Police have come under fire for their treatment of a reporter at demonstrations in Bristol on Friday night, during violent clashes between officers and protesters, amid wider demands for an investigation into the handling of the protests.
Daily Mirror journalist Matthew Dresch shared video footage that appeared to show police pushing him and hitting him with a baton as he shouted that he was a member of the press.
“Police assaulted me at the Bristol protest even though I told them I was from the press. I was respectfully observing what was happening and posed no threat to any of the officers,” he said.
Twitter users described the incident as outrageous and appalling.
Avon and Somerset police tweeted: “We’re aware of a video showing a journalist being confronted by officers during last night’s protest in Bristol. We’re making efforts to contact him. A free press is a cornerstone of our democracy and we fully respect the media’s vital role in reporting events fairly & accurately.”
Labour MP Nadia Whittome called for an investigation into the policing of the demonstrations.
“Reports of protesters and journalists injured last night in Bristol. The case for an independent investigation into the policing of the Bristol protests is clear,” she tweeted.
In an open letter, Labour candidates in the city joined calls for a full and independent investigation, saying they were “deeply concerned about the videos circulating on social media which appear to show police using excessive force against protesters”.
“Of particular concern are the reports of multiple journalists being intimidated and in some cases assaulted by the police. We condemn all violence. These scenes are chilling and should be of great concern to anyone who cares about civil liberties, regardless of views on the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill or the demands of the protests.”
Police were criticised for alleged heavy-handedness towards protesters. Jasmine York, 25, was among those said to have been hurt by police on Friday night.
She said she had been trying to stay out of the way of police after receiving injuries, including from a dog bite and baton strike, during protests last Sunday. She had been trying to discourage others from being violent, and to liaise with police to ensure that she was able to cooperate as far as possible, but that she was caught unawares when they suddenly advanced.
She said: “A policewoman barged me with her shield and I tripped. I fell to the floor and I went on to my back. My phone went and my keys went [out of my pocket]. I had my knees up to my chest and my arms over my head. I had two policewomen on my left using their shields to batter me, and two men on my right and they were hitting me with batons.
“The irony was that they kept asking me to get up. I was like: ‘I can’t’; and I was saying: ‘I’m on your side, I’m here to stop arseholes throwing shit at you.’”
York said officers dragged her up and when she tried to tell them she needed to go back to pick up her keys a policewoman told her: “Fuck your keys.” But another officer went back to pick them up and gave them to her and apologised for the way she had been treated.
There have been a series of protests in Bristol against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which would give police in England and Wales more power to impose conditions on peaceful protests, including those deemed too noisy or a nuisance.
Critics argue this infringes on the right to free and peaceful expression, and has led to a protest movement under the slogan “kill the bill”.
This is not the first time that officers have been criticised for their treatment of the press at kill the bill demonstrations.
On Tuesday, Adam Cantwell-Corn and Alon Aviram of Bristol news website the Cable said they were threatened with force by a police officer while covering the protest. The officer in question ordered them to leave, appeared to push them and denied that they were journalists.
“Press card fully on show, Just got threatened with dogs and force by an officer despite telling him we are journalists. A senior officer later stepped in to tell him to back off,” Cantwell-Corn tweeted at the time.
In the video the officers tell the reporters to disperse, to which they replied: “We’re journalists and we’re covering your actions.”
The officer said: “No you’re not,” and despite the reporters showing press cards and saying they were accredited members of the National Union of Journalists, later said “it doesn’t matter if you claim to be journalists because you’re studying journalism”.
Aviram later said that a “high-ranking officer with Avon and Somerset has now extended apologies for this incident”.
Cantwell-Corn said the police officers’ behaviour, to both him and his colleague, and towards Dresch, raised questions about how police are trained to treat journalists.
During the incident on Tuesday, he and Aviram were separate from protesters and a “good distance” from police when they were approached by the officer.
He said: “It’s absolutely to be expected that a police officer in that situation would confront somebody, it’s the same thing that happened with us … But once you’ve identified yourself as a journalist and showed credentials, he should have changed his approach. He obviously didn’t.”
“It shows a serious lack of training. It’s a heated moment, but if officers can’t control themselves, absorb information and respond to it, then you have to ask questions about their fitness to be there.”
Cantwell-Corn said the escalation with police began only when officers decided to forcefully remove the demonstrators at around 10pm. Before the arrests, protesters could be seen dancing despite heavy rain and handing out flowers.
Supt Mark Runacres, commander for Bristol, said: “People were attending a protest against our advice and the advice of the authorities, and were refusing to disperse and go home. People who wanted to peacefully protest had ample opportunity to do so – we facilitated that for many hours.
“People were then exercising and showing high levels of violence towards the police. We had bottles being thrown at officers, paint being thrown at officers. Our officers will deal with offences where they are being committed effectively and robustly, in line with the College of Policing approved public order training tactics.
“Our response will be proportionate as is necessary to restore order. When we have officers coming under attack, in the same location and in the same way as last Sunday, we need to disperse that crowd.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has condemned the clashes between demonstrators and police in Bristol, describing them as “disgraceful”.
Avon and Somerset police said glass bottles, bricks and eggs were thrown at officers. Fireworks were also launched at its mounted division, the force claimed, with one horse being daubed with paint. Ten people were arrested, three of whom had also been detained at similar demonstrations last Sunday.
“Our officers should not have to face having bricks, bottles and fireworks being thrown at them by a mob intent on violence and causing damage to property,” the prime minister tweeted.
Johnson added that the “police and the city have my full support”.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said she was “disgusted” by the scenes, describing the demonstrators as “thugs” who were “only intent on causing trouble”.
“I’m in no doubt the silent, law-abiding majority will be appalled by the actions of this criminal minority,” she said.
The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, said that “whenever there is violence, that is completely unacceptable” and told BBC Breakfast that protesters should be using “other ways of expressing whatever dissatisfaction they have”.
The mayor of Bristol said violence was unwelcome and demonstrations should be “thoughtful, meaningful, peaceful and accountable”, with participants asking: “Is what I am doing advancing the cause I claim to be campaigning for?”
In a statement posted on Facebook, Marvin Rees said he was confident in the police’s ability to handle the demonstrations, saying that they had “shown they are capable of managing protests well and with sensitivity and have developed a strong culture of working with our communities”.
Rees said police had been brought in from neighbouring constabularies to deal with the number of protesters, and that this “makes it more difficult to drive the culture we have been building over recent years”.
“We know they will review some of the incidents that occurred last night and ensure those standards are upheld.”
Runacres said the force was expecting more protests over coming days.
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