Bristol Magistrates’ Court obstructed the public from observing #KilltheBill hearings last Friday

Riot police Bristol
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On Friday 30 May, defendants appeared at Bristol Magistrates’ Court on charges which included riot and violent disorder.

They were arrested following the 21 March #KilltheBill demonstration in Bristol, against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The demonstration on 21 March ended in a confrontation with the police outside Bristol’s Bridewell police station, after mounted police charged the crowd and attacked them with batons. The night ended with the a thousand strong crowd besieging Bridewell, and at least three police vehicles were set alight

Politicians, police, and the mainstream media have been baying for blood ever since. The establishment will be desperate to see those in court given long prison sentences. That’s why its of paramount importance that we stand with those who’ve been arrested and give them as much strength as we can.

And that’s exactly why the authorities are so desperate to put up as many barriers as possible to our solidarity.

I attended Bristol Magistrates’ Court on 28 May as a supporter of the defendants and as a journalist. When I arrived, I saw that other supporters were being told that only one person per defendant could enter the court. We were told that this restriction was because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. However, these kind of restrictions have not been in place at other courts I have attended during the pandemic.

I entered the court as a journalist, but was told that I could not sit in the courtroom where the hearing was taking place. Instead myself and the others were told to sit in an adjacent courtroom and watch the proceedings over a video-link.

Read on...

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Banned from taking notes

A little later, me and several other members of the public were told that we couldn’t take notes. I protested that we had a right to take notes. Court security told me that I would be thrown out if I continued writing. I carried on regardless, and the security officer responded by standing between me and the screen showing the video link.

The court’s insistence that members of the public should not take notes flies in the face of a recent court ruling which states:

There can be no objection to note taking in the public gallery unless it is done for a wrongful purpose; for example to brief a witness who is not in court on what has already happened.

There was no suggestion that people were suspected of taking notes for a ‘wrongful purpose’. The court staff’s actions were an oppressive abuse of power intended to place a barrier in the way of effective support for the defendants.

Judge closes public gallery with a wave of the hand

Not content with the petty abuse of power to prevent note-taking, the judge then decided to shut the public gallery completely, complaining that people had been taking notes and using laptops.

Court staff then ushered supporters out into the waiting area.

Bristol Defendant Solidarity tweeted angrily:

After the public gallery had been closed, another member of staff denied that the closure was anything to do with taking notes, instead citing coronavirus regulations as the reason for the restriction. It felt like staff were weaponising the pandemic as a way to restrict public access to proceedings.

I was eventually allowed back into the court after showing my journalist credentials. But others were left waiting outside the courtroom, despite a complaint being made to the court.

The Canary contacted Bristol Magistrates Court for a comment on this article. We had not received a reply by the time of publication.

We need to defy attempts to put barriers in the way of our solidarity

Those arrested on 21 March in Bristol have the odds squarely stacked against them. After previous UK riots the courts doled out incredibly harsh sentences for minor offences. For example, after Palestine solidarity demonstrators clashed with the police in 2009, the courts went to town handing out politically motivated sentences to the mostly Muslim defendants. I witnessed one 19-year-old being given a year in prison for throwing a single plastic bottle in the direction of the police. I also saw several defendants being threatened with deportation proceedings on conviction, despite having lived in the UK all their lives.

The story was the same in 2011 following the summer of rioting after the UK police’s killing of Mark Duggan. Defendants were sentenced to a total of 1,800 years in prison. One mother of two – for example – was jailed for five months after she accepted a pair of shorts as a gift which turned out to have been looted. Another woman was sentenced to six months for stealing a case of bottled water worth just £3.50.

We need to stand with our comrades, as they prepare to face a biased and deeply politicised court system. It’s of paramount importance that we defy all attempts to put barriers in the way of our solidarity.

Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Twitter: shoalcollective

Featured image via Shoal Collective

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Get involved

  • Donate to the crowdfunder in support of the defendants
  • Check out Bristol Defendant Solidarity’s statement, advising against pleading guilty in #KilltheBill cases

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