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  • Iain Donnelly

Bristol: You will never deal with bullies by trying to appease them

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

The events in Bristol yesterday were a crystal-clear reminder that the line that separates order and chaos in a democracy is a very fragile one. Things can break down incredibly quickly, and as ever, the police will be on the receiving end. That’s their job, so I have no complaints about that. However, I do fear that their ability to quell these outbreaks of disorder has been horribly compromised, for all of the reasons that I talk about in my book and in my podcast.

There will always be a hardcore of ideologically-driven activists who see injustice everywhere they look. This small army of the zealots will be very quick to provide the stage for their accomplices, young, nihilistic thugs and criminals to do their bidding and cause disorder. Generally, activists themselves don’t roll their sleeves up and start fighting. They’re too weak and cowardly for that. Like the school sneak, they stand in the shadows and egg on the school bully to beat up the nice kids in the playground.

My thoughts are with the injured police officers and their families this morning, but it’s worth just reflecting on some of the issues at play here. What’s going on here? What were the factors that probably made this particular outbreak of violence almost inevitable.

The right to protest

It’s a fundamental human right to be allowed to protest peacefully against anything that the state does or that a private corporation does that’s perceived to be unfair or harmful. If the argument’s sufficiently compelling and enough people support it, things will change. That’s the way a democracy works. But of course, some people don’t like democracy because their impatience, anger and ideology create a desire to smash everything up like a petulant child who’s smashing up his brother’s trainset when he’s told that he’s not allowed to play with it.

However, we have seen how the democratic right to protest has been subverted by well-organised activist groups who can now organise and mobilise themselves quickly and efficiently using social media and free end-to-end encrypted technology to communicate, ensuring that they stay one step ahead of the authorities.

As well as being more tech-savvy, their tactics have changed substantially, whereby the name of the game is not about peaceful protest. It is now about causing as much disruption and economic damage as possible to as many people as possible. Thus, we have a situation where a very small number of committed activists who do not represent anyone but themselves can have a massively disproportionate impact on the lives of millions of private citizens going about their lawful business. This damages their human rights, but these people don’t care about that. They only care about their rights.

The Bristol rioters (like their Antifa cousins in the USA) fail to see that they exhibit the very worst and most extreme forms of intolerance and bigotry that they claim to be challenging. These are the same people who would have been enthusiastically rounding up 'enemies of the state' and sending them off to the Soviet gulags or the Nazi concentration camps. They are the new authoritarians; drunk on their ideology and sense of moral superiority.

A febrile political climate and a hostile media narrative towards policing

As I have pointed out in my book and podcast ( this is the inevitable consequence of the political emasculation of policing in the last ten years, and a relentlessly negative media narrative.

What I found really disappointing, but not surprising, was that I didn't hear a single politician or journalist condemn the fact that the organisers named their protest 'Kill the Bill'. They will of course argue that they were referring to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and the Courts Bill. However, they were clearly hoping that one of the more violent and mentally unbalanced participants might take this literally and actually murder a police officer.

The BLM protests in London and Bristol in 2020 taught this rabble that the police are generally now too scared to get stuck in. The police are now too worried about being criticised for being heavy-handed, filmed on camera phones and uploaded to YouTube. They have no confidence that their own organisation or the IOPC will support them. Police commanders are now caught in a terrible bind. Do you go in hard and risk the media backlash? Or do you stand back and let them do what they want, guaranteeing a different type of media backlash. It’s a totally thankless situation to be in. Clapham Common last weekend, showed how a five or six hour, good natured, low-key police deployment can be totally misrepresented by the media the next day, by selectively using very short sections of camera phone footage from different people, shot from different angles, over and over on a 24/7 continuous rolling broadcasting loop.

Who's now in charge on our streets?

The loss of 20,000 officers and the resignation of over 8000 in the last three years has been catastrophic for policing. There will be an exodus of 30,000 of the most experienced officers over the next three years, meaning that very soon, about one third of the officers nationally will have less than three years-service. Most cops don’t really learn the job properly until they have about four or five years service.

I looked at many of the officers in public order gear on TV last night and I made a number of observations to my wife;

1. Many of them looked very young. (Or maybe I'm just really old!)

2. Most of them looked very scared, like rabbits caught in the headlights.

3. Quite a few of them were not physically imposing in any way. Some of them looked too small for public order duties. (Not ideal in this situation I would argue)

My point about the size and stature of many of some of the police officers will be seen by some as the last roaring of a dying, police dinosaur. I make no apology for that however. Policing can sometimes be a rough, tough job and public order policing is the roughest and toughest aspect.

I know that the height restriction in policing will never come back, however I’m just not sure how effective a very short officer, who is also very slight in build is likely to be in these situations? Does anyone ever say to them “Sorry, I just don’t think you’re physically cut out for public order training?”

I know that some years ago the police service removed some of the more physically demanding aspects of basic public order training, including the 'shield run' where you had to complete an entire lap of the training base (approx 400 metres) carrying a heavy, long shield at a run against the clock. If you couldn't do it, you couldn't be a Level 2 officer. It was hard, I was very fit in those days and loved it, but many struggled, particularly if they were over-weight or small in stature.

Would the British Army say, 'Don't worry if you can't climb over the wall or carry the rucksack any further' and lower the standard for Infantry soldiers? No. Why? Because you'd end up with a load of unfit, overweight, physically weak soldiers who were no good on the battlefield. They'd be a liability to themselves, and they would put their colleagues at risk because they'd get left behind. So why do the police do this?

I don’t know what the answer to that question is, but I do know that sometimes officers on PSUs need to go in very, very hard and fast, and we now see remarkably little of that in modern policing in the UK.

The average, decent member of the public would be cheering from the rooftops to see this, whereas what they do see is officers now having very little impact, running away from kids in Whitehall last year and allowing baying mobs to topple statues into the river and set fire to police vehicles. It doesn’t reassure the public that the cops are in charge, and if the cops aren’t in charge, who is?

The scenes in Bristol send out a warning that if policing isn’t allowed to control the streets, protect businesses and go in hard against violent protesters, we will very soon see the sort of tactics now routinely used by Antifa in Portland, Oregon, where they have more or less shut down normal life in the city for many months, creating no-go zones, harassing government staff and threatening anyone who opposes them with violence.

You will never deal with bullies by appeasing them. It always ends badly.

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