With claims of violent mobs wreaking havoc, the public risks being misled about how events really unfolded in the city
Last Sunday, a peaceful demonstration in Bristol escalated sharply into clashes between protesters and riot police – leading to their vans being torched and the windows of the city’s main police station being shattered. The riot, following a demonstration against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, was widely and quickly condemned.
Since then there have been two further demonstrations against the bill, on Tuesday and Friday. But these were very different events.
On Tuesday, hundreds staged a sit-down protest outside City Hall. They wanted to highlight how the bill would target Travellers and van-dwelling communities. Following Sunday’s violence, the protesters said they were determined to make the demonstration peaceful. But riot police broke it up, battering protesters with their shields, batons and fists.
Police officers were also seen trampling on the flowers and candles left during the previous week’s vigil for Sarah Everard. In the following days, more stories emerged about the violence, including an officer repeatedly punching a protestor and pulling him away by his hair.
On Friday, I saw hundreds of peaceful protestors sitting in front of the line of riot police for hours – right next to the police station where Sunday’s riot had taken place. There was music and chanting, and flowers were handed to officers. The protest was in defiance of Covid restrictions, and some eggs and drinks cans were thrown at police lines, but at that time there were no direct clashes. Indeed, there were chants of “peaceful protest! peaceful protest!”.
At around 10pm, however, police forcefully advanced into the sitting crowd, hitting them with riot shields and batons. My colleagues filmed protesters being struck repeatedly by riot shields and knocked to the ground. A number of protesters suffered head wounds.
After police dispersed the protest by charging with horses and dogs, there were clashes with some people. Fireworks and projectiles were thrown, with one firework hitting a police horse. The night’s events were described by the police as “violent disorder”, but they reported no injuries to officers.
Over the weekend, more videos have emerged of police violence from Friday night: a photographer being hit over the head by a riot shield while pushed up against a fence; a protester being pushed face-first into a concrete pillar; another lying on the ground being dragged and beaten with batons.
Reporting in the aftermath of events like these is crucial in setting the narrative. After Sunday’s riot, Avon and Somerset police said that officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung. Days later, after this claim had been widely reported, they retracted it. Yet by then police injuries had helped set the tone, and the imagery in most of the national reporting was of violent mobs wreaking havoc.
After strongly condemning Sunday’s riot as a “shameful day” for the city, Bristol’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, said this weekend that the actions of some protesters on Friday had been “politically illiterate and strategically inept”, and declined to condemn the police’s tactics.
Having people on the ground to document the chronology of how events escalate and unfold is vital. As such, it was particularly worrying to see the attacks on members of the press over the past week. A Daily Mirror journalist shared video footage showing police pushing him and hitting him with a baton as he shouted he was a member of the press.
During Tuesday’s protest a police officer physically confronted two of my colleagues, threatening them with arrest and use of force even though they identified themselves as journalists and their press credentials were clearly visible. Avon and Somerset police later apologised, describing the conduct as “not acceptable”. Another well known local journalist had also been detained after police didn’t believe he was from the media.
After local journalists had risked harm to themselves for the third time in six days to accurately document the events, it was incredibly frustrating to see the national media framing the events in line with Priti Patel and Boris Johnson’s condemnations of the protests as “violent thuggery”.
The national public risks being misled about how events unfolded, imagining scenes similar to the police vans set ablaze last Sunday. In fact, a 10-minute scan of excellent reporting from multiple media sources in Bristol would have given any national journalist a more complete picture of what happened.
Some local election candidates running for office in May for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green Party have criticised the police’s use of force and called for an independent inquiry. Yet these have had very little coverage nationally.
Most of the talk about local media is about it being in crisis, as regional papers are forced to close down because of falling advertising and newsstand revenue. But when events on our streets are being manipulated by politicians to fit their narratives, local media feels more important than ever.