Avon and Somerset’s top police officer has defended the force’s response to a Kill The Bill protest on College Green.
Protesters started gathering in the College Green area at around 4pm on Tuesday 23 March. It was the latest 'Kill the Bill' protest in the city against the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, police liaison officers asked people to disperse. When protesters still had not moved on at 10pm, a hundred riot police arrived.
At a press briefing on Wednesday 24 March, Chief Constable Andy Marsh said the protest was more like a music festival than a demonstration and a minority of the 250-strong crowd wanted a confrontation with police.
Footage shows forceful tactics from officers to disperse the crowd in the early hours of Wednesday 24 March, just two days after a huge protest in the city centre descended into violent clashes between rioters and police.
Mr Marsh said demonstrators refused to move despite officers “pleading with them over many hours” throughout the afternoon and evening saying action would be taken if they stayed.
Bristol’s mayor backed the chief constable although neither said they had seen footage of police forcibly pushing and pulling sitting protesters, so they could not comment.
People who spoke to ITV News West Country at the demonstration said they were there to protest against the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill and its impact on the traveller community, even though large gatherings are currently illegal under coronavirus laws.
Protesters ITV News West Country spoke to were angry and upset at what they saw as a major overreaction by the police.
One said: "We were singing, doing poetry, and heard the police were coming, so we lay on the ground silently. And they started coming in."
Mr Marsh said: “We understand people’s frustrations, anxiety and concerns about the restrictions placed on their lives but now is not the time to protest.
“All afternoon we had members of our neighbourhood policing team and our specially-trained protest liaison officers seeking to persuade those present that they needed to disperse.
“They did know very clearly that we would have to take action.
“It was our duty, based on the situation with the pandemic and infections, to prevent a risk.
“It is what our communities expect us to do and such a close-quarter gathering was not a safe, at-distance gathering.
“There were tents being put up, amplified music, glasses and bottles being passed around.
“So we did what we had to do using the minimum of force and we made 14 arrests.”
He said the protesters were not simply laying flowers by 1am and were “escalating a situation where we had to use some degree of force”.
“However carefully we do that, it’s not always going to look pretty,” said Mr Marsh.
“There is an element within these protests, even last night, that wants a confrontation with the police, with the establishment.
“We are trained to do everything we can to avoid it but from a public health point of view, from a law enforcement point of view, it’s our duty to do our very best using minimum force to bring these events to a conclusion.”
Mr Marsh said UK police forces were the most accountable in the world.
“If people are unhappy with what they saw, they have every right to make a complaint,” he said.
“We will be held to account for the way we dealt with things but the situation was that we couldn’t let it progress last night.
“We would be having a very different conversation if we had an encampment of several hundred people in tents with amplified music, food stalls, human excrement and mess on College Green.
“I would be answering some very different questions.”
Mr Rees said: “I have real confidence in the way Andy has gone about policing our city over the last year.
“It has been culturally competent and has shown emotional intelligence.
“It is not policing just of the incident in front of it but the health of long-term relationships that need to be in place for quality policing and city safety in future as well.
“Where we think any Bristol people have been treated inappropriately by any institution in the city then we will speak out but I haven’t seen that evidence yet so it would not be appropriate for me to speak.”
Credit: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter