Court hears evidence of how coronavirus protest ‘ban’ set the stage for the Bristol ‘riot’

Riot police Bristol

A Bristol court was told on Thursday 28 October that one of the factors in the policing of the Bristol ‘riot’ was an “incorrect assumption” that the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown restrictions meant that all gatherings were illegal.

The evidence came during the trial of Ryan Roberts on charges of riot, as well as six offences relating to arson against police vehicles. Ryan has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

82 people have been arrested so far – most of them for riot – following the 21 March Kill the Bill demonstration in Bristol.

Eight of those arrested have pleaded guilty so far. They’ve received sentences totalling 29 years in prison. But grassroots groups in Bristol have condemned the police violence against protesters on 21 March, and have said that they’re proud of the defendants for fighting back against the police.

Legislation

Kathryn Hobbs – a defence witness – told the court that:

at the time when the demonstration was happening it was unclear in the Coronavirus legislation whether demonstrations were allowed, Avon and Somerset police were under an incorrect assumption on the day, they had the impression that any gathering would be illegal,

Hobbs was a volunteer legal observer on the night of 21 March. She also told the jury that she has provided her notes to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democracy and the Constitution’s investigation of the policing of the demonstration.

Read on...

Hobbs began to say that the findings of the APPG’s report agreed with her analysis about Avon and Somerset Police’s interpretation of the coronavirus legislation. However, she was cut off by Matt Jackson – the prosecutor – who objected that this was inadmissible, The judge agreed with him.

Hobbs was cross-examined by the prosecution on the timeline of the events of 21 March about her evidence – which she had given on the afternoon of 27 October – that the policing of the demonstration had changed suddenly in the early evening, when the police donned riot gear and began to push and strike protesters.

Matt Jackson – the prosecutor – questioned Hobbs about a video from that point in the evening. He said it showed:

these officers are wearing black uniform but not PSU [Police Support Unit] gear.

Police Support Units are made up of officers trained to deal with riot situations. A ‘PSU suit’ is another name for police riot gear.

Hobbs pointed out that the police in riot gear she had mentioned were a little way away, outside Bridewell. She also pointed out that on the video – which was taken at about 5.30pm on 21 March – that an officer can be seen with a helmet attached to his belt and another officer could be seen with an outstretched baton.

Hobbs said:

from what I saw on the day the police formed lines around Bridewell and began to push people back and that is where the situation escalated.

Hobbs agreed that a drinks can may have been thrown from the crowd, but said:

it was the actions of the police who pushed the crowd that caused the escalation. The actions of a few people in the crowd shouldn’t affect the way the police act toward everyone in the crowd.

Jackson questioned why Hobbs’ notes focused on the actions of the police and not on the demonstrators. She replied that the police had Evidence Gathering Teams that were constantly monitoring protesters, but that the Legal Observers were “filling a gap” monitoring what the police did. She said:

In my experience its very difficult to hold officers to account for wrongdoing, police tend to close ranks.

Jury is out

After Hobbs’ evidence, the defence closed its case. The jury heard some instructions from the judge and then speeches from the barristers for the defence and prosecution.

Nick Lewin – who is defending Ryan – told the jury:

[the prosecution] played you a very well selected selection of clips painting the police in the light he and the crown wished them to be portrayed. That is, how you would hope a police force would respond. But that is not a true reflection of what happened on the day.

He continued:

I – on behalf of [Ryan Roberts] have sought through the use of other footage to paint a more accurate picture of why it was that things escalated as they did from a peaceful protest to the grossly disproportionate and illegal violence used by the police.

Lewin drew the jury’s attention again to the police violence on the night by showing them – again – a clip from 21 March of the police charging at protesters, knocking over two people. The officers then go on to hit them with their shields and kick them while they were on the ground.

The incident can be seen from about six minutes and 20 seconds into the footage taken by Russian news agency Ruptly.

Lewin went on:

The violence used by the police was bluntly unlawful and cannot be justified.

Who – I ask you – brought shame on this city that day?

This set the scene for the events Ryan is currently on trial for according to Lewin:

So it was that Ryan Roberts found [themself] in the middle of this assault on [their] friends and fellow demonstrators.

So it was that he – like many others – responded to violence with violence to protect [themself] and others around [them], many of whom were less able to defend themselves against the onslaught of unlawful violence meted out by the police.

Lewin told the jury that:

World history is peppered with events collectively remembered of individuals subsequently lauded for actions deemed illegal at the time, and for which they faced death – as in Tiananmen Square – or decades in custody, such as Nelson Mandela.

He continued:

When you retire to consider your verdicts, I invite you to do one thing, look at the fuller picture

Lewin went on:

I am not suggesting on Ryan Robert’s behalf that [they] were a peaceful demonstrator that day – [their] anger at times is evident – but if you were there and saw the police behave like Oswald Mosley’s troops in the East End of London in the 1930s, how would you have responded to clear that threat? Would you have done everything in your power to fight them back? Or would you – as the crown invite – simply have taken whatever violence they deployed.

Lewin invited the jury to find Ryan not guilty on all counts

The jury is currently considering its verdict

Featured Image via Shoal Collective (with permission)

Get involved

  • Donate to the Kill the Bill prisoner support fund, and write to the Kill the Bill prisoners.
  • Listen to this podcast about Ryan’s case, and what people are doing in Bristol to support the Kill the Bill defendants.
  • Read our account of what happened on 21 March.

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