Update 25 March 2021: subsequent to the publication of this story, Avon and Somerset Police retracted their original claim that some officers suffered broken bones. See further story here.
Seven people have been arrested after 20 officers were injured at a Bristol protest against the government’s proposed policing bill, which police said was “hijacked by extremists”.
“Many more” will be detained in the coming days as officers examine a large amount of CCTV footage from Sunday night, said Avon and Somerset’s police and crime commissioner.
Boris Johnson condemned the scenes as “absolutely unacceptable” and said violence towards police “will not be tolerated”, as parliament considers proposed laws that would give police heightened powers to restrict demonstrations.
Addressing the House of Commons later on Monday, the home secretary said the protest turned “anarchic and violent” and suggested all attendees were “selfish”.
“We have been clear that to save lives and fight this pandemic, people must not currently hold large gatherings,” Priti Patel said. “Too many this weekend selfishly decided that this did not apply to them.”
The home secretary said lives had been been put at risk with “criminal thuggery and disorder caused by a minority”, adding: “Our exceptional and brave police officers put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public. For them to face the criminal violence against them while upholding the law is completely unacceptable.
“My thoughts are with the injured officers and their family, and I hope that every single member of parliament in this house will join me in condemning the shameful actions of the criminal minority involved.”
Thousands gathered across England over the weekend to oppose the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The proposed legislation has been labelled “draconian” by hundreds of legal scholars who fear it amounts to “an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly”.
But a “small minority” of demonstrators in Bristol were roundly condemned after footage showed them attacking a police station, setting two police vehicles alight and damaging 10 more, and clashing with officers – two of whom were hospitalised, with broken bones and a punctured lung.
Avon and Somerset Police told The Independent on Monday that 18 other officers were left with injuries as a result, in scenes labelled by mayor Marvin Rees – a critic of the bill – as counterproductive and “selfish self-indulgence”.
While protesters were eventually met with riot gear, horses, dogs and batons, the force’s chief constable insisted that officers had been “incredibly patient” in policing the demonstration, which he claimed involved a “hardcore of serious criminals”.
“I believe the events of yesterday were hijacked by extremists, people who were determined to commit criminal damage, to generate very negative sentiment about policing and to assault our brave officers,” Andy Marsh said.
“Officers were very patient. From the initial gathering of around 2,000 to 3,000, which was more than we anticipated, there were about 50 officers engaging with those present and encouraging them to disperse. Many were complying in fairness.
“There was a hardcore of serious criminals hidden within those 3,000 people – perhaps 400 or 500 people – and we certainly didn’t trigger this.
“The officers were incredibly patient, incredibly professional and I pay tribute to them.”
The Labour mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said he had “major concerns” about the law that sparked the protest, saying it could impose disproportionate controls on peaceful protests and freedom of expression.
But he added: “Smashing buildings in our city centre, vandalising vehicles, attacking our police will do nothing to lessen the likelihood of the bill going through.
“On the contrary, the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the bill.”
Mr Rees said “those who decided to turn the protest into a physical confrontation and smash our city have robbed” Bristol of its peaceful record in a year rocked by protests.
On Monday, Mr Rees told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am from communities who are disproportionately likely to be on the receiving end of the criminal justice system and receive unfair treatment.
“What they have done has done nothing to make me and people like me, safer. This was selfish self-indulgence, self-centred, you know, violence.”
And Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds added: “That violence which we saw last night, which was completely unacceptable, does absolutely nothing for the cause of those of us who are making perfectly legitimate arguments about concerns around the policing bill in the way that it seeks to limit protests.”
Police estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 people initially gathered on Bristol’s College Green to oppose the bill, with many pictured wearing face masks and socially distancing, and Bristol Live reporting a “festival atmosphere”.
After marching through the city centre, some staged a seated protest outside the Bridewell Street police station, with Chief Constable Marsh claiming that the sitting demonstrators were, “by the assessment of my team, looking for a trigger to provoke a violent response”.
He added: “By about 5.30pm it became clear that whatever we did, we wouldn’t be able to avoid a very violent confrontation.”
The force said of the arrests that six were for violent disorder and one for possession of an offensive weapon.
“A tactical decision was made to deal with these criminals retrospectively and not make a significant number of arrests last night, which would have impacted significantly on our resources at the scene and created a greater risk of damage to property and injuries to the reduced number of officers left to deal with the disorder,” Chief Constable Marsh said.
He said the force would now launch “one of the biggest appeals for wanted suspects that we’ve ever done”, adding that the cost of the investigation, of policing the march, and repairing the damage caused “will run into the millions”.
Meanwhile, anger remains over the government’s proposed legislation, with several online protest events planned in the coming days.
The bill – which critics warn would hand the government the power to clamp down on peaceful protests as it sees fit, including those deemed too noisy or a nuisance – passed its second reading in parliament last week.
While 358 Tory MPs voted in its favour, Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and Green Party all fiercely opposed it – with Labour’s Clive Efford describing the part of the bill relating to protests as a “Tory-led coup without guns”.