This week, Bristol Crown Court sentenced four defendants to nearly 11 years in prison between them. Police arrested all four for their role in Bristol’s 21 March 2021 Kill the Bill demonstration.
Judge Patrick – who has become infamous in Bristol for handing out brutal sentences to the Bristol ‘riot’ defendants – sentenced Dominic Gillett to four years and eight months in prison. Dominic had pled guilty to ‘riot’. Joe Paxton and Indigo Bond received sentences of 27 months and 20 months respectively. Indigo and Joe were both found not guilty of riot in 2022 by juries, but had offered guilty pleas to the lesser charge of violent disorder.
Charlie Milton received 26 months for violent disorder.
On Friday 24 February, a demonstration in solidarity with the defendants was held outside Bristol Crown Court. Demonstrators chanted:
Our passion for freedom is stronger than your prisons!
From a demonstration to an uprising
On 21 March 2021, officers from Avon and Somerset police attacked demonstrators with batons, and deployed horses and dogs against the protest. In footage from the night police officers can be seen repeatedly hitting people over the head with their riot shields
The protest was against the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, now enacted into law. It took place just after the brutal rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, and the mood was both angry and defiant. The police’s brutality toward the crowd was the final straw, and the demonstration became an anti-police uprising. When the police attacked, the crowd fought back.
By the end of the evening protesters had smashed the windows of Bridewell Police Station, and several police vehicles were in flames.
The Crown Court has so far imprisoned at least 32 people for their role that night, and in the demonstrations that followed. On top of that, one person is currently on remand. Their combined sentences total over 96 years in prison. Ryan Roberts was given the longest stretch so far – a massive 14 years.
These 32 Kill the Bill prisoners are among an increasing number of people imprisoned in relation to political demonstrations. At least 54 people are reportedly serving time in the UK for their roles in protests and direct action.
Almost all of the defendants were initially charged with riot, the most serious charge in English public order law. Riot carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, and has historically been used fairly rarely outside of Northern Ireland. The riot charge – for example – was not used against most of those arrested in the UK’s 2011 uprisings in London and elsewhere. On that occasion, the state opted to prosecute the majority of people for the lesser charge of violent disorder.
But in recent years, riot has been increasingly used by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). For example, last year 18 people were imprisoned for riot after a confrontation with police broke out at a wake in Swansea.
Protecting a way of life
Many of the people now in prison went out to demonstrate against the PCSC Act because it would threaten their way of life. The Act targets the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community by allowing police to arrest people for residing in a vehicle without the landowner’s permission, and even to confiscate their homes.
Dominic Gillett – who was sentenced to over 4 years this week – had previously lived in a vehicle. Indigo Bond comes from a Traveller background too.
Both Dominic and Indigo had joined the protest partly because of how the law would affect people living in vehicles.
Dominic’s barrister told Bristol Crown Court on Tuesday that:
He’d been living in a caravan before, and felt threatened by the Bill.
Indigo told the court last year that she “ :
The PCSC Act is a direct threat to GRT livelihoods, it’s not surprising that people took to the streets to fight back.
Protecting each other
All of the people imprisoned this week were defending themselves – and others – from the violence of the police.
On Tuesday, the court heard how Joe Paxton had carried Fleur Moody out of the crowd to safety. Fleur had been hit on the head by an overarm baton strike from an officer, in clear breach of police guidelines.
The charges against Joe included the accusation that he tried to wrestle a police riot shield away from an officer. However, his defence barrister argued that he was trying to protect his partner – who the had already been badly beaten by officers.
Indigo told the jury at her previous trial that she had stayed at the demonstration because:
She also said that she had kicked at the officers:
Dominic Gillett’s defence barrister explained how he had kicked out after police officers hit a person standing next to him. She added that he had tried to give first aid to people who had been pepper sprayed by the police.
The court also heard how Charlie Milton had shouted at an officer to put his baton down.
‘Our children should be released’
Members of Justice for Bristol Protesters – a group of parents, friends, and supporters of the defendants – told the Canary that they are outraged and devastated by the harsh sentences still being handed out to their loved ones. One parent said:
Our children are being sent to prison for reacting to the violence of some police on that day. Protesters were beaten black and blue yet not a single officer has been exposed, questioned or called to account. The convictions have a political motive and our children are political prisoners.
The group statement continued:
The police brutality experienced by the majority of the protesters, the drip, drip, drip approach to prosecutions and the long delays in sentencing is leaving these young people traumatised and vulnerable. Most of the young women prosecuted are being sent to HMP Eastwood Park, which has recently been heavily criticised by prison inspectors as ‘fundamentally unequipped to support the women in its care’ with cells ‘appalling, dilapidated and covered in graffiti’, one blood-splattered and some with extensive scratches on the walls.
Another parent commented:
The charges should be dropped and our children released.
Brutal sentences becoming dangerously normalised
I was there on 21 March 2021, and witnessed the events unfold. Since then, I have watched dozens of people receive prison sentences for their part in the uprising outside Bridewell. Like many other people in Bristol, I am full of sadness, anger and rage that they are being sentenced to years in prison for resisting against a brutal onslaught by Avon and Somerset police.
I am proud of all the people who stood up against the police that night. And I am glad to live in a community where people aren’t scared to fight back. But it is terrifying that these sentences are becoming more and more normal.
We must never let go of our rage and defiance at a system that imprisons our comrades. Further, we must always insist on fighting against injustice. We must remember the rebels of Bridewell, and support them through their sentences. Most of all, we need to continue to struggle against the system that put them there, and never let the fire of resistance – that burned so brightly that night at Bridewell – be extinguished.
People in Bristol have set up a fund to support the Kill the Bill defendants through their sentences. You can donate here.
Featured image via Bristol Anti Repression Campaign – with permission