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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tom Wall

‘It was so wrong’: why were so many people imprisoned over one protest in Bristol?

Police and protesters in Bristol on 21 March 2021.
Police and protesters in Bristol on 21 March 2021. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

On the afternoon of 21 March 2021, Fleur Moody hurried through the graffiti-sprayed backstreets of Bristol. She and her partner were on their way to join a march against proposed laws that would give the police extensive new powers to clamp down on protests. They caught up with the march just before it streamed into a park overlooking the city’s harbour.

Moody, who was 26 at the time, was getting her life back on track after years of mental health problems and addiction. She sat on the grass with friends sharing food and drinks in the last of the sunshine. “I was quite fragile,” she told me recently. “But I’ve always believed people have a right to protest and have their voices heard.”

Just before 7pm, Moody and her friends left the park to join protesters who were marching through the centre of the city. Photos and videos show Moody smiling and chanting as she marched. The group came to a halt on Bridewell Street, which was already packed with people who had been protesting in front of a police station since the late afternoon. In the tightly packed crowd, Moody lost her bag and became separated from her partner. “I was pushing my way through to see what was stopping everyone and to see if he was at the front,” she said. “When I got there … I thought, ‘Whoa, this is serious shit.’”

Moody found herself face to face with police officers in riot gear who were driving protesters back with their shields. She was shoved to the ground. As she got up, she kicked an officer’s plastic shield. Moody has no memory of what happened next. Police body-worn camera video footage, which was later disclosed to her solicitor, shows police officers at 7.21pm using their batons to strike people at the front of the crowd. There is no footage of the moment Moody was herself struck on the head, but the cameras captured the reaction of those nearby who witnessed the blow. Someone calls out: “She’s unconscious … she’s unconscious … you beat her unconscious.” People in the crowd can be heard calling out to the officers: “You’re the one who knocked her out,” and “You did that.” At 7.22pm, the video shows the line of police officers parting to allow Moody’s limp body to be carried through by a male protester. Her head is lolling back and her mouth hanging open. He gently lays her down at the entrance to the police station.

Less than a minute later, Moody can be glimpsed stumbling back into the crowd. A couple of minutes later, officers sprayed her and others with Pava, similar to pepper spray. Bodycam video from a police medic shows Moody being brought inside the police station by the same protester who had carried her out of the crowd a few minutes earlier. In the footage, this man tells the police medic searching for a first aid kit: “This is really not OK … What you guys are doing.”

The man walked Moody back to the house where she was staying, which was less than a mile away. In the bathroom mirror, she could see that the bloody gash on the top of her head had dyed the blond streaks in her hair red.

The following day, Moody’s phone started pinging with messages from friends who had seen her picture in local or national news, or in an online gallery of suspects that Avon and Somerset police had compiled. It was a huge shock. She recalled being pushed to the ground and kicking out at a shield. But that was it.

Moody, who was still feeling fuzzy-headed, stayed in her flat – fretting with her friends, doom-scrolling on her phone and watching TV. On 26 March, not long after midnight, eight officers in stab vests showed up at her door. They took Moody in for questioning, but a duty solicitor – a publicly funded lawyer who advises people in custody – reassured her it would all blow over. When detectives interviewed her, Moody apologised for kicking the plastic shield. She had no idea that such an action could lead to a charge of riot, which could land her in prison for up to 10 years.

* * *

For just over a week in 2021, the nationwide protests against what was then called the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill dominated the news. The scenes in Bristol attracted the most attention. “In a protest against new police powers, it was soon police themselves who became the target,” the BBC News at 10 told viewers on 21 March. The Mail Online covered the story with the headline: “A terrifying vision of lawless Britain.” Avon and Somerset’s then chief constable, Andy Marsh, claimed that the protest had been “hijacked by extremists” determined to “assault our officers”. After further clashes with police on 26 March, prime minister Boris Johnson condemned protesters in Bristol as a “mob intent on violence”.

