By 8pm on Sunday, the situation had gone beyond the control of Avon and Somerset Police officers.
Outnumbered, they were reduced to holding their defensive line. They watched as one of their vehicles was vandalised and then set on fire. The balance of power was irrefutable. Law and order had broken down in central Bristol.
As the violence deepened and the flames began to leap outside the besieged Bridewell police station, the chant went up again and again from the exultant mob: ‘Shame on you!’ Shame on whom, exactly?
When daybreak came yesterday, the extent of the carnage inflicted during Bristol’s ‘Kill the Bill’ riot was clear. Two police officers had been hospitalised. Another 19 were injured, and the Police Federation accused some among the mob of trying to murder officers by setting fire to the van in which they were trapped. Bridewell was a devastated area. Bristol was appalled.
Police officers speak with protesters from inside a building during a night of violent unrest in Bristol sparked by demonstrations against a proposed policing bill
Protestors attack a police van which is then set on fire as officers clash with protesters outside New Bridewell Police Station
Who was to blame?
The finger is being pointed at anarchist and hard-Left groups and ‘protest tourists’ from beyond the city who came to cause trouble. Some activists on social media blamed the Government and police.
And some suggested the hostility towards officers – and their reluctance to respond robustly – was a result of the heavy-handed Metropolitan Police response to the vigil for murdered Sarah Everard in London the weekend before.
A shaken Chief Constable Andy Marsh said the demonstration against the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill had been ‘hijacked by extremists’.
The 3,000-strong gathering was already unlawful because of restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. But Mr Marsh said as many as 500 ‘hard-core’ thugs had attended in order ‘to fight with the police’.
‘It wasn’t people frustrated with the lack of ability to protest. This was people intent on causing serious disorder, violence and damage – people with a grudge against the police.’ He denied emphatically that the police aggression had ‘triggered’ the riot.
Protester smashes a Bridewell Police Station window as they take part in a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest in Bristol, demonstrating against the Government’s controversial Police and Crime Bill
Rioters set police vehicles on fire as protesters clashed with officers in the shocking scenes on Sunday night
Demonstrators stand near a burning police vehicle during a protest against a new proposed policing bill, in Bristol
‘For officers who were effectively trapped at close quarters, close enough to rip their shields from them and pull their helmets off, there wasn’t space to advance or retreat. It was an incredibly frightening evening for the officers there.’
Bristol’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, echoed his disgust.
Last June, Mr Rees and the police in Bristol attracted controversy after their passive reactions to the Black Lives Matters demonstration which culminated in the statue of slave trader and local philanthropist Edward Colston being torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour.
Police officers took an operational decision not to intervene during the removal, and the mayor later described the protest as a ‘well-managed occasion by police and council officers’.
A shameful day
Sunday’s events have left Mr Rees far less sanguine.
‘Smashing buildings in our city centre, vandalising vehicles, attacking our police will do nothing to lessen the likelihood of the bill going through,’ he said.
‘On the contrary, the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the bill.
‘This is a shameful day in an incredible year for Bristol.’
A demonstrator skateboards in front of a burning police vehicle during a protest against a new proposed policing bill, in Bristol, Sunday
A demonstrator gestures in front of a burning police vehicle during a protest against a new proposed policing bill, in Bristol
A vandalised police van explodes outside Bridewell Police Station, after protesters set it on fire
A demonstrator gestures near a burning police vehicle as two other vans arrive at the scene to drive protesters away
Mr Rees wondered if the perpetrators were Bristolian or ‘protest tourists’ from extremist organisations outside the city.
They were, he said, ‘selfish’ for ‘living out their revolutionary fantasies’ on Bristol’s streets.
Similar questions have been asked following the alleged heavy-handed police dispersal of the vigil for Miss Everard. When evening came there was a confrontation between police and members of the crowd and footage of handcuffed women sparked outrage across the political spectrum, leading to calls for Met Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign.
Were the police in Bristol ‘inhibited’ from using ‘necessary force’ following the vigil backlash? Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable, said he was ‘worried’ that was the case.
The Bristol protest started peacefully enough, with a march at 2pm from College Green. Families joined the throng in what one witness called a ‘carnival atmosphere’. The march flowed through the city to Castle Park, with protesters carrying placards with slogans such as ‘The Day Democracy Became Dictatorship’ and ‘We Can’t Be Silenced That Easy’.
Families fell in behind a samba band, but by late afternoon events took a sinister turn.
