting police were right to assualt a man in a wheelchair for rolling towards them ‘aggressively‘.

At this point you’ll get the ‘opinion pieces’ in papers, the editorials, the endless reports on social media, here, free of any fact checking, it’s easier to lie. The early reporting may dance with the truth, but in the following days ‘antifa super soldiers hijack vigil and launch attack on police officers’ is deemed acceptable to print or share online. This will be followed by the ‘friendly fire’; the concerned criticism by people who claim to be ‘on the side of the cause’ but have either bought the narrative, or just want to look respectable (and score political points). Now let’s get back to the topic of the day…

hundreds of people outside bridewell police station. Many are sitting down, clapping and chanting.
The protest outside Bridewell Station mostly involved sitting and chanting, before the police attacked it

What Actually Happened in Bristol
For over a week crowds had been gathering nightly on College Green to mourn women killed by sexist violence, and to protest the complicity of the police in sexist, and other, forms of violence. Alongside this, many had been sharing an anonymous call-out for a demonstration against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, under the slogan #KillTheBill. The demo explicitly stated it had no organisers, so there was no one for the police to pressure to cancel it, just call-outs from dozens of groups and news outlets.

From 1.30pm on Sunday, people started to gather near College Green. Police started to approach individuals and small groups, demanding they leave, threatening fines or arrest, or asking them to submit to questioning. However they quickly backed off as the crowds grew. Shortly after 2pm, there were over 5000 people present (the largest demo since the previous summer’s 15,000+ BLM demo).

Over the next few hours crowds moved around central Bristol with a party atmosphere that is somewhat stereotypical for our city. Chants, songs, samba, sound systems, and yes, more than a few swears, were the audio back drop to an incredibly diverse mix of placard waving Bristolians. Many drifted off, and most that remained had settled down on the grass in castle park, or milling around near the top of Union Street. It was there, as things were dying down that police manhandled and attempted to remove a protester who was sitting down. It was after this provocation, at about 6pm, that those still up for marching headed down the hill next to the Galleries towards Bristol’s central police station – Bridewell.

For the first ten minutes or so after the protest arrived at Bridewell there are only about a dozen police present, not in riot gear, and spread out in front of the police station entrance and a couple of parked vans. One of which is soon driven away, one left empty. One or two hundred people sat down in front of the police station chanting and ranting, overwhelmingly this group was young, and made up mostly of women, the rest of the protesters stood across the street from the station, or fanned out along the pavement approaching it. Despite the police being on the back foot, out numbered something like 90-1, no one attacked them. No one pushed past them to the unguarded entrance, or threw rocks at the GLASS WALLS of the station.

At this point the first major wave of additional police arrived, dozens of riot police, and half a dozen mounted units. They began to push the crowd back, surrounding and isolating parts of it. They pushed people over, moved them back, and some police lashed out at the crowd. Despite this, the protesters, whilst tense, remained restrained. Many people were still sat on the floor, or miling around by the station walls. The most retaliation from the crowd during this 20minute or so stand off consisted of chants of ‘shame on you’ and some rocking of the lone police van.

At this point, approaching 6.40pm the police had a choice, line up defensively by their station perhaps, even pull back a little, or escalate and create a dangerous and increasingly violent situation. They chose the latter, and sent in the dogs, literally in the case of the canine units who would soon deploy, and metaphorically in the case of the human officers who baton charged the crowd, striking at the heads of those standing, kicking folks on the floor, and even hitting a young woman sat on the floor hands raised telling them this was a peaceful protest.

A police officer outside bridewell pushes a protester whilst getting ready to hit them with a baton, the crowd is passive.
Can you spot the violent minority?

As a public narrative, this will simply not do! It paints the police in a bad light, so the false narrative starts to be built, obscuring the truth. The news editors, politicians, senior police officers, the twitter ranting media personalities with talk shows and click-bait columns, all start to take note. ‘Protesters clash with police’ they say or ‘Clashes outside Bristol police station during protests’, as if the protests created clashes without even the need of anyone to clash with! Later they’lll report on the poor van ‘it was being rocked’! Who could blame the police for seeing a van being rocked, and then beating an unrelated protester? Even if that protester was sat on the floor half a minute down the road entirely separated from the van by a line of riot cops?

I genuinely think the power of the response from the protesters surprised the police. Initially it was relatively passive – the arrival of the police dogs was met by a couple in the crowd attempting to feed them pizza. Then, when the police took the gloves off and really struck out, the people struck back. Batons, pepper spray and shields were met with fists and sticks. The police vans that drove into the crowd were attacked with bottles and spray paint. Another key point in the press building the false narrative is that the BBC initially posted an article reporting on how the police vans were attacked with bottles after driving into the crowd. They edited it to simply say the police vans were attacked. A very different implication.