The legal crackdown that followed has been stunning in its severity. Riot is the most serious public-order offence on the statute books, punishable with up to 10 years in prison, and requires senior approval within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Such charges are extremely rare. In 2011, nearly 2,500 people were arrested in London after three nights of violence, looting and arson that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan. While many were charged with crimes such as theft and burglary, none was charged with riot. Nor was anyone convicted of rioting after the anti-poll tax disturbances in central London in 1990.

To date, prosecutors have charged 38 people with riot for their involvement in the Bristol protests, including Fleur Moody. Nineteen have been convicted, with sentences ranging from three to six years. Nine protesters are now in prison, and arrests are still being made. More people, and more women, have been imprisoned for rioting during one day in Bristol than in any other protest-related disorder since at least the 1980s.

To anyone following events from afar, the severity of the state’s response seemed to confirm what Marsh and an array of politicians claimed – that the demonstration was taken over by violent extremists with no agenda beyond attacking the police. Yet evidence that has emerged during the protesters’ trials suggests a different story: first, that many of the accused were, in fact, acting in self-defence against police aggression; and second, that the unprecedented deployment of riot charges may have had less to do with the severity of the violence during the protest than a politically driven crackdown on the right to protest.

* * *

The sprawling police, crime, sentencing and courts bill began its journey through parliament 12 days before the protest in Bristol. The 300-page bill arrived after a remarkable resurgence of mass protest during the previous two years. In April 2019, tens of thousands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists had occupied busy parts of London in a mass campaign of rolling civil disobedience. Despite arresting more than 1,000 people, the police failed to bring the disruption to an end for several days. The protesters achieved at least some of their goals: public support for XR rose steeply, parliament declared a climate emergency and several politicians, including in the cabinet, felt compelled to meet XR representatives.

A year later, another major wave of protests swept through the UK, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US. More than 200,000 people joined Black Lives Matter protests in at least 260 towns and cities, making these the largest ever anti-racist demonstrations in Britain. In June 2020, protesters in Bristol made headlines around the world when they toppled the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston.

Though many were inspired by these protests, others saw in them a sign that the country was slipping into lawlessness. In July 2019, the influential right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange, which has helped develop a raft of government policies since 2010, published a report by two counter-terrorism experts who claimed that XR was a threat to free market democracy. The XR campaign, they wrote, ultimately hopes for “the breakdown of democracy and the state”. Similar accusations were levelled at the Black Lives Matter protests. The Daily Telegraph warned of the “far-left influence” on BLM, which it branded “a radical neo-Marxist political movement”. Priti Patel, who was then home secretary, described the Colston protest in Bristol as “utterly disgraceful” and demanded the police pursue those responsible.

In its report on XR, Policy Exchange argued that police must be better equipped to prevent disruptive protests, even if peaceful. The report also urged prosecutors to take a tougher line to deter wider support. (In the past, according to figures on the XR website, about 10% of its protesters who were arrested went on to be charged.) Just over a year after the Policy Exchange report, Patel asked the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, a state agency which inspects police forces, to examine the policing of protests by XR and BLM. Its report concluded that the police too often allowed protesters to cause excessive disruption to daily life.

When the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 9 March 2021, it proposed giving the police significant new powers to limit the impact of protests. Under the new proposals, police would be able to arrest protesters who caused alarm, inconvenience or annoyance to others. Static protests, such as bridge or road occupations undertaken by XR, would for the first time be subject to unlimited restrictions. Protests could be restricted or banned for simply being too noisy. The bill also proposed giving the home secretary the ability to lower the threshold for police to ban disruptive but peaceful protests, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

At first, the anti-protest legislation attracted relatively little attention, save for warnings from human rights NGOs. But four days after the bill was introduced, when the Metropolitan police broke up a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, who had been kidnapped and murdered by a serving police officer, public opposition to the bill exploded. News photographs showing police officers pinning a young woman to the floor provoked widespread public fury. (Patel acknowledged that some of the scenes were “upsetting”.)