At 5pm, a man wearing a black bandana mask encouraged protesters to take their grievances to the police station. The fact the event had no organiser – a deliberate move to avoid the £10,000 fine chargeable under Covid legislation – meant it was vulnerable to hijack by a vocal minority.
People watch a burning police vehicle during the protest, which has become violent with protesters attacking a police station
A vandalised police van on fire outside Bridewell Police Station, as other police vehicles arrive
Billy, 43, a musician who took part in the march, said people were listening to ‘uplifting speeches’ and a poetry performance when the man urged the crowd to march on the police headquarters. He said: ‘The guy popped up from the back of the crowd and jumped in and shouted, ‘The police can’t hear you from here. You know where they can hear you, right? Yep, the police station, let’s go!’
‘In that split second that one guy walked to the police station and a bunch of people followed. Within 30 seconds it went from people sitting down and eating food to the whole park moving off down to the police station.’
The confrontation began. As a mob daubed graffiti on to a police van and tried to roll it over, a small group of officers wearing standard uniform of short-sleeve shirts – the riot squad would come later – drew their batons and tried to drive them back.
Still in broad daylight, the scene turned increasingly ugly. Police donned riot gear and brought in dogs and horses to control the growing crowds as tensions rose amid chants of ‘Kill the Bill’.
Scuffles broke out as police armed with batons and pepper spray tried to ‘kettle’ protesters into one area. By 5.30pm there were 300 officers facing several hundred more rioters.
As darkness fell, the police station came under sustained siege, with a single row of riot police defending the entrance.
They were pelted with rocks by hooded protesters in front of them and others behind and above them who had scaled the walls to the station’s first-floor roof.
Protester kicks a smashed Bridewell Police Station window as police officers inside barricade the way , in Bristol, Sunday
Riot police, with police horses and police vehicles, move down Rupert Street in Bristol towards protesters
Trapped inside, officers with shock etched on their faces could be seen watching the riot unfold from a window.
By 6.45pm, protesters were smashing in the police station’s windows with rocks and anything else that came to hand, including a skateboard. Others were carrying baseball bats.
Officers with police dogs tried to hold back the crowd; protesters tried to distract the dogs by throwing them slices of pizza.
As the angry crowd closed in on the police station, some launched fireworks at the officers. Three police vans arrived, but one had its tyres let down and a fire was lit underneath it.
Descent into anarchy
The descent into anarchy continued with a police car, parked 100 yards away, being set on fire. A jeering crowd gathered round to watch it burn. One man lit his cannabis joint using the flames.
In what must have been terrifying for the thin line of police officers, beer bottles and stones were repeatedly hurled at their faces.
Without their face and body shields and helmets, someone might easily have been killed. One man brandishing a skateboard repeatedly smashed it against an officer’s riot shield.
BBC reporter Andrew Plant said: ‘I saw a fire extinguisher being chucked through the air. You couldn’t walk through the ground without broken glass crunching beneath your feet.’
Shortly after 8pm, a police van was set on fire. As flames poured from the cab, there were cheers and cries of ‘f*** the police’.
As the van was consumed, three other police vans slowly moved along the road trying to herd the spectators away from the dangerous inferno. Three protesters clambered on to the roof of one of the moving vehicles.
Only a block away from the ‘front line’, party music was blaring from speakers and other protesters were dancing in the streets clutching bottles of beer.
One leapt on to the roof of the burnt-out remains of a police car and posed for photographs.
In the multi-storey Rupert Street NCP car park next to the station, at least nine cars had their windscreens smashed in. All were parked in bays reserved for NHS workers.
Ben Bloch, 24, a student journalist who ‘live-streamed’ for three hours using his mobile phone, said: ‘There were a lot of people trying to confront the police, shouting abuse at the police, bottles, rocks, anything they could find were being directed at police. It wasn’t bottles of water, it was bottles of beer being thrown.’
Among the protesters were self-appointed ‘legal observers’ in orange tabards. They were supposed to act as witnesses to ‘police brutality’.
Police seize control
According to the chief constable, the area was brought under full control by 1.30am yesterday. But officers were at the scene for three further hours.
Andy Roebuck, chairman of Avon and Somerset Police Federation described the most violent rioters as ‘animals’.
Last night one conservative think-tank blamed the police for having been too soft at the Colston statue incident. David Spencer, of the Centre for Crime Prevention, said: ‘The law says protests are illegal at the moment and, regardless of what you think about that, the police’s job is to make sure that law is adhered to. In the summer they failed to do that and Sunday night was an inevitable consequence of that decision.’