During the chaos someone let off a few fireworks in the crowd. Potentially dangerous, but less dangerous than those police dogs who did get taken away at this point, spooked by the loud noises (its unclear if this was deliberate). The dogs were repeatedly redeployed throughout the night. Despite how dangerous that is for the protesters, for the dogs, and even for the police, at least one of whom very nearly got castrated by his charge. One of the first media narratives that dominated was protesters endangering police animals, well, its the police that brought them there and used them as weapons. In fact the police horse units were still on the streets six hours after it kicked off (horses unharmed), so either there was never any danger to them from the crowd, or police chose to repeatedly put them in harms way all night.

That isolated van from earlier ended up spray painted in between the second and third waves of police violence, and then set alight, amazing how forgetful police are with one or two vehicles during every major protest. New vans lined up in front of the station as riot cops filled the streets. After a brief lull things kicked off again, the police were less sure of themselves as the crowd had not simply bowed down before their batons and pepper spray. People made it to those great glass walls and shattered a few panes (I heard some reports that people even got inside). Others spray painted windows reached by scaling the part of the police station made of brick, but only one storey high. The police secured the front of the station, but weren’t willing or able to disperse the crowd, or leave them be. After an hour the crowds been pushed back down side streets, but would repeatedly return to Bridewell Street. Many protesters were injured and others scared, but it was heart-warming to see how well people looked out for each other. Spontaneous first aid stations were set up, supplies were shared, and people made sure to get those worst off out of the area, often at risk to themselves. Running battles would continue for hours, and at least one more police vehicle went up in flames. By 8pm the police were desperately asking for any riot-trained officers to report for duty, and many officers were still on the streets well after midnight.

What is Important to Take From All This?
We cannot control the mainstream media narrative by simply trying to follow its rules. It doesn’t matter how we behave. If the police attack us, the media will paint us as violent. The most common cause of being arrested for assaulting a police officer at a demo is having been assaulted BY one, who then needs an excuse.

We should be ready to put out our own narrative as quickly as possible, before a false narrative solidifies in the hours and days following a protest, but with the dominance of just a handful of massive media corporations this is always a difficult proposition. However the media narrative is as predictable as it is out of touch with the reality of the situation. This is something we need to explain to people we converse with. We know what the police are like better than some journo sat in an office in London. A journo likely putting together and anti-protest hit piece with via copy-paste and random keyboard bashing.

We have to hope that those who broadly… very broadly… share our aims when it comes to the police bill will believe us over the press and police. This may take some persuasion. However, even the most strictly pacifist protester will have seen their actions twisted in the papers, and can hopefully be dissuaded from sharing the narrative of the police and politicians. Their willingness to buy into a false narrative, or desire to quickly differentiate themselves as more respectable than those that ‘clash’ with police may lead them to condemn protesters as a knee-jerk reaction. This simply plays into the hands of the police, helps confirm the false narrative, helps the attack on protest in general.

If this describes you then, well, don’t do that yeah? I respect anyone who can stand there and take a baton to the head, a kick to the ribs, who can watch their mate be pepper sprayed and stick to a personal code of pacifism. Who can put their hands in their pockets and not strike out… but for a lot of people, most of us perhaps, the strong instinct is to stop attackers from hurting us, and those around us. Even if this collective self defence involves the throwing of a punch or a stick.

We can’t let one protest dominate the discussion for long. This isn’t about one protest, this is about a bill that clearly spells out the governments plan for a far more authoritarian country. Some folks will want to argue back and forth about whether collective self defence against the police harmed or helped the cause, but we can’t let that be the main argument. I’ve already seen some say that violent protest will give the government an extra excuse to make this bill law, but this bill isn’t about people who fight the cops. You won’t be surprised to learn that police already have more power than they need to arrest you for fighting back against them. This law is about protests where no one is even fighting back. This law would cause MORE aggressive protests, because if peaceful, subservient, obedient protest is punishable by ten years in prison, why wouldn’t any sane person riot instead?

Article written by one of Bristol Anarchist Federation, after compiling reports from AFed members, other protesters, and independent journalists such as Alon Aviram.

If you or anyone you know was arrested, witnessed an arrest, or is concerned they may be arrested contact Bristol Defendant Solidarity for help. Remember, always ‘no comment’ until you’ve spoken to a GOOD solicitor.

If you want to join in the struggle, get in touch with AFed, BDS, Bristol Cop Watch, Sisters Uncut, or just a group of sound mates. Keep an eye on our social media for more how-to guides on staying safe and effective at demos in the coming weeks.