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Protest and the media: an alternative narrative of policing in Bristol

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Protest and the media: an alternative narrative of policing in Bristol

Bristol 21 March 2021 (Sam Davies, Shutterstock)

Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has provoked protests across the country, particularly in Bristol. Many elements of this Bill impinge upon the democratic human right to protest — most obviously by awarding the police powers not only to dictate when a protest should start and finish, but to judge whether it is too much of an “annoyance” to be allowed. However, I don’t propose to discuss these issues here, nor the Bill’s criminalising of trespassing, a direct attack upon the already excessively marginalised Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Instead I will be focusing upon the mainstream media’s appallingly biased coverage of the recent protests, using direct accounts from friends who have recently experienced an abhorrent abuse of power from the police and thus the establishment they serve. However, the specific issues of the Bill, as well as the Sarah Everard case, of course, provide the context, as well as a disturbing irony, for their narrative. 

While police brutality is hardly a new issue in our society, it has been consistently neglected by much of the media. It has only recently been given attention since the murder of George Floyd in the US last year. Even then it is commonly seen as an “American issue”, despite statistical and experiential evidence that suggests the problem is just as serious in Britain. 

The BLM protests that followed in the UK were subjected to criticism by the popular media outlets, including the BBC, who made the decision to focus their reporting on one incident, when a police officer was knocked off her horse during a London protest. They ignored the peaceful protest in Manchester attended by 15,000 people, where uniformed police kept their presence to a minimum. 

Such biased reporting feeds the narrative that protesters, particularly those on the Left, are solely there to incite violence. This narrative underlies the reporting of recent protests surrounding Patel’s Bill — especially in Bristol. While it is right to report a police van being set alight, for example, surely it should also be widely reported that unprovoked police, whose purpose and ethos is to “keep the peace”, are ripping peaceful female protesters’ clothes off, among other acts of unnecessary violent tactics and tools of intimidation. 

Despite my awareness that police brutality, which is fuelled by racism, sexism and class prejudice, occurs regularly within British society, due to my privilege as white middle-class person, only recently have I heard directly so many frightening stories from close female friends. These shocked me to my core. I am also aware that it is highly problematic that it has taken direct stories from friends for me to write an article on the issue. Yet this guilt should surely be shared by the most influential media outlets such as the Guardian, BBC, Sky News, ITV etc. They have the same access as I do to personal stories from protestors through social media. Unlike me, they have the power to push such stories outside Twitter, Instagram and Facebook’s algorithms.   

The personal accounts of the recent protests I will use in comparison to mainstream reporting are of course for the reader to believe or not. Indeed, hearing such stories myself, with a family member within the police force, can be uncomfortable and disconcerting. Moreover, I come from a family of journalists, thus I also find it awkward to conclude that mainstream journalism is no less guilty of adopting the same guise of neutrality that the police use to inflict violence onto my friends. Yet I, who was taking a break from social media for my own mental health, had to redownload Twitter to gain any kind of supplementary insight into what my friends were telling me. Thus I plead with sceptics, at the very least, to consider the truth of these first-hand accounts from individuals who were peacefully exercising freedoms on which this country so often prides itself. Moreover the uncomfortable acceptance of the truth of these accounts bears no comparison to the trauma experienced by those on the receiving end of violence. 

The protest that flooded the news with police vans on fire, fireworks being set off and police stations being attacked, took place in Bristol on Sunday March 21. This protest was an expression of a more general outrage at the Bill, and I strongly believe that if police had made the decision not to be present at the protest in such force, violent incidents would most likely not have occured. Yet whether this is true or not is irrelevant to the unjust actions of the police that took place at the protests after the Sunday one. 

The following Tuesday, March 23, approximately 100-150 people gathered in a Bristol park to specifically protest against the clause of the Bill which would criminalise trespassing on private land and, as a result, the lifestyles of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community and anyone living nomadically. My close female friend, aged 23 and currently living in Bristol, attended and describes the peaceful nature of this protest: 

To my knowledge, the event, which was planned to take place as a peaceful occupation of College Green overnight, had been given authorisation by local police and authorities, and thus there were two Community Liaison Officers present from the start. All protesters were encouraged to sit down, and almost all did, amongst the tents and belongings of GRT community members, whilst people gave speeches, told stories, recited poetry and led songs in front of a banner stating our intentions: to protect the lives of an already-ostracised community from criminalisation. There were very conscious and persistent efforts to ensure that there was no anti-police sentiment present amongst the protesters:  two calls of “ACAB” and “fuck the police” were immediately chastised, and there was a consensus that we would treat the police as “friends” and co-operate with them. Us sitting down was a deliberate attempt to show that we were posing no threat and that our demonstration could not be painted as a “riot”. Almost all protesters were wearing masks and face coverings.

