On 21 March, ‘Kill the Bill’ protestors in Bristol rallied against a proposed bill that would essentially extend police power across the UK. Although starting off peacefully, violence occurred in the evening, resulting in shocking clashes between police and protestors on a level not seen in Bristol for years. We spoke to photographer Melanie Vaxevanakis @melanievax who captured the protest to see what impact it has had on the city one month on, and why the protests have continued.
All photographs by Melanie Vaxevanakis .
1. What actually is the 'Kill the Bill' movement and why has it struck such a cord with people in Bristol?
The Kill the Bill movement has been a response to the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The proposed Bill imposes greater restrictions on non-violent protesting and can see people being fined up to £2,500 if they do not adhere to the draconian new ‘rules of protest', such as not abiding by the start and end time decided by police chiefs, or going over the set noise limit.
I think it has struck a chord with the people in Bristol because we are a city of liberals and activists. The city is rich in history of grassroots activism, from the St. Paul’s riots in the 80s to the recent toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue. We fight for what we believe in, and we use protest and our voice to do this. The proposed Bill is threatening both these sources of freedom.
Losing my voice is one of my ultimate fears and I fundamentally believe it is the same for every human. We demand democracy, a term which has unfortunately been corrupted by the disillusion of our current political state, and freedom of speech. These are the founding principles of our society, yet more and more we are seeing a deteriorating system that serves only the few and ignores the many.
I think we have lost faith in the system and this Bill takes away the only thing we have left, the freedom to express our dismay towards the government. It is an attempt to silence us and therefore we will only be louder, more radical and civil unrest will continue.
2. One of the chants was ‘5 years for rape, 10 years for statues’, which refers to a section of the Bill that proposes a maximum sentence of 10 years for vandalising memorials; after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was famously torn down last year, do protestors see the Bill as targeting Bristol in particular?
Although protestors in Bristol certainly see this as a government reaction to what happened at last year’s Black Lives Matter protest, I think the Bill is felt to target everyone. The global wave of praise and solidarity that followed the tearing down of the statue, and of course the contempt for the injustice against women that is constantly being exposed, means this Bill is a threat to all. I believe the chant perfectly highlights the dissolution of the British justice system.
3. Looking at your photographs, the police already had their helmets on and shields ready; was there any inclination during the day that the protests were going to turn violent and what do you think caused it?
No, the protests were peaceful during the day; a portrait of unity and hope. In fact, on 21 March, there were minimal police throughout the day. However, as the sun went down, it seemed the police tactically appeared with their riot gear. This aggressive behaviour was repeated when I covered the third Bristol protest. In a stand-off between the police and the people, all seated, chanting and singing, the three rows of constables took off their hats, put on their helmets and visibly tightened their hold around their shields. I found it astounding. There was no indication of violence or threat coming from the people, it was the police that began to provoke.
4. Do you believe the riots hindered the message of the demonstration and/or divided people?
Unfortunately, I think it did. Watching the riots on 21 March after what had been such a beautiful and peaceful march saddened and frustrated me. I felt we had given people like Priti Patel an argument for the Bill to pass. For the first time in my life, I was worried that my right to stand up for my beliefs was going to be taken away.
With this fear and some time to reflect, I understood why the riots happened. Just like me, people were scared of losing their freedom of speech. This Bill became a threat to their right as humans and the democratic liberal process England is supposed to represent. Although I condemn any violence, I understood the drive behind it.
Unfortunately, others didn’t have a similar realisation. Many focused on the accusatory press that portrayed the events as anarchy, and the protestors like guilty rioters with an agenda to cause violence. The reason we were protesting, the injustice seen against women at Sarah Everard’s vigil when they were violently arrested, and the continuing control this government is trying to impose on us was quickly forgotten.
Yet again, we saw the media and politicians build the same narrative; disruption or outward disagreement against the establishment equals lawless behaviour, and should therefore be labelled as such.
5. What was the response from Bristolians in the days following March 21, particularly after police retracted their statement about the number of officers injured?
They were angry. The time we had to reflect on 21 March sparked contempt for the way the media, police and politicians presented the events, the activists and the protest itself. This is why I believe the unrest continued for weeks. It fuelled a fire in the people, and exposed the lies and corruption that is systemic within our justice system.
I saw a police dog bite an 18-year-old boy who was peacefully practising his right to protest in College Green. The police created a perimeter around three tents and 30 people, pushed them along with riot gear, chased them down on horseback and set dogs on the people. Without these stories being told, the police will remain unchallenged, polarising the population.
6. What do you think will be the lasting effect; do you see more people being inspired to protest?
I think it has made people reconsider the power of protest, the role it plays within a democratic society and their lives. For many, it was their first time attending a protest, which highlights the threat that this Bill invoked in the UK’s population.
7. How do you see the ‘Kill the Bill’ movement succeeding?
I think the Kill the Bill movement will only grow and will be a movement that carries the voice for freedom of speech. The decision to pass the Bill has not yet been made and if it is passed, I truly believe that the level of unrest will only escalate. The people, like in Hong Kong, Thailand, Venezuela and more, will not stand to be silenced.
8. Who else should we be following?