Civil liberties campaigners have blasted police for a ‘clear assault’ on sit-down protesters demonstrating against the Police and Crime Bill.
Footage obtained by Metro.co.uk from a protester shows dozens of officers in riot gear marching on peaceful demonstrators on Bristol’s College Green on Tuesday night, appearing to strike people with no provocation.
One officer can be seen using a hard-edged riot shield to smash a woman’s back while she sat facing away from them, knocking her over. Others appeared to shove non-resisting protesters to the ground as they tried to stand up on at least two occasions.
Metro.co.uk shared the footage with the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), who said it showed a ‘completely disproportionate use of force from the police’.
Netpol singled out the ‘systematic use of police round shields as weapons’ to ‘strike people who are sitting down’ as examples of a ‘clear assault’ with no justification, adding: ‘[We] highly doubt this is an approved technique.’
‘You can see from this footage there is one group escalating the situation and that is Avon & Somerset Police.’
More video emerged on Friday night showing riot police using their shields to chop at another group of seated protesters in Bristol.
Tuesday’s demonstration was organised by travellers and van-dwellers who claim the bill threatens their way of life through greater powers to shut down ‘unauthorised encampments’ and seize vehicles. It was attended by unaffiliated members of the public.
William, a 25-year-old salesman whose girlfriend filmed the incident, said around 100 protesters spread about between placards and tents had been allowed to stay for hours before a large number of riot vans and police dog units arrived unannounced, blocking most exits from the green.
He claimed liaison officers had told some of the group they would be allowed to reside overnight but were nowhere to be seen when riot units arrived.
‘An officer with a megaphone about 20 metres away said something along the lines of “you must disperse, if you fail to we will use force against you” but the order to march on us was given only seconds later.’
‘I asked why we should move and what it was that we were doing that was illegal, to which they shouted “just move!”.’
William, who did not want to give his surname due to the animosity towards people supporting travellers’ rights, added: ‘I said to them that this wasn’t illegal and they screamed back at me telling me it was right now.
‘My hands remained in the air and I stayed sat down at which point they began bashing me with their riot shields and kicking me.’
A statement by Avon & Somerset Police issued after the dispersal described it as an operation to ‘enforce Covid-19 legislation’.
A total of 14 people were arrested for ‘breaches of Covid-19 legislation’ with a few arrested for ‘obstruction of a highway’. They have since been released from custody pending further ‘enquiries and decisions’.
Two others were arrested for offences connected with the violent disorder in the city on Sunday and have been released on conditional bail.
The National Police Chief Council has said protest can be permitted under Covid legislation, a finding supported by a High Court ruling on the Sarah Everard demonstrations earlier this month.
Netpol spokesperson Sam Kedwell added: ‘Avon & Somerset Police seem to be playing it rather fast and loose with their grounds for arrest, and interpreting Covid-legislation as a blanket ban on protest which it manifestly is not.’
Metro.co.uk asked Avon & Somerset Police what grounds it had for suspecting people sat on a public green were guilty of obstructing a highway, and whether any steps had been taken to fine people suspected of breaking Covid restrictions before arresting them.
The force declined to respond or comment on the wider allegations in time for publication, saying ‘most’ of the issues were addressed by the earlier arrest statements as well as comments by Chief Superintendent Claire Ames on Wednesday.
She said: ‘Officers had engaged with protesters and asked them to disperse, but tents and a sound system were set up so it was abundantly clear they were intent on remaining at the location, in spite of legislation in place to protect public health.
‘After the scenes of violence witnessed in the city at the weekend it was necessary to bring in additional resources from our neighbouring forces to ensure the protest was safely brought to a swift conclusion.
‘Throughout the operation officers continued to urge protesters to move on – at no time were they contained – but there came a time when enforcement was necessary as gatherings are still not permitted.’
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