In this moment, the “kill the bill” movement was born. Many of the women’s rights and BLM activists who had been involved in organising the Everard vigil on Clapham Common called for a new round of protests, this time against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. To them, the crackdown on the vigil showed precisely why the police should not have greater power to restrict the rights of protesters.

* * *

To many in Bristol, the anti-protesting bill felt like a personal affront. The city had become a focal point of opposition to much of the government’s agenda over the previous 11 years, with major protests held against student fee increases in 2010 and, from 2016 onwards, against Brexit. The city was also home to the largest Extinction Rebellion group outside London, and many of the activists arrested in the 2019 London XR protests were from Bristol. To many activists, it now seemed that ministers were out for revenge. Among other things, the bill made criminal damage of less than £5,000 to a public memorial, such as a statue or monument, punishable with up to 10 years in prison, a sharp increase from the previous maximum of three months. The change was widely seen as a response to the toppling of the Colston statue.

Other Bristolians felt that their way of life, even their homes, were threatened by little-noticed parts of the bill. In Bristol, hundreds of people live in vehicles parked on streets, laybys and patches of undeveloped land – the local council estimates there are more of these so-called van-dwellers in the city than anywhere else in the country. Some choose to live a nomadic, low-impact lifestyle, while others are forced into vans by the city’s high rents. However, the bill made residing in a vehicle on land without permission from the owner a criminal offence, and gave the police the power to impound live-in vans. “For lots of people, their vehicle is the last barrier before homelessness,” says Toph Hind, who was 38 at the time and living in a van in Bristol. “And instead of addressing the issue, the government wanted to give the police powers to seize vehicles.”

At 2pm on 21 March, thousands of protesters gathered on a well-trodden green in the centre of Bristol, far exceeding police intelligence reports forecasting that between 100 and 200 would attend. There were lots of familiar faces from the city’s overlapping activist networks, travelling community and free party scene. Indigo Bond, a 19-year-old student, who had never been to a protest before, ran into people she knew, including Charly Pitman, who was then 24, and Rose Lazarus, then 21. Pitman, who worked on a food stall in the city, was carrying a cardboard banner she made to remember Sarah Everard. “As a young female, it really affected me,” she told me. “I also felt strongly about the bill because I have quite a lot of friends in the travelling community. It was quite an emotional day.”

The protesters flowed through the city, picking up more people, including Fleur Moody and her partner. “It was really lovely,” Bond recalls. “There were speeches and music and people with banners, and chants.” They arrived in Castle Park at about 4pm, and then, around 5pm, part of the crowd broke away, according to Kat Hobbs, who works for Netpol, a police monitoring group. Hobbs followed them to Bridewell police station in the centre of the city. When she arrived, at 5.20pm, the protesters, who were mostly young, sat in the road and chanted against the bill.

The initial stages of the protest at the police station were non-violent. Footage from police bodycams and protesters’ smartphones shows people milling around, chanting, sitting down and chatting with officers.

There are differing accounts of what sparked the confrontation that followed. A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset police told me that officers armed with batons and shields were deployed after protesters started rocking an empty police van and throwing objects in their direction at about 5.30pm. The protesters claim that these were isolated incidents, involving a very small number of people. They say the police response was disproportionate and indiscriminate – and pulled most of the crowd into an unnecessary conflict. “The police are not supposed to treat the crowd as one entity,” Hobbs told me. “But the police were responding to everyone as if they were violent and threatening.”

At 5.35pm, the crowd retreated, with officers in pursuit. Footage played in court shows one officer pushing a cameraman, who was standing well back, into the crowd. The officer then strikes a young woman holding a flag at least four times with his baton.

Hobbs’s notes from the half-hour after the van was rocked describe lines of riot police hitting, pushing and shoving protesters, and horse-mounted officers charging into the crowd. Pitman, Bond and Lazarus were frightened by the sudden escalation. “I was trying to help people up off the floor and the police were literally battering people,” Bond said. All three say they were pushed and hit by officers. Lazarus says she was hit and dragged around on the floor by officers. All three claim they defended themselves as best they could by pushing and kicking against police shields to keep the officers away. “It was terrifying,” Pitman said. “They could do whatever they wanted to us in that moment.”

