Will history absolve the Bristol protestors?

This was originally posted over at my Patreon here

Bristol riot in April 1980

On Sunday night, a protest against the Tories’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would have put severe limitations on the right to protest in England and Wales, turned into a violent confrontation with the police. As night fell, the police used force to push back protestors, with images of baton charges circulating on social media. At the same time, some protestors turned to vandalism and the destruction of property. Coming a week after the police were criticised for their rough handling of protestors at a vigil in Clapham and amidst concern about the increased police powers around protest and public gatherings, Bristol seemed to be witnessing another riot – only the latest in a long history of public disorder and protest in the city, particularly since 1980.

Politicians, journalists and other commentators lined up to criticise the protestors, arguing that non-peaceful protest was a gift to Home Secretary Priti Patel and that it alienated potential allies against the Bill, which protestors hoped to ‘kill’. Violent protest and the destruction of property is seen as counter-productive and irresponsible, as well as alien to the democratic process in Britain. The police actions were portrayed as regrettably necessary against a far left rabble, who supposedly hijacked a peaceful protest.

However this narrative seems to go against much of what we know about violence experienced during the policing of public order incidents from the history of previous episodes. If we look at incidents like Southall in 1979, Orgreave in 1984, the Poll Tax riot in central London in 1990, Welling in 1993 or the student demonstrations in London in 2010, it is evident that clashes between protestors and the police often occurs when the police have, prior to the event, identified a particular group as a problem to be contained and seek to provoke a reaction. As Clifford Stott and John Drury wrote about the policing of the Poll Tax riot in March 1990, the police imposed their perceptions of ‘a uniformly dangerous crowd upon crowd members through their use of indiscriminate coercive force’.

Furthermore the condemnation of the protestors as undermining their cause through unnecessary violence overlooks that previous incidences of protest, rebellion and resistance are not neat and peaceful affairs, but are often messy and spill over into ‘violent’ actions. In modern British history alone, the quest for democratic rights and social justice included episodes of violence and campaigns of non-peaceful protest, such as the Chartists of 1830s-40s, the Suffragettes of the early 1900s or the anti-fascist movement of the 1930s-40s (not to mention the numerous struggles against the British Empire). These movements and instances of resistance have been valorised by progressives in more recent times, but also sanitised, devoid of their possibly objectionable edges. Now seen as important turning points on the road to freedom, these campaigns were heavily criticised at the time and often seen as partaking in criminal or seditious behaviour.

A much more recent example emphasises this point. The riots of the early 1980s, starting in Bristol in 1980, then in Brixton in 1981 (before exploding across the country in that summer) and then in Harmondsworth and Tottenham in 1985, are predominantly seen as justifiable reactions against police racism and police violence in the Thatcher period, but at the time, they were condemned by many as episodes of violent disorder. While racial discrimination by the police was seen as a problem, the reaction by Black and Asian youth was seen as disproportionate and an anarchic rejection of Britain’s democratic values.

When the riots broke out in August 2011, the riots of the 1980s were compared with the more recent episodes of public disorder, with politicians and commentators arguing that while those that occurred under Thatcher were understandable, the actions of those involved in the 2011 riots were of criminality with no redeeming features. For example, Brendan O’Neill over at Spiked described the riots of the early 1980s as ‘politically motivated, anti-racist riots against the police’, while in contrast, ‘in these new riots, smashing stuff up is all there is’. He added that the 2011 riots were, unlike those of the 1980s, ‘not a politically rebellion’, but ‘a riotous expression of carelessness for one’s own community’. The Works and Pensions Secretary at the time, Iain Duncan Smith, said on BBC’s Panorama that ‘these riots were not riots like the ones of the 1980s’, but ‘were intensely criminal activities’. Solomon Hughes quipped that this comment ‘made it sound like Duncan Smith was a bit of a fan of ‘80s riots, disappointed with today’s version by implying he and his kind accepted the social causes of yesterday’s riots’.

Even the riots of 2011, condemned at the time for being mindless acts of vandalism and violence, are being recontextualised in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. This article in The Guardian from 2016 hints at this revision of the riots and during the resurgence of BLM last year, a protest was held in Tottenham to commemorate the police killing of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots.

All of this means is that while the protestors in Bristol against the oppressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are being denounced in the press and online by many, even by others who are ostensibly opposed to the Bill, it is highly likely that history will offer another interpretation of their activities and the campaign to ‘Kill the Bill’.

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