Government plans to introduce new laws feared to heavily infringe on the nation’s right to protest have been met with violence, as the latest in a series of “Kill the Bill” demonstrations saw police officers injured.
Sunday’s march was initially described by Bristol Live as having a “festival atmosphere”, with thousands – many wearing face masks and socially distancing – gathering typically enough at the city’s College Green, carrying placards opposing a “police state” and warning against the “silencing” of the public.
But the mood eventually soured, as a “small minority” attacked the police station in Bridewell Street, following a seated protest outside.
These demonstrators were met with mounted officers, police dogs and riot shields – after footage showed rioters smashing the station’s windows, while two heavily graffitied police vehicles were set alight and two officers hospitalised with broken bones, according to Avon and Somerset Police, out of a total of 12 who were injured.
Home secretary Priti Patel condemned the scenes as “thuggery and disorder”, and the city’s Labour mayor Marvin Rees insisted that, while he too opposed the new law, such “unacceptable” violence and damage “has nothing to do with our efforts to end inequality in Bristol”.
While it was the first to result it in violence, this was not the first “Kill the Bill” protest in recent days – and may well not be the last.
So why are people gathering to protest, often defying police orders under coronavirus restrictions to do so?
In short, the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
What is the Policing Bill?
The bill would give the police in England and Wales more power to impose conditions on non-violent protests, including those deemed too noisy or a nuisance by the home secretary. Those convicted under the proposed legislation could face a fine or jail.
Last week, as protesters defied police to gather in opposition to the bill across England, more than 700 leading legal scholars warned the “draconian” bill amounted to “an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly”, urging Boris Johnson to “abandon” this part of the legislation in a letter published by The Independent.
The 300-page bill has also drawn criticism for potentially leading to harsher punishments for damaging a statue than attacking a woman, an aspect garnering significant opposition in light of England and Wales’ low level of successful rape prosecutions, and the intensified debate around women’s safety in the wake of the Sarah Everard case.
The government had initially defended the bill and rushed it through its second reading in the Commons last week after passing its first parliamentary hurdle unopposed by a single Tory MP, with ministers insisting it would only impact “very disruptive” gatherings.
Outside of Bristol, protesters also gathered in London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere to show their opposition this weekend.
While it’s unclear whether further physical protests are planned in the immediate future, it’s clear that anger towards the bill remains, and a number of online protest events are set to go ahead in the coming days.
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