Officers also testified to being scared by the situation. In court, Sgt Nick Smart described the situation as “very violent”. The clashes between two lines of 60 officers and protesters intensified as the evening went on. At 7.20pm, the crowd broke a police station window. At 8pm, they torched an empty police van and an empty police car shortly afterwards.

At about 9pm, police reinforcements started arriving from other forces, bringing the total number of officers on duty throughout the protest to just over 500. But the police didn’t regain control of the street outside the police station until about 10.30pm.

* * *

James Riccio, a small, tough-looking detective superintendent, was watching a live stream of the clashes at home on 21 March. “It was harrowing,” he told me, when we met recently, in a glass-fronted police station in Bristol’s commuter belt. “We were completely outnumbered. It was the first time I’d seen officers assaulted in that way. It was the first time I’d ever seen a police station compromised.”

The next day, Riccio, who usually works on murder cases, volunteered to lead the hunt for those responsible for the unrest. “It was very personal. I needed to do my bit to represent those officers and staff on the frontline who had been assaulted,” he said. He was given formidable resources: a team of 111 officers, who went on to review nearly 700 hours of footage from a variety of sources including CCTV, social media streams and TV camera crews. The police identified 44 alleged victims – all but one were police officers – and 158 suspects. “It was the biggest operation in Avon and Somerset’s history,” noted Riccio, who has been in the force for 25 years. “It was huge.”

On 23 March, Riccio’s team created their first online gallery of suspects and invited the public to help identify them. Pitman, Bond and Lazarus, who had never been in trouble with the police before, were shocked to see their faces in the gallery, which was all over the news. One by one they turned themselves in. At first, they were all charged with violent disorder, but this was later increased to riot, which raised the maximum sentence from five to 10 years. Moody, who also had no previous convictions, received a letter informing her she was going to be charged with violent disorder and riot.

In serious cases likes these, charging decisions are led by the CPS, which is responsible for carrying out prosecutions. Riccio discussed the evidence he had collected with CPS lawyers based in south-west England, who consulted CPS headquarters in London. (The head of the CPS is required to keep the attorney general, the minister overseeing the service, abreast of significant cases. But it is not known if Suella Braverman, who was attorney general from 2020 to 2022, ever discussed the Bristol cases.) Riccio admitted he was apprehensive about securing riot convictions as Avon and Somerset police had never charged anyone with the offence before. But he said the evidence his team had collected demonstrated there was a group of 150 people using violence to achieve a common aim: to attack the police. “If this isn’t riot, what is?” he asked.

* * *

The first nine defendants accused of riot were represented by local legal firms that did not specialise in protest cases. Between July and December 2021, they all pleaded guilty. In the first trial, a 25-year-old man from the local travelling community, Ryan Roberts, received a 14-year sentence for riot and attempted arson after the court was played a 34-minute video showing him throwing bottles and cans, smashing a window and pushing burning pieces of cardboard under an occupied police vehicle. It didn’t catch fire.

But Pitman, Bond, Lazarus and Moody were adamant they had not rioted. In the second half of 2021, each of them pleaded not guilty to riot in initial court hearings. Their trials were scheduled for the following year.

Pitman’s trial was first. Her family and friends had seen the evidence against her and were confident she would be cleared. The three-minute video played in court showed her talking to police, slapping a police shield with the palm of her hand, kicking out at police shields, and throwing a small object that she picked up from the ground. The prosecution argued Pitman, who is slightly built and 1.6m tall (5ft 3in), went to the front and challenged officers, which caused them to fear for their safety. To Pitman and her supporters, this did not seem like a compelling case.

Yet in April 2022, Pitman was found guilty of riot, and sentenced to three years in July of that year. A police press release issued on the day of the verdict admits that Pitman may not have used “the highest levels of violence” but claimed her actions at the front “escalated tensions” and encouraged others to attack officers. She recalled looking over at her friends and supporters: “Everyone was crying, but I just felt numb.”

