bristol protests police powers

Bristol Protests Reveal the Dangers of Increased Police Powers

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Last night, protests against the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill broke out in Bristol, following similar demonstrations across the country. The Bill – which passed its second parliamentary hearing but has since been delayed due to public response – is set to increase police powers further, allowing for a crackdown on peaceful protests. 

Since the start of the pandemic, lockdown restrictions have been used to grant further police powers with little to no parliamentary or public scrutiny. Under Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, police are able to take action against ‘potentially infectious’ people, allowing for contact and movement to be restricted and criminal offences to be applied to those who do not comply.

However, concerns have been raised regarding the police misusing these powers, since a review by the Crown Prosecution Service in May 2020 found that all 44 cases charged under the Coronavirus Act had been incorrectly charged, as they did not relate to ‘potentially infectious’ people. 

police powers escalated during covid

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the police abusing their newfound powers throughout the pandemic. In May, it was revealed that BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people were 54% more likely to be fined under Coronavirus rules than white people. Despite making up 15.5% of the population, BAME people received at least 22% of the fines.

What’s more, stop-and-search use in London rose by 40% during lockdown, yet only one in five led to arrest, prompting fears that the police were using the power indiscriminately. This all occurred against a backdrop of reduced crime. 

The last week of public protests against the widely criticised Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seemingly reflects a breaking point; a culmination of months of police abusing their newly granted powers. Protests began following the tragic death of Sarah Everard – who was allegedly kidnapped and murdered by serving Metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens.

When members of the public gathered at a vigil to mourn Sarah while demanding an end to violence against women, the gathering spiralled into chaos as police began kettling those attending, waiting for the sun to set before attacking participants and arresting a number of them. This came after the police had threatened initial organisers of the vigil with excessive fines and legal action should they proceed with the peaceful gathering. 

The last week of public protests against the widely criticised Bill seemingly reflects a breaking point; a culmination of months of police abusing their newly granted powers

It shone a damning light on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which the UK government had introduced as new criminal justice legislation just weeks prior. The Bill – which had been criticised by civil liberties organisations such as Liberty HQ – had barely made news prior to the vigil, with Labour MPs intending only to abstain on it during its second parliamentary hearing. However, following the brutality and unnecessary aggravation demonstrated by police officers during Sarah Everard’s vigil, it soon faced mounting criticism, leading Labour’s stance to shift as they instead moved to vote against it. 

Regrettably, despite this, the Bill passed its second reading. However, it has been delayed following continued protests against its erosion of civil liberties. The Bill has been described as an assault on the right to protest, since it would allow police to clamp down on protests that might “impact” or “unease” people. Given the very nature of protest, this would grant police sweeping powers to prevent any demonstration they see fit, with their actions towards the Sarah Everard vigil providing a horrifying glimpse of what the future may hold if the new Bill is enacted into law. 

When last night’s Bristol protests against the Bill turned violent, the mainstream media, commentators and MPs alike were quick to brandish protesters as ‘thugs’ and ‘animals’. Yet barely touched upon was the fact that, again, police allegedly instigated this violence. 

bristol protests police powers

One Bristolian shed light on the situation, writing on Twitter: ‘Protesters were being peaceful, people were sat in front of police station, as in literally sat. Police pushed people, kicked people on floor. People pushed back. Police in riot gear batonned people in head, sent in attack dogs & horses, people kicked off.’ Yet despite having clear evidence that the police had initiated a similarly violent approach just days earlier at the London vigil, many were quick to shed their solidarity with protesters, dictating that ‘rioters’ were at fault. 

We are urged to accept having our anger policed, with the very institutions responsible for our oppression attempting to control when and how the public expresses its resistance in a way that suits them

Scenes of police vans set alight and reports of police officers being injured elicited despair and disgust among prominent public figures. But when confronted with the reality that police frequently abuse their powers, these same people fall silent. Instead of questioning why protesters resorted to violence, should we not question why they felt this was necessary?

Time and again the public is gaslighted into believing that their response to being oppressed is an unnecessary over exaggeration; an inconvenience. We are urged to accept having our anger policed, with the very institutions responsible for our oppression attempting to control when and how the public expresses its resistance in a way that suits them.   

At a time when our right to protest is under threat and police brutality on the rise, it should come as no surprise that the public is unwilling to accept this without a fight. When the right to peaceful protest is suppressed, it seems inevitable that riots will follow. Those fighting for their rights are not to blame. Those responsible are the very institutions orchestrating such violence.

Written by
Holly Barrow