• Paloma McKim

Public Service

Updated: Apr 3

Controversy has broken out in the U.K as a new bill extending police powers and limiting those of protesters is being debated in Parliament. Known as The Policing and Crime Bill, it means exercising your right to protest could cost you ten years in prison. The basis for such a severe consequence is set out in intentionally ambiguous terms such as causing ‘serious annoyance.’ Recent protests in Bristol have received considerable media coverage and scrutiny, particularly the events following a peaceful demonstration on Sunday the 22nd of March which led into a hostile clash with police in the evening.

As a pacifist who attended the peaceful daytime march, I was disappointed to see events take a sour turn. While this was clearly the reaction the media and government were looking for, it is not the whole picture. Violence did not begin with the protestors. The police were ordered to “disperse” the peaceful crowd outside the police station, and it’s only when people responded to the violence that events escalated. Indeed, aggression and heavy-handed tactics are often used by the police to make protestors respond, and thereby justify the need to inhibit protest.

Two days later, the police attacked a peaceful protest of Travellers who were expressing their desperation at aspects of the bill that would threaten their way of life. Media such as the BBC, ITV and the Guardian reported that police advised the crowd to disperse earlier in the day before having to use force and even felt ‘under siege.’ As a witness of what took place from start to finish, I would like to share my account.

I initially went to College Green for a drink with my boyfriend and a couple of flat mates. The protest was occurring simultaneously. It feels odd to even label it a protest--there must have been less than 100 people. Children were dancing with parents and phrases like ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘love one another’ could be heard.

We joined in with the call and response and sat as people spoke peacefully on the importance of Traveller culture and the threat it was under by the bill. Out of the many I have been to, this was the most peaceful protest atmosphere I have encountered. Everyone took responsibility for each other, even those who were not involved in the protest. A man unrelated to the cause began shouting at the Sarah Everard vigil. One protester calmly talked to him, taking him to one side and sitting with him while he cried and was clearly distressed. Even to disruptive outsiders, the protesters showed nothing but compassion and respect. Many had brought rubbish bags with them and were going around asking everyone to respect the environment.

I am a pacifist. If there had been any inclination of violence I would have left immediately. This made it all the more shocking when police arrived with riot gear, dogs, horses and an uncompromising aggressive attitude. It was impossible to reason with them. The call for the crowd to disperse was a 10 second warning. We were on the outside of the gathering, away from the centre. This is the only reason it was possible to escape.

Media claims that police told protesters to disperse earlier in the day have shocked me. Being there from beginning to end, I can confidently say I never witnessed this. The swift force of the police was shocking and terrifying, as was their unwillingness to co-operate or discuss terms. I was upset to see families who were protecting a way of life already so under threat kettled and brutalised. Arriving home after a near escape, we were shaken, and everyone was overcome by a feeling of helplessness as we watched multiple clips of footage where police beat and dragged protesters who were sitting non-violently by the hair. This force was completely unnecessary and counterproductive.

Until that day I had not met anyone from the Traveller community, and in fact had some preconceptions that I’m ashamed of. They were proven completely wrong by the responsibility and compassion I witnessed with people picking up litter and emphasising peaceful activism. What I saw was incredibly disheartening and has changed my conception of the police, who I used to see more as protection instead of oppression.

Why did this happen and what does it say about those who we think protects us? One component of the disproportionate response seems to be a retaliation from the events of Sunday. The police were on the offensive and were not there to discuss or to understand. Footage from Tyrant Finder UK’s livestream of the complete event shows a member of the public who had agreed to liaise with police and keep a line of communication open. Multiple times, he is seen asking for dialogue and calling for de-escalation of what was beginning to turn into a hostile environment due to the appearance of upwards of 15 police vans packed with officers in riot gear arriving at the scene. Despite this attempt, the police liaisons said they “did not know what was happening” and shortly after the police marched towards protesters, pushing them together and attacking them. These do not represent actions of public service trying to instill peace, but rather bruised egos looking for an outlet.

One important component of the police's brutal response is a historic contempt for the Traveller community. Perhaps if this had been a group of middle class climate activists, their response would have been different. The Traveller community’s right to reside and right to roam is one that has been attacked decade to decade. In 1985 a festival attended by 600 Travellers was attacked by 1300 police officers enforcing a High Court injunction. Dozens of Travellers were injured and police claims that they were armed with petrol bombs were later proven false. Police threw truncheons, fire extinguishers and stones. 537 travellers were eventually arrested, representing one of the largest mass arrests since WWII. More recently, the UN committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2003) reported ‘the committee expresses concern about the discrimination faced by Travellers’ characterised by ‘lack of available camping sites, high unemployment rate and limited access to health services.’ Increased police scrutiny is a constant concern in a Traveller’s life.

Most of us, including myself, have a conception of the police as agents of community protection, believing that their role is under public service. This means their job is to protect the interests and safety of the common person and our community. This is the opposite of what occurred on Tuesday where, in a pandemic, police forced protesters into huddled groups and used violent force. If public safety was their concern it would have taken ten, maybe less officers, to express concerns about the pandemic and social distancing earlier and enabled crowds to disperse safely.

This did not happen.

The violence began with their presence.

The events of the last few days have encouraged me and will hopefully encourage you to examine what we want the police to do for us, if they are actually doing it, and how we can hold them accountable.