Flashpoint: Violent clashes in Bristol city centre during EDL march
THIS is the terrifying scene as mounted police charged anti-fascist protesters in Bristol city centre.
Behind them were lines of riot police, with batons drawn, who also charged to clear Redcliffe Way of a burning barricade put there to try and block the exit of people attending a demonstration by the English Defence League.
The war of words between the anti-Islamist EDL and the anti-fascist We Are Bristol group had gone on for weeks and finally boiled over into violence as EDL supporters were held back by police as they prepared to leave a rally in Queen Square on Saturday.
But it was not the far-right group's supporters who clashed with police but elements of the anti-fascist movement. Bottles were thrown at officers, who responded with a baton charge, followed by a horse charge from the mounted unit. During the melee, a banner was wrapped around the legs of a police horse.
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At the same time some people within the crowd of EDL supporters hurled rocks over the police towards the rival demonstrators.
For a few moments it seemed that Bristol city centre was about to descend into a full-scale riot, as the anti-fascists set fire to a number of large bins from the neighbouring Ramada Bristol City Hotel, and rolled them towards the police. Dog units were called in, and the demonstrators were rapidly driven back to Temple Way.
The day had started more peacefully, but no less defiantly, with a group of around 200 of the total 500 anti-fascists mustering in front of the Hippodrome – rather than Castle Park, where Avon and Somerset Police had directed them to congregate. From one of the city's taller buildings it was possible to see both the congregating left-wing demonstrators on the Centre, and Queen Square, where police were preparing for the arrival of the EDL – as well as College Green, where members of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community were arriving to celebrate the annual Pride event.
It was nothing if not an eclectic combination. As EDL members arrived at Temple Meads station to the jeers of gathered We Are Bristol supporters, in the Centre a full-sized inflatable giraffe was being driven around in a speedboat towed behind a van (presumably it had been part of the flamboyant Pride march down Park Street), while anti-fascists squared up to police, waving banners and chanting through megaphones.
At this stage the atmosphere was still friendly. The Harbourside was packed with visitors heading towards the Foodies Festival, while young families petted the imposing police horses that stood patiently, seemingly on every street corner.
Police had been drafted in from forces as far afield as South Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall, and with 1,000 police officers on the street – at a cost to the taxpayer of £500,000 – it felt as if there were more police in the city than members of the public.
Imposing metal walls had been erected by the police to block off the main routes into Queen Square, scores of police vans were darting around the city throughout the day, and the force helicopter was a constant presence in the sky.
Slowly the police presence around the rogue demonstration on the Centre increased, until the protestors were fully encircled, and the officers then skilfully ushered them into Baldwin Street, towards Castle Park.
One megaphone-toting demonstrator defied the officers a little too far, and became the first arrest of a day that would see 20 in total.
Shortly after, as the EDL arrived at Temple Meads station and in coaches at Redcliffe Way, the second arrest of the day took place, for a "racially aggravated public order offence".
But the first major flashpoint occurred as the EDL arrived at St Mary Redcliffe Church, and were met by a group of anti-fascists. For a moment, unchecked by the police, the two groups met each other across the road, with both sides shouting abuse – but the police split up the two sides before violence broke out.
It delayed the EDL's arrival at Queen Square by half an hour, but when they did get to their rally, the modest turnout became evident – the far-right demonstrators filled less than a quarter of the square, with police estimating just 300 EDL supporters, compared to 500 We Are Bristol demonstrators at Castle Park.
Both rallies passed without incident. Even the sun came out, and for a time Bristol seemed to be enjoying a relatively normal Saturday afternoon. The Harbourside was bustling with families and tourists, while shoppers continued about their business in Broadmead.
It was only as the EDL were being escorted back out of the city that the worst of the trouble erupted on Redcliffe Way.
First stones were thrown up at people taunting the EDL from Redcliffe Parade, and then came the charge to clear Redcliffe Way.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Tom Malcolm, 44, a civil servant who stumbled accidentally upon the clashes between police and anti-fascists as he cycled through the city.
"You see things like this on the news, but it's not until you actually see a line of police horses charging at people, that you realise just how terrifying it is."
As the police pushed the demonstrators back towards Temple Way, a bottle hurled from near the police lines came in my direction, and whistled past my head with inches to spare.
Simultaneously, police dogs appeared on the scene, snarling at the protestors, who immediately responded by retreating backwards.
Within half an hour the trouble had been brought to a swift end, and the police were able to lead the kettled EDL supporters towards Temple Meads railway station, with the far- right protestors snarling at their opposite numbers lining the route.
Margaret Johnson, 72, from Totterdown, was an incongruous bystander with her Zimmer-frame and look of abject horror as she watched the march.
"I had no idea it was happening," she said. "But I found myself here next to the Temple Way roundabout, between two lines of riot police.
"Of course everybody has a democratic right to protest. But there's no need for all that swearing and cursing – never mind the violence."
Margaret rested sagely on her frame as she watched the march pass.
"I was born during the Second World War," she said. "And seeing fascists march through the streets of Bristol today sends a shiver down my spine. But you can't fight anger with anger. These anti-fascists would be better served protesting peacefully, rather than clashing with the police."