Some of the protesters who were then awaiting their day in court told me that Pitman’s riot conviction spooked them. Bond and Lazarus accepted what were effectively plea bargains: if they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, it was agreed that the CPS would drop the riot charge. In August 2022, Lazarus, who was filmed pushing, hitting and kicking police shields, was sentenced to 14 months for violent disorder. In February 2023, Bond, who also pushed and kicked police shields, was sentenced to 20 months for violent disorder.

Moody was offered a plea bargain in May 2022. Frightened by the prospect of a long prison sentence, she took the deal, pleading guilty to affray. In November 2022, she was given a suspended sentence, sparing her from jail. “In my heart of hearts, it was so wrong,” Moody told me. “But I saw Charly [Pitman] get sent down for nothing. The police were lying and painting such a horrible picture of us … so I took it.”

Despite the video evidence suggesting Moody was beaten unconscious, the police and CPS maintain the initial charges against her were justified. DC Perry, who reviewed much of the footage as part of Riccio’s team, told me: “On the face of it you think ‘poor girl’, but there were elements of her behaviour …[where] it still hits the mould of affray, violent disorder and riot.”

“I could have died,” Moody told me, her voice faltering. “I looked like a dead body in someone’s arms … it makes me sick to think they have got away with it.”

* * *

In addition to the 19 protesters convicted of riot, another 23 – including Moody, Bond and Lazarus – have been convicted of lesser charges. They have been sentenced to a combined total of 112 years in jail.

Yet the broader narrative that underpinned their convictions – that a huge, violent mob came together to attack the police and damage police property – is looking increasingly shaky. Since the second half of 2021, when the first convictions took place, evidence has emerged that supports claims that police actions escalated the violence. This evidence also indicates that many of the protesters accused of coming together to attack officers were trying to protect themselves from police aggression.

An independent parliamentary inquiry has confirmed much of the protesters’ testimony. The all-party group on democracy and the constitution found in July 2021 that the police failed to distinguish between violent and peaceful protesters in Bristol, leading to the use of force in unjustified situations on 21, 23 and 26 March 2021. The MPs acknowledged the police faced serious violence, but also noted that officers used excessive force against peaceful protesters, with some instances so excessive they amounted to potential criminal offences. (After the MPs’ report was published, Avon and Somerset police claimed that allegations of disproportionate force had been fully investigated by its own professional standards department and said it was confident officers had acted appropriately.)

Crucially, the evidence collected by MPs was only put in front of juries after people started pleading not guilty. Since the beginning of 2022, nine protesters have pleaded not guilty. Five, including Pitman, have been found guilty. But four others were acquitted after jurors heard evidence that they were acting in self-defence and were injured by the police. In March 2022, Jasmine Yorke, who police sought to portray as a ringleader, was acquitted of riot after the court heard that police baton and shield strikes left her body covered in bruises. (Yorke was convicted of a lesser charge of arson for pushing a bin towards an already burning police car and sentenced to nine months.) Two months later, Kadeem Yarde, a BLM activist, was acquitted of riot after he told a jury he pulled a baton from an officer who was beating people in the crowd. Michael Truesdale, who was part of Bristol XR, was acquitted of violent disorder in June 2023, after he told the jury he used the police shield he was handed by another protester to protect himself and others from batons and Pava spray.

These acquittals appear to have moderated the CPS charging policy towards the Bristol protesters. Before the first acquittal in February 2022, 12 out of 15 defendants faced riot charges in court. Since then, fewer than a third have faced riot charges in court. In other words, defendants are now much more likely to be charged with less serious public order offences.

Defence lawyers believe the CPS approach changed after the police’s evidence was found wanting in a string of trials, and the pressure for exemplary sentences from politicians receded. “At the start, CPS lawyers would not negotiate on any charge. Everyone accused of violence was charged with riot,” says Raj Chada, the head of criminal defence at Hodge Jones & Allen, which represented 20 Bristol protesters, including Pitman. “But as time progressed that attitude changed and they seemed more willing to discuss less serious charges.” (The CPS declined to comment on this matter, but the police claim that the most serious offenders were charged first. However, the fact they charged Pitman – whose offences they acknowledged did not involve “the highest levels of violence” – in the first wave seems to undermine this point.)