She goes onto describe how a demonstrator was suddenly informed that 25 riot vans were driving towards the protest. After being reassured by the Community Liaison Officers that the protesters were allowed to remain, “within minutes the riot vans had arrived, and riot police, armed with shields, began to form a circle around us and move towards us. We all remained lying on the floor or sat down with our hands in the air, chanting ‘peaceful protest. As the riot police moved in and kettled us, I started seeing some people at the edge of the group being forced up as they were dragged or beaten by riot police with shields.”

Following this were a series of events that involved a riot police officer kicking my friend’s arms so her phone flew out of her hand and “proceeded to stand on my arm so I couldnt move to get it, whilst hitting me repeatedly with his shield.” She then saw her sister “being beaten by a riot officer with his shield whilst she tried to get up. I tried to help her up, but all the time being violently shoved from behind by a police officer.” She goes on to describe how they tried to move away, “watching police violently attacking people all around us with their shields, pulling hair, hitting people and pulling clothes off of women, all the while being shoved from behind by riot police telling us to move faster… Police officers on horses were also charging at and kicking people. As we ran, we started to hear dog barks and then police with dogs; shortly after, we began to see people trying to run with huge gashes in their legs from dog bites.” 

Many other shocking incidents that followed, including a member of the public verbally abusing protesters using “misogynistic and homophobic slurs, and eventually physically threatening people by shoving them and screaming in womens faces that he was going to slap and hit them.” to which police did not react, even after being begged by protesters to do something. Later on, the police “picked out two small girls, and three officers attacked one whilst two attacked another. They pulled their hair, pinned them down on the ground with their knees on their backs, beat them with their shields and began to pull the girls’ coats off. Myself and two others were being beaten back by officers with shields whilst begging them to turn around and look at their colleagues attacking and undressing these two girls in the street… There were at least 10 other officers standing around the scene of the girls being attacked by the officers who did not intervene, whilst the rest attempted to chase us off with some of the horses. The girls were screaming why are you doing this?, to which an officer replied well stop acting like this once you start behaving, before pulling them up by their arms from the back (whilst they were led on the floor on their fronts) and telling them to run.”

Another young woman tells of her experience at the same protest that evening:

There were a small number of protestors in tents and on Collge Green, when suddenly the surrounding hundreds of police with batons and shields went charging in and started ripping apart tents and throwing away protestors possessions. There were a few girls nearby to where I was standing, around age 19 I reckon, students most likely, that were pleading at the police not to hurt them and begging them to have some compassion. But the police turned on these young girls, pushed one of them to the floor while her friend got knocked away from helping her by another police officer”.

The Guardian reported this protest under the headline: “Police in Bristol feel under siegeafter second night of unrest”.  The report goes on to say “the task of controlling demonstrations during a lockdown is proving “near-on impossible”, a leader of rank-and-file officers has said following a second night of protests in the city.” The article quotes John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, stating that police officers feel “vulnerable”, while making no mention of any specific injuries against the police, only referring to injuries inflicted on police officers on Sunday before.

This particular Guardian article then turns into a story about the injustices experienced by police officers “who ‘feel “betrayed and let down” by not having been prioritised to receive the coronavirus vaccine.” One would think that such anxieties about catching Covid-19 would not be expressed by ripping womens’ clothes off in the street and stepping on people’s bodies. There is no mention of any injuries inflicted upon protestors, despite the fact that many people were sent to hospital, and there was no reporting on this particular protest by any other mainstream media outlet that I can find. 

This is merely a single example of biased reporting from a supposedly liberal newspaper of a protest ignored by the “neutral” BBC. By failing to do their job properly, the mainstream media are exacerbating tensions between protesters and the rest of the public, feeding division, creating distrust of the media, and empowering the establishment. Of course, there are countless other stories, not just from these protests, but from across history, that never have or will make the news. This disparity comes as no surprise to those from minority groups who regularly experience brutal force from the police, unreported by the media. 

Analysing this dissonance between the mainstream media and my friends’ stories, perhaps points to the paradox of news reports, which are perceived as objective pieces of information. In reality the mainstream media is highly subjective with many political biases. This is acceptable, as long as there is a reasonable diversity of bias within the press, providing the public the freedom to access many sides to a story to make accurate judgements. Yet the reporting of these recent protests suggests that this diversity is an illusion. It appears that all mainstream media reporting, particularly on the issue of protest, is heavily influenced by the use of particular sources, particularly politicians and police, creating a top-down view that reinforces existing power structures and thus institutionalises violence.

“Who do you protect?” is a commonly used question posed to police from protesters. I ask this very same question to the media. 

 

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 76%
  • Interesting points: 79%
  • Agree with arguments: 73%
53 ratings - view all

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