Yesterday, hard-Left commentators took to social media to blame what happened in Bristol on police actions at Clapham. Others said the violence was in response to police brutality on the night.
Bristol Momentum said: ‘The attack on the police station this evening likely wouldn’t have happened if the police hadn’t acted aggressively, including bringing in dogs.’ Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe tweeted: ‘We cannot restrict civil liberties and remove the right to protest without fallouts.’
Another apologist was Jess Barnard, chairman of Young Labour and a Norfolk county councillor.
She explained to her 16,500 Twitter followers: ‘Protest of anger. It is force. It amplifies the voice of the voiceless and reminds the establishment that the people have power. Protesting is not about being palatable or ‘nice’.’
Tell that to the officer who was stamped on so hard his lung was pierced. Or the officer whose arm was broken. Or indeed the law-abiding people of Bristol whose city was burned on this unpalatable night of ‘shame’.
Backlash of Bristol: Police begin hunt for hate-filled mob of hundreds who hijacked protest… and left more than 20 officers injured
By Alex Ward, Andy Doland and David Barrett for the Daily Mail
Detectives were last night hunting for up to 500 members of the ‘extremist’ mob responsible for one of Britain’s worst riots in a decade.
Some 21 officers were injured when a ‘hardcore of serious criminals’ hijacked a peaceful protest and brought anarchy to Bristol streets on Sunday night.
Two officers were hospitalised, including one who suffered a punctured lung and broken ribs when he was stamped on by thugs.
Detectives are hunting for up to 500 members of the ‘extremist’ mob responsible for one of Britain’s worst riots in a decade
Some 21 officers were injured when a ‘hardcore of serious criminals’ hijacked a peaceful protest and brought anarchy to Bristol streets on Sunday night
Avon and Somerset police have condemned scenes which saw a police station come under siege during Sunday night’s unrest
‘Kill The Bill’ protesters were fighting with the police into the early hours of Monday morning after the day of violence in Bristol
Protestors attack a police van which is then set on fire as police clash with protesters outside Bridewell Police Station
Three police vehicles were set alight and nine seriously damaged during the chaos, which left officers fearing for their lives in shocking scenes reminiscent of the 2011 riots.
Footage of the carnage shows rioters hurling missiles at officers defending Bridewell police station in the city centre. Rioters were filmed celebrating atop burning police vehicles.
The violence erupted as night fell following a day of demonstrations, when more than 3,000 people marched through the city to protest against planned legislation to hand police more powers to deal with peaceful demonstrations.
Police chiefs say the largely peaceful protest was infiltrated by criminals hell-bent on clashing with police.
Andy Marsh, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, said: ‘I believe the events 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. 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.’
Police have made eight arrests. All are male and one is understood to be from Reading. The rest are from Bristol.
A clean-up operation was under way yesterday around the police station after thugs smashed the station’s windows and wrote ‘f*** the police’ on the walls.
Home Secretary Priti Patel was among those to criticise the ‘appalling thuggery’. She told MPs: ‘The scenes in Bristol were utterly shameful.
‘I will work with everybody to make sure that where the police need the powers to tackle the type of appalling thuggery and criminality that we saw yesterday, we will achieve that while absolutely protecting the right to protest peacefully in our country.’
Demonstrators throw objects from the top of Bridewell Police Station in Bristol which was defaced during the protest
Protestor uses a skateboard to protect himself from a police officer’s baton in Bristol during a confrontation on Sunday
Police hold back people outside Bridewell Police Station as they take part in a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest in Bristol, Sunday
Investigators have begun watching hours of CCTV, body-worn cameras and witnesses’ videos, and hope to identify the rioters in the coming days. Scenes of officers being pelted by stones, bottles and fireworks have been shared widely on social media.
Avon and Somerset Police Federation chairman Andy Roebuck said some criminals tried to set fire to police vans while officers were still inside. ‘To my mind that is attempted murder.
‘When the protesters started to disperse, the feral criminals took the opportunity to hijack the protest. Officers said they felt they were going to be killed, such was the level of violence. You look into their eyes and hear how their voices were cracking – they were in fear for their lives.’
Sir Peter Fahy, former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, blamed the backlash from the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, in south London, for the violence against officers.
‘I worry that police officers in Bristol were inhibited from using necessary force to stop ‘protesters’ from attacking them because of the lack of support they saw the Met receive,’ he said.