Injury reports also cast doubt on the narrative that protesters were the main aggressors. I spoke to one female protester, who asked not to be named because she says she still fears the response of the police, who was treated for concussion after being hit with a baton. She described the scene in the nearby Bristol Royal Infirmary that night: “There were dozens of people in there with injuries inflicted by the police. Many people with head injuries, blood dripping from people’s skulls.”

The 21 March protest was followed by two further protests against the bill in Bristol, on 23 and 26 March. First aiders, legal observers and protesters themselves reported 62 injuries to Bristol Defendant Solidarity during all three protests. Of these, seven required hospital treatment and there were 22 reports of head injuries. This compares with 40 police officers reported injured, with one attending hospital and 12 sustaining head injuries over the same period.

Not only were more protesters hurt than officers, but the police had to withdraw claims made on the night of 21 March that two officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung. No such injuries were sustained, the force admitted. The police later released a breakdown of reported injuries sustained by officers. Forty-four officers reported injuries from protesters, with 39 of the reports relating to the night of 21 March. The most serious include two cases of suspected concussion. Many report bruising. Other cases seem significantly less grave. One entry records the case of an officer who has received three 1mm cuts to his left hand; another is for an officer treated by paramedics after part of his earpiece was stuck in his ear after a protester pulled the rest of the earpiece off. Another entry mentions an officer who had a scooter thrown at him, who “upon taking evasive actions” stepped into the way of a police dog “who has bitten the officer on his right buttock”. (The officer “didn’t realise he was injured until he had realised he was bleeding” and “Remained on duty.”) Although the document is not comprehensive, most of the officers recorded as having sustained injuries seem to have been back on duty for their next shift.

Riccio denies these details cast any doubt on his investigation. He says more protesters were injured than officers because there were more of them present on the protests. A higher proportion of officers were injured than protesters. He stressed that the video evidence presented in court by the police shows that there was a riot. “It certainly doesn’t put any doubt on the ones [convicted] with riot,” he told me. “What is clear is that they had a common purpose and committed violence.”

Through a freedom of information request, I’ve found that there have been 17 complaints about the policing of the protests on 21, 23 and 26 March, including 15 relating to excessive force. Seven incidents of suspected misuse of force were also referred for investigation by officers reviewing footage on 21 March 2021. Yet no officers have faced disciplinary action for their conduct, including for Fleur Moody’s injuries. All the complaints and referrals were internally investigated by the force’s own professional standards department. Although some might see this internal review process as insufficiently independent, Avon and Somerset police takes these findings as vindication. Riccio told me there was no evidence of protesters being assaulted in the reviewed footage: “There wasn’t one complaint upheld and there wasn’t one prosecution against a police officer.”

* * *

There are few recent parallels to the criminal justice system’s treatment of Bristol’s Kill the Bill protesters. The last time large numbers of people were charged and convicted of riot was after widespread disorder in Bradford in 2001. But clashes did not occur on a protest march; instead, the disturbances were a reaction to the stabbing of an Asian man in a city targeted by far-right groups.

The aftermath of the Bristol protests highlights what some believe is a wider shift in the way protesters are treated by the courts. “When I started out, there used to be some recognition that protesters are different to football hooligans. They are there for a social issue,” says Matt Foot, a criminal lawyer who has defended more than 100 protesters and written a book about the history of protest policing. “And there was an acceptance that protests can sometimes escalate, with protesters caught up in a tense situation they did not expect or want to be in. But that understanding seems to have gone.”

Even though riot charges are intended for the worst instances of crowd violence, prosecutors have considerable discretion. “Riot is a very broad-brush charge because it can apply to almost any large-scale disturbance,” the lawyer Raj Chada says. Technically, prosecutors only have to prove a defendant was part of a group of 12 or more people using or threatening unlawful violence to achieve a shared goal. Even so, riot charges remain very rare. So, Chada asks, “the real question is why did prosecutors use their discretion in this way in Bristol?”

