20 June 2022

A mob threatening women is not a ‘protest’ – and police in Bristol should have known that


Back in the noughties, before Police and Crime Commissioners existed, I was the senior Home Office official in South West England holding Chief Constables to account on behalf of the Home Secretary.

My patch included Avon and Somerset, where I had many entertaining conversations with the then Chief Constable Colin Port about the vagaries of central government targets. Nonetheless, unlike his current successor, Colin understood the centrality of one of those targets – public confidence.

Last weekend, according to the bizarre and self-congratulatory press release from Bristol’s finest, Avon and Somerset’s police officers facilitated two protests by two different groups. There might have been a bit of shouting from both sides but, the statement piously ends, ‘fundamental democratic rights’ were protected all round. Home for tea and medals!

This comes as news to those who were actually there. To recap, the gender critical collective ‘Standing For Women’ announced that they would hold an event called ‘Let Women Speak’ on Bristol’s College Green. Another group, ‘Bristol Against Hate’ organised a counter protest to coincide with this event stating ‘Right-wing agitators intend to host a transphobic rally. We are clear: trans rights are human rights and these rights will be defended.’

What transpired on the ground – as seen in dozens of different video clips shared on social media – was a small group of women besieged by an ugly, baying mob of protestors determined to stop them exercising their democratic right to gather and discuss issues that matter to them.

In particular, several masked males, dressed in black antifa chic, screamed obscenities at the women and behaved in such a confrontational way that the inadequate police response was forced to stand in the middle, largely to prevent the aptly named ‘Black Pampers’ from physically attacking women.

You can see where I’m coming from here, but even a neutral observed would be baffled by Avon and Somerset’s descriptive license. Here was a lawful event which was being prevented from taking place by a small group of extremely aggressive agitators who only wanted confrontation. This was not a polite encounter between equals, nor were the police compelled or constrained to behave as if it was.

There’s a fistful of public order legislation that could have enabled officers to first warn and then arrest these screeching men (It’s always men at these confrontations, isn’t it?). They committed the Full English of offence requirements – their behaviour could be reasonably described as threatening, abusive or disorderly.

Moreover, waving signs with Terfs can suck my dick in front of a group of women who are pejoratively known by that descriptor surely made it possible for police action under the same legislation which makes it an offence to display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive. Both offences must be committed ‘within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby’  – a threshold met and exceeded as the targets of these totalitarian toddlers were surrounded, hounded and screamed at.

This is the point where context is always deployed in defence of such operational failures. Ah! But what about Impartiality? What about proportionality? What about the human rights of the counter-protestors? On all three points, my mate Jon Burrows, a former police commander in Derry and no stranger to opposing demonstrations, summed up the position perfectly in one tweet. 

They are confusing impartiality with neutrality; it is the job of the police to be the former not the latter. There is no human right in the ECHR to intimidate & threaten (hence art 11 is qualified Right). An order to remove masks should have been made & intimidation dealt with.

Dealing with both sides of the protest with aching even-handedness while there is a clear imbalance in the threat posed is not a proportionate response. The women in the original rally were quite obviously being threatened and intimidated by black-clad and masked trans activists. In my view, police should have made early arrests and that would have taken all the steam out of what was a scalable situation, had there been enough officers available to deal with what the forces top brass had had days to foresee. There seemed to not even be a determined attempt to create space between both sides.

There are various other allegations being made by the organisers of Women Standing Together, including the police stating that a pub the women then retreated to which was surrounded by protestors could not be protected, leading to it closing early. But the awful video footage of naked aggression being apparently ignored by police is striking.

Policing has a huge mountain to climb to regain the confidence of women after the organisational and human calamity of Sarah Everard’s murder. Wider still, most people will see a capitulation to mob violence seeking to silence lawful gatherings and wonder what is happening to basic civility on the streets. Most ominously, the angry young men who have fallen with glee on a type of ‘permissive’ misogyny which sits on the extremes of trans activism will only be emboldened by the supine policing they observed in Bristol.

The sort of behaviour on display against women last Sunday never stops escalating unless it is decisively confronted. We should not be outsourcing this task to a group of brave women who are simply concerned about the loss of hard-won sex rights and the erosion of their identities.

The Policing Minister Kit Malthouse will no doubt want to see Avon and Somerset’s Public Order Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment that must have been carried out in advance of this well trailed confrontation. It’s important for public confidence in Bristol and across the country to see that people can assemble lawfully without having to be corralled in a pub, and that police are not neutral or neutered by ideology in the face of aggressive behaviour.

Meanwhile, if newly appointed Chief Constable Sarah Crew wants to start policing Bristol like Portland that’s going to be a headache for all its citizens, but in particular for Tory Policing and Crime Commissioner Mark Shelford. Impunity never rests. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.