The families of the jailed Bristol protesters and their supporters, who are campaigning for a public inquiry, suspect interference by two potential future Tory leaders: Patel and Braverman. Roger Ball, an urban disorder expert, argues only political pressure from senior politicians can explain the scale of riot charges imposed on the city’s youth. “I don’t believe the CPS or the police could have made these decisions themselves,” said Ball, who has been researching the spate of riot charges for the Bristol Radical History Group.

There is no direct evidence that politicians dictated the charges, but ministerial meddling in Bristol’s affairs is hardly unknown. In 2020, the Times reported that Patel subjected Avon and Somerset’s chief constable to a private dressing-down after his officers failed to stop the toppling of Colston. She publicly demanded that the police force pursue the activists responsible. When the statue-topplers were acquitted by a Bristol jury, Braverman, then attorney general, successfully referred the case to the appeal court to prevent juries in future trials from taking into account the right to protest in cases of significant criminal damage.

Michael Mansfield KC, a renowned human rights barrister, observes that politicians typically create the context for prosecutors to use the most serious charges: “There won’t be a memo from a minister. They don’t have to write out instructions to charge protesters with riot,” he says. “Nevertheless, the message is clear about what has to happen in these types of cases.” After the clashes in Bristol, senior politicians made their views plain. On 22 March, in parliament, Patel condemned the “criminal thuggery”, while her then Labour shadow, Nick Thomas-Symonds, added that those responsible should “face the consequences of their actions”.

The CPS, however, insisted to me it is wholly independent of government and the charges reflected the severity of the crimes in Bristol. It says every case is judged on the evidence and it will always “carefully consider the right to lawful protest”. But many of those who have been following the aftermath of the Bristol protest believe that it marked the beginning of a dangerous new approach, in which politicians pay lip service to the importance of protest to democracy, while doing everything in their power to blunt its effectiveness and criminalise those who take part.

* * *

The policing bill became law in April 2022. Some of the government’s proposals targeting protests were removed during the legislation’s passage through parliament, including the offence of interfering with key national infrastructure and locking on to each other or objects during protests. However, these offences were reintroduced in the Public Order Act, which became law in May 2023. The Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that the new public order legislation should be given “time to bed in” before his party decides whether or not to try to overhaul it.

In February 2024, new laws were proposed to ban face coverings and pyrotechnics at protests. Later that month, UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, persuaded police chiefs to sign up to a protocol restricting protests outside MPs’ homes, party offices, parliament and town halls. He claimed the measures were needed because the country was descending into “mob rule”.

The response to the disturbances in Bristol has now become a model for other police forces. Riccio has presented the key lessons from the operation to senior detectives in other forces and the army, which can be called on to help the police in civil emergencies. “Not only was it big for Avon and Somerset, it was unprecedented really,” Riccio told me. “I’ve distilled that learning for the College of Policing.”

Meanwhile, the convicted protesters are seeking to rebuild their lives. Moody’s mental health has improved; she is friendly, bright and open about her past troubles. However, she has been struggling to find work because her conviction is just an internet search away. While she has faced life-changing consequences for her actions that night, she is angry that no police officer has been held accountable for her injuries. She says her doctor has warned her that the brain injury she sustained that night may have contributed to long-term cognitive problems. “My hand-eye coordination isn’t as it was. I get tired quickly. I’m not as quick off the mark as I used to be,” she says. “It’s so unjust.”

Charly Pitman was released in July 2023, but her electronic monitoring tag, which gave her a curfew every evening, was only removed from her ankle in January 2024. Like Moody, she has left Bristol. Along with many other convicted protesters, she now fears joining demonstrations. “It makes me feel as if I’ve been trodden on and overpowered to make me silent. It is beyond horrific,” she says. “Losing your human right to voice your opinion is scary. It is frightening.”

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